Christian Politics – Speak truth. Be truth. That’s it!

Click image to for a way to subvert our obsession with politics

Christian politics.

Enough said. This issue continues to divide Christians. I’m convinced that the complexities of politics can be narrowed down to the following: speak truth, be truth, that’s it!

Every hour my Facebook newsfeed is dominated by weak sloganeering endorsing this or that policy or political figure. Very little truth-telling happens when our sensationalist culture sets the standard – a low one at best.

Speak truth.

One of the roles of the people of God is to be a voice for truth in a world full of parodies. Lies or half-truths come to us on the left and right, trying to trap us in a “this or that” war of words. Media, as it has always done, pulls us into a binary mode of thought causing us to speak about political matters on their terms.

Jesus and the early church offer a better way. In the tradition of the prophets (who spoke out against the surrounding nations and Israel when either was guilty of facilitating socially oppressive policies) the early church boldly proclaimed that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” implicitly claiming that Caesar isn’t.

Jesus himself criticized the political system within Israel that failed to uphold justice. He was in fact the last of Israel’s prophets, and in continuity with these prophets declared a politically loaded statement as his inaugural address:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4.18-19, quoting Isaiah 61)

In speaking these words, Jesus recaptured an old Hebraic political truth over-against the puppet reign of Herod and ultimately the Romans. This claim by Jesus reminds readers that the politics of Israel (as part of the Roman Empire) failed to create spaces for human flourishing. Both the agendas of the nationalistic Jews and the Jewish compromisers contradicted the vision of Jubilee, so Jesus confronted hypocritical social injustice built into the structures of the day. This is speaking truth to power.

Later, Jesus criticizes the political realities in Israel more directly (again, under Rome’s leadership):

“How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others. (Luke 11.42)

The Pharisees hated the Romans but played into the political reality of the time in order to bring about the holy liberation of Israel. Their agenda was not merely a “spiritual” one as many suppose. They acted politically and Jesus spoke against the structures they created. As N.T. Wright says:

[T]he Pharisees were a pressure group in what we would call the social and political sphere… it’s important to loosen ourselves up, away from an older interpretation that sees the Pharisees as simply ‘religious leaders’ in the sense we mean it today, and so to get out of our minds any idea that Jesus’ solemn denunciation of them was simply what we might call ‘religious polemic.’ Jesus saw very clearly that there were many self-appointed teachers in the world of first-century Judaism who were using their learning partly for their own status and partly for their own political ends.[1]

So, in this instance Jesus spoke truth to one political agenda of his day. Jesus was not apolitical, but also not overly obsessed with aligning with a particular agenda. His agenda was to speak truth to social injustice and to be truth for the cause of the highest justice – God’s reign.

Modern examples of prophetic truth tellers within the church are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu. Dr King not only fought racism, but spoke against an unjust war and for better labor rights for working class people as he rallied in favor of unions. Desmond Tutu spoke truth as he called South Africa to reconcile as one people, leaving behind the evils of Apartheid. God calls the church to speak truth, as Dr. King once said:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. (““Strength to Love,” 1963)

Be truth.

In discerning when to speak truth, we ought to ask: “What will alleviate the most suffering?”[2] The government’s action or lack of action can cause injustice, so we ought to speak up for those without a voice, those whom with the prophets, Jesus, and the early church often identified.

Although various regimes may only listen to our truth-critiques, our claims bear absolutely no weight when we fail to live out the sort of reality we endorse. The people of God are always called to live as a counter-culture, the sort that is such a contrast that the kingdoms of this world want what we have to offer.

To be truth is to live in such a way that no matter the government, those in our midst are lifted up into their full potential as human image-bearers. This is the primary political summons as followers of King Jesus. We certainly see this modeled throughout the book of Acts (not to mention throughout the whole New Testament):

There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need. (Acts 4.34-35)

We don’t depend on a government to carry out justice. At times it will, usually it won’t. We depend on transformed disciples to live into self-sacrificial love. It doesn’t follow that we then promote small governmental ideals because justice is supposedly solely the church’s role – as if such a dichotomy exists in the Bible. Rather, God consistently called the nations to implement systems that create space for humans to be dignified. Simultaneously, God calls the church to create an even better localized alternative that goes beyond the superficialities of even the “best” governments. This is how “speaking truth” and “being truth” work together.

That’s it!

Speak truth. Be truth. That’s it! That’s how I’d summarize the role of Christians in this politically loaded season. Our hope for a better world is not in our political bantering. We speak truth when power structures’ action or inaction oppresses the marginalized of the world. This takes discernment acknowledging the complexities often omitted from standard “Christian” approaches. We choose to be truth, living as an alternative polis under the Kingship of Jesus.

When American politics lure us into media driven arguments about the next best hope for now until 2016, let’s say: “that’s it!” Our hope is in something even better, a political rebel, killed by the government of his day and raised to life by God. This hope dethrones the powers (visible and invisible) and compels us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth…”

 

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I highly encourage you to consider participating in something that points to our true political allegiance: Election Day Communion. It’s an opportunity to take part in communion on November 6th to point to our true hope, not in American politics, but in King Jesus.



[1] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, 145.

[2] I once heard Shane Hipps frame political discourse this way and found it helpful.

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

    Well said, Kurt.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Very well said, Kurt. My only pushback would be that even the challenge to “speak truth” is not enough to end the divisions we see around us. For one example…helping the poor:

    “Conservatives” truly believe that the best way to help the poor is to end subsidies that lead to dependence, and remove taxes on the financially-successful, so that the poor will be motivated both to leave their dependent life and strive for success. They genuinely believe that a free business climate will end the suffering and increase the happiness of the most people. They also genuinely believe that liberals create dependency structures largely as a tool of subjugation, to gain control over those who depend upon government largesse.

    On the other hand, “Liberals” truly believe that the greed inherent in most humans means that without regulation, the wealthy and powerful will continue to increase their wealth and power with no regard for those who are harmed or left behind in the process. They believe that taxation–heavier on those with more income/resources–is necessary to support the infrastructure upon which successful businesses rest. They genuinely believe that tax-supported safety nets are both necessary and moral to provide a counterpoint to the inherent tendency of society to become more disparate and less equal. They also genuinely believe that conservatives callously disregard the collateral damage that occurs as businesses grow.

    I’ve tried to express both of these economic contrasts as fairly as I can. I believe they illustrate the point that these two camps can’t even agree on a foundation of common “truth.” There is a sense to which their diagnosis of the problem (economic poverty) and their prescription to address the problem are mutually exclusive, and inhabit completely different realities. Perversely, when I try to look at it objectively, I see elements of truth and elements of self-delusion in both perspectives. But I’m not sure that a simple call to “truth” is sufficient to surmount the barrier between the two.

    • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

      Conservatives and Liberals argue about which brand of band-aid to put over the gaping wound. Christianity is called to address the knife that is still stuck in it. Conservatives and Liberals argue about which scalpel to use to excise the tumor. Christianity is called to be the infusion of life-giving medicine that actually treats the cancer.

      Poverty is a symptom. Self-centered and selfishly motivated personal preservation, seeking human values rather than God’s values is the disease. As you pointed out, there are benefits and flaws to both views because treating the symptom will never cure the disease and, for that matter, the same symptom may respond better to one treatment in one situation but another treatment in a different situation. But he disease of selfish sin has only one cure.

      This is why, ultimately, while I see no reason why Christians can’t engage earthly politics with discernment, I think, as I believe Kurt is trying to point out, we have a different perspective that should rule us first.

      • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

        I think I hear what you’re saying Robert, and maybe I even agree. My hesitancy comes from too many years of seeing the evangelism-vs-aid battles that were waged in and around many mission efforts. While I agree in one sense that the sin of greed and selfishness can only be “cured” by regeneration in Christ, in another sense I see those who are supposedly regenerate (and whose faith is genuine even if I believe it misguided) being as much a part of the problem–and of institutions that exacerbate, if not cause, the problem–as I do those wholly without faith.

        I’m struggling with this question in a missions-focused study of guys from my church right now. It’s not so much the root concept with which I disagree, as how that concept seems to get worked out in practice, which disturbs me mightily.

        • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

          I think, for me, there are two things to keep in mind.

          First, evangelism vs aid is a false dichotomy. We need both/and, not either or. Leslie Newbigin kind of covers this in “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”. It’s not enough to just speak truth. And it’s not enough to just act in a way that is grounded in the truth, both are needed in order to truly express the gospel today…sometimes words must lead, other times deeds must lead. Discerning when is where things get sticky.

          Secondly, as for the “institutions that exacerbate” and the regenerate people who are involved, I find it helpful to remember that they are being regenerated, not that they have regenerated. I see Romans 12:1-3 talking more about a process than an arrival point. But even so, it comes down to being discerning as to what institutions we align with. For me, I recently abandoned party affiliation because I didn’t see either side as being someplace I wanted to “be” and I’ve shifted my focus to institutions that seem to be doing God’s work even if they aren’t “church” institutions.

          In any case, I hear your concerns and acknowledge it is a difficult path to follow.

          • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

            I am in the same boat… I just may think that some progressive ideas are better than libertarian ones. I speak to the ones that I think will have an actual effect on the ground… but I want to put my focus on becoming the alternative culture… the polis of Christ with a King better than any constitutional government.

          • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

            On that, definitely we agree. As I pointed out on my own blog a while back, earthly based politics should be extremely reletavised with regard to the politics of the body. Can’t claim that as my own, that comes from an EO friend of mine. :-)

          • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

            Here’s one perspective…some may call this libertarian, but I think Greg Boyd would probably argue that he doesn’t hold truck with any US political labels.

            http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/2012/08/01/greg-boyd-just-do-it/

          • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

            And here’s the one from the EO perspective.

            http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/christianity-and-elections/

            Again, it’s not a matter of being anti-political, but more on the lines of what the relative importance is.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

        I agree with you for the most part Robert except I would say that the government does need to be held accountable for not executing its God ordained functions of upholding justice, peace, etc. That is where truth telling must come into the picture.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      I added some modern examples of what I believe it means to “speak truth”. I hope this brings more clarity. I think the problem with the Christian Right is that in its libertarian leanings, it often believes that the role of justice for the poor is only to be taken on by the church… not the state. I would push up against that sort of thinking because I clearly say that Scripture holds the state accountable for not facilitating justice for the vulnerable. Most of my libertarian friends call these sorts of actions “charity” which should be the free choice of individuals, and not come from tax dollars. That concept, as you know, doesn’t exist in the Bible. Governments are held accountable for how they treat the poor, sick, vulnerable, etc. My post is trying to assume that by the biblical framework I propose. So, if justice is lacking… the church must speak to the powers about how they are failing to do their job. This transcends the right/left divide and comes down to the results of policies on the ground for day to day real world lives. Does that make sense?

      • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

        Your refined article is much better by my perspective Kurt, and I really do see the issue you’re trying to stake out here. Unfortunately, I fear that your examples would “reveal” to the average conservative or libertarian that what you “really” mean is a “liberal” form of government. I say this not because I think you’re wrong in anything that you said, but rather because I believe honest, biblical economics … i.e. economics that recognize the concept of Jubilee and caring for the widow and orphan … come closer to a “liberal” construct than they do a “conservative” or “libertarian” one. So I believe that Jesus-centered economics look (at least to the uninitiated) fairly “liberal” except for the part about personal responsibility.

        On the other hand, on issues of personal morality, particularly of the sexual variety, a Jesus-centered perspective comes out looking so “conservative” that an awful lot of “liberals” do massive gymnastics to work their way out of it.

        And when it comes to war and peace, well, neither side (at least in our country) has the remotest inkling of a clue…one of the places where I have personally been very disappointed in the discrepancy between Obama’s pre-election rhetoric and his actions as president.

        But everything I’ve said except the sex part would be deconstructed by the conservative Christian as not at all grounded in reality or truth. From a conservative perspective, poverty is not the result of economic oppression, policies that favor the rich, or anything like it. While to me, the prophet Amos should make any conservative American shudder, to the typical conservative, the only HOPE for the poor is lots more capitalist success which will pave the way for the poor to work and make something of themselves.

        There’s simply no escaping that at the root level itself, those who label themselves as “conservatives” and those who prefer the “liberal” brand literally perceive different things as truth, and are convinced the other “side” is based on out-and-out lies. It is this I was pushing back on. I don’t think, in the final analysis, that you can succeed in calming rhetoric by appealing to “truth.” Rather, I think the only approach is a radical one which holds up–clearly, often, and sometimes loudly–the divergence between *both* sides and “truth” as Jesus showed it. That’s not likely to make much peace with either camp…


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