Part 1 – “My Citizenship is in Heaven”
In just a matter of weeks now the voting will officially begin. First come the primaries and the caucuses this winter and throughout the spring. Then come the national conventions this summer. And finally on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the 58th quadrennial United States presidential election will take place.
I’ve voted in 11 of these elections since I was first eligible 1972. Eleven times I have cast a vote to elect a candidate to the most powerful office in the world. Six times in those 11 elections the person I voted for won. 5 times the person I voted for lost. I have voted for Democrats. I have voted for Republicans. And I even voted once for an Independent. And except for one “messianic” vote that I wistfully cast only to be sorely disappointed by the performance of the winner in the actual task of governance, I can honestly tell you that no Presidential candidate from any party that I have ever voted for has ever fully represented my values or embodied my views as a Christian when I’ve checked their name on the ballot. And already having paid some attention to the debates and speeches of the slate of candidates in this election cycle from both parties, I can say with some confidence that come November it doesn’t look like it’s going to be any different this year. Clearly there are some better choices, and there are some “badder” choices, but from where I sit, there aren’t any perfect choices. There never are. And the reason for this, I have concluded, is that I am fundamentally and foundationally more a Christian than I am either a Republican or a Democrat, and who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is doing as the Lord and Savior of the world doesn’t fit neatly or easily into any existing partisan categories.
Oh, I have some traditional Christian friends who give every appearance of having confused their commitment to Jesus Christ with their political attachment to the Republican Party just as I have some progressive Christian friends who give every appearance of having confused their commitment to Jesus Christ with their political attachment to the Democrat Party. But this is spiritually dangerous as far as I am concerned, and I have tried studiously to avoid it as a Christian and especially as a minister for the last 40 years.
When George W. Bush was our President I read lots of blogs and postings from my traditional Christian friends extolling his faithfulness as a Christian just as I now read lots of blogs and postings from my progressive Christians friends extolling Barak Obama’s faithfulness as a Christian as he finishes his terms of service as our President. It feels to me an awful lot like a version of that silly game that some of us played as little children on the schoolyard – “my dad could beat up your dad” — “my” President is a better Christian than “your” President.”
Just for the record, I believe that George W. Bush is a Christian because he tells me that he is. And I believe that Barak Obama is a Christian because he tells me that he is. I am so glad that I belong to a spiritual tradition that accords a “good faith assumption” to anybody who makes the “good confession” that they believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and their personal Lord and Savior. There are no other hoops for you to jump through, no further tests for you to pass before I embrace you as my Christian brother or sister. But just as I as a Christian who has made this good confession can say and do glaringly unchristian things, and with alarming frequency I might add, so I do not hold my “brother” Presidents to a different standard or have of them a different expectation than I have for myself.
There are things that both George W. Bush and Barak Obama have said and done as President that I would argue have reflected well on their commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and that are good indications of their concern for His Kingdom, just as there are things that they both said and did as President that I would argue obscured and at times even contradicted their commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and their concern for His Kingdom. And this is why I have consciously adopted a stance throughout my life and ministry of political neutrality, and why I get spiritually anxious whenever I see or hear my ministerial peers and colleagues becoming politically partisan.
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood recently posted a blog entry at his web page (http://revjeffhood.com) that I found absolutely compelling. Now, I suspect that Jeff and I would find much to disagree about if we ever sat down together to share a cup of coffee as brothers in Christ, but on this I couldn’t be more in agreement with him –
Back in October, I was absolutely appalled at the spectacle of seeing a room full of evangelical pastors fawning all over Donald Trump. Not long after the circus, the Pastor of First Baptist Dallas Dr. Robert Jeffress stood in front of another circus to pray for and practically endorse Trump at one of his rallies. On the other side, pastors are also rushing out to endorse and champion Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. To make matters worse, pastors also seem to think that they need to make state and local endorsements. Over and over, I continue to watch pastors sell off their potential prophetic voices to the highest bidder. I don’t remember Jesus ever endorsing any candidates. I think he was smart enough to know that an endorsement limits your ability to speak prophetically to whoever is elected and limits your ability to minister to the whole populace after the election.
In 2008, I got excited about Barack Obama. I bought the shirt, hat and bumper sticker. I was two years past my ordination as pastor. Early one Saturday morning, I’ll never forget sitting down with a cherished mentor. As I proudly wore my Obama shirt, my mentor leaned in and said, “How are you going to demand that the Obama not bomb some poor nation after you have run around with his shirt on? How are you going to minister to those who hate Obama after they see you with that shirt on? True pastors don’t endorse candidates!” I believed her then. After seeing President Obama violate my Christian conscience by bombing countless nations and watching our nation become as polarized as I’ve ever seen it, I believe her more now.
The late Church of the Brethren theologian Vernard Eller used to say that people who believe that the earth is flat and people who believe that the earth is round can look alike in lots and lots of ways and may even go about their business every day in exactly the same way, but he insisted that at the level of what “flat-earth-ers” and “round-earth-ers” truly and deeply believe, the two couldn’t be more different! And so he warned Christians who look and act like Democrats, and Christians who look and act like Republicans, to be very careful because although there are ways in which Christianity can look and act like what Democrats want, and in other ways, Christianity can look like and act like what Republicans want, that what Jesus Christ wants and is doing is altogether different from what you will find in any political platform or party.
Vernard Eller said that he believed that while Christians can and must make common cause with political movements and causes in order to advance the ball of justice, righteousness, compassion and peace in this world, that Christians must nevertheless conscientiously choose to “sit loose” in their political attachments lest they be co-opted by a political party or candidate and thus lose their distinctive voice and vision. This is just an application of what Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount about salt losing its zing and becoming worthless (Matthew 5:13), and this is why I consistently and conscientiously try to publicly be a Christian and not a Republican or a Democrat. I want you to know that my commitment is to Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world and not to this candidate or to that party.
Somewhere I have read that in the days of the Roman persecution of the church, that when Christians were ordered to tell the authorities where they were from, that their standard answer was – “My home is heaven.” I hear in this an echo of Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that – “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). A letter from an unknown Christian in the second century explains how some of those first Christians thought about the world and their place in it as clearly as anything we have –
Christians dwell in their own countries, but as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet they endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. …What the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world. …The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.
This whole argument can be found at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm, see – “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus – Chapter V — The Manners of the Christians, and Chapter VI — The Relation of Christians to the World.” It deserves a look and some thought.
Over the next few weeks I want probe the spiritually complicated relationship between faith and politics in my weekly blogs. The urgency of this in a Presidential election year should be obvious to all. And because I believe that this is one of those proverbial horses that we as Christians can fall off of from either side – by being too partisanly engaged in the political process and by being too spiritually indifferent about political matters and decisions – I hope that you will make this journey with me. DBS+
NextWeek: Part 2 – “Changed Hearts… Changed World”