Is Following Jesus a "Politic?"
(published on the ABTS blog, 7 Oct 2020)
Is following Jesus a “politic?” That question is perhaps the latest step in a life-long progression. Early in life I was taught that Jesus saved me from my sin so I could go to heaven when I die. Later came the realization that being a “Christian” meant I should change my behavior. As I went through life, I learned that my faith had implications for every decision and relationship. I began to see following Jesus as a way of life. Then, my adult mind perceived that the Christian faith is a worldview—a way to answer life’s biggest questions (e.g. What is my purpose? How do I understand the world? Who is God and who am I?). The faith I professed grew from a private matter to a public reality. The realization pushed me further to understand history through the lens of following Jesus. It was inescapable…politics, economics, philosophy, science, etc., had to be interpreted through the lens of faith. This thing I called “following Jesus” just kept growing, pushing me to bring the reality of faith to every aspect of my social and intellectual life.
I also came to understand that Jesus established a kingdom which he called the kingdom of God or of heaven. Jesus demanded uncompromising loyalty to himself. Entry into his kingdom was voluntary, but it came at a high price—denying oneself to take up a cross (i.e. a means of death) and follow Jesus. Accordingly, the kingdom dynamic spills over into every area of life. Aspects of life that I once considered beyond the pale of faith were now sucked into the gravitational pull of Jesus’ kingdom. Nothing was exempt.
I’m nearing 60 and I thought that progression was complete. Then I read a little book by Lee Camp titled Scandalous Faith: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians. Camp says following Jesus is a “politic.” The mere mention of Jesus and “politic” in the same sentence felt scandalous! I was OK to interpret the mess of politics through the lens of faith, but seeing the faith itself as a “politic” was different. So I read the book with my guard up. The last thing I wanted to do was drag my beautiful and life-altering faith into the swamp of politics, especially given the political drama being played out in my homeland these days. But I admit, Camp is messing with my mind.
Here’s how he describes a “politic.”
…by politic I mean an all-encompassing manner of communal life that grapples with all the questions the classical art of politics has always asked: How do we live together? How do we deal with offenses? How do we deal with money? How do we deal with enemies and violence? How do we arrange marriage and families and social structures? How is authority mediated, employed, ordered? How do we rightfully order passions and appetites? … Where is human history headed? What does it mean to be human? And what does it look like to live in a rightly ordered human community that engenders flourishing, justice, and the peace of God? (loc 130)
I had come to the conclusion that faith in Christ has political implications. But this author says it goes beyond that. The faith of Christ is a politic.
It does not mean, by the way, that following Jesus signs me up for a particular party or that we form a new “Jesus party.” That was a relief! No “God party,” please! Spare us!
In fact, Camp goes the other direction. While following Christ is a politic, it is not, nor can it be partisan. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness gives the lie to his followers seeking temporal power. “The cult of greatness and imperialist power is explicitly rejected in the New Testament, tantamount to ‘bowing down to Satan’." The book is a stark warning not to cozy up to a political party under the false pretense that it is the best representation of Jesus’ kingdom.
Instead he suggests followers of Jesus live “proleptically.” It is a grammatical term, indicating that a future reality is so sure that one lives according to that reality in the present. The author illustrates the concept. He calls up the stairs to his son, “David, I’m in the car.” David responds, “No you’re not dad. You’re standing in the kitchen.". It is a proleptic statement. Dad wants his son to hurry so he describes a future state as though it were true right now.
Jesus inaugurated his kingdom. It is present and active here and now through his people. The loyal subjects of that kingdom cannot embrace a “might makes right” power dynamic for the simple but compelling reason that Jesus rejected it. They practice hospitality, generosity, peace, truth-telling and suffering love (loc 423). They reject the cultural narrative of special interests and political correctness. The “real world” is not the current power structure. It is the coming reality. So we live in the current system, oriented toward the kingdom reality. We do that because faith is the assurance of what we hope for. It is, in fact, here now (inaugurated), to be consummated in the future.
The resurrection of Jesus is not about “going to heaven when we die.” Rather, it is a public vindication of the Jesus way over against the imperial arrogance that tortured and mocked and ultimately killed the Son of God. It is the beginning of the end of history…the inauguration of the kingdom.
There’s a lot more to say about Camp’s book. He unpacks fifteen propositions in his suggested manifesto. All the usual caveats apply: I’m not endorsing the book in every detail. I am only suggesting that what he says deserves our attention, especially for the readers of this blog, whether in the East or the West. In Lebanon, despite the courageous response of many believers, special interest politics along sectarian lines have proven corrupt and incompetent to order society. The result is a tsunami of cynicism and despair. In the US, leading evangelicals have largely identified with a particular political party, seeking to leverage their influence for public policy gains. Confused onlookers scratch their heads as self-proclaimed followers of Jesus celebrate the success of their political coercion. If you have ever wondered if that identification is a betrayal of Jesus’ true kingdom, Camp’s book provides some underpinning to that conviction, warning us that the kingdom of Jesus will not be co-opted. And, by the way, the author is not promoting a liberal agenda to undermine conservatism. In fact, his book helpfully questions that polarization, but you’ll have to read it for more on that.
For me, the book reinforced an audacious faith that Jesus’ people living proleptically loyal to his kingdom remain the best hope for our world. The book urges me to go public with truth, to carefully discern policies on both the left and the right side of the current divide with the great commands of Jesus as my ethical “true north.” I should engage critically, not merely in view of what suits my personal or tribal interests. For that, I’m thankful to Lee Camp and I hope his book gets a wide readership both as an apologetic to skeptics and a guide to confused disciples, disillusioned by those who reduce the faith to political partisanship.
The progression I mentioned earlier was brought on largely by a life journey that links my homeland (the US) with my adopted homelands in the Middle East. In every setting, the question of how faith relates to public life has been crucial not only for me but for those societies. Both Muslims and Christians ask these questions. We need help to think clearly, biblically, “Christianly.” I had often exempted my faith from politics. I am now re-thinking my approach to that question. Perhaps our faith can be described as a politic—a way of ordering life, both public and private—as we await Jesus’ consummation of his kingdom. Perhaps political loyalty to Jesus, proleptic in nature, is what love of neighbor looks like in society.