It should hopefully go without saying that followers of Jesus are called to be involved in their local communities, and that this will inevitably be political in some way. Since we are called to love our neighbours, it follows that this will involve some kind of engagement with public life.
The question therefore, is what should Christian involvement in politics actually look like?
Now, I fully believe the gospel transcends the right/left divide. There are Christians on the left, and there are Christians on the right. Both sides have a tendency to look at one another and say, “What? How are you there? You’re a Christian!”
I have no interest in advocating for the left or the right. They are both man-made constructs that came about during the French revolution. I obviously hold my own opinions, but I will not be addressing them here. Instead, I am asking Christians to try and suspend their left/right assumptions and ask a deeper question: what should it look like for followers of Jesus to interact with worldly power?
Should we be buddying up to presidents and monarchs? Should we be chasing after fame and influence? Is power necessarily always good or bad?
Following the example of Jesus’ life, the gospels teach us that real power comes not from fame or influence or political position, but through humility, suffering, and putting the “other” above ourselves.
Let’s look at these in more detail:
Jesus was the exact opposite of what you would want in a God or a Messiah. He refused to enter time and space with a thunderous arrival, and instead he arrived in the form of a helpless baby. In fact, this baby was so vulnerable, he was a refugee for the first few years of his life.
But that’s not even the weird bit. Not only are we called to worship the man who chose to be weak, but we are also called to imitate him throughout our lives.
Philippians 2:3-11 says, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Like I said, Jesus is often the opposite of what you might want or expect. He was expected to rescue Israel by riding in on a war horse; instead he rode in on a donkey. He was expected to avoid the sinners and the unclean; instead he ate with them and healed their diseases. Today we expect him tell us how awesome we are, and instead he lovingly calls us to repentance.
Therefore we are not called to grab power or celebrate high influence, instead we are called to live in humble gratitude and quiet service. This means – and I want to make this absolutely clear – fame should not be celebrated or idolised. It may be thrust upon you, but if you’re a church pastor and you maybe meet with a senior political figure, don’t post about it on Instagram. We don’t need more Christians lusting after power and recognition – it’s not good for anybody. Let your leadership be driven by the humility of Jesus, not double-taps to boost your ego.
Theologian Lincoln Harvey remarks,
“We have a desire to protect God from the wombs of women and the tombs men dig.”Jesus in the Trinity p10.
Let’s be real, the God we serve is peculiar. Not only did he chose to be a baby in a turbulent world, but he also chose to suffer and die. What kind of God dies? And isn’t God supposed to be immune to suffering? Moreover, why on earth would he ask us to suffer along with him? I thought my youth pastor told me Jesus died to make me awesome!
Like I said, Jesus – and indeed your calling as his follower – may not be what you expect.
Matthew 16:24-25 says, ‘Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.‘
1 Peter 4:13 says, ‘rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.‘
3. Serving the “other”
Jesus wasn’t humble just for fun, and he didn’t die for the sake of himself. Instead, he did every single thing in service to others. Moreover, he calls every single one of his followers to do the same. As a basic Kingdom ethic, every Christian on this planet is called to love their neighbour as themself.
But who is my neighbour? Well, if we read the Good Samaritan parable, we soon discover that the people Jesus calls us to serve are a) different from us, b) marginalised, and c) need our help.
Let’s unpack these further.
a) As followers of Jesus we are supposed to get involved with people who are different from us, but how can we do this in the political sphere? Personally, I think we need to start thinking of some imaginative ways of breaking free from our echo chambers. When I moved into the house I currently live in, I was shocked to find that my housemate voted differently from me in the EU referendum. “But you are a Christian!” I exclaimed, “how is it possible that you think so differently from me?” Talking it through was painful, because we’re both emotionally attached to our positions, but we are making headway. We still think each other are in the wrong, but at least now we can at least understand where the other is coming from. And importantly, we love each other.
b) Who are the marginalised in my sphere? Who is it that the world does not see but Jesus sees? When we look at unjust political systems, we need to think carefully about who are the oppressed and who benefits from oppression. White people in the UK and US need to especially think carefully about this – slavery may be over but the residue remains. White is not ‘neutral’, and benefitting from oppression puts the responsibility on us to work toward justice. It shouldn’t be up to the oppressed to fight alone for themselves. That’s not how the Kingdom works.
c) Who needs my help? This one is pretty simple – just open your eyes and look around you. Lean not towards those who deserve your help, but to those who don’t. That’s where grace is found. Don’t seek to help those who can pay you back, but look for those who can’t. Do this with gentleness, and be sensitive towards preserving people’s dignity whenever possible.
Overall, it is clear from Jesus’ example that Christians should not seek out influence for their own gain, and should be very very careful in regards to power. For some, there will be callings into places of influence, but these ministries should be birthed out of suffering, humility, and service to others – never as a power-grab. Most of us will never be called into the spotlight, and we should be grateful that we don’t need to deal with all the rubbish that comes with it.
Questions still remain about the overall relationship between church and state, and I know many will have different views on this. For now, I would say that wherever God has placed you – be it Westminster or a school or a prison – aim to follow the example of Jesus. Let his suffering, humility and heart for others be what drives you each day.
And above all, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Jesus died to make us rich and famous. He sets us free from the anxieties of protecting our own interests and then catapults us into a life of service to others. This will look different for each individual, according to their calling.
All that being said, take this with a heavy dose of grace. None of us are going to get it completely right, so let’s at least aim to be kinder to one another during these strange times.
Until next time,
livejust.ly is an excellent theological resource about social justice.
Godpod do excellent theological podcasts in general, but they’ve also done a few about political engagement. I recommend this one.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in 1936 Germany during the rise of Hitler.
Oxford historian Dr Sarah Williams has a lot to say about the church’s relationship with political power. You can listen to an interview with her here or download a more in-depth lecture here.
Lastly, if you don’t believe that Christians should be involved in politics at all, feel free to read an essay of mine that addresses this question while looking at the Apartheid regime as a case study. Download here.