Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world—every corner of every culture—and proclaim the good news of his life, death and resurrection. Everywhere we go, Christians are supposed to strive to strive to demonstrate what kind of difference knowing that we are part of Jesus’ story makes for the way we live our lives in the here and now. Jesus called it, “being lamps on a stand or cities on a hill.”
But if Jesus is really king over all the earth, and he really wants us to take him at his word when he says to go into every corner of the world and live like lamps on a stand, then we need to work out what God’s great story can mean for the way we interact with and about politics.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with folks lately about my general principles for approaching politics, whether it’s as a political operative working on a campaign or as a private citizen having a talk at a bar. Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to fire off a few short blog posts introducing those principles, starting with a brief outline of what Genesis 1 means for the way we should talk about our political opponents.
The Christian story starts with God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in it. He took joy in the world as he crafted it, assessing everything he made and calling it “good.”
But when he made humans, things went from good to great. (Or, well, from “good” to “very good.”)
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
The Christians story teaches that everyone carries the image of God. Every person can trace their roots back to the moment just before God elevated his opinion of his own creation. Every person carries a heritage that makes them worthy of respect—even the people with whom we disagree.
To Christians, our political opponents shouldn’t be monsters, demons or craven animals. Our political opponents are image-bearers of God. And in an increasingly polarized political environment, learning to imbue our opponents with divine dignity even as we vehemently disagree with them is potentially one of the biggest ways we can stand in contrast to the world around us.
Yesterday morning, Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, spoke on his daily podcast about the general migration of the American population away from rural and suburban areas and toward urban areas. He then pivoted off of that topic to address declining marriage rates among young Americans. The moment of transition is excerpted below:
Mohler is a leading thinker amongst theologically conservative Christians, and so the assumptions that drive his thinking are worth investigating. In particular, I’m curious about the inextricable link he seems to assume between married life and suburban or rural American life.
Mohler’s train of thought on the matter as presented in this transition between the topics seems to be as follows: “Young people move to cities to work. When they meet other young people and get married, they are supposed to move out of the city and settle into a real, grown-up, less selfish life in a suburb or in a rural environment. Young Americans are moving into cities faster and are less inclined to move out. Therefore, young Americans are choosing to put off marriage, choosing to not have children and deliberately fostering a less socially stable society.”
Now, it is undeniable that young Americans are marrying at the lowest rates ever recorded, though I think Mohler overlooks the fact that young Americans often want to get married but feel unable to. A popular video that circulated amongst my friends last year highlighted the fact that many millennials feel that, through no fault of their own, they walked into an economy that has made it impossible for them to live the life to which their parents and grandparents encouraged them to aspire:
But the bigger issue at play for me is Dr. Mohler’s apparent assumption that marriage necessitates abandoning urban centers. In Mohler’s argument, if only young Americans would get married and have kids, they would move back to suburbs and rural towns. It’s okay to use a city for the sake of getting a job out of it, but urbanism is inherently selfish and the path to maturity leads to a suburban or rural life.
This line of thinking seems rooted in mid-century secular materialist assumptions about the proper relationship between an individual and the civic community. If your chief end is to leverage yourself into a better, more powerful, more secure position in your surrounding community, then the narrative Mohler prescribes makes perfect sense: You move to a city to develop sought-after skills then use those skills to secure a more luxurious place for yourself and your nuclear family in a less-competitive suburban or rural market.
But that isn’t the Bible’s prescription approaching the place you live and work:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
God’s message to his people living in the most oppressive, spiritually stagnant of cities was to stay there. Commit to it. Care for it. Get married there, raise your family there and teach the next generation to seek the city’s shalom (health) and tikkun (healing). Jesus didn’t condemn the city that was about to send him to his death—he wept for it. He went to his death longing to embrace it.
Dr. Mohler’s line of argument doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that young people who met in a city and married in a city would choose to remain in a city and even raise their children a city, but is the thought really that far-fetched?
I’m a member of a church in a metropolitan center. The vast majority of our congregants are in their 20s and 30s. Since I moved to this city three years ago, it has seemed as though hardly a week goes by without a new engagement, a new marriage or a new baby. Most of these new families opt to stay in the metropolitan area. Not because they are selfish, but because Jesus’ selflessness is actually encouraging them toward some kind of more selfless urbanism.
One of the most distinctive virtues Christians can bring to the public sphere is a commitment to the neighborhoods, towns and, yes, even cities in which we live. When you and your neighbors talk about the latest local controversies, can they sense that your relationship with them and with their community has an expiration date? Or do they trust that you genuinely care about them and that you’re not about to cut and run on your community? Because that’s the kind of approach to your civic community the Bible recommends—even if that civic community is an American city.
Update: A sentence has been added to the opening of the article to more clearly convey that this blog post addresses the rhetorical hinge Dr. Mohler uses to pivot between his two topics, rather than the points he makes about either topic.
When I started this blog, one of the guidelines I gave myself was that I’d try to avoid getting into the topic of homosexuality. Blogging is, at its core, a casual form of discourse, and the development of the concept of “sexual identity” (a fairly recent phenomenon given the general scope of human history) seemed to pit casual and nuanced conversation about gay issues at odds with one another. Maybe a better writer could thread that needle, but not me.
However, the Supreme Court’s decisions yesterday regarding California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) make avoiding the topic pretty difficult. It’s clear that from here on out, for a Christian to be an effective ambassador of a more human way of life in his or her civic existence, he or she must be able to talk about homosexuality with comfort, humility, compassion and fluency.
This has probably been true for years now—it’s not like the court issued yesterday’s rulings unbidden. They were responses to cases various citizens brought before a series of courts, those cases in turn being the result of years of shifting attitudes amongst the general citizenry.
You can’t search for Christian approach to public life if you don’t allow yourself to talk about gay marriage and sexual ethics. Like many of you, yesterday’s rulings sent me down a number of different paths, prompting diverse conversations and a lot of reflection.
I’m grateful that, in the weeks ahead, I’ll get to share some of that with you.
Last year, I visited an evangelical church deep in the heart of Texas. The sermon was interesting, engaging and literate. The pastor dug deep into a passage in James, drawing out an application that dared his congregation to think about how their church treats the impoverished in their town and how each of them can rethink their relationship to the poor. As a Christian, I liked that his talk plainly took the Bible seriously and would be challenging to everyone in the audience, reminding Christians that they are there because they are broken, not because they are great. As a communicator, I loved that it also would have been perfectly understandable to people with no grounding in the faith.
But when I sat with the pastor briefly after the service, the sermon was far from what I wanted to ask him about. Instead, I wanted to talk about the lengthy prayer that preceded it. In his prayer, the pastor prayed for the congregation. He prayed for their town. He asked for protection for America’s soldiers overseas. He asked for God’s blessing on the work those soldiers were doing. And that was it.
I couldn’t help but wonder why he stopped there, why he didn’t go on to also pray for the communities to which those soldiers are traveling, why he didn’t pray that God’s spirit be poured out even on those we might consider our enemies. When Saul converted and became Paul, God demonstrated his ability to transform and redeem people we don’t WANT to see transformed or redeemed. If we are honestly praying, “Thy kingdom come,” we need to remember that we aren’t the only people God wants to turn into citizens of it.
When Christians discuss international issues, we need to be eager to look beyond tribal concerns. The Bible tells us that one day, the righteous of every nation will be part of the same kingdom. The kings of every state will lay their crowns at Christ’s feet. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are a testament to the fact that God isn’t interested in his blessings stopping at the water’s edge.
I asked the Texan pastor about why he structured his prayer that way, and why he didn’t pray for the citizens of the countries in which the soldiers were being deployed. In return, he spoke winsomely and graciously about expressing gratitude for a country that has facilitated so many blessings in our lives.
And I don’t disagree. But I think Christians need to also model a wider perspective.
The first presidential debate of the 2012 general election is just hours away. Watching televised debates is probably not the best way to decide which way you’re voting in an election—candidates place so much emphasis on theatrics that are meant to stir up visceral, emotional responses and distract from the content of what they and their opponent are actually proposing—but if you watch actively and critically, they also aren’t the worst.
Luckily, how-to website LifeHacker.com has put together a handy primer on how to keep yourself on guard against fallacious arguments while watching a debate. Check it out prayerfully and see if it makes a difference in the way you respond to the candidates this evening.
The presidential campaigns are just finishing their transition out of a lengthy primary season and into full-on general election mode. However, we are already nearing the end of what has been, for me, the most emotionally consuming election in years: An off-year, off-season race for an open city council seat in Pawnee, Indiana.
I’m referring, of course, to the campaign depicted in this season of Parks and Recreation, one of the funniest and most optimistic shows on TV.
The show, starring the gifted comedienne Amy Poehler, typically derives humor from loving critiques of America’s civic process. In its fourth season, most of the cast has rallied around Poehler’s energetic, capable bureaucrat Leslie Knope as she runs against Bobby Newport (guest star Paul Rudd), the genial and dim-witted scion of a beloved local processed food magnate. Contrasting Knope’s scrappy idealism against the calculated cynicism of Newport’s seasoned campaign manager has given Parks and Rec an opportunity to go beyond sending up the civic process to sending up the electoral process, as well. And at times, it has gotten profound.
This week, Knope, Newport and a handful of fringe candidates squared off for a riveting debate. The local news anchors moderating the debate took questions “from Twitter, because apparently that’s a thing that happens now.” One of the fringe candidates patiently passed on any question that didn’t afford him an opportunity to wax enthusiastic about gun proliferation. Another repeatedly asserted his devotion to treating Pawnee’s animals as though they were his own children. (Pawnee has a well-established raccoon problem, and the fact that we didn’t get to see their differing responses to how to handle the infestation at Ramsett Park seems like an obvious missed opportunity.)
Newport, meanwhile, only presented one substantive proposal, and it was the centerpiece of the debate: Newport said that if he lost the election, his father would move their factories (and most of the town’s jobs) to Mexico.
Pawneans are a fickle and excitable people, and this kind of declaration could have easily been the death stroke against Knope’s candidacy. However, she recovered. After processing her shock at the potentially game-changing declaration, she responded passionately and sincerely:
I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. [The power] to dictate what a city needs—that power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to believe it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. … This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.
Jesus doesn’t offer much in the way of express political prescriptions in the Bible. When cornered by pharisees and Herodians wielding a politically dangerous question about the Roman head tax, he defies the premise of their question and answers in a way that transcends their paradigm. When questioned by the local governors about his political goals, he has nothing to say that they feel is relevant to them.
But he does offer a prescription for the type of attitude a leader should have, and it looks an awful lot like Leslie Knope’s:
You know that the leaders of the Gentiles are lords over them, and their great men exercise power over them. It is not thus with you; but he who wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and he who wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his own life for the redemption of many.
(Matthew 20:25–28, Lattimore translation)
Knope’s closing statement resonated with her audience and the viewers because it speaks to the way we all wish power would work. (It also resonated with her opponents: Newport broke the silence that followed by declaring how great he thought that answer was.) We all hope that those in positions of authority—be it in a household, a workplace, a social circle or a government—are worried about the best interest of those without power.
But power doesn’t work that way. More accurately, we aren’t brave or humble enough to wield power that way. If you need any evidence of that, pay attention to the way you talk about your job, your boss and your teammates. No matter what field you’re in, I’m willing to bet that you’ve rarely thought, “I don’t like the way my boss is running our department. If I were in charge and she were in my place, I’d have SO MANY reasonable discussions in which I listened to and thoroughly considered her opinions about how the department should be run, and I’d give them as much weight as I’d give my own ideas.”
No, most people’s fantasies about how they’d run their workplace, their community or their government are ultimately authoritarian. America’s government is structured to work best when the people in charge are open to debate and fully consider the implications of their decisions on a whole host of under-powered peoples. But the pace of work, the pressure of media scrutiny and the need to raise thousands of dollars every week just to prepare for the next election are powerful forces against that kind of humility taking root in the heart of elected officials.
Christians who work in public service or who hold public office would do well to remember to keep their sights fixed on Jesus, who accomplished great work by taking on the role of servant, even when the people he was serving actively tried to elevate him to master. We should also be willing to encourage leaders in every sphere of life to consider approaching their leadership with a servant mindset.
And while we usually avoid endorsing candidates on this blog, I do want to encourage you to vote for Leslie Knope by tuning in on Thursday nights. The election’s in two weeks.
For a highly visible and avowedly partisan writer, that could be a sensational act of bravado. After all, critiquing your own party is part of what being a pundit is all about: Using your platform to frame politics for voters and push elected officials into adopting your preferred policies. In one breath, you degrade the opposition, and in the next you critique your own leaders and standard-bearers. That method garners ratings. It develops sway and influence with your chosen political party while avoiding the impression of just being a mouthpiece for party leadership. And because it’s so common, a break with that method could come off as a crass attempt to clash for the sake of attention.
But there’s another option. It could also be a demonstration of gospel-given humility. Douthat doesn’t criticize conservative officials for not standing their ground, for not honoring their base firmly enough, for not making extreme enough stands. Those are the types of charges a pundit could level against sympathetic elected officials to stir up their base and shore up his own reputation as an idealogical stalwart. Instead, Douthat’s critique of American politics more closely echoes the charges of greed and moral corruption that the prophets and the apostles leveled at the Israelites, Romans and surrounding nations.
Douthat kicked off his book tour with a conversation with Barbara Hagerty (religion reporter for NPR) and Michael Gerson (columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush) in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Trinity Forum. He outlined his book, citing what he saw as the major heresies dominating American culture and traced what he thought was the biblical worldview’s gradual retreat from public life. Hagerty and Gerson praised Douthat’s book and his writing for the expected reasons—his insight, his wit, etc.—and challenged him to further flesh out his message in some interesting ways: Given that women’s rights are shaping up to be a major element of American political debate this year, how would he discuss women’s rights from a biblical perspective? Is he being too harsh on movements like the gospel of wealth, which seems to be spurring one of the most vibrant spurts of Christian growth in the world at the moment?
The only firm conclusion I think anyone on stage tonight really advocated was that Christians should strive to be “politically engaged, but not partisan.”
Obviously, that’s a message I can agree with.