When an idol begins dissolving in your hands, do you clench tighter, or do you let go, look up, and grasp something truly stable?
American Christians are facing a watershed moment. Any presidential clout we hoped to regain in this election is slowly proving to be a mirage. Elect Hillary Clinton, and we sanction a proven liar and contribute to the erosion of a bevy of values and principles we hold dear. Elect Donald Trump, and we affirm a predatory demagogue, trust a proven charlatan, and dilute our Christian witness in the public square and beyond. Vote third-party, and we nobly raise the flag of principle on a sinking ship whose mast is already at the waterline.
These are our only options . . . if by “options” we mean “ways of regaining political power and reforming the nature of our country through legislative leverage.” Of course, voting third-party is not an option if reclaiming power is our immediate goal, but perhaps it’s a good-conscience play for more influence in the long game.
All in all, if by “options” we mean good and virtuous and immediate power, then by all measures, we’re out of options. And since this kind of elected law-making power is the main lens we use to envision our political responsibilities in a democratic republic, many Christians feel that we’re up a societal creek without a political paddle.
So it is that the angst, anger, accusation, desperation, and confusion are palpable. I should know: I just posted a rare article (for me) about politics, decrying Donald Trump and challenging his evangelical promoters. What did I find? Some reasoned, principled, and spirited discussion, to be sure, but also a lot of angst, anger, accusation, desperation, and confusion. And a whole lot of Christians who think and talk as though “we only have two options.”
But what if Christians actually have only one option: faithfulness? And what if that faithfulness can and should manifest itself in hundreds of ways before, during, and after election season? What if voting once every four years is not the only way to influence our nation, or stand for justice, or speak for the unborn, or rebuild marriage, or steward our finances, or help the poor, or spark our economy, or welcome refugees, or protect religious liberty, or protect against jihadists, or most importantly, love our enemies and sow grace and truth and testify to the gospel of Jesus Christ and build local churches as outcroppings of the kingdom of God in the world? What if being salt and light doesn’t begin and end with the five minutes we spend in the voting booth on November 8?
There’s nothing wrong with handling the levers of national democratic processes on the few occasions we’re allowed to touch those levers directly. Throughout Scripture we see examples of godly men and women wielding great political influence in pagan nations. Joseph serves alongside Pharaoh and preserves untold lives along the Mediterranean seaboard. Daniel receives favor from God and serves faithfully amidst the Babylonian court (and sometimes amidst the Babylonian furnaces and lions’ dens). And Esther, whose moral judgments are questioned by some scholars, still risks greatly to protect the Jews from genocide in her day. God even uses sinful saints and godless pagans to do his ruling and evangelizing will among his people and the nations: Moses, the murderer and rock-striker; David, the adulterer and cover-up artist; Cyrus, the Persian king-turned-releaser of God’s people; and Saul, the Jewish jihadist who became the world-traveling apostle of grace (rightly flashing his Roman citizenship when needed).
There’s a good bit wrong in many of these folks’ stories, but there’s nothing wrong with them having governmental clout, and using it well and wisely.
What’s wrong is when these political powers and legislative levers become our places of refuge and our only perceived tools of influence. What’s wrong is when we’re willing to sacrifice our personal integrity and our gospel witness and our biblical values to grasp just a bit more of Rome’s cultural and political capital as the city burns.
Let’s be honest: These levers are nice to touch, nicer to hold, and even nicer to control. There’s so much potential good we can do when we grasp these levers. But they sure can cast a spell.
How do I know? Just watch the appalling way Christians are often talking with and about one another in recent political discussions on social media. I’ve seen Christians questioning each other’s salvation over voting choices, I’ve been called “blind” and “stupid” and “prideful” and “shameful” and told I need to “grow up” because I criticized Donald Trump, and I’ve seen folks casting boulders at folks they claim are casting stones (somehow casting the first stone is always wrong, but all subsequent stone-throwing is justified).
I’m not immune to these kinds of feelings and words and actions. Like many of you, I’m laboring to avoid them or confess them when the flesh calls.
But what we must all admit is this: Principled people who possess the Spirit of God only speak in such grasping ways when we’ve come under the spell of some long-grasped idol that now seems to be slipping through our fingers. We start hyperventilating like this only when our self-constructed biospheres of refuge and safety start running low on the idolatrous air we’ve been breathing. We start flailing like this only when we feel our hands slipping from our precious levers of power.
Oh, it’s right and good to mourn the state of our nation. It’s right to be righteously angry against unrighteousness. It’s spiritually healthy to feel what God says he feels — “zeal for your house has consumed me,” said the psalmist, and Jesus echoed him (Ps 69:9; John 2:17). In a democratic society, we should absolutely seek to utilize the powers granted us to do all the good that we can, for God’s house and for the society’s house at large. But the harsh accusations, the personal insults, the scriptural selectivity, the motivational judgments, the fear and desperation, the minimization of perversity, and the constant violations of Proverbs 18:2 and James 1:19? These are signs that someone or something else has usurped the throne of our hearts.
So where does that leave all of us, myself included?
Well, on Sunday night, as my wife and I watched the second presidential debate, I sensed a surge of hope and excitement. I thought to myself, as I’ve been thinking a lot recently, I have never been more hopeful and excited about the prospects of the gospel and the church in the United States. Why? Certainly not because of the quality of the debate. So, why? Post tenebras lux: “after darkness, light.”
The stars always shine brightest against the blackest space, and are best seen not from the city but the wilderness.
I’m hopeful because when our political idols come crumbling down, we experience what Tim Keller has called “disenchantment.” Like the old fairy tales, the most important moment in the story is when the spell is broken, when sight and sensibility return, and when we realize how captive we’ve been all along. In these moments, Keller says, when our idols suddenly disintegrate and blow away with the wind, we have a moment of opportunity. We can get real, own our idolatries, and run fast and far from the spell which bound us, re-enchanting our minds and hearts with the true story of the world and the expanding refuge found in the coming kingdom of God and the daily work we do to welcome that kingdom and free all who are oppressed by other powers. Or we can miss the moment, longing for the return of the comfortable and convenient sights and sounds of the seemingly enchanted world in which we lived for so long — that world in which we were the majority; that world in which we had cultural capital; that world in which we had societal respect and law-making powers; that world in which we got to take a break from our true identity as strangers and exiles searching for the city which has foundations.
When God graciously breaks the spell, that’s when we really have only two options: grasp those grains of disintegrating sandstone, or reach for the Rock of Ages and ask which way is truly up.
Because there’s another story we’re being told, and it’s the true story of the world. It’s the story Scripture tells, about the nations of the world and the kingdom of our God. If we’ll listen, and if we’ll have it, we just might be re-enchanted with a power that binds us all the way to freedom.
It’s found in that ancient text you have on the phone you’re holding, or maybe that gold-stamped book on your nightstand. It’s the story of a King who’s risen and a kingdom that cannot be shaken, the story of a King who announces at his most defeated moment that of course my servants aren’t fighting — my kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). It’s a story that tells us that God is at his best when the odds are stacked against him. It’s a story for the minority, for the stranger, for the outmatched and overrun. Because God’s people in every age are built for sojourner status. His strategies are Egyptian armies and Red Seas, skyborn manna and rock-produced water, Roman crosses and garden tombs.
But that’s not all. It’s not all divine sovereignty and no human responsibility. This Bible’s story doesn’t tell us to be apolitical. In fact, it tells us the most politicized story in all the world. It tells us of a cosmic King who trumps Caesar himself, who rules above all the principalities and powers that oppose him. It tells of an anointed King who sits in the heavens and laughs at the seated scoffers far below (Psalm 2:3 and 1:1). And it especially tells of a humble King who surrenders his righteous life to ransom these rebels and reorder a world torn apart by its own cosmic insurrection.
No, the Bible doesn’t tell us to be apolitical. It tells us how to be political: death, then resurrection; last, then first; humble, then exalted; weakness, then power; cross, then crown.
This story doesn’t tell us to disengage from the world, or only engage with the powers of the world every four years when we stomp and yell about our favorite candidate. It tells us to engage with this world every day, sharing the good news that idol-worshipers can be forgiven, that the self-righteous can come to their senses, that the broken can be made whole, that the poor and the stranger can be welcomed in. It tells us that Christian “politics” starts long before the voting booth and continues long after, as we cast our daily votes for the King himself, not in some naive “I’m-voting-for-Jesus!” way, but in a robust and textured and tapestried witness filled with virtue and service and witness and courage and love, and yes, every now and then, actual voting.
You know, you and I and every other Christian have a lot of political work to do in this election season. But most of that work has nothing to do with the election.
It happens when your family gathers around a table for 15 minutes each school morning and mutinies against the powers of earthly wisdom by teaching your children the Proverbs of Israel. It happens as you protect the sanctity of life by gathering at that nursing home to bless the elderly with young smiles and old hymns. It happens as you humbly ask your black Christian friends and your white Christian police officer friends how we can seek mutual understanding, peace, and reform in our communities. It happens with gracious controversial conversations outside abortion clinics, and with honest timecards at work, and with tithing generosity at church, and with free biblical counseling for struggling people, and with the subversive culture-shifting power of faithful mothering. And it especially happens each Sunday morning as we gather and fellowship and re-announce to the principalities and powers that our Christ has risen and the darkness is being dialed back no matter what they do.
I’m not doing anything unique or special with my life (as one politicized commenter reminded me). I worship with my church, lead my family, teach my students, write when I can, and fit in a few other small things here and there. But my life is entirely political, like every Christian’s, because my entire life gives testimony to the current and coming reign of the true King. I fail often, but I am seeking to serve as a vice-regent of that King, ordering my affairs and exercising dominion with grace and truth, wisdom and virtue, over the small sphere of influence he’s granted me. It’s quite re-enchanting, actually. And if that sounds naive or simplistic or like an anti-political, power-surrendering stance — if it just doesn’t sound powerful enough to you — I can only ask you, as graciously as I can, to double-check your grasp.
Mourn the nation, pray for wisdom, and vote your conscience. Then let’s do, together, the enchanted work God’s given us to do every single day of our Christian lives: keep building the kingdom that lasts forever.