World

The Politics of Neither

January 6, 2021 by

“Are you for us, or for our enemies?”

It is the timeless question of Joshua, asked of the stranger suddenly blocking him with a drawn sword as he prepares to lead Israel against Jericho (Josh. 5:13–14). But the stranger is an angel, commander of the army of the Lord. Joshua’s very question is insignificant.

And the answer is, “Neither.”

I live in a Bruderhof house called Crossroad Community in Minneapolis. We are looking for those whom Jesus is stirring, and inviting them to live a completely new life. As the political climate has become more tribal and divisive over the last year, we have witnessed the rise of both the passion of the religious and the alienation of those disillusioned with religion. The news incites both sides. Hatred has found residence where respect once dominated. People we meet ask, “Do you identify as a Republican or Democrat?” “Who are you going to vote for?” “Do you support law and order, or Black Lives Matter?” “Fox News or CNN?”

Neither.

PoliticsEmbed1Courtesy of Aaron Paul.

In this time when our culture has be inundated with an intoxicating potion of religion, politics, and racial injustice, I believe God offers a completely different way. I believe that God is not on our “side.” God is neither Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal; neither Catholic nor Protestant, Muslim nor Hindu nor Buddhist; neither American nor Chinese nor Iranian, nor any kind of label that separates. He is God.

Consider Jesus. He was born into and crucified by a world order that was corrupt, deceptive, criminal, immoral – and that included a religious group who claimed to know God, yet lived in hypocrisy. If there ever was a time when God could clearly declare that he was against the existing government and would lead a political revolution, it was then. Yet Jesus refused the people’s offer to become their king (John 6:15). When asked about taxes, he declared that we should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s (Matt. 22:16–22). He refused to be trapped by the religious leaders into becoming the Messiah they envisioned and instead unceasingly declared the characteristics of his kingdom. Jesus, the king, revealed to Pilate things that the religious institution refused to accept: “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). And Jesus’ followers considered themselves as aliens from another country living on this earth. Peter declared that we only belong to God and that we need to live like aliens and strangers in the world (1 Pet. 2:9–11).

The concept of an embassy – that is, a place where a foreign government is represented and where its laws and constitution rule on a foreign soil – quickly took form in the early church’s theology, daily practice, and politics. Thus “embassies” (churches) were established in every place where the missionaries gathered with believers. While they recognized government as a transitory necessity, their members refused to be a part of any government office, to be judges, to be members of an army, or to judge others as a juror. For them, a completely different mankind was in the making.

These Christians knew that such an up-ending of all strata of society can never be achieved by human power. Their “citizenship is in Heaven” (Phil. 3:20). For these convictions, among others, the early church members were martyred. However, this separation between church and state dissolved when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313. As the years passed, to be a Christian even brought with it political opportunity. Christianity’s stand as a citizenship of heaven with its followers aliens and strangers on the earth changed – until the early 1500s and the days of the Reformation.

While most “reformers” of the 1500s did not seek to break with the Holy Roman Empire, but preferred to change some of its practices, the Anabaptists declared a complete break from the practical union of the church and government powers. The Anabaptists radically rejected the power and position of church elites in a worldly government over believers in Jesus Christ. They sought to recover the passion and conviction of the early church and to affirm Jesus Christ as their true and trustworthy leader, their authority in all things. For the Anabaptists, the worldly government had an essential role in the organization of earthly society and the control of worldly chaos. They respected that role, but differentiated it from the role of those who follow Jesus. For them, the phrase “Holy Empire” was an oxymoron. As recorded in William R. Estep’s The Anabaptist Story, the Bern Disputation of 1538 declared:

We grant that in the non-Christian world state authorities have a legitimate place, to keep order, to punish the evil, and protect the good. But we as Christians live according to the Gospel and our only authority and Lord is Jesus Christ. Christians consequently do not use the sword, which is worldly. . . (258)

Therefore, the Anabaptists’ most threatening belief was not simply the rejection of infant baptism’s validity. They touched a very sensitive nerve when they rejected the underlying belief of the Holy Roman Empire that world governments should be under the authority of the religious elite. They saw God’s love as the greatest power to genuinely change mankind, as opposed to government coercion. They taught that each person must voluntarily surrender his life freely to Jesus, turn away from the ways of the world and participate in a church life that is filled with the foundational truths of the Gospels and the New Testament. For this, like their early church fellows, they received the hatred and fury of both the religious leaders (Catholic and Protestant) and the political governments who sought to annihilate them in the most gruesome of religious cleansings.

Today America is facing one of the most divisive periods of our history since the Civil War. As a child of a middle-class family in western New York state, I grew up following the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests. The rise of secularism and the lack of a relevant religious response led me to become a passionate atheist. Issues like war, abortion, child abuse, homosexuality, and the devolution of the American family all contributed to my anger and hate. Like the fabric of this society that was beginning to rip apart, my personal life was immersed in hate, unforgiveness, and violence until Jesus unexpectedly and undeservedly came to me and invited me to follow him with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength. Forty-six years later I am still trying to live out what that actually means. His call to me was not to join a religion, but to become wholly and completely his. After joining and starting a few communities, formal training in the Bible and church history, and pastoring a Congregational church, my wife and I joined the Bruderhof communities twenty-nine years ago.

Today I find myself in Minneapolis, where racial injustice, ethnic prejudice, political liberalism, and religious conservatism collide with the social needs of homelessness, loneliness, and mental illness, creating a terrible divide. The deep frustration is a breeding ground for inner and outer violence. The killing of George Floyd impacted our city like the waves of energy radiating from a large scale bomb. These waves pushed many to demand change and many others to run to the bulwarks of the status quo. What was once cynicism is now replaced by dogmatism, and hate has become the fuel for this divisive fire. Spurred on by some religious leaders and the corrupt messaging from media and pulpits alike, Christians I have spoken with feel compelled to “take a stand for Jesus” and “change the ungodly direction of this country” through political means. These Christians, joined by millions of others, are convinced that the best way to change the direction of this country is by voting for a political party which will impose godlier ethics and morals. I spoke with a man sincerely convinced that the future of both this country and Christianity, which he proposed to be inextricably linked, depended on Christians rising up and crushing the protesting “heathens.” To him, voting is a moral issue and a Christian responsibility. I have also spoken with protesters at the memorial on the site of Floyd’s killing. One said that he no longer believes Christianity has any legitimate voice for the oppressed. He bemoaned, as he said, the “criminalization and demonization” of being black. I deeply respect these people’s efforts and choices and I also long for change, but I only see the chasm between us Americans widening as hate becomes the norm instead of the exception.

PoliticsEmbed2Mural on Lake Street, Minneapolis, where rioting occurred in July. Photo by the author's wife, Tami Kipphut, December 2020.

I believe in another way – a way that is not Republican nor Democrat, not right nor left, not conservative nor progressive. Instead of trying to get God on our side, what if we joined his side? I believe we need to re-examine our view of God and discover, with the same awe and passion of those first believers in the New Testament, that the living God has a completely new way for us to live that is not connected to nor dependent upon the political condition of the world. I believe it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to “prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” and not ours (John 16:8). What if we together sought to become one with Jesus, understanding that we are not of the world any more than he is (John 17:14–19)? What if we took the power of Jesus’ love and life so seriously that, instead of feeling politically responsible, we became personally responsible to Jesus and to each other?

I believe that our role as followers of Jesus demands a radical repositioning of our collective efforts. This moment asks God’s people to realize that even our best efforts are mixed with faulty practices, that the end does not justify the means. A man who meets with us regularly told us of his frustration as he desperately tried to find one political and religious platform that was better than the others. He then remembered a sign over the exit door of a coffee shop where he’d once worked: You might be wrong. The simple statement helped him to realize the need for a completely different platform. We will never find genuine solutions for the deep needs in our world by looking to the same toxic soup from which the problems have arisen. Paul said, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Cor 10:3–4). Maybe now is the time to see this in a new way.

As we gather with others here in Minneapolis, we find people longing for a genuine and authentic alternative to the culture of power and control and religious rhetoric that claims to be the answer for the deepest needs of our society. We pray for and respect our political leaders in their task. But we have another task. Here in Minneapolis, we prefer to discuss how we can better demonstrate the characteristics of God’s kingdom here on earth rather than engaging in political diatribes mixed with religious overtones. We believe the Gospel is a practical, relevant, and down-to-earth message. What interests us is to be a part of what God is doing among the hearts of men: to forgive and seek forgiveness, to give whatever it takes to love God and all people (including our enemies); to be pure and honest, to share with anyone in need; not to worry about our lives for they are in God’s hands; not to judge others for God is the one judge; not to condemn others or ourselves; to depend daily upon God’s Holy Spirit.

The politics of “neither” recognizes and surrenders to the One who truly knows the way. This is the other way that the angel spoke of to Joshua – before God himself flattened the walls of Jericho. This is the other way that gathers and heals all who want their lives and minds to be transformed. We are only beginning, but I invite you to join us in a truly radical revolution that will point all mankind to answers beyond the current culture’s options. In a binary world of two competing ways, perhaps neither is the place to start.


Jeff and his wife, Tami, live at Crossroad Community, a Bruderhof house in southwest Minneapolis, Minnesota. Click here to get in touch with the author.

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