Is the Gospel Political?

“Let’s build a society where it’s easier for people to be good to each other.”
— Dorothy Day

"Migrant 4 life" Jesus graffiti in Rome, Italy.

You’ve probably read this title—or a similar one—somewhere else already.

It was probably more thought out, or more convincing, or more aligned with your perspective. I wrote this last year and a version of it ran in a magazine, so I’ll share it here in case you’re interested in another take.

You may have come to your own conclusions with confidence, or enough stability to no longer feel the need to wrestle with these kind of questions.

Or maybe you’re still sick of the way people hijack one of these things for gaining power in the other.

One thing’s certain:

The past couple years of American politics vividly display the depth to which partisan divides run.

The church is no different.

Some traditions try to separate any aspects of faith from political discourse. Others seem to be beholden to specific political agendas or parties. What does the Bible say about it?

It’s complicated.

There’s no straightforward answer or magic formula of verses that produce a singular biblical view of politics, least of all modern American politics. If there were, we wouldn’t have such widely distributed affiliations of Christians: Pew Research reported 43% identify as Republican, 40% identify as Democrat.

What is the gospel?

History’s perhaps most influential writer on the gospel is the Apostle Paul, who said: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

The gospel is the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ongoing work to redeem the world. The suffering and destruction of humanity are turned on their head and human flourishing is born out of the impossible.

What is politics?

“Politics” comes from the Greek words polis, meaning city or community, and Aristotle’s Politika, meaning the affairs of the people or things concerning the state.

This isn’t a simplistic conservative or liberal matter. Politics are, at the core, the concerns everyday people, the regular affairs of the communities in which we all live.

  • Who do you talk to when you and your neighbor dispute the location of your property line?
  • Does your family have enough to eat today, and what happens if they don’t?
  • Do businesses that abuse workers and threaten suppliers go unquestioned?
  • How does your community guard against harsh weather or outside forces?
  • Who makes all these decisions?

Can public policy be extracted from the Bible?

To be a responsible follower of Jesus is to embody his spirit and teachings, to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). To be a responsible citizen, then, is to love God and love your neighbor as you engage in the public sphere.

One of the Bible’s narrative themes is people interacting with their own or foreign government leaders and societal structures that had neglected, repressed, or forcefully oppressed themselves or their people (see Moses, Joseph, David, Nehemiah, Esther, Vashti, the daughters of Zelophehad, Daniel, Ruth, Paul, and countless others). Yet they addressed earthly kings and leaders with respect, bold calls for justice, and willingness to work within those systems to bring about more equitable belonging in society, while recognizing ultimate justice and highest honor belong to God.

What did God want the Israelites to do about the enemy superpower, Babylon, which had just violently attacked and taken Jewish captives to enslave in their empire? Embrace a public policy of peace and mutuality: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

Jesus once quoted the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus displayed both spiritual and practical applications of this good news.

Preston Sprinkle, quoting Greg Boyd, notes:

“The kingdom of God is not commanded to make the kingdom of Rome more moral. Interestingly, whenever Jesus was lured into political debates, he always ‘transformed these kingdom-of-the-world questions into kingdom-of-God questions and turned them back on his audience (Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 12:13-15).’ That’s because our mission is not to solve all the world’s problems but to embody and proclaim the kingdom of God as the place where those problems are solved.”

When Jesus said Pilate’s authority only went so far as God allowed it, he confounded the assumption that power came from the Roman emperor who was thought to be “son of the god.” When Paul wrote to the Philippians that everyone would confess “Jesus is Lord” in an empire where the dominant message was “Caesar is lord,” he called into question the governing authority and the emperor’s dictates for society.

Apparently this good news Jesus embodied and offers the world is not just a spiritual reality of new life beyond death, but a breaking into the here and now of that transformative power.

One of the world’s prominent New Testament scholars, N.T. Wright, explains:

“Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.”

This good news is not a distant hope, but an imminent and dynamic force changing the world.

As Jesus prayed to the Father: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

So is the gospel political?

Perhaps a more pointed question is whether we believe this good news of Jesus has practical implications for us in the here and now, both in personal and public life. Our task is to tease out those implications while bearing God’s love for people, starting with our neighbors.

Jonathan Martin writes:

“Religion that is self-serving and self-interested is always threatened by the disruption of new sight. There are political implications to how we see, implications for systems and social structures.”

Will we call for—and personally practice—a consistent pro-life ethic that protects the unborn and foster children as well as single parents, the elderly, victims of war, and cares for God’s creation we’re responsible to steward? Most churches and many individual Christians claim the pro-life label, but fail to recognize and embrace the implications of what it means to value life, especially lives outside of their oversimplified generalizations.

Will we listen to and stand in solidarity with our neighbors pleading for criminal justice reform and health care that doesn’t spiral them into debt? Will evangelical megachurches actually address Black Lives Matter and police brutality in a way that is, at the very least, honest with the reality of race relations in America and simply admitting that God grieves with those who grieve? I’ve seen up close how one of “the most influential and fastest growing megachurches” in the country, with a digital audience of millions of unique visitors annually, say, “We will never talk about Black Lives Matter or police brutality” because “I don’t know any black people talking about it,” and it was “too political,” and it wasn’t “part of our mission as a church.” If addressing pain and seeking healing for significant racial wounds isn’t part of a church’s mission, how exactly do they live out the Gospel message they proclaim so fervently from their light show and fog machine rock operas every Sunday? Lord, have mercy.

What about standing for neighbors’ religious freedom as much as—or more than—our own? Many Christians take offense at the thought of churches losing tax-exempt status, overtly Christian texts and teachings being minimized in public schools, or government telling Christian business owners they can’t refuse service to gay, lesbian, or transgender people. These Christians claim they’re being persecuted for their beliefs, yet those same Christians hypocritically ignore or even oppose the rights of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others who simply seek to practice their own religious traditions with equal freedom. [Reminder: Living in a pluralist society and having to share equal rights with others is not “persecution;” it’s called being a rational and humble citizen.]

Will we advocate for policies so our hard-working poor neighbors aren’t forced out of gentrifying neighborhoods?

Will we, as God commanded the people of Israel, welcome immigrants and refugees into our midst to find holy belonging and family ties deeper than language or tribe? It doesn’t bode well for a 98% white executive church leadership group to avoid speaking of immigration from any stage or public communication channel. I witnessed the blatant duplicity of a Southern evangelical church when it retracted a blog post of Bible verses—sans commentary—about foreigners, refugees, widows, and orphans because there were too many “negative comments on Facebook.” Amazingly, after the church removed the post of Bible verses, several comments revealed the necessity of confronting cultural resistance to the “outsiders” that God addresses so compassionately in Scripture:

  • “You were right to stand on God’s word. All of this political nonsense is not Biblical [sic]…When you posted scripture this morning, you spread love in the midst of fear and terror and that was an act of courage.”
  • “I’m glad I was able to read the post before it was taken down. God used it to help change my heart about the situation. I pray it did so for others as well.”
  • “It isn’t bad to change your mind based on finding the truth or the right way. however [sic], if you took it down, knowing in your heart it was right, but it decreased your popularity, then that is sad.”
  • “Disappointed that it was removed. I thought it was courageous & relevant and did point people to God! It is my prayer that people can look past the fear in this situation & fix their eyes & hearts on the truth that was portrayed in that article.”

Few of us expect to find Facebook comments that respectfully call others to higher accountability and integrity, but it’s apparent there’s a hunger for Christian organizations and influencers to speak candidly and gracefully about the complex world we live in.

Dominant evangelical voices continue to capitulate to partisan politics with their own religiously fueled moral authoritarianism. A groundswell of engaged, informed, and thoughtful Christians are showing up on local and national levels to reclaim, with humble compassion and intelligent nuance, the way of Jesus that creates space and opportunity to belong for a variety of different people, without forcing religious agendas or pursuing political power that so easily corrupts.

May we embody the politics of love, justice, equity, and surprising new life from unlikely places that transforms our cities, states, and nations.

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