Now that the election is over, we can get back to the real work of politics. I don’t say that to disparage what happens with presidential elections, it’s obviously hugely important. But as I’ve been arguing, we must keep politics in proper perspective.
With the election of Joe Biden, Donald Trump has become what’s known as a lame duck president, meaning that he’s still technically “in power” but is limited in what he can accomplish because his administration is coming to a close.
That’s actually a perfect illustration of what our human politics are actually like.
James K. A. Smith argues that we should view politics with greater nuance than siding with either Republicans or Democrats. We should not think that politics are unimportant, nor should we imagine that all of our problems have political solutions. Instead, he calls us to view our political engagement in terms of an overlap of kingdoms. Yes, we have human governments and authorities. And yes, God’s kingdom rules over all. While we’re sometimes taught to separate these powers (a separation of church and state kind of argument) and keep politics out of religion and vice versa, Smith calls us to acknowledge that Christianity has political ramifications and makes political claims, and also that political leaders make religious claims and carry religious implications.
Here’s how it works:
“It’s not that ‘secular’ authorities have full authority over a limited jurisdiction; they have only delegated authority for a time” (James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Reforming Public Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017, 159).
So how do we get to work politically now that the election is over? Not by moving back into a siloed world of religion while we let politics take its course. Nor by getting caught up in party politics. Instead, the call now—as always—is to be drawn so closely into the words, works, and ways of Jesus that he shapes every area of our life, including our public life together (which is what politics are ultimately about).
Smith quotes the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan on the way the first Christian stood up to the insanely harmful Roman political leaders of the first few centuries: “The church addressed society and it addressed rulers. Its success with the first was the basis of its great confidence in confronting the second… Christ conquered the rulers from below, by drawing their subjects out from under their authority.”
This means that those early Christians didn’t base everything on who gained or lost power in the empire. It mattered, of course, whether the ruler was actively killing people for their faith or whether they were allowed to live in peace. But the early church got busy showing regular people who Jesus was and helping them discover all of the implications of his life and death on their behalf. O’Donovan is saying that this effort was so effective that eventually the Roman leaders had to face that their political power was being undermined by the faith commitments of individual people.
I’m not saying that we need to only worry about individual souls and not politics. What I’m suggesting is that we take a deep breath now that the election is over and get back to the real work of (1) introducing people to Jesus’ revolutionary love and (2) doing whatever is in our own limited spheres of power to help the principles of the Kingdom of Christ become reality in the here and now (read Matthew 5–7 for what those principles entail).“The governing authorities matter, but all of their power is delegated from the only one who has true authority. And their authority is a temporary, relativized, lame-duck authority.”
Smith, a Canadian, gives the example of taking international flights from Toronto to the U.S. When he goes to the international gate, there is an overlap of jurisdiction. He waits for his flight on Canadian soil, but he’s gone through American security protocols and uses American dollars in the terminal. He’s sort of in American jurisdiction, but if there were an emergency, Canadian authorities would respond. These are the strange overlapping dynamics we experience in terms of the kingdom of God and governmental authority. There’s ambiguity, there’s overlap. The governing authorities matter, but all of their power is delegated from the only one who has true authority. And their authority is a temporary, relativized, lame-duck authority. How that authority gets used matters, but we ultimately owe our allegiance to a God who exceeds their authority and who is working in this world in ways that are far more powerful than anything a government can come up with.
So let’s continue following Jesus and his kingdom. As O’Donovan says, God has no spies. Instead, he sends prophets to speak truth to power and to call every person and every area of society to bow the knee to Jesus’ kingship. That work matters whether our candidate is in power or not. It matters whether it’s an election year or not. And that’s work we can stay busy pursuing even during a human transition of “power.”