“You should stay out of politics and stick to preaching the Gospel.” – Bill, a Christian
Several times a day I’m chided by a well-meaning friend, complete stranger, or soon-to-be-disconnecting social media acquaintance for being “too political” as a Christian and or as a pastor. Curiously, I most frequently I hear these sentiments from Conservative Christians—and I’m never quite sure what “Gospel” they want me to stick 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)
I’ve long ago learned that this carefully constructed code language can almost always be translated as, “The personal faith convictions which you are expressing publicly are now bumping up against my daily life—and this makes me uncomfortable and I want to make you stop.”
Embedded in the 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 lanes”.
The only problem with such suggestions, is that if you are a committed person of any faith tradition, life is the lane. It’s all spiritual stuff.
For me, this means that my faith isn’t an isolated activity that I engage in between many other non-religious ones. It 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 spirituality from any area of my life is like asking ask my brain to function independently from my circulatory system. The two are ultimately inextricably linked. Their existence is symbiotic.
Granted, many American Christians have somehow managed to construct something they’ve named Religion which allows such a disconnect. Many practice a strangely compartmentalized faith, one where they divide their time neatly between a spiritual life and the rest of life. This kind of thinking allows many folks to go to church for sixty minutes on the weekend—and to be largely unaffected by Jesus the rest of the week. It also allows them to openly support politicians without a trace of Christ’s benevolence, compassion, or humility. It enables them to claim they emulate the healer Jesus, while taking healthcare from tens of millions of people.
For far too many Christians, being in a building on Sunday and praying, singing, reading the Bible are “spiritual things.” Anything bleeding out beyond the church walls (especially stuff that inhibits their personal comfort or established prejudices) is quickly labeled political and therefore declared off-limits. This isn’t how faith works.
Christians who chastise other believers for being political 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 religious bubble existence, and he wasn’t asking them to suppress their beliefs to keep the peace with the culture around them—even the prevailing religious system that claimed to speak for God.
Jesus was equal parts gentle personal pastor and subversive community activist.
He was compassionate shepherd to the sheep in his care, and 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, Jesus 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:
Caring for the planet?
Ensuring equality for all people?
Confronting violence and bigotry?
Caring for sick people?
Protecting the vulnerable and young in our midst?
Fighting government corruption?
If one is a person of faith these matters have to be both—or that faith is rather neutered and inconsequential.
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 the twisted love child that is the current Republican Party—is one of the most destructive and embarrassing moments in our recent national history and that of the Church as well.
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 and necessary—but to ask someone to separate their personal beliefs 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.
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. 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.
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 ever 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 find yourself called to more than a political party or even your own country. You’ll realize that your entire life is spiritual and that everything is on the table—and you’ll speak loudly into all of it.