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Justice

Conflict of Faith: Are God and Democracy Mutually Exclusive?

November 1, 2019 by

painting by Ken Alexander

I won’t lie: when the initial flurry of headlines appeared about presidential indiscretions in international phone calls, and the idea of impeachment started solidifying in some minds, my own mind gave a small flutter of excitement and hope, followed hard by a storm-surge of anxiety. What we are witnessing today is breathtaking in its threat to democracy, and the peril it places all of us in.

I don’t know why I responded the way I did: I’ve spent the last three years reminding myself that my citizenship is of another place, my faith in other powers, and that my trust in the Hands that encircle the globe is secure. It has been hard work.

I first became aware of presidents and vice presidents on a class trip to Washington DC in seventh grade. In 1979, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale were in office, and on our Capitol tour we hoped to catch a glimpse of one or the other. “That man over there, see the back of his head?” whispered our guide. “That’s the Vice President.” We felt honored.

Around the same time I listened to conversations held among my parents’ friends regarding presidential races, elections, and voting. My father’s position always circled back to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John: “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place’” (John 18:36 NIV).

According to my father, if we are indeed citizens of Christ’s kingdom, how can we participate in the affairs of another? Good old civics dictated that you are citizens of either one or another, with voting privileges in one or the other. Sure, some of us had dual citizenship, but that was on another plane entirely, a horizontal one. I knew instinctively that Christ’s kingdom has a vastly different set of parameters than any other.

I’ve spent the last three years reminding myself that my citizenship is of another place, my faith in other powers. It has been hard work.

My own convictions about civic involvement evolved as my awareness and opinions of the political landscape grew over time. I tended to lace much of what I thought with large doses of cynicism, and something in the fabric of my upbringing prevented me from ever placing great stock in promises made on the stump trail. Details and nuggets lodged in my brain, like New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s memorable “Tale of Two Cities” speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, where he chided President Reagan for lack of compassion and empathy. His words resonated loudly in my heart and mind, probably because I was also not seeing a lot of compassion or empathy on the national stage. That was, of course, in the early eighties, when supply-side economics – also known as the trickle-down theory – was born. Right.

My heart hardened toward most things political throughout the first Bush years; then Clinton’s two terms produced more than their share of wince-worthy moments. I felt like I could breathe again as I watched Bush 43 lift off from the White House lawn in January 2009, and when Obama took the nation by storm in 2008 and I listened to will.i.am for the first time, I was tempted to hope in something fresh and forthcoming.  I voted for Obama twice, but my optimism waned, and I reminded myself at the end of most days that my citizenship was still of another kingdom.

I was secretly happy to be out of the country in 2016. I could have voted from abroad, but I didn’t. Right-wing, conservative policies were also flawed, tainted, in my eyes, by hypocrisy. To be truly pro-life surely means protecting the life and opportunity of the one-year-old in Flint, Michigan; the opioid addict in Youngstown, Ohio – the children of poverty as well as the unborn. Rolling back Roe v Wade wasn’t going to address the deeper issues that force young women to choose to abort. The real solution is miles upstream, and not a political one. I stand behind traditional values in marriage, too, but the condemnation I heard in so much homophobic rhetoric was something I can never agree with. More recently, I’ve wanted to warm my hands at the Bern, but I know it will scorch, and I read the long feature in The New York Times Magazine this summer on Marianne Williamson with an interest that surprised me, even though no one really seemed to take her seriously. I felt personally rebuked when Williamson said to a listener, “Girlfriend, that’s cynicism. We don’t have time for that right now.”

The Gospel is the constitution of the Kingdom that has my heart, the Beatitudes its by-laws, and this keeps me sane.

Every country needs government, and I’ll be the last one to hold in contempt anyone trying to do something good, however flawed. The apostle Paul exhorts us to subject ourselves to governing authorities in an entire paragraph in his Roman letter, and I’ll heed those words without any unease. What’s more, in the same breath he goes on to remind us that love fulfills the law, and in one of my favorite passages, he says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8 NIV).

I love my country, and I cry some and pray often for what it has become. Then I remind myself that this same country is more than the sum of its politicians and governments, and that there is goodness and kindness and compassion as close as I am ready to see it, which is very close. But the Gospel is the constitution of the Kingdom that has my heart, the Beatitudes its by-laws, and this keeps me sane. So I’ll watch with great interest, and I’ll try to absorb this monumental civics lesson playing out before our eyes. And I’ll pray. But my faith in human institutions, in representative democracy, even in this grand American experiment, has been sorely tested and will never be the same.

That is perhaps as it should be. All the more my confidence in another, different Kingdom.


Artwork by Ken Alexander.

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Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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  • Thank you for this blog. I have felt like a Christian “voice crying in the wilderness” for many years. I even stopped going to church because the angry and hateful message from the pulpit seemed to be antithetical to Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. The blogs and YouTube videos coming from the Brederhof give me hope.

    Greg Bourn