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Christians Don’t Fit into the Political System. Period.

October 8, 2018 by

father and son working together

Rev. Timothy Keller’s recent Op-ed in the New York Times, “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t,” has gotten me thinking. It’s insightful, to the point, gracious, and thought-provoking, but, and I say this with deep respect, it avoids the most important question.

Keller argues that we must never equate the Christian church or faith with a particular political party. To do so not only gives the wrong impression to those outside the faith, but fails to differentiate biblical mandates from practical judgment (for example, there are many ways to help the poor), and forces Christians to choose between social issues the Bible speaks strongly to (for example, social justice and the sanctity of marriage).

In all this Keller is right. He is also right to argue that Christians shouldn’t opt out of politics. But what, exactly, does this mean? Keller believes that political involvement is paramount. But by “political” he means the power apparatus of the state. If Joseph and Daniel held important posts in pagan government, then, according to Keller, Christians should do the same.

Should they? Really? Neither Joseph nor Daniel chose their respective posts. Granted, God in his wisdom used these two men to fulfill his greater purpose of redemption, but this is a far cry from hearing a call from God to “serve one’s country.” The same can be said of the Good Samaritan, whom Keller cites as well. This neighbor models an entirely different kind of politics, in direct opposition to the exclusionary politics of his day.

In my mind, Keller misses the radical otherness of true gospel politics. Indeed, to be a follower of Christ is to be political, but not in the usual sense of employing power to achieve certain ends. The way Jesus gets things done is not by manipulating the political process but by washing other’s feet. Jesus defeats the principalities and powers, not by force of law, but on the cross. He subverts the world’s very modus operandi: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that” (Luke 22:25).

It is by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, Paul writes, that we make our appeal to justice and truth. We do not live “by the standards of this world,” nor do we “wage war as the world does,” he says (2 Cor. 10:1–5). For as salt and light, it is the testimony of who we are – our good deeds (Matt. 5:16) and good lives (1 Peter 2:11) – through which God turns the world into a better place.

The life of the church is not only a political alternative, but a political answer.

The early church understood this. Accused of being subversives, disloyal to Caesar for refusing to serve his court, the earliest Christians believed that the best service they could provide the state was to be the church. Origen argued that it was “not for the sake of escaping public services that Christians shun such things,” but so that nonbelievers “may become engaged in the serious words and works of faith, and thus, truly worshipping God and training as many as they have power to, may be mingled with the Word of God.”

God’s politics is not about the legislating of good and better laws, or by voting in godly political leaders, but in living such remarkable lives that others feel compelled to engage God’s politics.

This is what Clarence Jordan, founder of the interracial community Koinonia Farm, tried to do. As much as he respected the civil rights movement, he was saddened how the racial struggle was playing out:

I can hardly take it at times when the whole integration struggle is being fought, not in the household of God, but in the bus depots, sitting around Woolworth’s counter, arguing over whether you can eat hamburger and drink Cokes together, when we ought to be sitting around Jesus’ table drinking wine and eating bread together. It just burns me up that we Christians with the word of God in our hearts have to be forced to sit around Woolworth’s table and that we still segregate Christ’s table.

Jordan’s point? The church is sidetracked because it has become both compromised and complicit. Its political energies are thus misplaced. Its failure to be a faithful witness and example of God’s beloved community, where all are included and where his professed worshipers live justly together, is not just an indictment, but a wake-up call to re-engage the politics of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount, not the halls of Congress, holds the key to racial reconciliation.

When the church is committed to being God’s politic, then Christians won’t fit into any worldly system – Two-Party or otherwise. The church, by its very life, is political. When it models mutual participation, economic justice, the things that make for peace, healthy marriages, and taking care of each other from cradle to grave, it serves as a reminder that God’s politics is something other than the world’s. The life of the church is not only a political alternative, but a political answer. Let us fix our eyes, therefore, on who we as the church are called to be. Anything less is a distraction, if not a downright delusion.

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Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore resides with his wife and daughter in Esopus, New York where he teaches Bible and Christian Thought at The...

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  • Thank you Charles for elaborating upon what Keller covered. Your words are insightful and the witness of the Bruderhof communities continue to be a challenge to my family. Bless you

    Joshua Funk