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The Political and the Prophetic: Talking About Christian Politics

Joy Qualls


"To proclaim 'Jesus is Lord!' is the greatest of all political claims," argues Joy Qualls. She comments on the present political climate and how we talk about politics and religion, considering a way to engage the political without fighting the culture war.

I love politics. I love politics. Love it. I love the strategy, the spin, the negotiation and renegotiation of power. I read polling data like the great American novel. I am an unabashed fan girl of Nate Silver, Stu Rothenberg who along with my friend Nathan Gonzalez, aggregate and predict races based on a myriad of data points. I read Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball out of the Center for Politics at Mr. Jefferson’s University (University of Virginia) religiously. I love Denver Broncos football too, but it is a tough call this time of the year what I love more. My heart races, I break out in sweats. I live-tweet debates, election night, and the State of the Union. It is a sickness really.

 

So while elections like this are not great for a voter, they are a Rocky Mountain High for people like me. I actually do not believe we are worse politically than every before or more divided than ever before. Study the campaigns of Jefferson and Adams, the dueling era made famous by Hamilton and Burr, read about O’Neill and Reagan, and we are talking some real loathing. We are, however, in a place where information and access is nearly drowning us.

As a Christian and a disciple of Jesus, politics is always fraught with challenge. What role does the truth play in politics and government? What about secrecy? What is strategy and what is not? Sometimes sifting through it all can feel daunting. It is easy to turn our gaze to religious leaders and special interests groups to tell us who the most “Christian” candidate is or how we should vote. We look to our leaders to guide us and shepherd us even in this.

“A 1972 Harper’s editorial declared, ‘The state of our politics is simply the state of ourselves.'”

I spent four years in the political arena in internships, campaign work and on Capitol Hill. I have seen how the sausage is made and if you think it is bad from the outside, step inside for a moment. I walked away from this world because God asked me to and while I have never regretted it, I have missed it over the years and wondered what could have been if I had stayed in the ring.

Since that time I have spent the last fifteen years as a communication scholar and professional studying religious, political, and gendered rhetoric and the intersections of the three. What I am
not going to do is to tell you who to vote for or what is the “Christian” way to vote. What I want to do is talk a little bit about what concerns me about the present political climate and how we talk about it, then finally, tell you about the journey that God has been leading me on in terms of Christianity and political rhetoric and where I believe God is in all of this.

What is Politics?

Politics in and of itself is not inherently a negative thing. The word politics comes from the Greek word politicos. Polis: of the people. Politics is the work of the people, literally. Politics is how we arrange our common life together. A 1972 Harper’s editorial declared, “The state of our politics is simply the state of ourselves.”

How we talk about things matters. This is typically the time of the campaign where the mud comes out, but it feels like we have been swimming in it for months. I have been concerned for several years about how we in the church talk about politics.

What is the Christian to do? Our role in government/politics has long been open for debate and evangelical faith traditions have not always agreed on how much or how little involvement we should have as citizens of American and citizens of another Kingdom. I believe we need people of the Spirit working in and leading in government and politics. We need Daniel’s who are insiders, but whose perspective is outside. However, I don’t believe there is such a things a Christian Politics, or Christian government, or a Christian party.

Thinking Prophetically: How Should the Church Engage Politically?

How should the church engage politically? We have long likened the U.S. to the Nation of Israel. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but I want to challenge us a bit today to make the connection between the Church of Jesus Christ and Israel as articulated in Scripture. In the Old Testament we see several different kinds of influential figures, but today I want to focus on the prophets and Kings.

Beginning with Moses, God appoints several figures to act as Prophets. What is a prophet? According to Walter Bruggemann, the task of the prophetic is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Prophets speak truth to power—yes, but they are also there to remind the people of God who they are and to speak as one of the Spirit.

 

And yet, Israel, after being delivered from the tyranny of pharaoh and brought to the Promised Land, demanded a King. 1 Samuel 8 addresses their demands and God’s warning to them, and finally his willingness to give them what they ask for, even though he knows that the results will be anything but what they hope for. From this point forward, there was a tension between the political figure (King) and the Prophets. We see all kinds of prophets who challenge the Kingdoms in different ways: Nathan who calls David to account, Jeremiah who weeps and laments over Jerusalem, and Joel, who foretells what will happen when the world finally goes to hell in a hand basket and how God responds by pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh.

Kings that listened and were obedient—who heeded the words of the Prophets—prospered, and the people with them. The Kings who did not brought the people down with them. We may elect our leaders, but if the Harper’s editorial is correct, then we reflect our leaders and our leaders reflect us. This leadership pattern follows the people back into exile in Babylon, to the tyrannical reign of Herod and the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus and the birth of the Church.

The Politics of Jesus

The Hebrew people missed who Jesus was. They were looking for a political leader—a king like they had demanded. They believed the King would be restored and to sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem. It threatened Herod. It created fear of overthrow and loss of power in both the religious and the leadership of Rome.

But Jesus was not the king they were looking for—he didn’t challenge Rome. He didn’t appear to lead a revolution—and yet he did. He turned the Kingdom on its head. He challenged the people to love their enemies, to not seek power for power sake, and to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed. God said the only king who would ever satisfy was himself and when he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, the people missed him.

Jesus did not seek to overthrow the rulers of his age, but to say he was not political is a misnomer. He announced a new kingdom and he died a very political death. He rose again and became a greater threat to the empire. To proclaim “Jesus is Lord!” is the greatest of all political claims. Paul demonstrates the power of this claim. He stood before Caesar, but he never challenged Caesar to change the laws or the government. He challenged them to see the Kingdom of God was greater.

“We have sacrificed our witness at the altar of power…”

As Christians we have been commissioned to make disciples, not political leaders. We have missed this most of my lifetime. We made a conscious decision to choose social and political power as the means to the end rather than proclaim the alternative universe of the Kingdom of God. We are not that far from Israel. But there is a price to power. Walter Brueggemann, in his book, The Prophetic Imagination argues, “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos that it has little power to believe or act…”

We cannot be both prophet and King. We have to ask ourselves what role are we to play to make disciples? When we align ourselves with power then we become pawns in the political chess games and it leads to what Brueggemann articulates is despair—or worse numbness. When we align ourselves in the prophetic, we are not just critical, but rather we present an alternative that energizes the community with faithfulness and vitality.

In The Civil War as Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll argues that the church sacrificed its credibility over the issue of slavery and the divide that was more political than biblical. Yet the environment was set for the great revival movements that would mark the beginning of modern evangelicalism.

We are to live out the politics of Jesus:

  • Forgiveness/Enemy love,
  • Table Fellowship,
  • Sabbath,
  • The role of Women, the slave, and the poor,
  • And even our participation in a government that fears all of this.

We are to render unto Caesar, but we cannot succumb to the temptation that Caesar is who will give us the influence we are called to exert over our culture. This is where Joel 2 and Acts 2 come together to demonstrate that living a life of the prophetic provides.

“The empire can fall all around us and we will stand. Pray for the election. Vote your conscience. Engage politically at the local, state, and national level, but do so with the imagination of the prophetic.”

We have sacrificed our witness at the altar of power and the siren song is strong, but it is not our role. We are Kingdom people—yes. Kingdom of God. We are not empire people. We are seeing this all around us. Those who used to call leadership to account are dismissing their own calls in favor of the one who promises them the greatest power. We are so fearful that those who oppose us will take away our cultural position that we cry persecution over the loss of privilege, but will our cry be believed when we find ourselves in Babylon? Are we so afraid that the King of Kings is so powerless that he needs us to hold positions of power for his Word to be heard and his salvation found? We have seen this movie over and over again: It is the church that loses. Kingdoms and empires of man subsume the moral and cultural authority and we are left marginalized clamoring for a voice.

Losing the Culture War, Rediscovering Our Prophetic Imagination

My challenge to us today is this: We have fought the culture wars and we lost because we were never called to fight the culture. We have sacrificed our ethos for political expediency. We are quickly becoming irrelevant in a culture where the majority of people still identify as Christian. We have to discover our prophetic imagination. We have to be willing to risk our own reputations, our own position to speak truth to a culture that is dying.

I echo the call of Pastors like Jonathan Martin, Bryan Zhand, and Dr. Chris Green: The entire creation is groaning for the Sons and Daughters of God to reveal themselves (Romans 8:19). It is time for us to truly reveal ourselves to the world. We can be political and we should—but our politics must understand the Kingdom of God first and the politics of Jesus is our platform.

Do Not Fear

Friends, over and over again we are told throughout the scripture: Do not fear. Regardless of what occurs on Tuesday, this is not the end. If the United States of America—the empire—falls, it will not fall because we voted incorrectly. And the church of Jesus Christ is not dependent upon the flourishing of the United States. The empire can fall all around us and we will stand. Pray for the election. Vote your conscience. Engage politically at the local, state, and national level, but do so with the imagination of the prophetic. Not to dismantle, but to bring light to the darkness, life to the dry bones, and most of all that the only Kingdom to ever survive is unlike any earthy Kingdom and we need to be about the King of King’s business.

The Political and the Prophetic

Joy Qualls at Biola University Chapel

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