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Radical Humility in Everyday Politics: Christian Humility in the American Political Circus

Amy Black

Our call as followers of Christ is not first and foremost to win an election or policy battle.

Associate Professor of Political Science, Wheaton College
July 1, 2016

Those well versed in the rules of etiquette know that certain topics are taboo at dinner parties. Religion and politics top the list.

Why might dinner hosts wish to avoid these topics? Why are we taught to avoid them in polite company? Religion and politics raise issues and questions that cut deep to the heart. Some people have strong and polarizing opinions, so discussion of such matters can quickly raise the temperature in the room.

Why We Don’t Want to Talk About Politics

As a professor of American politics, I have been teaching and writing about the subject for a quarter century. It is no understatement to say that I find American politics incredibly fascinating! Even so, all too often I find that I don’t like to talk about politics, even with friends and family. As tempting as it may be, I never comment on political posts on social media, and I often cringe when I read what others are saying and posting.

How is it that I can find a subject so interesting and important that I have devoted my career to helping others understand it better, yet still find myself reluctant, and at times even scared, to talk about it? In contemplating this dilemma, I have come to several conclusions. The problem is not the subject itself but the way so many people talk about politics—or maybe, I should say the way so many of us argue, rant and rave about politics. So much of common political talk is destructive. It’s painful to hear, and often painful to take part in.

But it need not be so.

“In our bombastic and high-volume media age, it is tempting to think that the intensity of our tone is the best way to demonstrate the sincerity of our beliefs and values.”

Even though so many voices in contemporary politics are arrogant and angry, followers of Christ don’t have to join the hateful chorus. It is possible to express political convictions with a firm yet gentle voice. It is possible to be charitable toward those with whom we disagree. It is possible to evaluate candidates even-handedly and weigh competing policy proposals carefully. Simply put, we can approach politics with humility.

Is There Time for Humility When the Stakes Are So High?

In our bombastic and high-volume media age, it is tempting to think that the intensity of our tone is the best way to demonstrate the sincerity of our beliefs and values. If we get upset enough about something, conventional wisdom tells us we are somehow proving our passion for the issue. It is as if the volume and stridency of our protest somehow proves we care more than others do, particularly those who try to stay out of the fray.

Passion about politics can be a good thing. Elected officials make significant decisions that often have serious ramifications for our own lives, our families, our communities, and even our entire world. It is important for followers of Christ to keep up with current events, pay attention to political campaigns, and cast an informed vote. We can and should care about a wide range of issues. Indeed, many of us will care passionately about particular issues, and these passionate concerns may be from God. We can and should hold our political views with great conviction.

But here is the problem: In the heat of political debates, it is far too easy to lose sight of the purpose of Christian life and witness.

The substance of our politics is important, but the way in which we engage in politics is even more important. Our political and ideological commitments and our desire to see them realized must always take second place to our desire and commitment to follow the great commandments to love God and love our neighbor. If we want to honor God in our politics, we need to engage with humility.

Biblical Perspectives for Humility in Politics

The call to humility resounds throughout Scripture. Great heroes and heroines of the faith are lauded for their humble service—not their prideful ways.

The Humility of Christ in Politics

In the ultimate act of humility, Jesus Christ left his place of glory to take on human flesh.

Philippians 2 powerfully calls believers to model Christ’s demeanor:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11 (NIV)

Think of the ways political engagement would be transformed if we accepted the challenge offered to us in this passage. Paul calls believers to a new mindset, exhorting them to put aside selfish ambition and vain conceit—traits so common in contemporary politics—and instead put on humility and concern for others.

Faith, Hope, and Love in Politics

Another Biblical text often helpful in thinking about politics is I Corinthians 12-14, an extended discourse in which Paul writes to a divided church about what it means to live in vibrant Christian community. Consider this excerpt:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13:4-13 (NIV)

In these verses, Paul calls his brothers and sisters to live in Christian love—a love marked by patience and kindness, one that isn’t proud, dishonoring to others, or self-seeking. The norms of everyday politics seem to make little space for such a radical calling.

Among the many important challenges in this passage, Paul reminds us of our human frailty and assures us we won’t have perfectly clear knowledge until we get to heaven. In contrast, many public discussions of politics begin from a posture that assumes complete knowledge, clarity, and a monopoly on the right answer. Such a vantage point leaves little room for humility and virtually no safe space for openness about mistakes or misunderstandings. Simply put, no one feels safe admitting that they don’t have all the answers.

“In truth, we likely all have mixed motives, many of them unknown even to ourselves.”

But, as Paul reminds us, the bottom line is that we don’t have all of the answers. Our vision is clouded by our human limitations, especially our sinfulness. Thankfully, we serve a God who does have the answers, a God who is truth.

Instead of acting as if we have perfect knowledge and heaping scorn on those with whom we disagree, we should model humility when discussing politics, debating issues, and applying Scripture to contemporary debates. We need to set aside prideful desires to win arguments and instead seek to engage in meaningful, loving dialogue.

Practical Steps Toward a Humbler Politics

How can we infuse heated political debates with much-needed humility? What are some practical steps to more humble politics?

1. Listen When You Disagree

Perhaps the first step is to begin with genuine willingness to listen to those with whom we disagree. If you learn that someone holds an opposing view on an issue or supports a different candidate than you do, move into a posture of listening and allow them to tell their story. Instead of immediately bracing to win the argument, find out where others are coming from and why they hold the views that they do. By humbly holding back our questions and intentionally taking time to listen, we demonstrate love and seek mutual understanding. After being willing to first listen to one another and explore differences in more depth, we can then engage in respectful, open dialogue.

If you come to discover that you do have deep differences of opinion with someone, it may move conversation forward to set those differences aside for a time and find areas of mutual agreement first. Common bonds build a sense of community and open pathways for more careful listening to and respectful treatment of others—even those with whom we disagree.

“Our common bond as brothers and sisters in Christ is of much greater worth than any political view we might hold.”

As Christians, we should be able to seek common ground well, especially within the body of Christ. Our common bond as brothers and sisters in Christ is of much greater worth than any political view we might hold; we should focus on that kinship and allow it to bring us together.

2. Extend Charity to Other People’s Motives

Second, we need more humility when considering other people’s motives. It is all too common in today’s political climate to impute motives, acting as if we fully understand the reasons behind another person’s actions. Most often, people look at those with whom they disagree and immediately assume the worst about them. At the same time, many tend to assume the best of those who share their views, naïvely thinking they can do no wrong.  Instead, we can and should extend grace to one another by beginning conversations without assumptions.

In truth, we likely all have mixed motives, many of them unknown even to ourselves. Rather than assuming we know why someone is acting in a particular way, we should enter political discussions with the Golden Rule front of mind, treating others as we would have them treat us and accepting their political arguments at face value. This posture helps us focus on what others have to say and opens us to listening more attentively and respectfully, whether we agree with them or not.

What’s the Point?: Rethinking the Purpose of Politics

Many may hear this call to humility, admit that it sounds great in theory, but respond that it isn’t practical. As some see it, if you don’t play by the current rules of the game, you can’t win. My response is simple: This call to a politics of humility is not a formula for political success. Indeed, I think much of what I have outlined all but guarantees political failure in today’s climate. But our call as followers of Christ is not first and foremost to win an election or policy battle. Our fundamental calling is to love God and neighbor; it’s not about winning or losing in earthly politics.

“This call to a politics of humility is not a formula for political success. Indeed, I think much of what I have outlined all but guarantees political failure in today’s climate.”

Approaching politics with humility reorients our thinking and helps us live out Paul’s call to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). We need the humility to be less concerned about political victories in this world, and more concerned about seeking the kingdom of God.

Political problems are often complex and deeply-rooted. Sin affects everything and complicates human efforts to try to make things better. Many stumbling blocks get in the way of respectful politics. But through God’s strength, we can live out the command to love God and neighbor and model a fundamentally different approach to politics.

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