Politics and Religion II

I want to say a little more about something I referred to last week: our tendency to divorce our religious convictions from public life.

The big issue is our culture of individualism. Being raised in a culture of individualism has deeply affected our relationship with God. This has certainly been true for me. I first encountered God reading the Gospel of John in college. The love of God made flesh in Jesus overwhelmed me. But because of the dominance of individualism in our culture, I viewed my new found relationship with God primarily in personal terms. I also viewed the mission of the church through an individualistic lens. I believed that the church’s primary mission was to share God’s audacious love with others so that they would discover a personal connection with God as well. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with having a personal relationship with God, nor anything wrong with sharing God’s love with somebody else; it’s just not enough.

My eyes were opened to the individualistic character of my faith the more I became steeped in the communal world-view of the Bible. As I studied the Bible, its communal message challenged my individualism.  For example, I remember the day I realized that Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:4a), were not addressed to an individual, as I presumed given my individualistic bent, but a community. The “you” in his words is not the second person singular, but the second person plural (you all). In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about how the disciples together(y’all) are the light of the world. I became aware of the same individualistic bias when I read Paul’s letters. Paul isn’t primarily concerned about individual salvation, but about God’s people and all humanity. Paul is trying to help us understand how God’s salvific act in Jesus has given birth to a new community in which the usual dividing walls have been broken down. In fact, in what scholars believe may be an early baptismal formula, the one baptizing another person would say, “As many of you as were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga. 3.27-28). Baptism wasn’t a divine insurance policy saving you from hell, but initiation into a new sort of community that would give birth to heaven on earth.

What does all this have to do with the relationship between our religion and politics? If your faith is primarily about your personal relationship with God, you will probably tend to focus on personal morality and spiritual practices that draw you closer to God. In fact, your primary motivation may be to simply make sure that you are “right” with God. If however you see that the biblical story is all about God’s relentless attempt to bring into being a community governed by justice and love, and that the church’s job is to help God do that, then you will not only focus on personal morality, but on advocating for public policies and laws that make for a more just and compassionate world. The prophets of Israel weren’t critical of fasting and other spiritual practices per se. However, they were critical of people being spiritual, if they weren’t also attentive to standing up against injustice and oppression, let alone supporting such behavior (eg. Isaiah 58).

Christians—whether Republican, Democrat or Independent—should be very active in the political process. We should be the kind of party members, who aren’t so addicted to party loyalty that we fail to challenge our party leaders when they support policies that are unjust. We should be the kind of party members, who aren’t primarily concerned about getting our guys elected, but are more concerned about bearing witness to a better way of life for all. We should be the kind of party members, who are so steeped in the biblical vision of a peaceable and just world that we won’t stop working for anything less.