Lately, I have read about and heard directly from pastors who have been accused of being political from the pulpit although they thought that they were simply preaching the Gospel. We live in a time when people on both sides of the political spectrum stand ready to take offense.
Given the total claim of God, the all-encompassing scope of the Gospel, Christian claims will inevitably impinge on politics, of course, even when the claimant does not intend them primarily to do so. Only when the kingdom of God has come will the “political order” perfectly reflect God’s will. Until then, no government, no political party, no public official will escape the prophetic message of the Gospel.
Prophets and governments have always been antagonistic toward one another, even in biblical Israel. Saul had his Samuel (1 Sam 13:14), Solomon his Ahijah (1 Kgs 11:30-39), the Omrides their Elijah (1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 1) and Micaiah ben Imlah (1 Kgs 22:8-29), Jeroboam II his Amos (7), the “rulers” of Israel and Judah generally their Micah (3:1-4), Ahaz his Isaiah (7), and the last kings of Judah their Jeremiah (26). These prophets always met resistance. Indeed, Jesus described Israel’s historical relationship with prophetic critics as a history of the persecution of prophets (Matt 5:12) and places himself in that history: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt 23:37 RSV par. Luke 13:34).
It may be better to say that that Christian claims will always be critical of contemporary culture. For just over five years of my graduate study, I lived and studied at the Rüschlikon Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Amsterdam, the Netherlands). My first year, the forty-seven students represented forty-three nationalities. In many ways, living and studying with Baptists from all over the world was a crucible experience for all of us. We learned what part of our values structures were Baptist and what part Southern/Spanish/German/Indonesian/Brazilian, etc. Eastern European Baptists, who were naturally suspicious of anything even remotely related to socialism, and Latin American Baptists, who were influenced by Liberation Theology (and thus, indirectly, by Marxist analysis), found it necessary to acknowledge that the basis of their common Baptist identity was the assertion that the church consists of baptized believers. Over five years, I became acutely aware of my “southern-ness,” which meant that I came to appreciate the value of other cultures, of other ways of being and doing. At the same time, I gained a vantage point from which I could affirm the valuable components of my heritage while also criticizing its shortcomings in relation to the call of God on my life.
American Christians too easily identify a certain version of American culture as an expression of God’s will: American exceptionalism, which often means “America first” (both in terms of supremacy and priority, as it seems right now) and often suggests an “America, love it or leave it” attitude. American Christians tend to baptize market forces, even within the church, and to idolize the American system of government, often by revising the history of the founding of the nation. Former House majority leader Tom Delay, for example, once went so far as to claim divine inspiration for our system and for the US Constitution: “I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles” (https://youtu.be/WxFp0TRgN7w). Conservative talk-show host and provocateur Glenn Beck expressed a similar view in his 2010 commencement address at Liberty University: “It is God’s finger that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is God’s country; these are God’s rights. I have no idea what he wants us to do with them, other than protect them, and stand with Him” (http://freedomoutpost.com/american-government-divinely-inspired-bible/; cf. http://candacesalima.blogspot.com/2007/09/divinely-inspired-and-living.html). American Christians can respect the United States Constitution as a human accomplishment designed to curb the lust for power through separation of powers and checks and balances. It is not scripture, however.
In sum, just as I learned abroad the differences between my culture and the essence of my faith, today’s church must clarify its vision so that, through the haze and confusion, it seeks the kingdom of God above all else. If our culture and our politics do not perfectly align with the call of God – they do not, never have, and never will – any truly Christian statement we make will constitute a critique of culture, including politics.
To be more precise, the values of the kingdom of God hinge around the two commandments that Jesus identified at the core of discipleship: God’s absolute and exclusive claim to our love and allegiance – a claim with significant implications regarding our relationship to the nation and its interests – and God’s expectation that we love the other absolutely and without restriction – a claim with significant implications regarding our attitudes toward the poor, minorities, immigrants, practitioners of other faiths, “sinners” and “saints.”
The major questions for the church should concern not whether we act on these claims, then, but how best to do so. When the church recognizes that the state fails to pursue these claims – and we can expect to have this recognition frequently and regularly – the church must simply get to work, knowing that God calls the church to be light and salt in the world regardless, and often in spite of, what the state may be doing. The extent of the body of Christ in the world does not coincide with any national boundaries; the purposes of the body of Christ in the world do not coincide with any national interests.
Preachers, keep on preaching the Gospel. Congregants, if your preacher’s messages seem confrontational to you, ask whether you have clearly distinguished between your cultural heritage and the call of Christ. More importantly, decide which will have your fundamental devotion.