Thinking and Acting Biblically About Politics
What biblical principles serve to ground Christian engagement in politics? How can Christian love and humility positively impact American political life?
Distinguished prof of theology, holistic ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary and President Emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action. A widely known evangelical speaker and writer, Sider has spoken on six continents, published more than thirty books and scores of articles. In 1982, The Christian Century named him one of the twelve “most influential persons in the field of religion in the U.S.” His Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger(6th ed., 2015) was recognized by Christianity Today as one of the one hundred most influential religious books of the twentieth century and named the seventh most influential book in the evangelical world in the last fifty years. His more recent books include I Am not a Social Activist, Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement, The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment and Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. Among his other publications are: Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America and Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works (with Phil Olson and Heidi Unruh). Sider was the publisher of PRISM magazine and a contributing editor of Christianity Today for twenty years. He is a contributing editor of Sojourners. He has lectured at scores of colleges and universities around the world, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford. In 2014, he received the William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice from Yale Divinity School.
Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you get your politics right. Two stories to illustrate that. Several decades ago, Jesse Helms was one of the very important conservative senators from North Carolina, he was one of the greatest proponents of pro-life. He was very opposed to abortion. But he was from the largest tobacco-growing state. And so he supported government subsidies for tobacco farmers, and he even supported the US government using government funds to ship our tobacco abroad to poor countries under our Food for Peace program. Not entirely consistently pro-life, I would suggest.
Another story on the other side, Miguel d’Escoto was a Catholic priest, I got to know him, clearly a Christian, he was a Nicaraguan and when the Sandinistas took over Nicaragua in 1979, some of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas were very hardcore Marxist-Leninists, they had great relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, he became the foreign minister. And about 1987 he went to the Soviet Union and he gave speeches around the Soviet Union, he accepted the Lenin Peace Prize, and in his speeches he said that the Soviet Union was the last great hope for Earth. Not entirely perceptive in 1987.
So just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you get your politics right. Politics, as you know, is regularly nasty, this election year, it’s been especially nasty. And furthermore for a decade and more, political gridlock has prevented our nation from dealing effectively with many of our crucial problems. So how might Christians contribute to improving this situation? For Christians who take Jesus that seriously at all, surely love and humility must be important parts of their political engagement. Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, all of them, even our enemies, surely must be a fundamental premise for a Christian engaged in politics. Love, of course, is an action verb, it’s not a feeling.
It means treating people, even our most bitter political opponents as persons created in the image of God, as persons loved immeasurably by God. Our first and most fundamental stance toward all of those we engage both as supporters and as opponents in politics, must be that these persons are persons so loved by our Trinitarian God that the eternal Son became flesh, died on the cross for them and invites them to live forever with Him. Now, that kind of love, of course, requires truthfulness and civility. Christian politicians and Christian voters must have a passion for truth. Sadly, politicians often tell lies. Half-lies and whole lies.
And Christians know that God hates lies and also that lying in politics is bad for democracy. So Christians should try to demand honesty from all politicians. And if politicians claim to be Christians, then we should be especially strong in condemning any dishonesty in their actions, and in fact, in recent months, some prominent evangelical leaders have done precisely that in public ways, condemning dishonesty in political activity. It’s easy to go online, Politifact, they won a Pulitzer prize, or FactCheck, responsible fact-checking organizations like these can quickly tell you whether what a politician says is true.
And we should take great care to be truth-tellers ourselves. Before forwarding an email about a government position, or a candidate’s position, we ought to check, to make sure that in fact what it says is true. And loving our neighbor also requires civility. If just the Christians in politics would embrace civility in a new way, we would change the American political debate. Biblical faith as I said calls for respect for every person, no matter how much we disagree with them, because every person is made in the image of God, and so civility is crucial. I think that humility is also a crucial thing in politics.
Now, it’s not typical that politicians express humility, although in the current election cycle, one prominent person has claimed to be the most humble person in the world. Two things, however, ought to encourage Christians in politics to embrace humility. First, we are finite. And second, we’re still sinners. Every person is finite in our knowledge, in our understanding, and so it’s extremely limited. We can never know, not even the best-informed politician can ever know all that’s relevant to understand any given situation.
So we must always act on partial knowledge. And the information that we do have will always be less than fully accurate. We must act on that information but we must act knowing that it is partial, that it’s incomplete, and that it’s partially biased. And that should lead us, I think, to genuine humility. Furthermore, all of us, including our best politicians, are still sinners. Even the most sanctified Christian in politics is still partly sinful.
So we’re constantly tempted to slant the facts to provide distorted data and questionable arguments to make our platform or our actions look better than they really are. And as we look back in history we see that even the greatest theologians and politicians have made big mistakes. Augustin, Luther, Lincoln. We should assume that we are making mistakes at least that big, and that realization should add some genuine humility to our actions. Now that doesn’t mean that Christian political candidates and Christian voters must be constantly uncertain about their political convictions or statements.
But it does mean that we should have an understanding that our political views are partial and tinged with self-interest and therefore we should listen carefully to those who disagree with us, and be ready to change our positions if we’re presented with new, substantial information. Now I noted earlier that our society is mired in dangerous political gridlock and there’s no quick solution to that, we all know, but I do think that Christian congregations would be one place where we might find a model for working at this kind of situation and moving forward. Could we not discover new ways of modeling honest, civil discussion precisely about politics in our local Christian congregations?
Civility demands that we truly listen to those we disagree with so that we genuinely understand what they’re saying. You know, the great Catholic theologian, John Courtney Murray, has said that most debates seldom reach the level of genuine disagreement. Genuine disagreement, he said, is a very high attainment. Most of the time people are just talking past each other. Real disagreement is achieved only when we can repeat our opponent’s views so carefully that they say, yes, that is what I really mean.
Now I think it ought to be possible in Christian congregations to work at this sort of thing precisely in the area of politics. Why couldn’t every local congregation decide to have a study and discussion group focused on political engagement? The group should include republicans and democrats and independents, and if your congregation is entirely republican or democratic, then partner with a neighboring church, where you get some people with a different view. Every person who joins the group should promise to listen carefully to each person’s views and arguments, one needs to say, I will repeat the other person’s view, to make sure that I’m understanding clearly.
You know, way back in 1986 there was a conference at Eastern University where Palmer Seminary is, and it was on politics and evangelicals, and they came up with a very interesting covenant that I think is worth repeating again, listen to what they said about this kind of honest, civil dialogue. “In particular, we covenant that as God gives us grace, we will seek to avoid name-calling and misrepresenting one another’s views, we covenant to practice mutual submission by regularly testing our understanding of the Bible and the world with those evangelical leaders who disagree with us.
To avoid name-calling, we covenant together to observe the difference between honest categorizing and malicious stereotyping. To avoid misrepresenting one another’s views, we covenant that we will, before publicly criticizing other brothers or sisters, seek to state their views in such a way that accurately reflects their viewpoint. And when in doubt, we will directly contact other leaders to make sure we’re not misrepresenting them. To promote honest submission to the facts, we covenant to engage in joint exploration of disputed data as time and finances permit. And to promote continual reformation of our thinking, and submission to the scriptures, we covenant once a year, if at all possible, to engage in two days of confidential discussion; listening to and dialoguing with other evangelical leaders who wish to challenge us on the basis of God’s revealed word.”
Well, needless to say that annual meeting didn’t happen. But I think the Christian congregation might be a place where in fact, it could happen. I think that this kind of political discussion group ought to be going on in congregations all the time, but during an election year, surely, the group would research and study the platforms of the major candidates and compare their platform and also what you think they’ll do, it’s not always the same thing, compare that with the National Association of Evangelicals’ marvelous statement for the health of the nation, which has a biblically balanced agenda. And then, debate with truth and civility. Arguing for the different positions that different members have.
Each group, then, should pray together and ask for God’s guidance and they think about how to vote, and pray for the outcome of the election, and remember that we see through a glass darkly. We’re privileged to live in a democracy, where every person has a vote, and the people, at least theoretically, can decide who our political leaders will be. But democracy only works well if citizens are informed and thoughtful, and if politicians are honest and civil. America, as I said, has urgent problems, that require important political decisions.
Tragically, the lack of honest, civil political dialogue has produced a dangerous gridlock. But Christians and local churches, I think, ought to be able to model civil, honest political dialogue and debate across very genuine political disagreements. And if we did that, in large numbers in our congregations, we might even model and encourage our politicians to embrace a new era of greater honesty and greater civility in political discussion. Love, truthfulness, civility, and humility are all important for our politics. But if Christians are to act biblically in politics, they also need more than that. They in fact need a helpful methodology and they need a biblically balanced agenda. I think it’s crucial to realize that every political decision, by anybody, has four components.
It has a normative vision, some understanding of what justice is and who people are and so on. It has, secondly, some kind of study, whether explicit or simply picking up what’s around in the society, but some kind of understanding of what’s going on in the world. And then it has what I call a political philosophy. A road map, you know, every time you want to make a political decision you can’t go back and spend five years developing your normative vision, and another five years studying the world, you have to have a road map, and that’s what a political philosophy is. And then you, in fact, apply that road map, to concrete political decisions. Whether or not to support this particular candidate, or whatever.
And there’s one other thing that I think is crucial for Christian political engagement, and that is, we need to work within the body of Christ to think through our normative vision and to develop a genuinely biblically balanced political situation. If we don’t do that, then we’re gonna get our political philosophy from some secular source. From left-wing or right-wing or green, or whatever sources. And I think that’s exactly what happened in the last several decades, three or four decades in this country.
Too many Christians have uncritically adopted left-wing or right-wing politics. The result has been a sub-Christian religious right, that I think correctly championed the family and the sanctity of human life, but neglected economic justice for the poor, uncritically endorsed American nationalism, ignored environmental concern for God’s creation, and neglected the struggle against racism.
Equally sub-Christian has been a religious left that rightly, I think, defended justice and peace, and integrity of creation, but then, largely forgot about the importance of family and sexual integrity, sometimes uncritically endorsed Marxism, overlooked the fact that freedom is just as important as justice, and failed to defend the most vulnerable of all, the unborn. So we need to start within the body of Christ. And if we’re going to do that in a biblical way, then it seems to me, we must have what I call a normative biblical vision. And let me show you how I try to develop that. The much longer statement on this is in my book, Just Politics, so this is just a sketch of some parts of it.
But I think we need to start with the biblical story and by that I mean the biblical story of creation, and fall, redemption in Israel and then Jesus Christ and the church, and finally Christ’s return. This biblical story gives us a lot of material that’s relevant to thinking about politics. It says that the entire created order is good and precious because it comes from the hand of a loving God, insists persons are created in the image of God and called to a servant-like stewardship of the rest of the creator’s handiwork. The environment.
Tragically, human beings have rebelled against God, and the result is selfish persons, twisted social relationships, twisted, unjust social institutions, and even a groaning, disordered creation. But God wasn’t willing to forsake us, and the creator began a long, historical process of salvation to restore right relationships among God and persons and the creation around them. And at the center of that is Jesus Christ, true God, and true man, redeemer. And, history will be brought to completion when Christ returns. Now this biblical story provides a lot of material for our thinking about the nature of persons, both their dignity and their destiny. Live forever with the Lord. About the status of the non-human creation and so on. But in addition to that biblical story, we need what I call biblical paradigms.
We need summaries of what the Bible teaches us about things like the nature of persons and justice, and so on. I think that the biblical material tells us that, I come to the conclusion that from the moment of conception, a person is created in the image of God, and to be treated as a person. I think the Bible teaches us finally, a freedom of belief. Now the old testament certainly didn’t practice that the way we do in the US, but the old testament talks about amazing ways that God allowed the people of Israel to disobey him and still be given the good things of the Earth for a time. In the new testament we get the story, the parable of the wheat and the tares. And the tares are sewn, the place where the tares are sewn, is the field, that is the world, and Jesus says, allow the tares to grow until the end of the age. Religious freedom, or family.
I think the Bible teaches us that family is, first of all, the nuclear family, a man and a woman and their children, and then the larger extended family. Justice, enormous stuff in the Bible about justice. It says justice is both, procedural justice, the court should be fair, and distributive justice, the economic system should be fair. The Bible says a great deal, hundreds and hundreds of verses about God’s special concern for the poor. God measures societies by what they do to the people at the bottom. I could go on and illustrate that at great length, but I don’t have time, and in my Just Politics book I go on to combine that normative biblical vision with study of the world, and develop a political philosophy.
But just this, by way of conclusion. What the Bible tells us about the sanctity of human life, should, I believe, lead us to say that we ought to be actively engaged in reducing abortion, through legislation and other kinds of activities. But you know, some pro-life people act as if life begins at conception and ends at birth. But poverty is a pro-life issue. 18 thousand children die every day of starvation and diseases we know how to prevent. Smoking is a pro-life issue. Six million people every year die because of that, prematurely.
Healthcare, surely, is a pro-life issue. If you don’t have it, you may die prematurely. I think capital punishment is a pro-life issue. Pope Francis, I believe, is right. He said we must protect the sanctity of human life at every stage in the life of a person. Certainly, thinking and acting biblically about politics requires love and honesty and civility and humility. But I think it also requires a biblically balanced agenda. Thank you.