Q&A

Question: My pastor has publicly supported your book The Myth of a Christian Nation. But he’s recently called on the church to take a stand against the injustice of our local government cutting funding for inner city recreational facilities. This seems right to me, since we’re suppose to defend the cause of the poor and oppressed. But I’m not sure it’s consistent with what you said in The Myth of a Christian Nation. How do you feel about what my pastor is doing? Shouldn’t preachers rally Christians to fight political injustice?

Answer: We are certainly called to enter into solidarity with the poor and oppressed and to revolt against injustice. But I’m concerned with the way your pastor is going about it. As understandable as it is to get angry about inner city funding being cut, I think your pastor is misusing his Kingdom authority in rallying your congregation in this way. He’s using his spiritual authority to get your church to tell Caesar what to do.

Our job as Kingdom people is to mimic Jesus in all things (Eph 5:1-2). When did Jesus ever do anything like this?

Think about this. If the American church wasn’t fragmented into a million isolated units (churches), hardly any of them talking with each other let alone working together, and if the average American Christian didn’t spend (according to George Barna) 97% of their income on themselves, we Christians could build our own inner city recreational facilities -- and many other things. And this would be done to the glory of God rather than to the credit of Uncle Sam.

Sadly, instead of confessing our greed and our ungodly divisiveness and sacrificially pooling our resources to serve the poor, we rather tend to expect government to solve society’s problems. And we do this while positioning ourselves as people who are smarter at spending public funds and solving tough issues, and more righteous in caring about the needy. I suspect the American Church has been so divided, so influenced by American greed and thus so impotent for so long, most (including, perhaps, your pastor) can’t even imagine it being otherwise. Related to this, we’ve relinquished so much responsibility for caring for the poor to the government for so long, most American Christians can’t picture the Church itself, without the aid of government, taking responsibility for this.

Due to this impoverished imagination, we sadly assume our highest calling is to be the high priests of Caesar’s court, telling it how God allegedly wants it to spend its money.

Of course, being the high priests of Caesar’s court means you’ve got to get into the messy complexity of this court. How do we know that fighting for money to go to recreational facilities is the right thing to do? Maybe fighting for more funding for schools, or housing for the poor, or for more and better public transportation is a better fight. And what about the unlivable low minimum wage, or the lack of adequate shelters for the homeless, or the increasing number of people who lack basic health coverage, or the inadequate presence of police in dangerous neighborhoods? As the high priests of Caesar’s court, we have to make these tough decisions — and there’s only so much money to go around.

Not only this, but every action creates a reaction, and as Caesar’s wiser and more caring counselors we have to be experts about all of these things. For example, it certainly feels wise and righteous to insist on higher wages for workers. But are we sure this won’t force many small business owners to fire workers, thereby harming the poor more than helping them? And it certainly feels wise and righteous to insist U.S. troops pull out of Iraq right now. But are we sure this won’t result in a greater bloodbath than there already is over there? And it certainly feels wise and righteous to insist on preserving a pool for inner city kids, but what if the money for this has to be taken from classrooms, requiring that some teachers be let go, resulting in a poorer education for these kids? Is a pool more important than education?

It’s all very complex and ambiguous, but once we position ourselves as Caesar’s high priests, we have no choice but to wade through it all. And so, inevitably, we’ll disagree about many of these matters and we’ll have to fight each other over which battles are the “right” battles to be fighting and which ways are the “right” ways to be fighting them. The Matthews (conservatives) and Simons (liberals) in our churches will inevitably start wondering if the other “really” cares and is “really” Christian.

And now we’ve invited the polarizing ambiguity of the political realm into our Kingdom fellowships — as if we needed further dividing!

And I haven’t even mentioned the REAL divisive issues of abortion and gay marriage!

And notice this: all the while we’re wading through these issues and fighting over what we think Caesar should do, we’re still spending 97% of our wealth on ourselves and not getting anything done for the Kingdom.

As citizens of the U.S. who get asked our opinion about what Caesar should do, we can express our opinions as we see fit. Try to understand the issues surrounding poverty and everything else and make the best choices you can. But as citizens of the Kingdom of God, this isn’t where our hope is to be placed or where our time and energy is to be spent. (Of course, God may call some to political office, meaning much of their time and energy will inevitably be spent in this realm. But even they shouldn’t place their ultimate hope in this area).

As citizens of the Kingdom, our job isn’t to tell Caesar what to do — as though we were wiser or cared more. Our job is to just do it.

We should start by confessing that, for the most part, we aren’t currently getting the job done.

If we stopped blaming government and started doing what we’re called to do, then after 100 years maybe Caesar would be asking us for advice on how to address issues like poverty.

If your pastor asked me what I think he and his church should do about the funding cut for inner city recreational facilities, I’d advise him that, if God has indeed called he and his church to take up this cause, they should partner with whatever other churches are willing to catch this vision, call on believers to make radical sacrifices, put together a volunteer work force, and build their city the best inner city recreational facility anyone has ever seen.

And now the glory would go to Jesus instead of Caesar.

And now even Caesar might take an interest in learning a thing or two from the Church.

And now the Kingdom would be advancing.