Why An Apolitical Christian Faith Doesn’t Exist (If You Listen to Jesus)

You should stick to preaching the Gospel and stay out of politics! – A reader

I get this frequently, especially in an election year.

I’m not sure what “Gospel” this nice gentleman was referring to but it certainly isn’t the one Jesus mentioned:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come – Jesus, Luke 4:18-19

Every so often I am similarly chided by a well-meaning friend, complete stranger, or soon-to-be-disconnecting social media pal for being “too political” as a Christian and/or as a pastor.

I’ve long ago learned that this is carefully constructed code language, which almost always can be translated as, “The personal faith convictions which you are expressing publicly are now bumping up against my belief system and this makes me uncomfortable and I want to make you stop.” Invariably this discomfort yields the above mentioned stern scoldings designed to make a person of faith feel guilty for their religious beliefs or statements, on the grounds that they’re overstepping their bounds and somehow embarrassing God.

Embedded in this reprimand is the myth that there is somehow a way of being spiritual without also being political; some sharp, easily identifiable, universally accepted line delineating the sacred from the secular, the supernatural from the practical, religious matters from civil ones—and that Church People can and should learn to “stay in their lane”.

Here’s the only problem with such suggestions: If you are a committed person of any faith, life is the lane. It’s all spiritual.

I am a follower of Jesus and a pastor, and for me this means that my Christian faith isn’t an isolated activity that I engage in between many other non-religious activities. My faith is the very lens through which I view everything and it likewise informs every facet of my life: the work I do, the words I write, the causes I support, how I spend my money, how I experience community, the way I vote, how I see and discuss the world. To suggest I separate my faith from any area of my life is like asking ask my brain to function independently from my circulatory system. The two are ultimately the same thing. Their existence is one of interdependence.

Granted, many American Christians have somehow managed to construct something called Religion that allows such a disconnect and that’s where we’ve gotten this spirituality thing all twisted up.

Many practice a strangely compartmentalized faith, one where a docile, well-behaved Jesus remains quietly confined in a church building all week-long, just waiting for them to show up for an hour to sing a few songs to him before departing until the following weekend. In other words, they see and divide their time neatly between a spiritual life and the rest of life—and they believe God is perfectly fine with it. This is the kind of thinking that allows so many folks to go to church for sixty minutes on Sunday and to be largely horrible outside of that time, without much of a concern.

For far too many people, praying, singing, reading the Bible, and listening to sermons are “spiritual things” and they comprise the breadth of what religion should be and what they deem acceptable. Anything bleeding out beyond the church walls or private prayer time (especially stuff that conflicts with their beliefs) is quickly labeled political and therefore declared off-limits.

This isn’t how faith works.

Please hear that I fully resist the idea of America as a Theocracy in any form. The dubious moment sixty or so years ago when the Religious Right shacked up with our political system and produced that twisted love child now all-too commonly known as American Evangelicalism, is one of the most destructive and embarrassing moments in our recent national history.

This toxic alliance has given birth to and nurtured the dangerous lies that:
1) God is American.
2) America is Christian.
3) The GOP has the exclusive rights to Jesus and they get to make sure that the first two rules are both strictly guarded and fiercely enforced.

I am not at all saying any of this.

Our nation’s initial decision to officially separate Church and State wisely makes sure that no group of religious people of any kind can enforce their beliefs on our civic system. This is good and right, but to ask someone to separate their personal faith from the world they live in is impossible. The very idea that a person of my or any faith convictions has a tidy little fenced off area where they “do their religion” is ludicrous and rather demeaning at its core. What kind of spirituality with any depth or meaning begins and ends in with a weekend church service? What type of moral compass isn’t intended to be used in the trenches of everyday life?

People who chastise Christians for being political (even fellow Christians) simply aren’t paying attention to what Jesus taught, did, or called the faithful to do. He wasn’t urging people to withdraw into a cloistered, monk-like religious bubble existence, and he wasn’t asking them to suppress their beliefs to keep the peace with the culture around them either.

Jesus was equal parts gentle personal pastor and subversive community activist.
He was compassionate shepherd to the sheep in his care, and he was a defiant defender squarely up in the snorting faces of the wolves.
He gave equal time to transforming people’s hearts and to renovating social structures.
If we try to only hold on to one aspect and not the other, we do so at the risk of creating and replicating a counterfeit Jesus.

While he absolutely taught the virtues of one’s personal spirituality he did so while calling people in community to publicly respond to the injustices in the world. He preached a countercultural Kingdom of Heaven/God which stood in sharp contrast to the Roman Empire, the strongest political force in the world at the time. To be obedient to God and faithful to the teachings of Jesus in this time, by its very nature became a political statement. It had to, because of how differently it called a person to live in the world. Nothing has changed.

Ultimately, are these political matters or spiritual ones?
Eliminating poverty?
Caring for the planet?
Ensuring equality for all people?
Confronting violence and bigotry?
Caring for sick people?
Avoiding war?
Protecting the vulnerable and young in our midst?
Fighting government corruption?

Clearly if one is a person of faith these matters have to be both—or that faith is rather neutered and inconsequential.

I would never propose that another human being (religious or not) should ever be required to share my personal faith convictions or that those convictions should be the law of the land or guide their vote. But I refuse to censor those convictions or to be bullied or shamed into believing that to share them in any number of ways, is somehow bad form for a respectable Christian. It’s Christ’s form, and ultimately that’s who I need to take my cue from.

Friend, whether you identify as Christian or not, my faith does not need to be your faith but don’t expect that faith to stay only where you believe it is supposed to be to keep you comfortable. You don’t get to decide that. I don’t even get to either.

If you’re a professed Christian and you believe that your faith in Christ can be separated from anything else or that it can be politically neutral, I’m going to suggest that your heart has not yet been fully saturated by the Jesus you’re claiming.

When it has been, you’ll realize that your entire life is spiritual and that everything is on the table—and you’ll speak into all of it.

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53 thoughts on “Why An Apolitical Christian Faith Doesn’t Exist (If You Listen to Jesus)

  1. Jesus exposed institutionalised corruption, political and religious hypocrisy and injustices of all kinds. But, ultimately, he did this not for conventional political gain but to create a fairer and more just society; one which placed at its heart the immeasurable value of human life. The issue here is that Jesus exposed the ills of society and was certainly not quiet about it. His strength of conviction was such that he was regarded a rebel and someone who should be monitored by the authorities for his capacity to shake-up the status quo, mobilise the crowds and wake people up to injustices. What corrupt institutions and people fear more than anything is the general public having access to their lies. Jesus would have been vociferous about exposing truth but would equally have understood truth with ease. And there lies a problem…we are so conditioned to not think critically any more that truth does not come easily for us. We are so desensitised to death, destruction and atrocities that we barely raise an eyebrow when watching it on the news. We are so accepting of the continuous rubbish pumped out through the media that we have virtually lost all our powers of discernment. The result is a very confused and shallow minded society that would struggle to recognise injustice even if it was hit across the face with it. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that Jesus politics would probably focus on educating the public first. Helping you and me to better understand where the injustices lie, their origins and what they’re really all about.

    • You said: “The result is a very confused and shallow minded society that would struggle to recognise injustice even if it was hit across the face with it.”

      I usually end that sentence: “hit across the face with a wet tuna.”

      So—-you see it too—huh? Lord help us all.

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  3. Excellent, Dean! Wonderful posting! (for some reason, I could not directly reply….)

    One minor comment is that there are Boomers and there are Boomers – I think what you’ve described is somewhat more typical of Early Boomers (those born 1946-1951) than Late Boomers (1957 – 1964; me – 1958 Baby); my retirement age is 67 and not 65, and some of the benefits that Early Boomers realized weren’t as available to the Late Boomers – still, you’re point on!

    I remember my first visit, in 2000 to the California Institution for Women (CIW), Corona, California; I actually live within walking distance of the California Institution for Men (CIM), Chino, California, and 10 miles from CIW – for people in the surrounding areas, these places simply do not exist, nor do the people in them – when I started visiting as part of a prison ministry and realized “there for the grace of God go I” – I began to see poverty, the poor, the prisoner in a different light.

    Now, some women are at CIW because they truly need to be there, and society needs for them to be there – some women are there because they’re poor, and some women are there because they were stupid – our criminal justice system would do well to know the differences…………..

    • By stupid, do you mean:

      “Stand by your man…doo…doo…doo while he robs Wal-Mart at gunpoint…doo…doo…doo. He’s getting all the cash he can. So, stand by-y-y-y-y-y-y-y your man.”

  4. As a neopagan, I appreciate this deeply. In this, I agree totally; my faith is also not a matter of keeping the eight holidays and the full and new moons. It is a matter of living, and of how I live. I have no quarrel with Christianity; I do with the Christians who want to take away my autonomy as a woman and tell me that some love is wrong, perverted, and unequal. I quarrel with those who strip-mine the poor and tell the people who boiled their boots for soup last week to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And I quarrel with those who think that the more you make it hard to live with a disability, the more likely you’ll stop being disabled and get a job.

    God doesn’t call us to a comfortable existence; if it’s too easy, you’re doing it wrong. But I would walk no other path.

  5. Thank you! As a retired pastor I used to get the same message as you do. “Stick to preaching the Gospel!” This was usually said by those whose biases went to the “right” on the political spectrum. Your list of concerns is right on, though I wonder if political pressure to end abortion rights by religious groups can ever be resolved. My own view is that I speak of my concerns around terminating pregnancies as a means of birth control while at the same time I do not want the federal government dictating a woman’s right to chose. I live in this tension and it is sometimes very disconcerting.

    Thanks for your article
    The Rev. Richard T. Middleton

  6. An Advanced Degree in Thinking
    By Robert Winkler Burke
    Book #4 of In That Day Teachings
    3/21/09 http://www.inthatdayteachings.com

    What I needed was a retarded,
    Oops! I mean, advanced degree in thinking,
    So I immersed myself in fantastic,
    Oops! I mean, enlightened Christian preaching.

    Me and tens of millions of deceived,
    Oops! I mean, genius Christians did this,
    So on elections we would be fooled,
    Oops! I mean, ruled without prejudice.

    We also learned when fleeced how to stop it,
    Oops! I mean, to not touch God’s own anointed,
    So when voting for US President our trance,
    Oops! I mean, our spirit picked the one appointed.

    I just thank God for my education from antichrist,
    Oops! I mean Christian broadcasting,
    I’m happy, no honored, to send money to them,
    Oops! I mean to employees governing.

    People who don’t understand my compliance, I hate,
    Oops! I mean, I kindly, compassionately tolerate,
    Who cares? Our leaders from pulpit to capitol devour,
    Oops! I mean, have our best interests at stake.

    My pulpit and political leaders fly high in their hubris,
    Oops! I mean, wonderful executive jets,
    My pulpit and political leaders are selfish cannibals,
    Oops! I mean, selfless workers for my best!

    Christian Broadcast has made me profoundly un-American,
    Oops! I mean, the perfect patriot,
    When demagogues speak and do evil, I’m so deaf and blind,
    Oops! I mean, I’ll agree to whatnot.

    My friends say my brain is full of twisted propaganda,
    Oops! I mean so Christ-like and Christ-emanating,
    They see the doctrines I was immersed uncritically in,
    Oops! They’re now arrested, due for terminating.

    Behold, Jesus is now in my refined soul quickly coming!
    Oops! I mean I’ll soon be raptured,
    I’m not lazy, but it’s fun to watch evil in my soul grow!
    Oops! Which god has me captured?

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  8. Jesus didn’t get killed for bouncing babies on his knees. He was killed by politicians for very good reasons. He was guilty as charged, no matter how much that wasn’t the truth. If churches were following instead of merely believing, I bet there would be much more interest. The churches are dying, and well they should be, for they’ve left the Way of Jesus long behind.
    Thanks for bringing these truths before us. Keep it up. All of us disciples need to support each other.

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