Prudent Politics

I am, by nature, an advocate. I tend to develop convictions thoughtfully, and then, having arrived at a conclusion, I want to encourage those with whom I agree and convince my opponents of the error of their ways. I have made a few enemies as a result of yielding to that tendency, especially when convictions which I developed later in life required the amendment, if not the abandonment, of positions I had earlier held.

Seven years ago I underwent a dramatic transformation of my political views. Almost overnight I changed my mind about a host of issues concerning which, I had previously assumed, my positions were set in stone. I was first eligible to vote in the general election of 1972. For thirty-three years I had consistently cast my vote for candidates representing one particular political party (except for 1980, when I voted for the third party candidate, and 1984, when I sat out the election and didn’t vote at all). All of that changed in 2005.

I’m not going to tell you, at least not in this post, how I changed politically—not the old positions that I abandoned nor the new viewpoint that I embraced nor the factors that influenced the change (although I know what they were, and I may address that in a future blog post). I mention my political transformation for two reasons. First, my experience is evidence that you can indeed “teach an old dog new tricks.” (I was 55 years old in 2005.)

More importantly, however, I draw attention to my political “conversion” to introduce the real point of this post. Once it became clear to me that I needed to rethink some of my earlier points of view, positions I had maintained and advanced with evangelistic fervor, my first inclination was to promote my newfound convictions with equal enthusiasm. Fortunately, the one truly beneficial characteristic of growing older, i.e. wisdom, kicked in. I was not only older, I had grown a bit wiser over the years as well.

I’m not proposing that the change in my political perspective is, itself, a product of my increasing wisdom. (I believe it is, but that is a case I will need to make at a later time.) I’m suggesting that the wisdom and maturity that accompany growing older have tempered my youthful exuberance.  As much as I wanted to share my newfound “enlightenment” with my still-benighted friends in order to persuade them to change their ways, the better part of wisdom called for self-restraint and patience.

I had come to the conclusion that some of my earlier views were wrong. I had not considered the issues carefully enough. I had not taken time to hear the voices of people who, although they advocated political positions which I found objectionable, were nonetheless as equally committed to Christ as I was. I had to repent of my arrogance and intransigence and admit that the perspective with which I had been brought up might not be the only one a citizen of the Kingdom of God could support. Coming to that recognition, I felt both liberated and admonished. I recognized that, if I had been wrong before, I might be wrong again. I don’t think I am, but I hold my convictions more gingerly now. Temperance and a bit of humility have replaced doctrinaire self-confidence.

In private conversation, under particular circumstances, I can be as forceful and aggressive in the advocacy of my political points of view as I ever was, even though I have undergone dramatic changes in my thinking. But in public, I have determined that, particularly in the current political climate, it is better to maintain a more discreet, more prudent approach.

I spent several hours earlier today reading the official platforms of both political parties. I find much in both of them to applaud. I find much in both of them with which I take exception. That is what prompted me to write the comment which I posted on my Facebook wall today:

The values of the Kingdom of God do not align with either political party. The King of Kings is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He would find Himself in prophetic tension with both parties. Political ideology should not be a mark of Christian orthodoxy, whether from the right or the left.

I am a person of deep convictions in many areas. I believe firmly that my faith in Christ and my devotion to the Kingdom of God have a direct and practical impact on the way I relate to the culture and society of which I am a part. I believe Christians should care about the “public square,” should involve themselves in the political process, and should know why they hold the convictions that they do. I also believe that there is seldom a single point of view on any issue that can be regarded as the correct position which must be embraced by all true Christians.

One of my very best friends, a Christian brother whom I have known for more than thirty years, holds political convictions which, in many cases, reflect the opposite end of the political spectrum from my own positions. We recognize our differences. From time to time we actually broach them in one of our frequent telephone conversations. But they have not presented an insurmountable barrier to our friendship, and they have not posed an impediment to our common commitment to Christ and His Kingdom.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that about all those who have known me both before and after my political “conversion.” Many have criticized my change of heart as a departure from the true faith. One even suggested that the clerical collar I now wear is too tight and impedes the flow of oxygen to my brain. (If only he knew that most of those who wear this collar, among my colleagues anyway, would share his disdain for my politics.)

I publish this post in the hope that, during these final three months of a seemingly interminable election season, we Christians can tone down the rhetoric a bit and give one another the benefit of the doubt. I may differ with you on some political issues, but if we both acknowledge the lordship of Christ, I am not your enemy. We may be convinced that those with whom we disagree are wrong. If they are fellow-believers, however, we must never regard them as evil.

My grandfather used to tell me not to judge another man’s actions or motives until I had walked a mile in his shoes. After more than six decades of life, I have learned that almost nothing is as simple as the loudest voices, of both proponents and critics, would have us believe. In future posts, I’ll attempt to illustrate how that plays out in the shouting matches between fervent advocates of opposing political viewpoints.

In the meantime, I hope we can be more civil and less caustic, more prudent and less strident.  If we can’t, we may shore up our respective bases and generate a chorus of “Amens” from the choir we’re preaching to. But in the process we may succeed only in further alienating those who have not yet come to faith in Christ. Too many of them already believe that Christians are narrow-minded and mean-spirited. And when you consider how we speak of those with whom we disagree, even within the household of faith, can you blame them?

[And now a postscript. Some of the most astute among the readers of this blog may already be thinking, “Hmmmm. He had a dramatic political conversion seven years ago. Wasn’t that about the same time he transitioned from Anabaptism to Anglicanism? I wonder if there is a connection?”

I can assure you there is virtually none. The timing is purely coincidental. The factors which ultimately influenced my identification with Anglicanism had been taking shape in my thinking for several years before I first visited a liturgical church. The factors which influenced the changes in my political perspective emerged rather suddenly, in conjunction with a course I was teaching at the time. These experiences came about exclusive of each other. Neither was dependent upon nor occasioned by the other. But thanks for asking.]

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Politics And The Kingdom Of God

politics: The art and science of government; public life and affairs as involving authority and government.

Question: Should Christians, aka citizens of the Kingdom of God, be involved in politics? Or even interested in it? Answer: Of course. If politics is the art and science of government, what is the Kingdom of God if not a system of government?

Christians are citizens of two political realms. First and foremost, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God; that is where our primary loyalty lies. Jesus the King wields authority in the lives of Kingdom citizens to the same degree He would if He ruled in power and glory from an earthly throne. That is why we talk about the Kingdom of God in terms of “already, but not yet.” God has already established His Kingdom, but for the time being the King exercises authority within and among His people from His throne in heaven. His authority is not yet universally acknowledged on earth, and the Kingdom is not yet fully revealed and fully constituted as the dominant political force on this planet. That day will come, when the King, whose second coming we await, returns.

In the meantime, Christians, of all people, should be concerned with politics, to the extent that political power and governmental authority touch upon those issues and values that matter in the Kingdom of God—things like justice, equality, human dignity. Our responsibility as followers of Christ is to live as conscientious citizens under the jurisdiction of our national government. Generally speaking, that means that we conform to the “law of the land,” whether we agree with it or not, and do what we can to bring about changes to laws that are unjust. On rare occasions, the New Testament makes clear, a human law may contradict the law of God to such an egregious degree that Christians will need to follow the example of Peter and the apostles in Acts 5.

 27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name (the name of Jesus), yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (ESV)

Owing to the influence of N. T. Wright, among others, I am now convinced that the earth we currently inhabit will figure prominently in the Kingdom to come. That is, God intends to establish His Kingdom, and the throne of His Son, the King, on this earth. That truth has profoundly influenced my awareness of my responsibility as a citizen of both realms. For example, when it comes to voting, for candidates or issues, I ask myself, “Which of the available options most consistently reflects or advances the values of the Kingdom of God?”

By that I do not mean to suggest that I look for candidates or support initiatives which overtly attempt to institute the Kingdom of God by means of human governmental authority or political process. Rather, I mean I compare the various proposals that are before me with the standards and values that are, or will be, operative in the Kingdom of God.

Where, in Scripture, do we find guidance as to what the standards and values of the Kingdom really are? Mainly in the Gospels, the teaching of Jesus, and primarily in the Sermon on the Mount. So, when I read the Gospels, in general, and the Sermon on the Mount, in particular, I draw some conclusions about the character of the Kingdom and the values reflective of it.

When Jesus returns to the earth and establishes His Kingdom in its fullest and most universal sense, justice will prevail. No group or individual will prosper at the expense of others. Honesty, prudence, compassion, equality… these are terms that will describe the government of the Kingdom and the society which it produces. In the Kingdom to come, the earth will not be mistreated, its resources stripped away with no concern for the consequences, simply to advance an economic agenda.

Using a “Kingdom sensibility” as a guide for my decision-making as a citizen of earth right now means that the market will not always be the major consideration when I cast my vote. (And with that statement, I just lost my conservative readers.) It also means that I will not assume that human government can always resolve all of society’s problems. (And there go the liberals.)

I repeat—a “Kingdom sensibility” does not mean that I will seek to bring in the Kingdom of God by way of human political process. It means that, as much as possible, I will support candidates and policies which promote and advance values consistent with those that characterize the Kingdom of God.

As you might imagine, I have much more to say on this subject in this year of presidential politics in the US. So I’ll leave it there for now. And I welcome your response, to this post and to anything that I write. We’re all in this together.