I’ll never forget the first time I walked past that iconic reflecting pool, climbed the marble steps, and looked up at the Lincoln Monument. It was on that family trip to Washington, DC, that I grew to love American history and politics. I was eleven. But I was hooked.
From an early age I was someone who paid attention to the news. While most kids were playing video games or running around outside, I was reading newspapers. Our family subscribed to three—the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, and The Daily Herald. I read the sports section, the news and opinion section, and the comics. In high school I added The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and U.S. News & World Report. I was that kid.
Later on I jumped at the chance to intern with a pro-family activist in Illinois’s capitol of Springfield. I wanted to see how legislation was passed, or killed. Though I entered the ministry, I was always in and around politics. I volunteered on campaigns. I got to know my local elected officials. And once I took a leave of absence to help a friend run for Congress.
Feeling a Political Fatigue
A few years ago, I found myself burned out from politics. At the end of that last campaign, the negative ads against our opponent grew nastier and I grew uncomfortable. I began to contrast my ministry career with my serious political hobby and saw that the church, as flawed as she is, has infinitely more power to produce change in a community than a single election year. Living from campaign cycle to campaign cycle left me weary and I wanted to be back in a space—in a local congregation—with a more eternal perspective.
So I went back into the ministry to lead a small local church. I loved it. Being invested in people’s lives, teaching the Bible, mobilizing our people to live on mission in their communities. God designed me for church life.
But a funny thing happened in the course of pastoring. My political views began to mature. As I studied scripture, I realized that at times God’s word deviated sharply from the talking points I was repeatedly served on talk radio, in op-eds, and in campaign commercials. Jesus, at times, afflicts the right and Jesus, at times, afflicts the left. This category defining Jesus made sense to me. We are, after all sojourners and strangers. We should be uncomfortable in any earthly movement.
Finding a Political Gospel
As much as campaign life left me wanting to escape politics, my Bible proved to me I couldn’t. Jesus may have defied political categories but the gospel, after all, is deeply political.
When Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, it trampled on the kingdoms of men. He exposed the way the systems of this world—even the religious systems—often marginalized the poor. He struck at the self-righteousness of those in power. And he spoke of a kingdom made up of all the “wrong” kinds of people.
Yes, the gospel is inherently political. It is the declaration that there is another king and another kingdom, that all the accumulated power in this world, in capitals and board rooms and palaces, is but a temporary stewardship that will one day give way to Christ’s ultimate reign.
To follow Jesus means you only render to Caesar what is due to him and nothing more. To follow Jesus means you love sinners but tell them to sin no more and even (sometimes publically) repent of your own. To follow Jesus, means, like John the Baptist, you will rebuke the faulty character of those in power while they call for your head.
To gather every week with brothers and sisters and declare Christ as the ultimate ruler of heaven and earth was and is a political statement. To say that every person alive was created by God with dignity and purpose is a political statement. To say that God is drawing a new creation people from every nation, tribe, and tongue is an inherently political statement.
It was when I talked from a pulpit and not to pundits that I realized that though I had left campaigns, I could not leave politics behind. In fact, I was only just beginning.
Employing a Neighborly Love
I needed to engage more, not less. But not just me and those who share my love of our nation’s capital and enjoy the smell of newspaper in the morning. We, the church, need to engage more, not less. Yes, we should avoid the poison of a tribal partisanship that gives more loyalty to a party or a movement than to the kingdom of God, but we cannot ever avoid the necessary obligation of politics.
That’s particularly clear for Americans. We especially can’t avoid politics in a representative republic, where we possess, with our votes and our voices, the power to shape our society. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus told us to do, then how can we retreat into passivity?
Can we say to our unborn neighbors that we could have spoken on their behalf, but we didn’t because we didn’t feel comfortable getting involved with politics?
Can we say to our immigrant neighbors that we could have shaped the systems that affect their flourishing, but we didn’t because politics is messy?
Can we say to our impoverished neighbors that we could have helped shape the financial structures that keep him or her in need because we were tired of the noise?
If we care about living out the mission of God, if we take seriously the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we can’t help but get involved, at some level, in shaping the society in which our neighbors live.
Partaking in Elegant Politics
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have to succumb to the crude and partisan score-keeping that cripples our national discourse. It doesn’t mean we have to turn into talking point bots for our preferred team. It doesn’t mean we have to sweat every election like it’s our last.
We can engage in an elegant kind of politics that respects even those with whom we disagree. We can bring the gospel to bear on issues that affect the flourishing of God’s image-bearers. We can lend our voices and our gifts in a variety of capacities to bring change that positively affects the most vulnerable.
As we engage this kind of politics, we hold our opinions loosely and recognize that even as we work toward a more perfect union, we’ll never build a perfect utopia. We can only ever, as God’s kingdom people, show the world a glimpse of that kingdom to come. Even as we participate in politics in love for our country, we can look beyond our country toward that city whose builder and maker is God.
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