The Church and Politics in 2016

Anyone who has the abysmal fate of having me for a friend on social media will already be aware of my relentless assault on Donald Trump, and more specifically my assault on the idea belonging to some of my fellow Christians that Donald Trump is worthy of our support. First, I need to say a word about the word “our.” It should be clear already, but I typically write my Facebook posts, my tweets, and even these blogs with a Christian audience in mind. This is not to say I don’t have dear friends who don’t share my Christian convictions; I certainly do. But overwhelmingly, due to my upbringing, my pre-college education and my continued involvement in the Church, as well as my aspirations about vocational academic work on behalf of the Church, my social circles and audience are overwhelmingly Christian. Thus any uses of “our” or “we” or “us” moving forward in this particular post should be understood as referring not to Americans, but to Christians and the Church.

The 2016 Presidential Election is giving many Christians more pause than elections typically do. At this point in the campaign, conventions done and over with, politically conservative and liberal Christians are typically either enthusiastic or at least confident about voting for the Republican and Democratic nominee respectively. This year is different. Those of us who are politically liberal are disenchanted with Hillary Clinton’s track record of corruption and dishonesty. Those of us who are politically conservative stare wide-eyed at the bombastic, seemingly xenophobic, and morally indignant Donald Trump. Sure every election to date has involved some level of compromise, since the perfect candidate doesn’t exist. But this year Christians on both sides of the political divide are being asked to overlook more than in years past. I want to lay out what seem to be some of the glaring flaws of both of the major party candidates, as well as mention their strengths. Before that, I would like to be forthcoming about my background and methodology. And hopefully, throughout this blog criteria for discernment can be gleaned for use in this election year. If I am able to successfully offer guiding thoughts which Christians can employ to interpret the messy campaign that is sure to be coming to TV commercials, news headlines, and perhaps even churches near you, I will have met my objective.

Criteria For Discernment:

Politically I stand at what I think is an interesting meeting of N.T. Wright (New Testament Scholar and Historian) and Stanley Hauerwas (Theologian and Ethicist). From both of them I am convinced regarding the undeniable public dimension of the Christian life. Indeed Christ’s ministry is a public one, with public implications. That “Jesus is Lord” is of course, given the first century context, also a declaration that “Caesar is not.” At the center of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God, which Wright has argued should be taken as the rule of God. Hauerwas too has suggested that at the heart of what it means to be Christians and to exist communally as the Church is to establish an alternative to the world’s politics. Interestingly Wright has criticized Hauerwas for his “resident alien” proposal, suggesting that it slides into a retreating Church, rather than a public one. That Hauerwas is also a committed pacificst and Wright is not undoubtedly has something to with this critique. I think Hauerwas would respond that a Christian commitment to non-violence is not itself inevitably a retreat, rather it is a call to a specific kind of very public action that seems counter-intuitive, especially to Americans. There isn’t room for a full interaction of these two brilliant scholars, but I mention them both because I am sure that they’ve been equally important in my thinking of Christian thoughts about politics.

Christ stands as the center and the norm of a Christian approach to politics. His teaching, of course, but his character and actions as well–what we might call his embodied teachings. That Jesus is Lord I take to be not just a matter of my opinion, but a true and concrete reality. Jesus is Lord of the Church, and all the world. Karl Barth (theologian, 1886-1968) is helpful here. What does the universal work of Christ mean for the interplay between the Church and societies? Christ, Barth says, is like the center of two concentric circles. The smaller circle is the Christian community, which knows that Christ is the center and aims to live in light of that knowledge. The larger circle around the smaller circle is the civil community, which also has Christ as the center without knowing it. The inner-circle of the Church of course is the gateway for the outer-circle of society to know and realize the center: Christ. The Church is to make Christ known. This is not only true of formal evangelistic efforts, but in every area of the Church’s public activity, including Christians and politics. We should see, and I think this is crucial, our political engagement as an activity which has an end goal of making Christ, the center, known to society.

I do not pretend to know exactly how the issues should be ordered, but in terms of evaluating evil I take it to be a common practice to think in terms of severity, which would include scale. Political policies effect humans, this is what they all have in common, either permitting or denying certain behaviors or actions, granting certain benefits, and so on. Since scale, the number of humans effected, is an important factor when deciding which issues matter the most, I take migration, abortion, war/violence, and international affairs (including things like global poverty, hunger, war, etc.) to be first order issues. Less important but still worthy of consideration would be second order issues like economics and taxation. In addition to the issues, the character and virtue of the candidates themselves, as seen in what is known of their personal lives and public conduct is important to the Christian’s evaluation.

I. We worship a God who welcomes all humans into his care. Our God is just toward all humans. Thus Christians, in making Christ known to their society (Barth’s circles), should seek to establish a society that is welcoming and just toward migrants. We should care especially for those who have been pushed from their homes by violence or poverty. In 2014, nearly 60 million people lived as refugees. Our Christ was himself a migrant. His family left Judea for Egypt, refugees from a government campaign of mass murder (Matt. 2). The notion of migrants is even a metaphor which Christ uses to explain the transition from the world to the kingdom (Matt. 25). One of Jesus’ most well known parables dealt with the good Samaritan–a despised racial minority from a neighboring country. Whatever else is occurring in that lesson, it is also a call to reconsider prejudice and fears of other groups of people. Christians, being imitators of Christ, are called to be welcomers. We are all strangers to God, and yet he invites us and calls us to a new home. An appropriate response to this divine welcome is to receive and imitate it. Miroslav Volf has suggested there are legitimate societal limitations on immigration, set by two goods they serve: Security and Preservation of a society’s way of life. On Security, governments must protect their citizens–but we must evaluate the intensity of our fears against the legitimacy of threats. And self-preservation and safety, for Christians, cannot trump preservation and safety of another.

II. We worship a God who creates and sustains life. All life, born or unborn, is precious to God. As Christians we should care for all life, especially life which is most vulnerable and in need of nurturing and protection. Bearing new life is an important part of God’s creation of women. To be a mother is among the highest of callings in God’s world. Bearing  a child does not reduce a woman to an incubator. If a woman is pregnant, the new life she carries adds to the ways in which we have obligations to care for her. The intentional destruction of this new life for reasons such as “economic burden,” “unplanned,” “ill-timed,” etc. are inexcusable citations for an abortion, as they would be for any instance of murder. Christians should work for the reduction and elimination of the practice of abortion, and should seek to impose a reversion to the pre-Roe v Wade illegality of the practice. However, thinking well about the issue of abortion forces us to consider the factors which lead to its rise in the political sphere, why did it become increasingly necessary? In part, I think it is because society and the Christians of that society were and are not caring properly for women, and especially pregnant women. Healthcare should be expanded and made affordable for pregnant women, as pregnancy introduces heightened risk of certain health problems. Women should not be economically disadvantaged because of pregnancy, and their job security should not be jeopardized. Finally the Church should abandon any residual legalism in its relating to and caring for women who are pregnant, married or otherwise. The Church owes emotional and practical support to pregnant women, for her sake and the sake of the new life she carries. Finally, Christians are historically not agreed on whether abortion is justifiable when a mother’s life is at serious risk. As a general rule, neither life should receive preference in care, and in seeking to remain consistently pro-Life, not just pro-Birth, Christians should leave medical professionals the option to discern on a case by case basis whether abortion is justifiable in these rare circumstances.

III. We worship a God of peace. Jesus embodied a relentless commitment to non-violence. Use of violence for self-defense is always justified by its proponents by establishing a guilty and innocent party. No party was ever more innocent and undeserving in being assaulted than Christ himself, who refused to use violence. War is always a slaughter. War, for Christians, should always be interpreted in terms of loving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemies. 231 million people died in the wars and conflicts of the twentieth century. Christians often fight in and support these wars, and that is not historically unusual. But God is the God of peace (Rom 15, Heb 13). As Christians we must seek and pursue peace (Ps. 34). Peace is not just for our friends and comrades, peace is universal. Christ came to bring peace to the world. Christians therefore are to pursue peace with everyone (Heb 12). Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that is was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sens rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt 5). There are no exceptions to the love commandment, and so support for a war could only be justified if it could be shown to be a form of love. Aquinas (1225-74), the most common source for just-war theory, reminds us that the question of love in war concerns active benevolence, not just warm feelings. Wars therefore cannot be for our benefit only, but must also be for the good of our enemies. Volf has, from Augustine and Aquinas, identified these keys to the composition of a just-war: Legitimate authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, reasonable chance of success. Because of the many ways in which war and violence have become commonplace for Christians and the Church, it requires a much fuller treatment than can be offered here. I would point in the direction of three enormously helpful books: The Politics of Jesus (Yoder), War and the American Difference (Hauerwas), and The Peacable Kingdom (Hauerwas). For a Christian to be part of the military would mean that they are more willing to die than be killed, and act with the utmost discrimination in determining whether they are acting with love for the good of their enemies. In general, it seems unlikely that killing your enemies is ever the same as loving your enemies. More practically, for Christians who posses tools intended to kill those who may seek to kill them, I am reminded of the missionaries in Ecuador who had the guns necessary to defend themselves from head hunting natives, but who recognized that their own souls were prepared for eternity and their killers’ souls were not. John Piper has written well on whether Christians should arm themselves for self-defense. Finally, a word about the use of torture. Christians should never condone it. To defend the intrinsic value of all human life while supporting one of the most dehumanizing practices of all, torture, is incoherent. Those who use torture also dehumanize themselves. To intentionally inflict severe pain upon a beloved creature of God is to mock the love which God has bestowed.

IV.  We worship a God who is the God of all he has created, including all people. Consider the previous three issues of migration, abortion, and war/violence. The refugee crises are only solvable when the root cause of the “push” factors are dealt with in the part of the world being fled. Abortion, which has everything to do with the dignity of human life means the principles involved are interactive with other issues, like the death of recently born human life due to starvation and disease. War and violence are occurring in every corner of the earth. None of these issues is just local, and thus Christian should have the same scope in politics as most already do with evangelistic missions: Global. This is perhaps the most complex of all the issues. None of the biblical authors could have imagined the sort of globalization we have in today’s world. I recently had the privilege of hearing two friends in dialogue about technology and the problem of how to live ethically given how connected things now are. iPhones are produced in horrible Asian factory conditions in which suicide nets are set up to keep workers from leaping to their deaths. Most diamond engagement rings are unethically sourced, coming from war torn parts of Africa where the diamond industries trade hands between war lords–Blood Diamond is not entirely fiction. How is a Christian or anyone to live and navigate these things? Is it our obligation to be actively working to end all of these injustices? Hunger, disease, poverty, human trafficking, etc. One of my two friends suggested that a healthy dose of the reality of human finitude would go a long way in keeping us sane. Remember that you can’t do it all, and you are where you are because God has work for you to do there. Is it right to take your family on a trip into the mountains or out to dinner instead of sending that money to a charity digging clean water wells for Africa? Here again, these sorts of issues require a lengthy treatment. For starters, we need a balanced approach which recognizes human limitedness alongside the Christian obligation to be on the side of justice. What this absolutely cannot mean, is a foreign policy of isolationism, America first, etc. If racism is the privileging of certain races above another, nationalism is the privileging of certain nations above another. For Christians, our allegiance is to God and we therefore share in his commitment to be for the whole world, not just the nation of our birth.

V. Second order issues, including economics, taxation, and now care for the environment, are important considerations but I haven’t thought as much about them and they seem to be much less pressing than the first order issues. I did actually write a Christian approach to environmental ethics for an ethics course my freshman year, and that may be of interest to some of you.

VI. We have a God of holy and righteous character, full in every kind of virtue. Christians ought to foster courage, humility, a thirst for justice, respect and compassion in their societies, and thus they ought to seek these things in their political candidates of choice. Christians are also people who forgive and love, as we are people who have experienced the forgiveness and love of God. The past mistakes of an individual do not mean they are incapable of being good–think especially of the Apostle Paul, essentially a terrorist turned missionary and theologian! Personal failures and vices may or may not rule someone out from a Christian’s political consideration. As a basic rule, someone who is obviously and publicly behaving and conducting themselves in opposition to Christ’s example is not worthy of the support of Christians. Our own witness and testimony is damaged when we are tethered or perceived to be tethered to evil. We appear as hypocrites. We cannot make Christ known to our society by endorsing and supporting candidates and policies that are mostly at odds with Christ’s own character.

Moving Forward:

If Christian existence is as Barth conceived of it, the Church as a smaller circle with Christ as center, making the larger circle of society aware of the center it does not know it has–then how are we to engage politically? The key question for this election would seem to be, how does your support of Candidate X make Christ known? Is Candidate X aligned with the theological criteria from above? Is candidate X himself or herself guided by the character and virtue we’ve learned from Christ? In the coming days I’ll be writing a fuller engagement of these criteria as they relate to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton specifically. Prayerfully consider how your public Christian life, which politics and voting are part of, relate to your mission on earth and the continued witness of Christ to the world.



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