The title to this post gets at the heart of a discussion that is growing broader and more lively by the day among Christians in America. What is often disguised as simply another part of the broader dichotomous political debate in the United States (Liberals/Conservatives; Democrats/Republicans; us/them) really fails to wrestle with the more troubling and prevailing presupposition – the uncritical jump into the political machine by Christians as part of their faith responsibility. The question of “Who should I vote for?” or “What should I vote for?” or “What party should I register for?” et al. fail to deal with the more fundamental and essential question – “What is the relationship between discipleship and citizenship?” or put another way – “What is role of the disciple in politics?”
While this topic is certainly too broad to cover in a blog post, I want to begin to open the topic for reflection over the next several posts. In this opening installment, there are several biblical texts to consider in our efforts to unpack this complicated topic a bit.
The Old Testament paradigm is only moderately helpful here as the entire Old Testament system centered on a theocratic government – something that was obviously replaced by New Testament times. What of discipleship and citizenship in the New Testament?
Jesus’ ministry offers a few insights into his relationship with the governing bodies of his time. We know that Joseph and Mary obliged following a government-decreed census in going to Bethlehem. Herod’s pursuit of the babies in Bethlehem leaves an early indication (in Jesus’ life) that governments and political powers can run contrary to the will and intention of God. I would argue that this tension between Christ and the ruling authorities simply anticipates a lifelong tension that Jesus would deal with. It was ultimately by the political power of Pilate that Christ would be crucified (which is not to discount the power that the religious establishment played in prompting the murder).
It is interesting to note that, in accepting death on a cross, Jesus chooses NOT to pursue his political options. “What options could he possibly had?” comes the question. I don’t want to make Pilate seem like a good guy (he certainly was not), but doesn’t the text of Matthew allude to the fact that Pilate was trying to get Jesus out of this situation? (see Matthew 27: 11 ff.) Again, I am not saying Pilate’s motives were pure or anything like that, but, politically speaking, I believe Jesus could have lobbied himself out of this situation. If this is so, it begs the question, why did he choose the way of the cross?
Theologically speaking, the cross was certainly a unique event in the unfolding of the salvation narrative. In that vein, I’m not sure how far the implications can be brought, but I do think it is a fair place to begin. Peter was certainly open to other options the night before in Gethsemane. What of his other political interactions during his ministry?
We immediately bring to mind the instance which prompted Jesus’ teaching “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12: 13 – 17). At a elementary level we can affirm precedence for paying taxes – even when we believe the taxes will eventually, at some point fund programs/events/whatever that are contrary to Christ. I find the vast majority of this nation’s military industrial complex to be contrary to the nature of Christ, but in light of this text, feel justified in paying my due tax burden.
But note the response by Christ here – give to Caesar what is his. Jesus highlights a dichotomy that will later be drawn out further by Peter in 1 Peter 2: 9 – 12. Aliens and strangers. With that later text in mind, it is clear to see it reiterating Christ’s teaching on taxes – those taxes are for the people that are residents here, not us aliens. Pay them in order to keep the peace (1 Peter 2: 12 says to live such good lives among the pagans that . . .)
It is often cited that Jesus didn’t actively demand centurions and other government employees to leave their positions. As an argument from the silence of Scripture, that is problematic, but there is also a sense that revelation is progressing . . . remember, we’ve already acknowledged that the ways of the Old Testament have changed . . . progressed . . .
Life in the rest of the New Testament expounds upon the dichotomy cited above. Paul’s political involvement seems limited to times when it would protect him and benefit the Gospel (ie. invoking Roman citizenship for protections). However, to view Paul or any of the New Testament players as political activists would require a great deal of imagination. Instead, throughout Acts the leaders face confrontations with the political leaders. Peter’s statement early in Acts represents well the divisive situation “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4: 19).
A lot more needs to be said, but this seems a good place to stop for today. I would summarize my perspective on the above conversation this way: The overarching theological perspective provided by the New Testament text is that Christians are part of a kingdom (an overtly political word – more on that later). The nature of that kingdom is very similar to Israel’s early existence in Egypt – strangers and aliens – displaced people. The idea of an “illegal alien” in our current political debate should be a concept for us to embrace and relate to (unfortunately, too many people never get past their political angst regarding the term to appreciate the theological illustration). As illegal aliens, we enjoy the system in place. We drive on their roads, we buy and sell and trade their goods, we work their jobs . . . so long all is consistent with our faith.
Christ’s death on the cross as the Suffering Servant is the chief piece of my understanding of the New Testament’s teaching on politics. Jesus chose intentionally to silently let the status quo political process to unfold – allowing kingdom ethics (subversiveness) to prevail over the ethics of politics (power and persuasion). I’ve rambled on enough. One of the chief texts I have not considered is Revelation which we will turn to next. There is much to unpack here, so comment away.