(Hat Tip to Veterans Today for the image above, which you can find here.) As Jesus followers we’re called to represent him, to be his ambassadors. Sadly, I think the Jesus depicted above is the one we “Christians” here in the U.S. too often peddle in place of the savior of the world. So I would contend that this election is a gift from God. For too long so-called “Christians” have been able, let alone content, to practice USAmerican civil religion and think they were following Jesus, but I sincerely hope that this is no longer the case. Of course I should know something about practicing civil religion and thinking I was following Jesus by doing so. The Assemblies of God, megachurch, “fundagelical” upbringing I experienced was one in which I was as likely to wave the “American” flag as I was to wave the “Christian” one. By quirk of personality my family wasn’t gun-totin’, but I know many of my neighbors in Texas must have been. So God, guns, patriarchy, and patriotism all went hand in hand in the culture I grew up in. As I keep saying, I was shocked to go away to college and find that God isn’t a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Evangelical) male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, salutes the flag, and spends his days pursuing the “American dream” just like everybody else I knew from my youth.
This is not what Jesus died for, though. As I recently wrote on this blog: “Jesus died an enemy of the state for subversively proclaiming a kingdom that the political, religious, and economic powers that used-to-be could not control, co-opt, or conquer. God forgive me if I don’t find myself getting into the same kind of trouble.” Thus, anytime Jesus becomes synonymous with any particular state that isn’t God’s kingdom, Jesus followers should be wary. And to state what should be obvious, this is no less true for any particular political party within a state that isn’t God’s kingdom. I wrote about Christendom recently and need not repeat it again, but suffice it to say that Constantinian “Christianity” had little to do with Christ. The offer of secular power remains alluring, however, and this is no truer than right here in the U.S. So long as the language of Christianity was the lingua franca of the land and claims could be made, whether true or not, that this was a “Christian nation” founded on “Judeo-Christian principles,” would-be Jesus followers were all too ready to abandon the narrow road down which Jesus beckons for the sake of the wide road of a comfortable “Christian-“ish country. Keith Green sang prophetically about this with his lyrics: “The world is sleeping in the dark, but the church just can’t fight, ’cause it’s asleep in the light.”
I suspect, and desperately hope, that this election has changed all that. Rod White of Circle of Hope recently wrote about this. He said:
I am appalled that we are paying so much attention to two bona-fide members of the one percent duking it out to be king or queen of the elite. Hillary Clinton is so cozy with the world’s domination system it would be surprising if she manages to see outside the bubble. The people at the top really think they own the world and need to take care of it. At least Donald Trump is generally despised among the elite as a brash idiot who can’t help opening the curtain and exposing all the secrets. We all tune in and suck up the illusion that we are not their slaves. Many people believe that one of them is somehow going to represent their interests.
Of course they won’t.
I think everybody knows this, but neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are going to save the world, let alone “America.” Neither candidate is very well liked these days, obviously. But even if we had a very likable one, the “meat grinder” that is the political process, especially as greed and corruption become ever more entrenched in that process, make true change well-nigh impossible. For many of us, myself included, Obama in 2008 represented just such a very likable candidate, and I’m confident that those of us that voted for him truly hoped that change, for the better, would come. There was some change, of course, but the political bad that came with the good and the racist firestorm that erupted with the election of our first Black President, and which has been simmering ever since, has made the Obama years a very “mixed bag,” indeed.
In fact, the Obama years should be a case study in just what can and cannot be accomplished through the U.S. political system. I’m one of those who would suppose that a smart, articulate, Christian, Harvard constitutional law professor who cut his political teeth as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago and who just so happens to be a person of color represents the best of us what we might hope for in a President-elect. If you accept this supposition, what the Obama years make clear is that even the best of us stand no chance against the machination of the domination system in our secular politics. After pledging “the most transparent administration in history” Obama not only has failed to live up that promise but has been overly aggressive in prosecuting whistle-blowers. After pledging to shut down Gitmo and to his credit despite some concerted efforts to do so in the face of intractable Republican opposition to this and literally everything else he’s done, Gitmo remains open today, a festering wound to any claims of “American” decency, goodness, or morality. After pledging to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president instead soon found himself, and therefore the country, entangled in at least 3; but even this doesn’t tell the whole story as depending on how you define “war” it’s more likely that the U.S. is currently fighting 5 wars, a fact no one is willing to talk about. This is hardly surprising, though, for those with eyes to see that any war on an idea, like terrorism, is necessarily endless. Anyone read 1984? As this article points out in using 1984 to illuminate the endless one the U.S. is currently engaged in:
The president has mostly stripped away the politically costly “boots on the ground” conventional wars in favor of his “light footprint,” a far-flung anti-terror campaign built of drone strikes and Special Operations Forces raids, to which the air campaign in Iraq and Syria has now been added. Even as the president denounces the specter of “perpetual war,” the war machinery whirs along around him and his administration makes plans for precisely that.
The never-ending death the U.S. rains down from the sky all around the world via drone strikes is most damning, in my opinion. While undoubtedly some “suspected militants” have been killed in these strikes, the “collateral damage” and the strikes on rescuers and funeral attendees is a travesty of justice that will serve as recruitment fodder for generations of terrorists to come. This article is particularly helpful in describing the U.S. dissembling/disinformation regarding civilian deaths by drone. Sadly, it’s about to all get worse as it is likely that either a Trump or Clinton administration will be more hawkish, not less.
My point is that if even candidate Obama, which I and many others liked very much, could not adhere to his principles once in office and effect the kind of change we all hoped for, it’s even more the case that two very unlikable (for good reason) and flawed candidates like Trump and Clinton will be unable to bring about lasting change for the better. Trump says Democrats appeal to black voters every four years with promises to help them but never really do so. There may be a kernel of truth in this, though it should be clear to any careful observer that one party, for example, will and has made it easier for disadvantaged voters to access the ballot, while the other seems hell-bent on doing precisely the opposite, but I digress. What I do think is true is that politicians of every stripe always appeal to voters with promises to improve their lives and both major parties here in the U.S. rarely deliver on those promises in the ways that matter most.
For those who want to follow Jesus but get seduced into following “Uncle Sam” instead, or for whom their love of Jesus is so enmeshed with their love of country that the two have become indistinguishable, I again would suggest that this awful election season is a gift. Confronted with two bad choices for a leader for the next four years, I propose we choose neither.
I’m not saying don’t vote in the election, though. By all means do so; this election is important. I want instead to disabuse us of the notion that choosing one of these flawed, unlikable, perhaps dangerous candidates over the other is a “Christian” choice, while those would-be Jesus followers choosing in the opposite direction are somehow making an “un-Christian” choice. Both of these candidates will likely keep the U.S. involved in its many wars and will probably escalate the war-making. Both of these candidates would like to see people reduced to consumers so as to keep our consumption-based economy humming along in ever more unsustainable ways. For those who would follow Jesus, Banksy is helpful here, as always, in questioning the relationship between Christ and consumption:
Both of these candidates are elites and will likely serve the elites once in office. Neither of these candidates are much interested in seeing God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done, especially when God’s will might conflict with “American” interests.
So if we “gotta serve somebody” for the next four years and beyond, let’s work to serve Jesus. Let’s serve one another, our neighbors close to home and around the world, knowing that we serve God as we do so. Let’s remember that as Nathan Hamm recently quoted on Twitter: “Jesus thinks there are two kinds of people in the world: our neighbors, whom we are to love, (and) our enemies, whom we are to love.”
Mill City Church has been talking recently in the current sermon series about “Going Public” as Jesus followers, asking the question, “what does it mean to be public disciples in our 21st century cultures?” Along the way so far,the pastors have suggested that in Scripture we see Jesus and the disciples engaging publicly in the following ways: Inviting, Healing, Advocating, Storytelling, and Confronting. The guiding questions that helped launch the series were simple, but very challenging, at least for me. They urged us as we consider our public actions as people who are trying to follow Jesus that before we engage in any such action we ask ourselves: “Does this honor God?” and “Does this invite others into a relational space where they might meet Jesus?” These questions have haunted me over the past month and a half as I’ve wondered how well I do this. As is the case in all too many ways, social media is perhaps most difficult to contend with here. Thankfully I’m not on Facebook any more and I thank God for the courage to quit it some years back, but I’m pretty active on Twitter and Instagram, and obviously I blog. Do my tweets honor God? Do they invite others into a relational space where they can meet Jesus? Probably not.
I’m reminded again of Jen Hatmaker’s amazing post about the last presidential election, which you can find here. She said:
I am a registered independent AND WILL ALWAYS BE. I will never get in bed with a political party, because full allegiance forfeits the right to call a party to reform, and both parties are in dire need of reform. Full allegiance tempts us to place our hope in secular government fueled by greed and power, and both parties are fueled by greed and power. Full allegiance silences our prophetic voice in favor of touting party lines and demands we turn our fellow citizens into enemies for differing viewpoints.
Indeed. I have a co-worker whom I know loves Jesus, but with whom I couldn’t disagree more about most things related to secular politics. We work in close quarters, and every time I hear him spouting the usual (secular) political party lines about the candidate he seems to think is the worse of the two bad choices we have, I cringe and grit my teeth or occasionally I even have to hop up and go take a walk. Notice what I didn’t say, though. I didn’t say that I know he loves Jesus, but I don’t share his politics. The fact is that I do, or I should. He and I both should be inspired, motivated, and compelled by the politics of Jesus. In the Mill City Church conversation we’ve been having about “going public,” we’ve been challenged time and again to follow Jesus’ lead in refusing to be caught in the trap of being boxed in to a binary choice. I’ll have more to say about that below, but it’s relevant now in that even as I try to do that- refuse to be labeled with one of the USAmerican political party labels- I’ve simultaneously fallen into another trap. I’ve resisted (or am working to be better at resisting) such a label for myself while simultaneously slapping such a label on my brother. As Jen Hatmaker said above, “full allegiance” to a USAmerican political party “demands we turn our fellow citizens into enemies for (having) differing viewpoints.” My co-worker is not my enemy just because he bubbles in a different circle in a voting booth. If we’re both trying to follow Jesus, there should be much more that unites us than what divides us, and it is imperative that we do an excellent job of loving each other; for it is only by doing so that a watching world will be able to know that we really are Christ-ian.
Jen goes on to say in that post that “perhaps most discouraging is the irrational, unreasonable hope I find fellow believers placing in a political party.” As I said above, neither Trump nor Clinton are going to save the world, let alone “America.” Hatmaker goes on:
None of this smacks of gospel.
Politics are rife with power-plays, hypocrisy, corruption, agendas, contradictions, good platforms, bad platforms, men and women who love their country, men and women who’ve lost their moral compass, good policy, dangerous policy…in the red and blue camps alike. That any believer imagines a political platform will either usher in or threaten the kingdom of God is worse than dramatic; it is unbelief.
No president can take the Kingdom out of our hearts. No candidate can steal what Jesus has already won. As the Kingdom came, so will it continue – not through Empire but through radical, subversive faith. It cannot be shaken, it cannot be removed. It lives and breathes through the work of Jesus on the cross, not the position of any human on the throne. Nor can any man in the sphere of government ever represent the comprehensive gospel of Christ. Never. He may reflect elements, but rest assured, those tenets will be contradicted elsewhere in his platform.
Our faith and outrage and hope and trust is misplaced in any leadership model other than Jesus’, who resisted all earthly power and position and rejected any political identification:
The last shall be first.
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
My kingdom is not of this world.
The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.
Jesus’ subversive teaching taught his followers to shame and expose the evils of political oppression by audacious acts of humility, not through bedding down within the system.
Hatmaker concludes, and I find myself giving you most of her post because it’s simply that good and worth reminding ourselves of every time a USAmerican political campaign gets heated:
God is still on His throne, and our true allegiance rests in His sovereignty. Four or eight years of an administration cannot compromise the historical work of a holy God.
If discipleship means loving the broken, then love the broken.
If following Jesus means abandoning our rights, then abandon them.
If you care about the sanctity of life, then devote yourself to its care – womb to grave.
If you worry about the vulnerable, then give your life away for them.
If Scripture tells us perfect love drives out fear, then it does.
If your trust is in a Servant Savior, then put it there and leave it there.
As children of God, we should be unthreatened by secular power. The Law was never able to bring redemption, and it is still insufficient to make all things new. The healing and hope and goodness we long for is realized fully in Jesus, extended through His people despite hardship or distance or the passage of time or the changing of guards. No political party can see it through or take it away. It was finished on the cross, and the discussion is over.
So may we deal kindly with one another in a manner befitting the Bride, as a people who loosely engage the system of the day, retaining our prophetic voice and refusing to malign one another for a false kingdom that will soon pass away. May we preach Jesus crucified and risen, the only hope of the world. And whether we vote red or blue, may we reach across the lines, join hands, and proclaim:
“To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” ~Romans 16:27
I should probably end here. I don’t know that I can say it any better than Jen has, but I’ll add a few comments. This notion of not fully aligning with a secular political party so as to preserve the church’s prophetic voice is crucial.
When Michael Binder preached recently to Mill City Church during this ongoing “Going Public” discussion (and I owe him a big thanks for sharing his sermon notes with me), he focused on confronting and asked us to consider how Jesus engaged in confrontation, when it was necessary to do so. Binder gives the example of online snark in the form of a “mic drop truth bomb” such as when “someone posts something that is supposed to serve as a kind of ‘gotcha’ argument that the opposing side can’t come back from.” He suggests that too often would-be Jesus followers fall into this kind of confrontation online, but says this is not what we see Jesus doing in Scripture. Instead, he says, Jesus engages in confrontation this way:
Jesus confronted religious hypocrisy by challenging religious leaders face to face. Jesus confronted unbelief/lack of faith by challenging his disciples to have more faith. Jesus confronted evil by casting demons out of people he encountered. Jesus confronted the misuse of the Temple by flipping tables over and throwing people out. Jesus confronted wrong priorities by inviting Martha to take a break from her work and sit with her sister Mary at his feet. Jesus confronted a lack of understanding of God and Scripture by describing what life will be like in heaven. Jesus confronted the wrong motivations of people asking him questions by telling them stories that revealed what was most important to God. Jesus confronted misinterpretation of God’s Word by declaring that he was the point of the Scriptures everyone was quoting at him. Jesus confronted a misunderstanding of current events by inviting people to repent in the wake of a tragedy rather than try to figure out who to blame.
After adding that “these are just a few of the ways that Jesus confronted people and issues in his time on earth…” Binder suggests that there is a driving motivation behind all of them: “Jesus confronts all these things by standing in the “in-between” and pointing to another way, a Kingdom-oriented way.” He then re-tells the story of the woman who was caught in the act of adultery and brought to Jesus. The text is:
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The narrator of this passage has already told us that the woman’s accusers were trying to trap Jesus, and Binder adds:
This is a trap for Jesus – is he going to uphold the Law of Moses and agree that she should be stoned? Or are you going to publicly condone sexual sin? Side note: This trap seems like most of the public conversations I see today. They seem like they are all set up as traps, either you are for this and against this, either you believe the Bible or you don’t, either you vote like a Christian or you don’t, either you stand up for truth or you don’t… Jesus knows these kinds of set ups are a trap, there is no way to “win.”
This has been my experience and I’m sure that of many others as well. One of the reasons I quit Facebook is that I repeatedly found myself drawn into mind-numbing debates about whether a particular secular political position was “Christian” or not and/or whether or not Jesus would or would not have acted in a certain way. Always there was a binary choice I was confronted with, and I always let myself get sucked into making it, usually knowing I would have to defend a position or make an argument that I might have thought was “right” but the end result of which was that no one really “won” and all too often relationships were damaged or even severed. Finally I had enough of it, at least on Facebook.
Binder goes on to describe Jesus’ response to this trap. Binder says he “starts with silence” by taking a moment to write or draw on the ground. Binder adds that we would all do well to take a deep breath, pause, and maybe say a quick prayer before responding to those who might seek to trap us in just this way. Binder says Jesus then “rejects their categories.” Invariably Jesus did this when folks tried to box him in with an either/or categorical choice. Binder reminds us that the concern of the woman’s accusers “…isn’t really for the Law, but for self-justification. If they were really concerned about the law,” Binder says, “they would have brought the man who was caught in adultery in too!” Binder says Jesus then “holds up a mirror” not by “tell(ing) them that they are wrong; he just asks them (to) apply their judgment of this woman to themselves as well.” Obviously, their own lives could not stand up under the weight of the judgment they sought to level against the woman. Finally, Binder says, “Jesus confronts sin with grace.” Having restored the woman to right relationship by saying that he would not condemn her, Jesus tells her to go and sin no more.
Binder then uses his theological imagination a bit in what was probably my favorite part of the sermon. He says:
It doesn’t say this in the text, but I couldn’t help but feel this week that Jesus must have stood in-between the woman and her accusers. The Bible says that they “made her stand before the group.” I can imagine Jesus physically positioning himself between them and her as he defended her, inviting them to throw the first stone knowing it would hit him first. Whether he did so physically or not, Jesus confronts these religious leaders by standing in the “in-between” and pointing to another way of approaching this situation, a Kingdom-oriented way where God’s grace offers forgiveness and (a) chance for self-evaluation.
This is a provocative and powerful imagining of this story, and it points us toward the kind of life Jesus may very well be calling us to as he asks us to join him in the “in between” places of the world. We are not called to hide away from the evils of the world and wait for heaven. No, it’s important to remember that we will not one day be spirited away to heaven (no pun intended); heaven will come to earth. The earth itself will be redeemed and restored to its rightful glory, and we who proclaim the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the here and now- not just with our words but with our very lives- are again called to live as if that truth that is not yet fully revealed is nonetheless already upon us. So we are to confront evil and injustice when we see it as we live our lives as public disciples. As we do so, we must always remember that Jesus is always to be found among “the least of these,” with those on the margins of society. And when the world (not the created order, but the domination system, the powers that have set themselves up in opposition to the kingdom of God) seeks to take the good that God has for us and offers us instead a choice between the lesser of two evils, we are to stand in the gap, in between the binary alternatives, even/especially if it means risking our own harm, so that we can point to another way.
Thus, Binder says in drawing upon what Jesus did throughout his life but especially in this story, we do well to remember that “when Jesus confronted people and issues publicly, a few things were always true: 1. He placed himself at risk in the confrontation. 2. He challenged people to trust God more. 3. He loved the people he confronted. 4. He backed up his opinion with action.” We do best when we do likewise. As we confront sin and evil in the world, we must be willing to put “skin in the game.” We must have something at stake. We can not pontificate from on high about issues we can hardly understand because we haven’t experienced them firsthand and/or aren’t in relationship with someone who has. We can’t be unwilling to get dirty. I so often return to that quote I first heard Duane Crabbs repeat: “If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother; but if you’ve come here because you understand that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” We simply don’t have the right to speak into a situation that we aren’t willing to risk experiencing ourselves.
When, by the grace of God, we do find the courage to put our own lives and security on the line, we must work to trust God more ourselves even as we invite others to do so as well. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s confrontation with sin and evil in the world, and he asks us not merely to believe things about him, but to believe and trust him, to have a relationship with him, and to follow him. As we confront sin and evil in the world then, we must always do so in love. We must do so in the context of a loving relationship with the other. After all, God loved us “while we were yet sinners,” and it is his “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” that compels us to love others.
Binder concludes his sermon about confrontation as one of the ways we “go public” in our lives as Jesus followers by saying, “We are constantly being invited by God to confront sin and evil in our world, not by dropping one-liner truth bombs but by actively taking risks that join God’s work in redeeming and restoring the world!” If we are part of God’s ever-growing family and we regard the “other” most clearly when we remember that they are our brother or sister, then we must also remember that Jesus has entrusted us with the “family business” of reconciliation. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:16-22:
…from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
Jesus invites us to join him in his ministry of reconciliation. We can’t do that by wholly identifying with any secular political party. We can’t do that by maligning those who will vote differently than we might in a few weeks. We must stand in the “in-between” and point to a better way. We know Trump and Clinton won’t save the world, but neither will “American” democracy, and certainly neither will “American” capitalism. Don’t we know this by now?
But Jesus will, and Jesus is. He’s doing it right now, and he beckons us to join him. Binder adds that while Jesus usually rejected binary categories, he did challenge those he confronted to make a choice by asking: “Will you follow me or not? Do you believe…me or not? Do you trust me or not?” In today’s Going Public sermon from Mill City Church, Stephanie invoked the language of MLK, Jr.” famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (which I try to read every year on the day set aside for serving in the spirit of MLK, Jr.’s example). King said:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
For those who think it’s time for “a political revolution,” I agree. There is a revolution that’s already underway, even as we speak. It’s a revolution of radical love and reconciliation, and Jesus is the rebel-in-chief, calling us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to overcome evil with good. I found the image at the top of this post by searching for images related to a favorite provocative question: “who would Jesus bomb?” If it isn’t clear, the answer is no one. But again we are called to join a revolution, and some Banksy art is again helpful. I’ll let him have the last word: