By 9 pm on Tuesday, November 6th, American voters tended toward delight or despair. It was about that time when the election results were clear: Barak Obama had been reelected and would live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for another four years.
For progressives, the president’s reelection signaled the dawning of a new era. The sun had risen yet again, and the day’s prospects looked bright and beautiful. For conservatives, the election results led to head-scratching and dire prophecies of “America = Greece” and the end of the American dream. I want to suggest that both responses to the election should provoke repentance by any of God’s people who are feeling either the deep despair or the enthralled delight.
A Christian’s role in and response to politics is far from simple. Consider the Bible’s very nuanced description of God’s people as citizens: We are to care, but not care too much. We are to be hopeful about our politics, but not too hopeful. We are citizens of the country where we dwell, but only provisionally.
First, the Bible tells us we are to care deeply about the common good of those with whom we live and dwell. We are to do our part in the political and social order. For example, Jeremiah instructed those exiled from Israel to Babylon to seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the Lord on its behalf. The motive for such involvement is somewhat self-serving: for in its welfare you will find your welfare. The Apostle Paul boasted of both his Roman citizenship and his citizenship in Tarsus (see Acts 21:39; 22:25-29). Jesus himself also modeled involvement in the social order. Here was a rabbi who went about doing good and healing (Acts 10:38) and who sent his followers into the world to function as salt and light. That is, we are to serve society by preserving what is good and by chasing away the darkness with the light of the gospel.
In his book How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt shows that most of what we take for granted in modern Western society (public education, hospitals, the end of slavery, freedom and dignity for women, the sanctity of human life, and the concept of freedom and liberty for all persons) arose from Christians taking their faith seriously and playing their role in the public square. Indeed, we who love God are to seek the welfare of the city whether we live in Babylon, Bombay, Buenos Aires, or Boston. We are not to be “of” the world, but we are definitely sent into it (John 17:15-16).
So we are to care deeply, but we are not to care too much. After all, the Bible clearly states, that here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14). We are to see ourselves as sojourners and exiles in the world (1 Peter 2:11) who are longing for the the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10). The same apostle who bragged about being a citizen of Rome was also adamant that his real citizenship was in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We dwell on this earth, but we are waiting for the blessed hope who is Jesus himself, not for the second coming of our favorite politician from years past, whether that be Ronald Reagan, FDR, Bill Clinton, or Thomas Jefferson. The Bible is clear: we are not to put our trust in chariots, horses, or political candidates. Like the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, our potentates all have feet of clay, and it is high time those of us in the church, whether progressive or conservative, realize this. It is not too much to say that if we put our hope in the political order—whether the utopian visions of the socialist, the conservative, or the libertarian—we will have put our faith in a god that fails.
When Christians have said throughout the ages, Jesus is Lord, they were making a profound political statement. It is Jesus—not Caesar, not the Soviet State, not Fidel, not Chavez, not the RNC or the DNC—who is Lord. When we sayJesus is Lord, we are saying that our true hope is in heaven even as we work for the common good on earth. Sometimes we will work with, and sometimes we will work against, the authorities and powers who hold the seats of power in the political arena. And Jesus will still be Lord of all!
Justin Taylor, blogger extraordinaire, puts it well in this warning:
There are more important things in life than politics. It’s easy [for politics] to become an idolatry. But it’s also easy to be too apathetic. As the Lord leads, let us commit to letting our politics be shaped by the gospel and informed by the Word of God as we prayerfully work to become informed and to fulfill our roles, seeking the good of the city even as we wait for the city to come.