Adaptation from Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess
Our political participation is both creational and anticipatory. Humans were commanded from the beginning to bear the image of God in our creative work and rule, and our earthly work anticipates the continuation and perfection of this work in eternity. Yet there’s an obvious difference: both the created order and its eventual redemption are contexts in which sin does not reign and all humans have relationship with the Creator. The reality today is complicated: political systems are affected by human sin and earthly brokenness, Christians must live and work with nonbelievers, and we have been given commands for this meantime—“Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)—that seem to conflict with this political responsibility.
What does Christian political responsibility look like in our fallen world? We can break this big question into three smaller questions: What requirements are given to the non-covenantal nations we live in? How does this responsibility interact with our mission to share the gospel? How can we create flourishing in a sinful world?
1. What requirements are given to the non-covenantal nations we live in? There’s a common complaint made both against Christians from non-Christians and between Christians of differing political persuasions—that they need to stop “legislating morality.” There are two different implications this accusation can have: that there is a difference between your inner, private morality and your outward political positions—which is false—and that there is a difference between the set of moral rules thatChristians are expected to personally uphold and the ones that our non-Christian nation should enforce for the common good of all people—which is true. There is clearly a difference throughout Scripture between the expectations God has for those he has made specific covenants with and those he has not.
The prophets consistently illustrate this difference: they express God’s judgment on his people for violating the specific requirements of the covenant—worshiping idols, disobeying his commands, improperly executing his required way of life and worship, for example—but whenever the prophets express his judgment on other nations, there are no prophecies against them for not following instructions and commandments they were never given. Instead, the prophets express God’s judgment against other nations when they do not live up to the requirements of the covenant made with all people: the Noahic covenant inGenesis 9. This covenant is made with “all life on the earth” (9:17) and requires that human life be honored and protected, because all human beings are made in the image of God (9:6). So when the prophets expressGod’s judgment on other nations, it is for war-mongering, breaking treaties between nations, selling people into slavery, attacking and mistreating the vulnerable, ruling with arrogance and tyranny, and worshiping false gods (which never works out well for honoring and protecting human life). The prophetic condemnation of Egypt is a striking example: this seemingly all-powerful earthly kingdom is condemned not merely for her wrongs against Israel but for what Old Testament scholarTerence E. Fretheim calls “anti-life measures against God’s creation.”
Psalm 82 gives a beautiful and succinct picture of how God deals with the whole world. It begins with a statement about God’s legitimate power of judgment (v. 1), condemns the nations and their false gods for their unjust legal decisions that favor the wicked (v. 2), exhorts them to defend the vulnerable, oppressed, suffering (v. 3), and the poor (v. 4). It acknowledges that those outside of God’s people are both ignorant of his rule (v. 5) and have worthless gods to rule them (v. 7). God’s judgment is required, because even for nations following the dictates of their own idols and unaware of God’s law (Psalm 147:20), he is ultimately in authority over all of his creation and will legitimately judge against injustice.
None of these scriptural guidelines make it perfectly clear which political questions are issues of distinctively Christian morality and which ones nations will be judged for. In one way or another, almost any political or moral issue is about the honor and protection of human beings. In reality, every piece of legislation is trying to legislate morality. Every policy issue is based on moral principles and has moral implications. Figuring out how to apply the scriptural principle that God holds all nations and people accountable for the protection and honor of human life in political discussions today is tricky, but it must be attempted.
2. How does this responsibility interact with our mission to share the gospel? If you grew up in Sunday schools anything like the ones I did, it might be a bit jarring to think that we have any responsibility other than the one given in Matthew 28:19, to “go and make disciples of all nations.” You may have been taught that our job is to share the gospel, and anything else is either unnecessary or a dangerous distraction from the real mission.
That is, unless your work is both creational and anticipatory—reflective of what it means to be human and a glimpse of human work in a redeemed world. If your salvation, your sanctification, and the church are for the sake of the world—preaching the gospel, seeking the flourishing of the world, and previewing the coming kingdom of God—then there is no conflict between these means of being for the life of the world.
All of Scripture has something to say about your life and mission, not just a single verse we have dubbed the “Great Commission,” ripped from the life and ministry of the God-man who said it, to be transplanted into any and all cultural contexts. Even the commission itself includes more than we often give it credit for: Jesus tells his disciples to baptize these disciples, teach them everything he has commanded them, and remember that he is with them, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20). He tells them to be the church: to share the gospel by nurturing new believers, initiating them into the community, teaching them, and reminding them he is with them.
The only way that we think a conflict exists between the Great Commission and a church living out its mission for the life of the world is if we’ve bought into an immaterial, disembodied gospel confined to our personal piety. It’d be like an ambassador from a foreign nation refusing to talk about the social or political makeup of their country and focusing solely on the invitation to become a citizen. Jesus’ life and ministry were a witness to God’s coming kingdom, and he preached the coming kingdom in sermons and meals, healings and miracles, and while turning over tables and hanging out with little kids.
There are many reasons why American evangelicals are characteristically uncomfortable with prioritizing the social or political aspects of the gospel. But the reality is that this gospel we’re so eager to defend comes with an ethic we cannot avoid. There’s a reason the prophets spend so much time judging God’s people for their social injustice and the epistles spend so much time encouraging hospitality and condemning prejudice and class division among believers. There’s a reason that when an expert in religious law tests Jesus about the greatest commandment, Jesus answers, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). So the gospel comes with an ethical imperative to love our neighbor, and Scripture is clear that loving our neighbor means opposing social and political barriers to their flourishing.
3. Can we do anything worthwhile in a fallen world? “It’s not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.” I remember the first time I heard this little phrase in chapel in college. The preacher was willing to acknowledge that racism existed—in explicit, intentional forms only—but felt that making the issue “political” made it impossible to deal with, since the real issue was about sin.
I seriously doubt that this preacher or anyone else who uses this reasoning would apply the same logic to traditional Christian political convictions such as abortion, religious freedom, or gay marriage. I can’t imagine such a preacher saying, “It’s not an abortion problem, it’s a sin problem.” Just as we selectively choose what counts as “political” in order to exclude or include it from Christian concern, we selectively choose what issues warrant Christian political engagement and what issues are out of our reach because of sin. Can issues like racism or sexism be legislated away? Of course not. But the reality of sin as a force at work in the world should not lead us to shy away from political engagement.
An approach like this plays best to the politically uninterested. It can be comforting to believe that sin makes our political engagement pointless, because it absolves us of any responsibility and gives convenient theological justification to our apathy. Political uninterest thrives in places of privilege. It could be argued that a considerable number of white American Christians enjoy the necessary privilege to be unaffected by the results of national policy changes or local ordinances. Changes in immigration policy don’t affect me as a natural-born citizen, so I have the privilege to ignore it. On a much smaller scale, I live in a comfortable apartment, and trash service comes and picks up the trash in my apartment complex every week, so I have the privilege to ignore local ordinances concerning neighborhoods that don’t receive that service. I also have the racial, social, and economic privilege to move to another neighborhood if the city decides to stop providing trash service to my apartment or access to the right resources to fight an unjust policy.
The reality of sin in our world should keep us from placing our ultimate hope in earthly policies or institutions, and it should keep us humble about our own abilities and motives. But it should not keep us from being involved in the political realities that impact our neighbors, even if they don’t affect us. I love what author and artist Makoto Fujimura calls “border-stalkers,” people who move in and out of different cultural spheres, institutions, or organizations. He’s talking about Christian artists who live in artistic communities and the church, but I think the term could also be applied to Christians who want to nurture their church and local communities. Rather than isolating ourselves away in a Christian subculture, border-stalker Christians sustain themselves in the local church for the sake of faithful stewardship of their neighborhood.
Cultural Estuaries for a Political World
Each of these questions can help us wade through the quagmire that is our political engagement as Christians. But more foundationally than each of them is the reality that Jonathan Leeman puts so succinctly: “The Spirit and the law-implanted heart cannot not enter the ballot box, the jury stand, the legislative chamber, the newspaper editorial office, the protest line or the workplace.” As much as we might try (and we do try) to bifurcate our lives along religious and political lines, between our private and public lives and our partisan and moral beliefs—we cannot do it. One story will reign supreme, one kingdom will win our allegiance, one Lord will direct our lives.
Adapted from Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess. Copyright (c) 2020 by Kaitlyn Schiess. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com