Last week, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held here in the state of South Carolina. I voted, but as I did so, I had the odd feeling that I was acting in a way that was totally divorced from my faith community and any collective sense of citizenship in God’s kingdom. I think this is because when it comes to Christian political responsibility, the role of the church is to make followers of Jesus who witness to an alternative way of being in the world together. The act of voting, privilege and duty that it is, just doesn’t have very much to do with this.
There are political ideals that many of us believe in: freedom, equality, justice, peace, and so on. But these are abstract principles that remain empty without the concrete practice of political and economic organization. Then there are the politics of Jesus: resistance to violence, solidarity with the poor, the neighborliness of the good Samaritan, and the commandment to love even our enemies. This ethical vision simply does not get incarnated at the ballot box. But what I sense in the church still, mostly, is a preoccupation with partisan, personality, media-driven politics that continues to privatize spiritual formation and mission, while at the same time holding up the last defenses of a dying Christendom and of mainstream, American evangelicalism.
Bernie Sanders has talked about the need for political revolution, and it actually looks like the United States is on the verge of having one. Donald Trump’s bewildering success testifies to this maybe even more so than the growing acceptance of the option for “democratic socialism.” There are things about both ends of the partisan spectrum that are resonating with self-identifying Christians. On the right, for example, people are tired of the inefficiencies, fiscal irresponsibility and bureaucratization of big government that has come to characterize so much of the political process. On the left, there is growing indignation about racism, classism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ folks, and ecological destruction. And both sides actually seem fed up with the control that money has over elections and legislation. It is not hard to see the justification for any of these attitudes. Insofar as one’s citizenship is seen in terms of the responsibility for the affairs of the state, these are all valid concerns that demand people’s attention.
As a Christian, though, and as a pastor, my concern is about the political consciousness that is being cultivated in the church itself. Christian political consciousness simply doesn’t strike me as very public or social at this point in time. Of course, my church context has predominately been white, middle-class and broadly evangelical, and so I’m sure that’s part of the reason for this. Nevertheless, it’s as if there are primarily two options: 1) find your side, and further participate in a culture of either conservative or liberal theological and political ideology, or 2) don’t talk about it and keep faith and spirituality merely interpersonal, or at most expressed through international mission work. This is what many pastors feel they have to do in order to prevent division in churches.
I do not think there is a clear or simple third way beyond these two chooses, which is why so few churches have found one. The other option is very difficult, and I believe it can only happen over a long period of time within a community that is committed to deep, Jesus-shaped confrontation with the issues that are facing its locale.
A Different Kind of Political Revolution
The political theorist Sheldon Wolin argued that democracy is not a fixed state form, but a political experience in which ordinary people are active political actors. Right now, this kind of democracy has been significantly compromised by the disciplinary force of individualism in our culture, as well as by consumerism’s control of our desires. A majority of Christians in this country still too often equate political involvement with partisan allegiance for the purpose of securing a more Christian way of life. As long as this persists, the church’s witness, posture and political participation in the world will continue to be co-opted, along with everyone else’s, by nationalism, militarism and above all, by the free market.
Christians have the chance to model a new political consciousness that is ecclesial and eucharistic in nature, and that challenges the grip that the dominant liturgies of our society have on people. James K. A. Smith describes how these liturgies have captured our loves and distorted them in accordance with rival exemplars to Jesus. The church must begin to imagine itself as an alternative community with a collective political witness that resists the formative allure these liturgies have on us — liturgies that seek to orient our hearts and direct our unconscious dispositions toward violence, fear, anger, greed and short-term gratification.
I believe God is calling Christians to be partners in making a new economic and political reality altogether. It takes the form of a micro-politics of what God makes possible. There’s no secret formula for this. We already know what it could look like. It’s going to mean embracing interdependence and investing in our neighborhoods — getting to know our neighbors and having them over for dinner. There will need to be more community gardens, after-school programs, farmers’ markets, credit unions, and support of local business cooperatives. It will require reaching across the segregated lines that still divide our gentrified and suburbanized cities.
Currently, most of our residential areas and patterns of life are constructed to keep us separated from each other. New shared work spaces and intentional living communities designed to make our daily lives intersect more can combat this. What better public-private entity than the church to facilitate these kinds of efforts? This is why David Fitch has called pastors “community organizers for the Kingdom.”
At the same time, piety itself and ordinary church practices like worship are also politically significant, because social transformation is a natural byproduct of spiritual transformation. The mistake is made, however, when as Christians we do not also recognize and appreciate the church itself as a political body that lives, breathes and moves in the public sphere. We are not simply dispersed as individuals into secular society throughout week after worship services to live Christianly. We are together a political and cultural, communal presence, with a common faith that sows the seeds of God’s good and beautiful social order in the world.
This election season is probably only going to get uglier and more painful from here on. I’m not saying that we should ignore it. In fact, it can be used as an opportunity to generate meaningful conversations and action for the common good. But the partisan, candidate-focused dimension of it is consuming much of our time and energy, and I’ll be the first to confess this! I find myself reading and sharing articles every day, usually instead of attending to how I might be part of a better political future right where I live. So my prayer is that the Spirit of God would grant us the political consciousness of Christ’s coming reign, for this is the different kind of political revolution into which God has invited us.