The Wrong “Bulls-Eye”: Reflections on the “Christian Left”
As it has since the fourth century, the Church today for the most part operates with a Constantinian (“power-over”) paradigm. Because of this, most socially concerned Christians are inclined to define the Church’s mission as adjudicating between and tweaking political options “in Jesus’ name.” We accept Caesar’s definition of “power” as the ability to get one’s way in the world and thus try to get as much of this power as possible so we can change the world as much as possible in accordance with our convictions about how we (and of course God) wants society to be run.
Of course, this is precisely what everyone else is doing. Everyone votes “their faith and conscience,” including the secularists. As it concerns social issues, therefore, the Constantinian paradigm reduces the Church to little more than one of the multitudes of special interest groups that fight for a morsel of power that falls from Ceasar’s power-over table. We, like everyone else, want to “get our way” – for we, like everyone else, believe “our way” is the “right” way.
By contrast, if we remain faithful to our unique calling in Christ, we will understand that it’s not our job as followers of Jesus to adjudicate between and/or tweak political options. As a citizen in a free country, you may accept this responsibility, but it is not part of your unique calling as a Christian. Nor is Ceasar’s definition of “power” our definition as Kingdom people. To the contrary, if Christ is our example, as he must be, our definition of “power” is the opposite of this definition. Our calling is not to control the world by exercising power over others, but to transform the world by mirroring Calvary-like love, exercising power under others, sacrificially serving the world. Our job is to be the body of Christ, to look like a “corporate Jesus,” thus modeling to the world what life as God intends it to be looks like.
It’s a question of the “bulls-eye” we’re shooting at.
The political “Christian Left” shoots at the “correct” way to participate in politics by raising Christians’ awareness of the issues of social peace and justice (including, for example, issues of poverty, racism, war and environmental abuse). And it seeks to motivate Christians to engage in the political process the “right” way by showing them the biblical mandate for believers to be concerned about such issues.
Now, no one can deny the desperate need to raise Christians’ awareness of the issues of social peace and justice and the need to inform Christians abut the biblical mandate to be engaged with these issues. To this extent I wholeheartedly and passionately agree with the “Christian Left.” But I also believe the “Christian Left” shoots at the wrong “bulls-eye.”
The bulls-eye given to us in the New Testament is to be the Kingdom that manifests peace and justice. We are to be the “not yet” in the midst of the “ already.” We are to be the “first fruits” of the coming Kingdom, showing the world the destiny of humanity and all creation, thereby displaying to the world a beautiful alternative way of doing life. The unique beauty of this Kingdom, reflecting the splendor of God’s Calvary-like love in a myriad of different ways, is the means by which God draws others into the Kingdom and thus the means by which the mustard-seed Kingdom grows throughout the world.
When our bulls-eye is on how Christians should participate in politics, as it is with the “Christian Left” (and, I should add, the “Christian Right”) we are putting the proverbial cart before the horse. If we raise awareness of social peace and justice issues while stressing the call for Christians to be the community where these issues are addressed in a Christ-like way, it will undoubtedly affect how Christians participate in politics (though it will not necessarily lead Christians to agree on which side of political issues Christians should land). But if we raise awareness of these issues while our focus is rather on how Christians should participate in politics, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get around to being the community where these issues are addressed and resolved in a Christ-like way, for the way of politics is the way of Ceasar, not Christ.
The goal of the Church must be to be the community that models the beautiful life. If we were this community, we would have the political regime wanting to jump on our bandwagon rather than us trying to jump on the political bandwagons (while fighting over which bandwagon we ought to jump on). The Church should simply lead the charge in demonstrating to the world what it looks like to fight poverty, injustice, racism, violence and environmental abuse in a Christ-like way.
The Church is called to lead the world–not by our superior wisdom, but by our example. We are to model what a world with peace and justice would look like. If we did this, the rest of the world would be asking for our opinion.
When we as a Church try to speak into political peace and justice issues without first modeling peace and justice, we cannot even agree on how we should speak. Christians have no concrete example of what a community free from injustice and violence looks like, so their ethical and spiritual compasses are jilted. Hence, our speaking is jilted — as when we perseverate on sexual issues over social issues. And we at the same time invite the inevitable divisiveness of jilted politics into our churches.
The question the Church should live in is not, “How should we engage the political process?” This question presupposes a Constantinian paradigm in which we are seeking to steer Caesar’s power. It also presupposes that we are morally superior and wiser than all others who are also trying to steer Caesar’s power, when in fact the New Testament tells us we are to humbly regard ourselves as morally inferior to others (Mt 7.1-3) and to never think it our job to judge the world (I Cor. 5:12). The question the Church should live in is, “How can we model God’s reign in our own community?” which immediately leads to the question, “How can we sacrificially serve our broader community and the world, in this place, at this time?”
The Christian Left has all the right intuitions, so far as I can see. But it orientates these intuitions in the wrong direction. The Christian Left is trying to get a Church that for the most part knows little of peace and justice to rally around political issues of peace and justice. It’s trying to get the Church to talk the political talk when the Church does not yet walk the Kingdom walk. It thus invites the divisiveness of politics into the Church, distracts us from our calling to trust Christ’s power-under approach to social issues rather than Ceasar’s power-over approach, and it potentially positions us to be hypocritical, speaking into issues we have not earned the right to speak into.
The church should provide leadership to the world by our spiritual and moral example of how we live together and serve the world, not by our self-designated superior wisdom on how to fix society by political means. Swearing allegiance to Christ doesn’t mean we know more than others. It just means we are willing to sacrifice more than others. Swearing allegiance to Christ thus doesn’t mean one has more wisdom on domestic or international social issues. It just means one is willing to bleed more to bring God’s love to domestic and international social issues.
This willingness to suffer gives the Church a unique and powerful authority to address issues and transform the world. But it does so only if the Church in fact is willing to sacrifice more than others. If the Church would model the beautiful life as a community and in our Christ-like service to the world, we would win authority to speak into domestic and international issues. But when we focus on how we should speak into domestic and international issues before we ourselves model the beautiful life, we have no more authority than anyone else. Like everyone else, we have only our opinion to offer.
Trying to get the Church to participate in the political process the “right” way is like trying to motivate a secular person to pray the “right” way. So it is, for example, that we have the “Christian Right” trying to get Christians to vote to “save the family” by outlawing gay marriage while Christians happen to have a higher divorce rate than the national average. And the “Christian Left” is trying to get Christians to vote to end poverty while the vast majority of churches in America don’t have any of their day-to-day budget or activity allocated to helping alleviate poverty. What Jesus said of individuals applies to the Church as a whole: first take the plank out of your own eye before you look for a dust particle in your neighbor’s eye (Mt. 7.1-3).
Our singular focus ought to be on the church simply being the church, manifesting the beautiful life of the Kingdom. And we ought to do this not as a practical step toward gaining some of Caesar’s power – as though this was our ultimate goal — but because this is simply what it means to faithfully follow Jesus.
Of course, my stance faces the formidable objection that it is intensely impractical. In reality, the objection goes, the world operates according to Ceasar’s power, not Christ’s. So it’s naive, if not immoral, for Christians not to try to steer the political process as much as they can, whether we ourselves are modeling the Kingdom or not. This objection is all the more understandable given the sad truth that there are precious few concrete examples of churches or Christian organizations actually manifesting the beautiful life of the Kingdom and transforming their culture through Christ-like service. The western Church has exercised little influence in the modern world except by manipulating political powers. And so, it is assumed, if you want to have more influence in the world, you must get more political power.
Thus the Christian Left and the Christian Right work feverishly to get larger and larger numbers of Christians out to participate in the political process the “right” way. So absent is the unique, transforming, power-under Kingdom from the Church that few can even imagine the Church leading by example, showing the world the transforming power of Christ-like sacrificial service, and modeling a community that manifests God’s love, life, peace and justice.
It’s precisely at this point that Christians need to be reminded that we are called to be faithful, not practical. Our calling is to tirelessly work to build the uniquely beautiful Kingdom on earth, knowing our reward attaches to our labor, not our results (I Cor. 3 ). The moment we relinquish a faithfulness paradigm of “success” and grab hold of a pragmatic paradigm of “success,” the battle is lost. For, prior to Easter morning, Calvary never looks very practical. Our task is to be faithful to Christ in a Good Friday world while having faith that on Easter Morning, when God consummates his goal for human history, our apparently impractical allegiance to Christ’s call will turn out to be very practical.
It is, in the end, self-sacrificial love alone that overcomes evil.