Stuck in the Swamp: Contemplating Evangelical Enmeshment in Politics
originally published at ABTS Lebanon and on Ethics Daily
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:6)
One interpretation of those strange words of Jesus understands “pigs” and “dogs” to be an intentionally vague reference to Gentile (i.e. Roman) political authority. In the view of this exegete, speaking explicitly against Rome was not Jesus’ intention, so the “pig” and “dog” language allowed the Jewish listeners to discern his meaning while concealing it just enough. Jesus was not concerned with Rome per se, but warning Israel’s religious leaders against their cozy cohabitation with Roman authorities. It was, after all, the good graces of the Romans that allowed the Jews to reconstruct and expand the temple to its most glorious state in history. The “holy things” and “pearls” referred to by Jesus indicate the institutions of Jewish worship, especially the temple which was in league with Rome and under its protection.
While it may not be the only legitimate understanding of the passage, given the fate of the Jewish temple in AD70 and the dispersion of the Jewish people as a result, one might say that Jesus’ prediction of the trampling of the holy things and attacking the holy people came about in terrifying ways. The pigs did indeed trample the pearls.
So much has been written on the relationship between political power and Jesus’ kingdom, that it seems superfluous to say anything. But, much like God’s people of the Old Testament, we forget.
When Jesus returned from the wilderness, having routed Satan after his baptism and declaration by the Father to be His own dearly-loved Son, he proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God. Contrary to much contemporary thought, he was not promising a future arrival of God’s kingdom, but announcing that it had arrived and was now present because he, the king, was present. It was an audacious claim—one that challenges and potentially subverts every loyalty, political and otherwise.
Just to be clear, Jesus was not apolitical. He was not saying “you can have your earthly leaders but remember that one day you’ll be in heaven where I’ll be the king.” Nor was he saying “Herod is king over your land, but I am king over your souls.” The kingdom of God called for absolute loyalty as it overlaid the kingdoms of this world, calling its subjects to join him as a living demonstration of God’s kingdom, as salt and light in their societies (Matt 5:13-16).
The sordid histories of both institutional Christianity and Islam are replete with political and military enmeshment. Our Christian forbears left us the legacy of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Wars of Religion—sterling examples of what happens when sincere obedience to Jesus is subverted by a political/military/economic agenda, endorsed by clergy.
Islam fared no better as the successive Muslim empires raided and pillaged in the name of Allāh. At least Islam claimed to be a political institution whereas Jesus clearly rejects the notion of coercion. One might forgive the new atheists for their accusation that religion is responsible for more bloodshed than materialist philosophies and worldviews. When political power is coupled with divine right, the outcome is disastrous.
Interestingly, the question of religion and politics is at the forefront of unfolding dramas in both the Middle East (Lebanon especially, but also Iraq) and the United States. Though much could be said about Lebanon’s desire for a non-sectarian government, I leave that to my Lebanese friends to consider (see recent IMES blog posts). Here, I focus on the question in the United States, which has repercussions in the Middle East and around the world.
Since the Regan era and the Moral Majority, Evangelicals have flirted with, and sometimes married political power. Many hold that the United States was founded on “Christian principles.” This line of reasoning touts the victories of the current Republican administration in appointing conservative Supreme Court justices as evidence that political alignments can save lives and thereby save a society adrift on a sea of post-Christian relativism. There is a great deal of talk about “reclaiming America for Christ” or returning the country to the Christian vision of the founding fathers.
Beware of casting your pearls before swine, lest they trample them and then turn again and rend you!
In this confusing era, all-or-nothing thinking will not suffice. Doubtless the current US administration has contributed to vital issues which Christians have engaged in a long struggle to uphold (e.g. protecting the unborn). There are, however, other questions which must be faced squarely. These include truth-telling, the dignity and equality of all ethnicities, gun violence, mutuality and respect between genders, mercy to those in need (e.g. refugees and asylum seekers), commitments to long-standing allies, fiscal responsibility, civility in speech and interaction, exploiting political office for personal gain, the perils of Evangelical alignment with an “America first” agenda, etc.
When Christianity Today produced an editorial calling for the impeachment of the current president and his removal from office, a firestorm ignited in the press and among Christians. A subsequent call to dialogue on the issue stressed that CT has a responsibility to speak on behalf of the global body of Christ. The magazine pointed out that the current president enjoys broad support of US evangelicals which sends a confusing message to Christians around the world.
Is the answer for Evangelicals to remain apolitical? No.
By establishing the Kingdom on earth, Jesus Christ subverted political loyalties to earthly powers. Our engagement in that Kingdom is not a call for withdrawal from the kingdoms of the world, but a summons to infiltrate them as salt and light. Think of yourself as an ambassador of Jesus’ Kingdom within your society.
Those who belong to Christ can legitimately celebrate the good accomplished by a political system, but never to the exclusion of exposing its evil and injustice. Jesus-followers are not passive in regard to politics, but actively engaged, speaking and acting in ways that reflect the values of Jesus’ Kingdom. Thoughtful followers of Jesus will disagree on a variety of issues and concerns. So this engagement will require considerate dialogue and a willingness to embrace those who differ. “Embrace” in this sense is to suspend judgment long enough to see and learn from the perspective of our brothers and sisters. We need a “salt and light” dialogue among Christians even as we engage in our respective political systems.
In the words of Timothy Dalrymple, President and CEO of Christianity Today, “In a political landscape dominated by polarization, hostility, and misunderstanding, we believe it’s critical for Christians to model how to have a firm opinion and host free discussion at the same time. Evangelicals of different stripes cannot continue to shout one another down, bully those who disagree, or exclude one another and refuse to listen.”
Maybe how we engage politically will demonstrate who is our legitimate King.
Whether we’re demonstrating in Beirut or Baghdad or watching the impeachment trial in the US, there remains only one ultimate loyalty for all Jesus-followers.
1 Stassen G and Gushee D. (2003) Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, p. 457-459.