This continues a short series on re-thinking how the church might consider its relationship to politics. More here. What do I mean when I say ‘the church‘? Rather have it all summed up in a song?
In America, we like to boast that our government represents the will of the people. At least, that’s what the winners love to say. More cynical observers suspect that our governing powers—and, more broadly, our cultural powers—actually have an agenda of their own which they dupe, swindle, and strongarm people into abetting. It’s an interesting idea and makes for great storytelling, but I don’t believe even such a power could really lure people somewhere they didn’t already want to go. In the end, I would argue that the law of our land does indeed reflect the will of the people. And, for the church, this is highly useful.
Mightier than the sword
Yesterday, we considered the image of the government bearing a sword. Of course, this is a true image, but I remain convinced that it is tricky territory to imagine the church as playing a part in wielding that sword through its vote. So, I’m going to propose a new imagery to help us understand our American political moment. Instead of bearing the sword, let’s imagine our government bearing a pen.
If our representative government does indeed reflect the will of the people, then that would make the work of our government—making and enforcing laws—something like that of a cartographer, drawing a map of the cultural landscape. If the law of the land shows a vast plain of sexual ethics, looming mountains of identity politics, or a remote badlands reserved for Biblical morality, that tells us that those things already exist. They originated in the desires of the people and the government merely drew the map to get people where they wanted to go.
If you can believe that this is true, then it would be lunacy to try and ‘use’ the powers of government to change the culture. It would be as sane as re-drawing a map of the United States with the Rockies over on the east and expecting that the mountains themselves would pick up and shuffle across the continent. The government may set boundaries that effectively guide some people, but by and large, people tend to go where they want to go and the government eventually catches up. Look at the trend of marijuana legality for a good example. People want to get high, lower incarceration rates, and raise some tax revenue, so they did the work of making a marijuana-friendly culture. The government is now following along, making it law. It’s not always perfectly clear, but the basic pattern of demand leading to supply is fairly reliable in our country, even in politics.
So, instead of fighting tooth and nail in an ugly war to draw a lunatic map of wishful thinking, what if the church admitted that the government is only sketching out what already exists in the wishes of our neighbors? That campaigns and polls are things to be read and studied, but not fought for as if our lives depended on them? When all of the dust of every nasty campaign settles, we may not have the elected officials we would choose, but we do have one thing: a crystal-clear map of our mission field. What can we make of our votes in light of this?
An orientating experiment
Well, we can make our votes something of an experiment. No longer seeking control, which all-too-often involves awful compromises on integrity masked as tactical decisions, we could submit our vote into the maelstrom as a little beacon of what we value. Then, we see where our values end up on the map and we watch where other values land, too. Alongside this, we listen. Politics, after all, involves a good deal of talking. Listen to how people talk about their values, how people talk about what threatens their values, and how people talk about what means are acceptable for enshrining their values in Law. This should give us a pretty clear picture of where we stand, where we might like to carry our good news, and some paths we might take to get there. Then it’s just a matter setting out on our journey. And this is one place where over-investment in politics can actually hinder. If we are too wrapped up in winning, too fearful of losing, we might just lose our courage to bear any sort of good news in the world at all. That would be a grave error.
My desire here is to offer the church a way to think about campaigns and elections that leaves space for us not to succumb to the hysteria around us. We have better hope than politics, so we can definitely cool our jets. Sabers will be rattled, doom will be prophesied, mocking degradations of complex human character will be passed off as righteous condemnation. It’s all brief and momentary noise.
The subversive art of resistance
What makes this kind of political engagement so challenging is that, one, it asks of us a quietness in the face of a lot of spittle-lipped and purplish rancor and, two, it asks of us a good deal of patience. It’s perfectly understandable to feel threatened in our political climate. People seem awfully volatile, and it’s easy to read in rumbling signs and wonders of a renewed faith in totalitarianism. When we feel threatened, we want to shout back in the face of each accuser, to reach for something strong to defend ourselves. In fear and unease, we face our most critical time for discernment. We must not panic. We may have to bite our tongue and endure scoffing or even abuse, but wasn’t this the very way of the Jesus we claim to follow? If no ‘winning’ power is worthy of the church’s support, it remains a worthy choice to align with no power and work in exile. After all, even seemingly helpful powers should be kept at a wise distance because power is fleeting and fickle. Christianity is not a faith of direct power, anyway. There are two ways to crack a heavy stone. There is the noisy expedience of the hammer and there is the quiet patience of the tree root, and our faith is a likened to a seed.
In the end, I’m not advocating for political withdrawal. I am absolutely advocating for a renewed political restraint. We must take serious note of how Jesus related to the powers of his day. To say they were odd bedfellows would radically overstate the relationship; they were nowhere near the same bed. If Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations to earthly power in the desert and later stayed on the cross, and if Paul and Silas stayed in jail after the earthquake, if Stephen saw fit to be stoned to death, and if all the other etceteras are true and yet Christianity survived, surely we can see that there is something of the power of this world that Christianity does not need and in fact refutes.
Living in a country with a fairly representative democracy does afford the church with opportunity, but it’s an opportunity to understand, not to control. The church must seriously engage the work of unclenching the fist of political control and embracing its real mission of loving neighbors and proclaiming relief from the troubles of this world. What might this look like?
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 To say nothing of the high and steep cliffs off which our technological wonders can blindly, blithely drive us.
 This, of course, puts us as a citizenry in the rarely enviable position of getting what we wish for.
 As much as it can settle now in our crazy days of infinite campaigning.
 Or our compassion
 Or in the face of smug dismissal.