Beyond Partisan Politics

I want to begin by saying something that should be uncontroversial: Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. Jesus is a radical departure from politics as usual. He doesn’t endorse a candidate. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Fact-check it. And if Jesus is king, it calls into question every power, principality, party, political platform, or ideology. All of them fall short of the glory of God.

image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the first century, Jesus had several political options available to him, but he didn’t join the party politics of his day. He came onto his own, but didn’t side with the elites (the Sadducees), the middle-class (the Pharisees), the purists (Essenes) or the radicals (the zealots). He challenged the legitimacy of Herod and he tacitly critiqued the politics of empire (in N.T. Wright’s happy phrase, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not”). He didn’t choose the lesser of two evils (or six evils?), he announced the game had been rigged and inaugurated a whole new way of being in the world (John 18:36-37, Mark 10:42-45 ). If we call Jesus our king, we need to follow his example in our own political engagement.

In the church culture I grew up in, liberal was a dirty word and progressive was just a way of describing what kind of dispensationalist you were (I’ve moved some since then). In my teens, I remember a vehemently pro-life guest speaker talking dismissively about the Democratic party. One of the elders was offended and walked out of the service. It was the first time I realized you could be both a true Christian and a Democrat. My parents attended a more liberal church, but I was suspicious of the biblical teaching there. It wasn’t until I was in college and beyond that I first heard a sustained critique on Republicanism and conservative values from a biblical perspective as I encountered Christians of other stripes.

As a pastor, I sometimes got in trouble for my politics; however, church most often strikes me as tepidly apolitical. I have sat through may pastoral prayers and sermons which ignore the news, focusing  on our personal, private spiritual lives. Out of the world and not of it. I’ve observed this apolitical silence in both conservative and progressive congregational settings.

The Church is a Social Ethic!

Stanley Hauerwas has said, “the church doesn’t have a social ethic; it is a social ethic.” By this he means the community formed in Jesus name ought to embody a way of being in the world formed by the narrative of Christ’s cross and resurrection.[1] We engage politics and the public sphere, but we do it as a community shaped by our scriptural story and ecclesial tradition.

Yes, Jesus laid down his life to save your eternal soul, but his rejection of his day’s political options got him crucified. If we call ourselves his followers, there are implications. It means our allegiance is not to a president, to presidential candidate, or to a party. Following Jesus means having our communal imagination so formed by the biblical narrative that we embody the Kingdom of God as a social reality. The Church is a social ethic.

What does this mean for our party allegiance?

We are amid one of the ugliest and most divisive presidential election seasons in America. There is no ideal candidate. Though both major candidates tout their religious faith, the Christian story pulls us away from the platforms of either party.

If we are Pro-Life, voting for Clinton seems like a betrayal of what we stand for. If we care about justice for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and the alien, voting for Trump feels out of bounds. If we believe women and men of are created in God’s image and are worthy of dignity and respect, the Donald’s locker-room talk is offensive and unacceptable. If we champion truth and justice, Hillary’s emails and ‘crooked dealings’ are disturbing. If we follow the Prince of Peace the hawkish and violent rhetoric of both major candidates is alarming.

Christ the Pantocrator (source: Wikimedia Commons Christus Ravena Mosaic)

But Christians shouldn’t feel compelled to choose between these two visions for America. At least not in an ultimate sense. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. As citizens we may choose which candidate we fear less or leaves us less disturbed. We may vote for the one we trust and like more. But to say Jesus is Lord is to call into question even our own political convictions. We can register or vote for either party but we can’t pretend either party or presidential candidate gets it all right. All of it is challenged and critiqued by the Lordship of Christ.

What does this mean ‘in the church’?

Being a people shaped by the story of who Jesus is, why he came, and where history is moving, is to inhabit an alternative polis. The church is a body with Christ as our head. We live and act differently than the world even as we live in it. We are an alternative polis and have an alternative politics. The church doesn’t endorse candidates, it actively non-endorses all pretenders to the throne.

When a Christian leader or pastor tells you one candidate has flaws but voting for the other is fatal, I know they have bought into the lies of American exceptionalism and civil religion. Conversely, when a pastors or leaders fail to address real-world-issues like war, economic poverty, racism, systemic injustice, creation care, xenophobia—they fail to inhabit the social ethic of the kingdom of God. We don’t abstain from the political sphere, we engage it as citizens from another kingdom.

We need to name the lies of both Right and Left. Jesus is an alternative to the world, whether that world is Republican or Democrat. The role of the church and its leaders is providing ‘an alternative consciousness,’ a prophetic imagination, which reminds us that another world is possible and that God’s kingdom is (coming).[1]

Someone is going to win this election on the second Tuesday of November. I will cast my ballot for the candidate I think will best serve the common good. We may agree or disagree about which candidate should win. But whether you will celebrate or bemoan the election results, know this: this is not the end. Our telos is the Kingdom of God—where God reigns, all is as it should be, and nothing that should be is left out. Don’t settle for partisan politics.

Why is partisan politics a problem?

How is your church “an alternative polis?” In what ways does your faith tradition critique both right and left?

In what ways are Christians you know too political? How about not political enough?

[1] See Walter Brueggemann’s the Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), for an example of how the church nurtures voices and provides a habitat for those questioning the dominant consciousness.

[1]  See for example Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, “Reforming Christian Social Ethics: Ten Theses” (Durham: Duke University Press), 111-115.

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4 thoughts on “Beyond Partisan Politics”

    1. Thanks Rusty. Just read through your posts. Good stuff. I was born in Edmonton but watched Canada (and Alberta’s) last election cycle from a far. My perception is that south of the border we’re more likely to blur the distinction between party and kingdom than y’all are in Canada. “God n Country.” Am I right? My most recent time in Canada was in Vancouver, where an air of secularism pervades. Alberta may be a different animal. I know it was historically.

      1. Yes, I think we in Canada are a bit bewildered by what’s going on in the States; and yes, Alberta is only living on the fumes of a Christian past (as is the entire nation). I don’t decry that; this is our opportunity to be salt n light for such a time as this. I think the political affiliations of the Christian right has hurt it in the long run; I lament it when Christians become partisan, and therefore lose their “prophetic” voice to speak into the issues that their party must improve/change. It seems that once a person has chosen their party – they become blinded to the errors/corruptions of it. It really doesn’t matter how one justifies their position (I vote after all – as you indicated that you do), but I am not so arrogant to imagine my position ought to be the position of everyone – other than to say: be fully engaged in the process and provide common grace for the common good. Here’s to becoming better “ambassadors of reconciliation.” Thanks

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