Christians should be interested in politics and government. The New Testament instructs us to pay our taxes, pray for our leaders, and live as responsible citizens in general. In a democratic republic like the US, conscientious citizenship requires us to understand our system of government and the issues confronting the “powers that be” so that we can exercise our freedom and participate in the electoral process responsibly and intelligently (even if the candidates don’t).
Most Americans, I would imagine, think of themselves as responsible citizens. For many of those model citizens, understanding the issues and problems facing our society is a simple and straightforward process. So, too, is the means for their resolution. The Republican position is right, the Democratic position is wrong, so vote for the Republican candidate. For others, the process is no less simple, but the party names are reversed. This rift in opinion extends to the Christian community as well.
I understand the fundamental differences between the political parties in America. And I think I understand why people come to believe so adamantly that their party’s positions and solutions are superior and preferable to those of the other party. After all, during every election cycle we are barraged by sound bites and 30-second commercials designed to portray rival candidates not merely as opponents, but as enemies; not merely as wrong, but as evil.
The number and variety of broadcast and cable news outlets make it easy to find one devoted to a single ideological point of view, so that it is possible to watch hours on end of news and commentary programming and never see any objective or substantive presentation of arguments from the other side. When all of this is combined with the tendency to compare the best parts of our position with the worst parts of theirs, our strongest arguments to their weakest, it’s no mystery why principled beliefs harden into uncompromising ideologies.
As I see it, this is the situation in contemporary American politics. Both parties are dominated by their most extreme ideologues. “Moderates” who manage to get elected, but refuse to toe the party line on every issue, are relegated to obscurity by the party leadership and rarely rise to positions of influence within the party. Just ask a pro-life Democrat, if you can find one, or a Republican who dares believe that a tax increase might on occasion be necessary.
As troubling and frustrating and ultimately unproductive as this state of affairs is for the government of the nation, it is even more incompatible with the Kingdom of God. Why? Because Jesus, the King, is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. The values of the Kingdom are not codified in the platform of any political party. A church which uncritically endorses the agenda of a single party is not fulfilling its role as the agent of the Kingdom of God. And a Christian who equates political ideology with faithful discipleship does not understand the concept of Kingdom citizenship.
The Kingdom of God, the most important theme in all of Scripture, is essentially a system of government. It is a monarchy in which the reigning power is truly sovereign and brooks no dissent. The Kingdom of God is definitely not a democracy, but that’s okay, since the King is perfectly pure and holy, altogether wise and faithful, and the values and standards of the Kingdom are those of the King.
I have to admit that I was feeling quite inspired as I wrote that last paragraph until it began to sink in just how difficult it is to exhibit the character of a citizen of the Kingdom of God while, at the same time, living as a responsible citizen of the United States or of any other earthly jurisdiction. You see, there is almost nothing “practical” about life in the Kingdom of God.
In his New Testament letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul described a force which operates in the world, totally opposed to the authority and purposes of God, seeking to influence humans in ways that undermine the values of the Kingdom. Here’s the way he put it in chapter two.
1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
That description echoes Paul’s point in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4, where he wrote…
4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
And a bit later in that letter, chapter 10, he wrote…
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
These passages deserve a far more comprehensive interpretation than I am giving them here, but at the very least they give us some sense of what we’re up against when we seek to live according to the values and priorities of the Kingdom of God. Those who don’t share our commitment to Christ and His Kingdom are not simply of a different opinion. They are supernaturally prevented from understanding the truth. The struggle that serious Christians face to live consistent Kingdom lives in the midst of a culture and a society that is energized by “the god of this age” is what I mean when I use the term “spiritual warfare” (about which I will have much more to say in future posts).
In the light of this reality—that Kingdom citizens must live their lives in defiance of “the god of this age”—I want to bring this post to a close by citing one simple, straightforward, even mundane example of what I mean when I say that there is almost nothing “practical” about life in the Kingdom of God.
Everybody understands that the economy of the United States is still trying to recover from a major recession. Property values have fallen. Millions of people are unemployed or under-employed, and many find their prospects for future employment growing dimmer by the day. What will turn things around for the American economy? Here’s what I heard one economist say recently.
“People simply need to buy more stuff,” he said. “Until consumers increase their level of consumption, until people buy more goods and use more services, the market will remain sluggish. Employers will not hire workers until they are assured of a market for what they produce.”
Here’s the dilemma for Kingdom citizens. Apart from food, utilities, and medicine, almost every American household could live well for the next year or more without making one single purchase. We don’t need any more clothes, we don’t need a new car, we don’t need a new cell phone or some new electronic device. The advertising industry has convinced us that we need those things, and our market-driven economy can grow only if we consume more… more than we currently have, more than we really need.
This is not a criticism of market capitalism. It is an attempt to illustrate the difficulty of living our lives according to Kingdom values in the face of a culture, influenced by the “god of this age,” which tries to convince us that we have no choice but to surrender to impulses which run counter to the values of the Kingdom of God.
Consider the effect on the American economy if all the Christians in America agreed that they would not buy any new clothes for the next twelve months and would instead give the money they would have spent on clothes to a worthy non-profit ministry or relief agency that is serving the needs of the world’s poorest citizens. We don’t need any more clothes. Greed is not a Christian virtue, but generosity is. Some genuine good would be done with that infusion of cash. But think about the negative effect that altogether noble gesture would have on the American economy.
You see what I mean when I say that there is almost nothing “practical” about life in the Kingdom of God. That is why we desperately need for the church to fulfill its role as the agent of the Kingdom… guiding, informing, instructing, encouraging, and assisting us to live consistently as citizens of the Kingdom. Otherwise, the “god of this age” will prevail, and that can’t be good… for anybody.