We have this political space and we are not sure what to do with it. The politicians and political parties have been comfortable in this space for years. They are comfortable with political power and they know how to use it.
The politicians have aligned on two sides: left and right, red and blue, democrat and republican. Their struggle with each other seems to be eternal, but the real differences are not that great. The major disagreement is about who should control political power.
The two sides have a few disagreements about what political power should be used to achieve. One side is more committed to using political power to establish democracy throughout the world. The other side is more committed to caring for the poor, but differences are not great. The real battle is over the control of political power.
Christians have tended to stay out of this political space, partly because Jesus kingdom is not of this world and partly due to the separation of church and state.
Recently two things have happened. Christians have woken up and realised that the political space has an enormous influence on the shape of our culture and the quality of our society. They are beginning to realise that they cannot ignore a space that affects most aspects of life. Christians are a majority in America, so they should have some influence on the political space.
At the same time, the blue party saw a huge potential voting bloc. They said to the Christians. "Come and join us and we will fight against abortion." Many Christians heard the call and joined the blue side in the political space, but they were quite naive. Politicians are experts at doing deals and manipulating supporters, so they were always going to be more than a match for the Christians. There was a fair chance that the Christians would end up being betrayed.
Now something else is happening. Some Christians are starting to feel uncomfortable on the blue side of the line. They are saying that they would prefer to be on the red side, because they care more about the poor.
The red party is also waking up and telling Christians who care for the poor that they would do better on their side of the line. Christians are starting to move across the boundary.
One problem with this shift is that it makes Christians appear to be divided. As Christians spread across the political spectrum, the cross becomes distorted.
This creates a real dilemma, but retreat is not possible. If we believe that God is sovereign over the whole of life, we cannot stay out of the political space. We cannot ignore the political space, because it affects so much of life.
Balmer says that that "religion flourishes best at the margins and not at the centers of power". That might be true in a culture where Christians are a minority, but as the gospel advances and Christians cease being a minority, Christianity cannot remain on the fringes of life. The influence of the gospel must move towards the centre of life, including the political space.
One pastor said that he never preaches about politics, but this creates a problem for Christians trying to understand the political space. They must learn from those already in it, so they find the truth hard to find. We cannot ignore the political space, but getting involved is not easy.
The politicians and parties are comfortable with political power and are very experienced in using it. Politics is about power:
- power to tax
- power to decide who will pay taxes
- power to spend vast amounts of money
- power to make laws
- power to force people to obey laws
Politics is about power and coercion. Politicians are comfortable with this power.
Christians are not so confident about this space. If we naively think that entering the political space is just a matter of voting or joining a political party, we are treading on dangerous ground. If we just join the struggle for control of political power, we will find ourselves being transformed by the political space. We should bring a radical perspective on the shape and role of the political space and allow God to transform it.
Before rushing into the political space, Christians should do some hard thinking about the purposes of political power and what they want to achieve. Otherwise we will just become "cannon fodder" in the left/right battle. We will get sucked into the struggle for political power, and lose our distinctiveness. If we just take sides in the existing struggle as defined by the political space, the gospel of Jesus is likely to be swamped.
This has already happened. Listening to many Christians arguing about political issues sounds just like the debates of secular politicians. The categories are the same and the arguments are similar.
Christians need to do some hard thinking about the role and nature of the political space. Here are some of the questions we need to answer. If God's word relates to the whole of faith and life, we should be able to get Christian answers to these questions.
What should be the shape and nature of the political space? How does the intrusion of the Kingdom of God change this space? What does biblical theology tell us about the size and shape of the political space? If we do not answer these questions before entering the political space, we are likely to be beaten up by politicians who are familiar with their terrain.
What is the relationship between morality and law? Law reflects morality, but legislation against every sin is impractical and not appropriate.
What can law achieve? The modern approach is to passing a new law is the solution to every problem that emerges. The Bible is quite realistic about the limitations of the law. Moses allowed divorce, despite the seventh commandment forbidding adultery. He knew that when people's hearts of hard, enforcing a law with a high standard is a waste of time. Paul spoke of "what the law was powerless to do" (Rom 8:3). Christians must understand the limitations of law and have a clear view of what law should be used to achieve.
What are the limits on the use of coercion by political power? What are the limits on the use of coercively collected taxation?
How does the coming of the Kingdom of God affect the use of political power? What should be the limits on political power in a world where political power seems to be the main vehicle for action and change? How should political power be used? Who should control political power? What can political power achieve? Jesus seemed to be quite hostile to the use of political power. Does that change the shape or colour of the political space? What is the legitimate role political power in a society where a majority of the people are Christian?
The funny thing is that political power is not very effective anyway. Political power is not doing very well at creating democracy in Iraq. It is not doing any better at eliminating poverty. We have a far better gospel.
What is the relationship between the church and the state? What is the role of the state in the Kingdom of God?
What is the place of democracy in the Kingdom of God? Democracy produced the golden calf, so does democracy remain relvant as the Kingdom of God increases. Is Democracy legitimate in the Kingdom of God? If so, how does the Kingdom of God influence the political space?
Does nationalism have a place in the Kingdom of God. During the last two centuries, the political space has been dominated by nationalism. The nation state has been the main actor in the world stage. What place will nations have in the Kingdom of God.
What is the link between American democracy and the Kingdom of God. Some Americans make them sound like the same thing.
Does a united states have a place in the Kingdom of God? Should it remain united in face of the dangers of accumulation of power? (The larger the state entity, the larger will be the minority whose views are suppressed by the majority, unless the society is completely homogeneous). The prophets and the apocalyptic writers are all hostile to political empires. Secular writers are talking about the American Empire warning of the dangers of United States hegemony. Christians tend to be silent about this issue. Many Christians see a future united Europe as the epitome of evil, but the see no problem with a united America , which equally powerful.
Many Christians have rushed into the political space, without doing sufficient thinking. Without a coherent political theology that defines the relationship between church and state, we will be tossed around like straws in the wind. Using political coercion selectively is hypocritical and undermines our integrity. Only when we have answered these questions and other related ones will be in a place to get seriously involved with the political space.
I believe that political power is the modern false god and that state power is the idol of the age.
Control of political power seems to be the key issue of our time. Christians have bought into this and are trying to gain influence over political power. We believe it will be good for us to have political power, because we will use it for Christian purposes. We believe that political power is okay, if used for good. Is this the lie of our age? Have we been duped by the gospel of political power?
State power is great the great evil of the age. As long as churches worship this idol, we will not see the salvation of God. This idol is probably the greatest obstacle to the advance of the gospel that we are so desperately seeking.
We need two different roles as we interact with the political space in the modern world. Both are important.
We need prophetic people challenging the political powers when they miss God's standards. These people must stand apart from the political space and be black and white in the pronouncements.
We need other Christians to get involved in the political process to try and bring in gradual change for the better. These people will have to be pragmatic and often compromise to achieve their goals.
These two roles are evident in Jeremiah 36. Jeremiah was the prophetic person declaring God's standard and Elnathan and Gemeriah were the pragmatic ones working with the King to push him in the right direction.
Those operating in these two different roles should support each other, rather than criticizing, because we come from a different direction.
There are two different perspectives we should share.
Christians should articulate a biblically-based, long-term vision of where we hope to be, if the gospel and the Spirit are successful. This vision may be seem utopian from the current perspective, but we need it to inspire hope and provide direction.
Christians should also confront current issues from a Christian perspective based on a sound political theology. This is essential of we are to remain relevant.
When Christians speak to political issues, they should be clear about which role and which perspective we are taking.