Christians & Politics
When American Christians think about politics, it often comes down trying to answer the question: “What contemporary political option can we use to move the nation, or the world, in the right direction?”
Conservative Christians are likely to identify a number of positions on marriage, abortion, and immigration as the direction in which the country should move. Some conservatives are tempted to use Donald Trump to move things in this direction.
Liberal Christians are likely to emphasize the cause of the poor and oppressed as the right direction. They are tempted to trust Hillary Clinton to move things in this direction.
I propose we step back from this way of thinking, and consider whether the biblical story has its own way of talking about politics.
Jesus the Suffering-Servant King
The Bible is clear that Jesus came to be the king in the line of David. This is the primary meaning of the titles “Messiah” and “Christ” used of Jesus in the New Testament.
More surprising, in some passages, the title “Son of God” is meant to identify Jesus as the Davidic king. These passages (Matt. 3:17 and par.; Rom. 1: 3, 4; Heb. 1:5) quote or allude to 2 Samuel 7:14, where God says of the coming king: “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (NIV).
Not only is “Son of God” used here as a royal title alluding to 2 Samuel 7:14, scholar N.T. Wright notes that citizens of Rome would have understood Jesus’ appointment as the Son of God as a challenge to Caesar, who also went by this title.
Some evangelical theologians have tried to explain away the political nature of Jesus coming as the Davidic king by saying he was a purely spiritual king in his life, and that it is only at his second coming when he will truly be king.
The problem with this idea is that Jesus’ life and teaching cannot be put into the “spiritual” category and left there. Forgiving debt, loving enemies, releasing captives, and ruling as a servant all spill over into politics and even economics.
But Jesus clearly didn’t come as a king in the ordinary sense, right? So, how are we to make sense of the way the first disciples tell his story? We can affirm that Jesus was a king in the full, earthly sense of the word, but that he was not a king who did the same sorts of things as David or Caesar.
Jesus followed his own teaching: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them…. Not so with you. Instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42, 43 NIV). He ruled as a king who served those he came to rule. And he did not turn back from his service even when it led to suffering and dying on a cross.
Christians believe that Jesus still rules today as king of his people and the world. He rules, first, through his church and second, by providence. Being a part of the church is the most important way we can be a part of his kingdom. At church, we participate in Jesus’ making things turn out right by following his example of suffering servanthood.
Providence means that Jesus is still in control of the world even when we don’t see how this could be. I propose we reflect on the current American election in light of this view of Jesus’ continued rule as the suffering-servant king.
What then does Jesus’ kingship mean for our involvement in secular politics? Christians must stop being desperate about finding a way to move the nation or the world in the right direction. We need to have faith that Jesus is the one who will move history in the right direction.
If we have this faith in Jesus, we will not trust any leader with the task of making history turn out right. This is especially true when a presidential candidate or political solution is evidently un-Christ-like.
When we as Christians are desperate to find a way to make things turn out right, we tend to paint a pretty picture of the one we think will save us. We idol-ize our candidate, and then make excuses for them.
Once we accept that it is not our job to find a way to make history turn out right, we can be realistic about our contemporary options. Democracy has not fundamentally changed the truth of Jesus’ observation in Mark 10:42: “those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.”
Modern democracies are still the rule of an elite minority over a people; and this rule is still maintained with force. The chief virtues of democracy are 1) that one ruling elite can be replaced by another with little to no violence, and 2) this ruling elite is sometimes made to consult the people they rule. But we can do without the myth that democracy means a nation is ruled “by the people.”
With these properly lowered expectations of particular candidates and the democratic process as a whole, we can see the real value of voting. Voting should not be treated as a way for us to move history in the right direction. Politically, this is naïve and unrealistic; theologically, it fails to acknowledge the kingship of Jesus.
Rather, voting is one among many ways to speak truth to power. It is one way for us to witness to the state what it means to rule by suffering servanthood. Sending a message is not as heavy a task as turning history in the right direction. So we are free to be creative.
We might vote for a candidate destined to lose so that their opponent will not be so self-righteous in victory. The candidate who is most likely to listen to the concerns of the poor is always a good option. The best option might be to integrate our vote into other more important ways of witnessing to the state.
The sad state of the current American election suggests two messages to me that could be made a part of our witness to the state. One: The peaceful replacement of one ruling elite with another is a part of democracy worth holding onto. Threats to this peaceful transition of power based on the alleged absolute importance of Donald Trump’s election, or any other reason, should be challenged.
Two: We should work to communicate to others the theological vision presented here. Thank God our hope is not in Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Juel, Donald. Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988.
Wright, N.T.. “Hope in Person: Jesus as Messiah and Lord.” The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972.
—. “Voting.” Yoder for Everyone: Revolutionary Christian Citizenship. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 2013.