The Body Politic and the Body of Christ
A Conversation with Gordon’s Political Science Faculty
The fall 2016 issue of STILLPOINT is hot off the press, right in the midst of an unusually contentious electoral season. We are willing to bet you’ve been to at least one gathering lately that involved a solemn oath not to discuss politics. But what better time to ask Gordon’s political science faculty to weigh in? Not just on the particulars of this year’s “long, strange trip” (cue the Grateful Dead) but also on some of the more enduring themes of our lives as Christians and political creatures. What does the Body of Christ have to do with the Body Politic? Read the STILLPOINT feature story.
STILLPOINT: Tell me something important that I should know, as a Christian, about politics.
PAUL BRINK: My students smile when I say this: “Justice, not just-us.” From a Christian perspective, politics is most fundamentally about justice. This means that when Christians talk about serving Christ through political engagement, their first questions should be about justice. We need to recognize that the way we love our neighbors politically is to see that justice is done to our neighbors—even if we disagree with them on all sorts of important issues.
TIMOTHY SHERRATT: Given our human wants, failings, aspirations and destiny, we all are squarely in the middle of politics. American political culture emphasizes our individual liberties and, in that sense, our immunity from obligation. Christianity, by contrast, sheds light on us as social beings with mutual obligations. It sheds light on our human dignity as beings made in the image of God, and on our brokenness, both individually and collectivity—a brokenness that Scripture understands as original sin. It understands government as having vital but limited tasks: restraining wrongdoing through law, and making room for civil society to function and flourish.
MICHAEL JACOBS: Christians must not lose sight of God’s purpose for government, which includes promoting justice and order. Christian organizations tend to focus their efforts on advancing justice, which makes sense in many contexts. However, justice and order are interwoven. Justice cannot be maintained without order and order without justice is oppression. This is particularly clear in international contexts involving dysfunctional or non-existent political institutions. Foreign policies emphasizing one and losing sight of the other—justice instead of order, for instance—contributed to the current disarray in Libya, which now cannot be characterized as either stable or just.
RUTH MELKONIAN-HOOVER: God cares about all the nations. Christianity challenges us to see that excessive nationalism can be idolatrous and limits effective love of neighbor. Important as it is to seek justice within nations, Christianity calls us to seek global justice as well, not ignoring questions of geopolitics and the stakes for future generations.
SHERRATT: In the polarized atmosphere of current American politics, it has become acceptable to demonize opponents—often by wrapping one’s own policy preferences in the flag. Patriotism easily turns toxic when deployed this way. After all, if mine is the patriotic policy, then yours must reek of treachery, patriotism’s opposite. We should call on candidates and party organizations to disavow this kind of talk.
We also need to remember that politics does not offer final resolution of the issues it addresses. Whether in domestic or foreign policy, the purpose of politics is to do public justice, not to render Christ’s judgment. The budgets we debate today will need to be adjusted for tomorrow’s challenges. The trade agreements made with developing nations may need to change as those nations grow. Good politics is about good stewardship in the changing circumstances societies face, for the common good and the flourishing of human communities.
This kind of response will need to be articulated loud and clear, because conflict and the demonizing of one’s opponents have ballooned in this election cycle. Christians’ responses should begin in our churches. We can grasp the difference between preaching the good news, and serving Christ through political engagement—so let’s be sure that this is front and center in the ways we teach and encourage one another. Christians need to approach global challenges with a humble understanding of what the U. S. capable of fixing, and what it might make worse. Pursuing policies that may only make the world a little safer, and a little more just, are often the best option available and the wisest path to take.
BRINK: Many of talk as though the people across the aisle heard the same sermon we did last Sunday. This is not a path to public justice. Meanwhile, others of us are only too aware that we’re not the establishment—and so our central preoccupation is to get back what’s ours. And we actually talk that way!
In political life we can’t act as though we were in church. It’s not simply a matter of taking our Bible in hand, developing our moral “answer,” mixing in a little Golden Rule, and then heading off to Washington. It takes more work than that. We need to respect politics as politics—and see it as a task with its own legitimate authority and its own rules. And we need to see that the way we carry out our Christian witness in this area of life may look different than it does in other areas.
And no, this isn’t a compromise! Rather, it’s recognizing and respecting the radical diversity of creation. Look, we can recognize intuitively that in different spheres of life, we love our neighbors differently. The way we love our parents looks different from the way we love our roommates. The way we love our pastors looks different from the way we love hurricane victims, and they both look different from the way we love our marriage partners. In all these cases, we love our neighbors, but the way we carry out that love will be different, according to what each of these areas of life is all about.
MELKONIAN-HOOVER: In the past decade, a growing number of prominent evangelical leaders have supported versions of immigration reform that attempt to balance the moral imperatives of justice and mercy. They have been involved at the political and congregational level—lobbying members of Congress and the executive branch, issuing formal policy statements, writing editorials and educating faith communities.
In June 2012, a new coalition called the Evangelical Immigration Table was launched to support reform. Over 150 leaders signed on, representing organizations like Sojourners, World Vision, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family. These efforts have effectively brought together a wide range of evangelical leaders able to agree upon key principles, including support for legislation that would help unite families, respect the dignity of all, uphold the rule of law, secure borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers and establish a path toward legal status and/or citizenship.
But the EIT hasn’t been very successful at convincing white evangelicals—the most conservative subset of the American religious landscape—to support the immigration policies the coalition favors. And evangelical clergy don’t tend to preach or teach much about immigration. When they do, attitudes toward immigrants and about immigration policy shift in a more supportive direction. Messages from the pulpit and personal contact with immigrants help Christians see the moral components of the immigration issue and consider how to best balance law, justice and mercy.
JACOBS: In order to promote both justice and order, we need to clearly distinguish between the ideal and the possible. Most of us remember the era following the end of the Cold War as one of widespread peace and prosperity. The absence of international threats allowed the U.S. to focus on promoting democracy and human rights abroad. The Clinton administration inserted the advancement of human rights into the heart of U.S.–China relations, replacing security concerns as America’s primary focus in East Asia. Later, the second Bush administration viewed the establishment of democracy in the Middle East as the best way to defeat terrorism. After decades of siding with strongmen during the fight against communism, many Christians welcomed these changes in U.S. foreign policy.
But promoting Western values in non-western countries proved tougher than expected. Patrimonial societies and their dominant political interests rejected inclusive political institutions and widespread freedom. In China, Iraq and elsewhere, political elites resisted the U.S.-promoted liberal political changes that would disrupt traditional social structures and loosen their grip on power.
STILLPOINT: Ruth, a lot of your research in recent years has taken place outside the U.S., particularly in Latin America. How are international Christians faring in the public square?
MELKONIAN-HOOVER: In Brazil—which has the largest number of Protestants of any Latin American nation—the record of Christian political engagement is mixed. In the 1980s, when a military regime exited after 20 years in power, Brazilian Protestants became increasingly involved politically. They favored religious pluralism and they were able to help ensure that the new constitution of 1988 dis-established the Catholic Church and included protections for freedom of religion.
Yet today, Brazil’s political context is difficult for anyone to navigate. It has over 20 fragmented political parties, which are kept weak in part by an electoral system called open party list proportional representation—candidates often run more as personalities than as members of parties, and sometimes don’t even identify their parties in campaigns. In addition, in a typical legislative term, more than one-third of legislators will switch parties—so presidents and legislators can’t rely on strong party support. Presidents sometimes circumvent the chaotic legislature by issuing undemocratic executive decrees, and they sometimes rely on unethical means to garner support for legislation. This culminated most recently in the Petrobras/Workers Party scandal and the impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff.
Christians’ impact in this context has not been overwhelmingly positive, but there are signs of hope. In Brazil there are significant divisions within Protestantism, and many politicians new to the political arena take a simplistic approach that makes them easy targets for corruption and manipulation. Today the Bancada Evangelica (Evangelical Front), a coalition of dozens of conservative legislators elected in 2010, focuses primarily on culture war issues to the neglect of education and inequality issues. Some of its top leaders, such as former Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha, have been implicated in recent corruption scandals.
Yet we can also point to many Christian politicians who are carving out new spaces in the center and on the left, such as Congressman Carlos Bezerra Jr. and former senator Marina Silva, who ran for president two years ago. These Christian politicians increasingly are concerned not just with issues of personal morality, or church-related issues, but also with structural concerns and societal ills. They’re engaged for the long haul, patiently working to effect change.
Some of the dilemmas faced in Brazil are similar to dilemmas faced by Christians in the American context, with the weakness of American political parties, massive gridlock in Congress, and executive circumvention of our intransigent, chaotic legislature. Yet in Brazil, as in the U.S., many Christians see themselves as reformists, not giving up on doing justice and loving mercy in the public square.
STILLPOINT: Speaking of dilemmas, this is one strange electoral season. What’s your take on it?
SHERRATT: This present “season of discontent” is characterized by two things: discontent arising from more than two decades of polarization in the Congress that has soured political discourse and turned Americans’ already skeptical view of politics into outright cynicism; and a related surge of populist anger, on the left and right, that embraces angry spokespersons who offer radical change. This atmosphere of diminished trust in our political representatives may not directly fuel the anger over police shootings and retaliation against police that has reached such an ugly crescendo two years on from the events in Ferguson, but it makes resolution much more difficult.
It’s a tall order to suppose that Christians can step in with solutions! We can’t in the short term. But we have voices and votes, and with both we can call for a renewal of civil discourse, and refuse to give our support to candidates offering angry, divisive, often xenophobic “solutions.” As important as Christianity’s voices and votes may be in the public square, however, those calls should begin at home, in our churches. Christians need to learn how deep are the resources of the faith for addressing politics, and they need to teach and encourage fellow believers to explore them.
STILLPOINT: But does this make a difference when we actually vote?
BRINK: I think it does! To vote is part of our Christian calling to join with our fellow citizens to discern justice and pursue the common good together. This is a responsibility and a remarkable privilege—even when it is a daunting one.
But we should vote politically. Not all moral questions properly belong to the political sphere, and not all moral questions require a legislated response. So we need to think hard about the task of government and the nature of politics. We should also resist the temptation to see our principal task as judging the personal morality of candidates. Candidates’ personal morality pales in significance compared with their political morality. To assess how candidates see the role of government and how they regard the various questions we face, we need to consider each candidate’s programs, policy positions, and political principles.
And of course we should vote to pursue public justice. Our vote cannot be determined by calculations of self-interest (lower taxes for me, lower fuel prices for me, etc.). To love our neighbors in politics is to pursue justice for our neighbors. That doesn’t mean that we have to ignore the concerns of our own families and communities—the point, rather, is that such concerns have to be considered within the context of a robust norm of public justice.
STILLPOINT: Can we hope to pursue such robust ideals in our current political climate?
BRINK: Well, I do believe we should vote in hope. Like many others, I am not enthused about the options before voters in November. Over the long run, I’d love to consider how structural changes to our electoral system might provide better choices. Yet I know in politics what I also know to be true in the rest of life: that Christ is risen! A politics of resurrection means that the long, slow work of pursuing justice is not work in vain, and that even a choice between two less-than-sterling candidates is still a choice that has kingdom significance. Politics is messy, and American politics is particularly so, but the kingdom hope that is found in the Resurrection can carry Christians through the messiness of campaigns, into the voting booth, and on into the rest of our political lives.
SHERRATT: A common put-down of those who cast a write-in vote, or vote for a minor party candidate, is that these votes are pointless, or even benefit the “wrong” major party candidate. We need to set aside that criticism. Faced with an electoral system that effectively confines citizens’ choices to the candidates put forward by the Democratic and Republican parties, if a citizen rejects those options, it is much better to pick a minor party candidate or to write in their preference than not to participate at all. That holds true even when the candidates are not as deeply flawed as are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A vote for a minor party candidate is a positive action: the citizen remains engaged and active.
STILLPOINT: Does the current state of American politics ever discourage you?
JACOBS: Not if I keep in mind that Christians are supposed to seek to understand the intent of arguments from the other side. Let’s take a look at Scripture. In his second letter to the young church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wants the Corinthians to read him correctly, in particular to understand his intent. Even though his first letter contained correction and exhortation, he deeply cares about the Corinthians and desires the best for their spiritual development.
Differences in perceived intent lead to variations in understanding. Take Genesis 3:9, for instance. After Adam ate the forbidden fruit, God called out to him, “Where are you?” How do you read this? Is God, in righteous anger, shaking his fist at Adam? Or is God, wringing his hands, heartbroken over his now broken relationship with his beloved?
We often focus exclusively on points of disagreement. But people who support different policies than we do have noble aims, too. The populist wants better economic opportunities; the conservative seeks flourishing families; and the liberal wants aid for the vulnerable. Take your argument to the public square, but listen to others like they are made in the image of God, treasured by the Creator, and as if Jesus died for them—because they are, he does, and Christ did—hopefully you’ll find politics not quite so discouraging.