As we march ever closer to the 2020 election, I want to continue exploring a Christian approach to politics. I see a tendency to equate “Christianity” with a political party, and/or specific candidates and/or specific issues. It just doesn’t work like that. And while a counter-tendency is to retreat and keep our religion and politics separate, it doesn’t work like that either.
Here’s the simple but difficult reality: following Jesus has huge implications for our engagement with politics, but following Jesus never allows us to be partisan.
In this post I want to interact with Tim Keller, whose writing has helped me process some issues of allegiance and social responsibility. In a New York Times article, Keller cites James Mumford in describing the concept of “package-deal ethics,” wherein “political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.” This is the pressure we all feel. We feel it from our political parties, from our families, from our churches, from our social media echo chambers, from our news sources. But partisanship is the not the way of Jesus.“Here’s the simple but difficult reality: following Jesus has huge implications for our engagement with politics, but following Jesus never allows us to be partisan.”
In a recent thread on Twitter, Keller unpacked some of the complexity of following Jesus without pledging our allegiance to a political party:
“The Bible binds my conscience to care for the poor, but it does not tell me the best practical way to do it. Any particular strategy (high taxes and government services vs low taxes and private charity) may be good and wise and may even be somewhat inferred from other things the Bible teaches, but they are not directly commanded and therefore we cannot insist that all Christians, as a matter of conscience, follow one or the other. The Bible binds my conscience to love the immigrant—but it doesn’t tell me how many legal immigrants to admit to the U.S. every year. It does not exactly prescribe immigration policy. The current political parties offer a potpourri of different positions on these and many other topics, most of which, as just noted—the bible does not speak to directly. This means when it comes to taking political positions, voting, determining alliances and political involvement, the Christian has liberty of conscience. Christians cannot say to other Christians ‘no Christian can vote for…’ or ‘every Christian must vote for…’ unless you can find a biblical command to that effect.”
This means that we can work together with certain people sometimes on some issues but not on other issues. It means we can disagree about even important policy choices while still being deeply committed to biblically vital pursuits like justice and compassion. It means that a follower of Jesus needn’t (and shouldn’t) subscribe to a party or platform, but should seek to follow Jesus in every situation. And it means that we shouldn’t be surprised to find other followers of Jesus taking different approaches than we do.
Notice that this is different than saying we should be centrists. The middle of the road is an arbitrary place that is still defined by the relative positions of “either side.” Again, we are not to take our cues from what one person or group believes. The call is to follow Jesus wherever he leads. In some areas, we may pursue practices and positions that align with the Republican Platform. In other areas, we might align with the Democratic Platform. We could find ourselves exactly in the center of some issues. But the point is NOT that we’re to be Republican, Democratic, or Centrist. The point is that we are to allow ourselves to be shaped by the priorities and pursuits of Jesus. We should never been concerned about which political entity this approach does or does not lead us to be aligned with at any given point.
I’m always on firm ground when I’m standing close to Jesus. It’s okay if I don’t know exactly what to do. If I’m reading, rereading, and meditating on the words, works, and ways of Jesus, then I’ll be more sensitive to recognizing his voice and following his leading when I engage in politics. And this will be even easier to discern when I’ve moved past allegiance to a specific party.
In his NYT article, Tim Keller hits on a crucial point that takes me back to something I wrote in an earlier post: in our political engagement, how we do it is at least as important as what we are seeking to accomplish. I’ll let Keller’s thoughts close this:
“The Gospel gives us the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally. Christians should think of how God rescued them. He did it not by taking power but by coming to earth, losing glory and power, serving and dying on a cross. How did Jesus save? Not with a sword but with nails in his hands.”