Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Christians in Politics

The New York Times recently published an essay by Tim Keller about Christians and partisan politics. Keller opens with a question, “What should the role of Christians in politics be?” He quickly answers his own question by writing, “Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors.” He concludes claiming loving our neighbors through political processes is an inevitable requirement.

Politics is all about how we control the government, or as the Bible calls it, the sword (Romans 13:1-7). Government by its very nature creates a duty to obey. Love by its very nature is about things not done out of duty. There are inherent, built-in problems with the idea that the government can be used to force people to love one another.

Keller claims “most political positions are not matters of biblical command” and “The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions” about how to approach government. The Bible gives more than Keller indicates. In 1 Peter 2:14 and Romans 13:3-4 the Bible describes God’s intended purposes for government for every time, place and culture: punish those who do evil, and praise those who do good. The Bible has a lot to say about what is good and what is evil, even in the context of civil law. Oppression is evil, but being poor or being rich is not.

The question for us today is how far do we go in terms of punishing what God calls evil with the punishments God prescribes? The Pharisees confronted Jesus with applying the law to evil, and Jesus introduced them anew to mercy. We are to both seek justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8). Seek justice for the oppressed and mercy (injustice) for the perpetrators who turn away from evil. There is, however, no justice or mercy if there is no law to punish evil in place.

We should speak up when the government does not punish evil done to others (injustice), and we should speak up when the government punishes those who are doing good (also injustice). The Christian voice with respect to government is especially important when government gets good and evil confused. When government tries to do good, this creates hazards for people trying to do good outside the government’s idea of good. When government calls evil good, like abortion, that is an especially egregious violation of God’s purposes for government. Inaccurately referring to God-honoring behavior as “oppressively conservative” is not helpful.

Some may still want the government to “help” because it may seem the size of the poverty problem is so massive that the only potential (and thus inevitable) match for the scale of the challenge is the government. This ignores two things: (1) in our case government policy created many of these problems in the first place, and (2) all people are born with inherent desires and hungers that motivate them to accomplish things for themselves. Setting people free from real oppression would do a lot to reduce the scale of the problem.

Keller notes believers “holding important posts in pagan governments” like “Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament.” He could have gone further by asking what we can learn from how they approached things. Throughout the Scriptures, people both inside and outside government are correct to obey the government and follow the law (Romans 13) until it gets good and evil mixed up. Then it's time to speak up, and if the government does not relent, engage in civil disobedience as Daniel and his friends did (Daniel 1:8; 3:16-18; 6:10-11), and as the apostles did (Acts 5:29).

The world is not going to stop pushing Christians out of society just because some think Christians can “reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum.” We should be ready to take a stand by asking why we are not unified at those different places, and what the Scriptures teach about the issues in question. We need to work out our differences and seek God's intent for biblical interpretation especially as it relates to issues that need public engagement.

Let's say we find agreement on ways the government could change its policies to punish good less and evil more. Oftentimes, Christians lobbying in Congress seek to gain bipartisan support for the issue in question. This has become increasingly difficult as the American electorate itself is increasingly identifying one party as having one set of values and the other as having nearly the complete opposite. If we go, then, to advocate God-honoring positions in the government, this could sometimes have the appearance of working with people who have only one party affiliation. If we consider that risk unacceptable and shut down political discussion and engagement because that could possibly give someone the impression that the Christian church or faith is identifying with only one political party, then the only option that leaves is withdrawal, one Keller considers an invalid option. We have to leave the option open for engaging people with a partisan affiliation or alignment for some time to some degree for some duration, even if this comes with the risk of others making, and even touting, political misconceptions.

When it comes to placing people in important government posts by supporting candidates, this kind of non-package-deal approach Keller suggests is even more difficult. During an election one must decide if he does or does not support a candidate. If people support a candidate with whom they agree more than the other, rarely is this because they agree with someone 100 percent on every issue. They may not support all of a candidate’s positions, and they should be free to clarify that, even as they express full support for a candidate standing for office. Most candidates also have some kind of party affiliation. According to the First Amendment, anyone at any time should be free to endorse candidates as they see fit including using leadership positions they hold to express that support. If they do not lead an organization, and their organization does not support their position, the person should be free to express their views outside the organization, and the organization should be free to place that not-as-part-of-the-organization restriction on their activities.

I see no problem with engaging a political party for purposes of encouraging its members both personally and as an organization to further seek God about its policy objectives. I would love to see us have multiple political parties competing to see who can honor God the most with the freedom with which God seeks to set us free. No, government can't bring eternal salvation (Galatians 3:21), but it can keep us free to hear and proclaim the Gospel.

Tim Keller's often talks and writes about identity, specifically in Christ, so it seems his concern here is he doesn't want people to think in order to be in Christ, to be saved, to be a Christian you must be a member of party [X] and therefore participate in everything it does or seeks to do. I would suggest there's a significant difference between (a) saying one must be a member of a party vs. (b) recognizing when party [X] or its members would do or are doing something that honors the Lord and it would be good to support them and have a part in that.

Keller’s closing is not in answer to his opening question. Yes, Jesus gave up his power and has not yet used a sword, and that does not answer, “What should the role of Christians in politics be?” The role of the government is the role of the sword. The Bible never tells us to lose it. Jesus told his disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). John the Baptist confronted leaders in both civil and religious authority (Matthew 14:4; Mark 6:18). The Apostle Paul fully exercised his Roman citizenship rights (Acts 22:25-30; 24:10-21; 25:10-12).

On his unrelated closing, it’s worth noting that injustice is not always bad. Our only eternal hope is because of injustice against God himself—Jesus crucified on a cross. He became sin so that we might become righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our job is to proclaim this Gospel message to the world. Government’s main role with respect to the Gospel is not to interfere with our ability to spread this message, and we should remind it of that.

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