Engaging Politics as Christians
As I write this, many of us are keenly watching the US Presidential race. The personalities are colorful, the contest is fierce, and much is at stake. In my own country, Australia, we’ve had 4 Prime Ministers in the last 4 years!
I grew up in a household that didn’t discuss politics. Not that my family thought that politics was a taboo topic—there just wasn’t any real interest. My first adult experience of Christian community was in a group that tried to “separate itself from the world.” We almost never discussed issues to do with culture, politics, or “the world.” When we did, it was always in a negative, sectarian way.
So thinking about politics as a Christian has never come naturally to me. To be honest, I’m still feeling my way. I’m still trying to work out how a disciple of Jesus should approach politics. How should a Christian engage politics with an eye to theology, Scripture, culture, discipleship, and so on?
Here’s a little outline of how I’ve come to approach politics. These thoughts inform how I decide which political party to vote for. More broadly, they inform how I think about political matters as a Christian. They’re central to my “political theology.”
Many people have informed my thoughts on politics. John Rees, Walter Wink, Ronald Sider, Stephen Mott and others have influenced me. (See especially John Rees’s article for Zadok Perspectives, “Approaching Politics”, No.72 Spring 2001).
I’m not going to suggest whom you should vote for. I’m just offering some thoughts on how we might engage politics as Christians.
- “Politics” is a broader phenomenon than “party politics.”
Whenever human beings live together in social groupings, they are involved in “politics.” We are all swept up in “politics” before we even begin to reflect critically on “party politics.”
Political dynamics are all around us: In all human organizations; in corporate decision-making; in the use of power and authority; in gender and race relations; in our personal and corporate articulation of values; in the formation and reinvention of cultural and social traditions; and so on.
- Biblical interpretation is crucial to Christian approaches to politics.
This is our starting point. Yet, we often manipulate and distort Scripture for our own ends. Or, we ignore Scripture altogether and make political decisions unreflectively or based on other concerns or convictions. So, we need to be a part of an interpreting community (contemporary, historical and global). We mustn’t interpret Scripture alone, but, rather, as part of a learning and discerning community.
Good political decision making requires biblical literacy. And this biblical interpretation must be complemented by theological enquiry, formation in community, spiritual growth, self-reflection, participation in mission and ministry through community, and passion for the mission of Christ.
- Scripture, theology, philosophy, and Christian ethics provide us with rich resources for political decision-making.
So we need to turn to these and mine their resources.
Scripture is vital. But there are many contemporary issues where Scripture is silent. We need to build a foundation on Scripture when we engage in political discussion or decide whom to vote for. At the same time, we recognize the need to move from this foundation into conversation with others.
This conversation is with other Christians. It’s with other Christian traditions. And it’s with those who are not Christian. This conversation must be multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural, and multi-voiced. As we enter conversation about particular political issues, we seek to make a informed, mature, biblically faithful, Christ-honoring, dialogical decisions.
And since Scripture is silent on many issues, we need a humble, learning and listening posture.
- The church practices its politics.
Our call to discipleship includes a political dimension. This includes the need to uphold, engage and confront the political dynamics and processes of our day and society. We can’t avoid this.
The church practices its politics. Our actions are louder than our words. So, what are the political practices of the people of Christ? Here are some:
- Confronting principalities and powers,
- Loving enemies and seeking reconciliation,
- Embracing the “other”,
- Proclaiming the Gospel,
- Breaking bread and baptizing believers,
- Practicing forgiveness,
- Announcing the kingdom, in word, sign and deed,
- Advocating for indigenous rights,
- Caring for the orphan, the widow, and those in need,
- Devolving power and serving others,
- Practicing corporate discipline and discernment,
- Eating together,
- Opening our homes, lives, families and churches,
- Placemaking: Blessing our neighbors and building neighborhoods,
- Transcending social and cultural barriers,
- Releasing the whole body of Christ to mission and ministry,
- Advocating for the poor and powerless,
- Building genuine community,
- Examining our associations with power, and the ways in which privilege shapes our lives,
- Showing an active concern for the poor, silenced, marginalized, vulnerable, forgotten and oppressed,
- Asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and responding courageously to the answer,
- Supporting the poor and marginalized and silenced as they form their own expressions of faith (and as they help us understand Christ, the gospel, and faith),
- Develop communities characterized by specific values and practices (embrace, welcome, hospitality, peacemaking, place-making, Beatitudes, etc.),
- Nurturing contemplative-active spirituality: one that cares for humanity and the earth,
- Taking the Scripture’s focus on mercy and justice and freedom serious,
- Putting Scripture, the humanities, the sciences, economics, theology, the church’s practices, and the historical situation into critical dialogue, when forming political theologies and positions,
- Forming a holistic political theology and position. This includes theologies of globalization, mission, liberation, hospitality, Spirit, eco-theology, ethics, place-making, education, servantship, community, discipleship, spirituality, etc.
All these things are profoundly political actions. When done in the Spirit and for the sake of Christ, these have a political impact.
I’ve listed many political practices here. Christians augment these political actions through voting. We choose to witness to Christ through these political actions. And we witness through our engagement in “party politics” (individually and corporately).
Our voting needs to show concern for the issues I have raised above. (These include peacemaking, justice, compassion, truth, generosity, etc.). But, more importantly, we should orient the whole of our lives so that they reflect the mind and passion of Christ in these matters. We do this individually and corporately.
- Government authority is legitimate. But it is “under God.” So, at times, we must resist it.
Human authority is always subject to the supreme authority of Christ. We must honor such earthly authority. We must obey these authorities when they do not transgress biblical ethics or injunctions.
But, occasionally, Christ’s Spirit compels his church to confront governments and human authorities. We do this when they transgress biblical ethics. We do this when they demand that we obey them rather than Christ. We do this when they abuse and damage the powerless. Confronting and resisting human authority happens in a variety of ways. This includes civil disobedience, or refusal to obey unjust or abusive laws. In word, deed and sign we announce the presence of the inaugurated kingdom of Christ and the rule of the King.
We see this happening in Australian right now. As an Australian High Court ruling concludes that offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers is legal, churches have taken the astonishing action of offering sanctuary to these people. This may lead to police raids on churches and arrests of pastors and clergy.
Ten Anglican churches and cathedrals have invoked the ancient Christian tradition of “sanctuary.” They’re offering protection to the 267 people – including 37 babies – facing imminent transfer to the remote island of Nauru.
The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt, says, “This is a hugely significant action for any Australian church to take. Historically churches have afforded sanctuary to those seeking refuge from brutal and oppressive forces. We offer this refuge because there is irrefutable evidence from health and legal experts that the circumstances asylum seekers, especially children, would face if sent back to Nauru are tantamount to state-sanctioned abuse. This fundamentally goes against our faith, so our church community is compelled to act, despite the possibility of individual penalty against us. This is a fledgling movement. What we expect to happen in the course of the day and the next few days is that many churches from many denominations will sign up.”
There are occasions when the people of God choose to openly oppose and resist brutal, oppressive or abusive laws or political processes and decisions.
- We should shape our political engagement and theology around human flourishing.
The Micah Network reminds us that we shape political actions and theologies around the biblical vision of abundant life. This includes addressing poverty and corruption and injustice. But it’s also about helping people reach their full potential in all areas of life.
According to Micah, there are fundamental pillars of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. This is a world where people can flourish and experience abundant life. These pillars are:
(1) Economies that are productive, fair and inclusive. (2) Governments and authorities that are accountable. These must also be responsive to the needs and rights of the poorest and most vulnerable groups. (3) Communities and societies with personal security and without violent conflict. (4) Ecologies that are healthy and that support sustainable flourishing for human beings and other creatures.
As Christians, we believe that human beings find abundant life in relationship with Jesus Christ and in communion with his people.
- Our political actions, convictions and theologies need to reflect our apprenticeship to Jesus and our commitment to his mission.
This raises many questions. How can we allow discipleship and apprenticeship to Jesus to shape our political engagements? How can we adopt Jesus’ narratives and teachings about God and his kingdom, as we seek to participate in the political realities around us? We are apprentices to Jesus. He helps us understand who God is and who we are as God’s children. In turn, God calls those of us who are Christian leaders to help people in our churches become full disciples of Jesus Christ—this includes their political actions, convictions and theologies.
And as we join with God in his mission in the world, our politics is reshaped. David Bosch says our mission is to “alert everyone everywhere to the universal reign of God through Jesus Christ.” That’s the role of Christian political actions and theologies too.
These are a few thoughts on engaging politics as Christians. I’m interested in how respond to these thoughts, and develop your own political engagements and theologies.
Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.
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