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Politics and the Church

Voices of Saint Anne's Blog

Politics and the Church

Carolyn Swiszcz

American culture teaches that politics is fundamentally about partisanship. Therefore, churches often fall into one of two traps—avoiding politics entirely, or pledging allegiance to a particular issue or party.

Both responses reflect a poor understanding of the political nature of the church itself. What Christians cannot escape is that the Church we read about in Scripture is in fact deeply, inherently, and inescapably political. Jesus’ ministry began with the proclamation of the good news of a coming kingdom, and ended with his execution at the hands of an empire threatened by his own quietly confident claim to kingship. Jesus’ life was about inaugurating a new kingdom, an alternative political order, to be embodied in the world by his followers. As theologian N.T. Wright puts it in his book How God Became King, “Jesus’ launch of the kingdom—God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven—is the central aim of his mission, the thing for which he lived and died….” This is a different sort of king—and a different form of politics—but it is unmistakably political.

Politics is really about the authority we recognize, the citizenship we claim, and the values to which we hold as we pursue a vision of the common good with and for our neighbors. And like the political powers of this world, Jesus claimed authority, demanded allegiance, and offered a citizenship that relativizes his followers’ relationship to other political orders. If the Church is an inherently political body—a community defined by its allegiance to the authority of the king, its citizenship in a new world, and its call to pursue a new way of life with and for its neighbors—then perhaps its call is not merely to run from the language and activity of politics. Maybe the Church’s call is something deeper: to embody and witness to a different type of politics.

What does it mean for the Church to be political? How should the Church make decisions about when to engage or avoid politics? And what visions of politics are communicated by the actual practices of congregations—their lived theologies?

Churches all over the country embody this new political imagination every day, whether they realize it or not. Take Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, which established partnerships with Catholic Charities USA, local government, and secular nonprofits to serve its inner-city neighbors. Or First & Franklin Presbyterian in Baltimore, whose congregation reads aloud the names of people killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—from both sides of the conflict. Or Saddleback Church in California, whose medical missionaries were so effective that they were asked to testify before Congress about global healthcare strategy. These actions may not seem political in the way that we have been taught to understand that word, but each demonstrates a way that churches allow their allegiance to Christ’s mission to break down dividing walls and offer a vision of the kingdom to their congregation, their neighbors, and the world.

These ordinary practices (and many others like them) show that the Church’s response to an overly partisan public arena need not be to join a camp, nor to abandon politics altogether, but to orient its allegiance toward the only political reality that transcends parties and nations, tribes and tongues, cultures and generations. The Church can learn to understand politics not fundamentally as divisive, but as a framework that unites believers in allegiance to a common king and kingdom. And maybe—just maybe—churches that take this posture could find greater unity with people who do not share their ultimate allegiance, by identifying and pursuing common loves with and for them.

Many American churches are understandably ambivalent about calling their everyday practices “political.” But claiming their practices—indeed, their very communal identity—as deeply political might help churches more faithfully integrate their goals of spiritual formation and social transformation, and thereby witness to a world weary of politics that an alternative, even redeemed, political vision is possible. A church that is bed-rock secure in its political identity is free to engage controversial issues all over the political spectrum without the crippling fear of being pigeonholed as “conservative” or “liberal.”

This identity will then inform regularly performed practices of worship and mission, shaping members’ lives and their beliefs about the nature of God, God’s kingdom, and their role in it. N. T. Wright argues that “…practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works … Our conscious mind and heart need to understand, ponder, and consciously choose the patterns of life that these practices are supposed to produce in us and through us.”

Cultivating a political identity rooted first in Christ—one that pursues compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and protection for the weak as an expression of faith in and allegiance to Christ—might free Christians to engage in politics with a renewed spirit, confident in the knowledge that their hope is not in candidates, parties, or laws, but in the God we believe is making all things new. As missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin writes in Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History: “Christians [ought] to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair.” For the Church, perhaps healthy political engagement is not about staking out real estate on the American political spectrum, nor about retreating to “safety” behind feigned political neutrality, but about orienting allegiance to Jesus before any nation or party, claiming and prioritizing a common citizenship with Christians around the world, and working, humbly and persistently, to love and serve our neighbors.

This post is adapted from the work of Sam Speers and Kristopher Norris, co-authors of the book Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church.