I became a Christian in college, despite the progressive, skeptical atmosphere in the Iowa liberal arts college I attended. One that had roots in the Methodist Church, but the current tree had all but separated from those roots in favor of more modern fertilizer. I learned to put into perspective the tensions I saw between what I read in Scripture and what I was learning in college.
I compartmentalized some of the differences. I was able to synthesize many of them, but some of the tensions I learned to “shelve” for later consideration.
I wasn’t very career minded when I graduated from college. I only wanted to follow and serve Jesus. I ended up packing my bags to go to Alton Bay, NH for a summer job, believing that I was going, like Abraham, to a place God was calling me. I didn’t know exactly what I was in for. I only had a summer job, but I didn’t think I was coming back to the Midwest.
I got deeply involved in the local church in Laconia, NH after the summer job ran its course. It was a dynamic church, growing out of the Jesus People movement in the 60’s, and still going strong.
During my time there, the Moral Majority was on the rise and gaining influence. Pat Robertson ran for President while I lived in the Granite State. Live Free or Die was the NH motto, and people were proud of it.
Politics crept into my faith and into the church. I rubbed shoulders with sometime churchgoers who were members of the John Birch Society. As I look back, though, they were infrequent participants, but they left their mark.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this dynamic church with a storied local history was about to implode. I was there about six years, got married there and had two children. I left in 1988 to go to law school and pursue a new path. (Not long after I left NH, the church splintered into many pieces and is, now, only a distant memory.)
That path brought my back to the Midwest where I have remained ever since. I have wandered through much wilderness and have been challenged in my faith since then. Law school sharpened my thinking, but it dulled my spiritual edge.
I compartmentalized my faith once again, as I had done in college. I set things “on the shelf” as I devoted myself to learning the law.
It turns out I was pretty adept at understanding the law, leaving law school with a diploma and the academic standing of second in my graduating class. This was in keeping with a vision a wise and spiritual woman had for me that was part of the confirmation from God that I should go.
The certainty with which I left to go, similar to the certainty I had when I left for New Hampshire, gave way to uncertainty in how I should reconcile the political and cultural influences that bore down on me under the scrutiny of the jealous mistress of the law.
I kept that jealous mistress at bay, but it would be years before I reached a point of resolution. My faith survived, but the political and cultural baggage I brought with me from New Hampshire did not.
The dynamic church I attended there a long ago now disintegrated into myriad pieces of broken relationships, broken dreams and broken promises during my sojourn away. The way was difficult, but I think I am a better Christian because of it, and this is what I believe I have learned.
As I look at the life of Jesus and what he said, I don’t see him being influenced by the political and cultural baggage of his time. He marched to the drum beat of the Father, and the narrow road He invites us to follow runs at cross purposes to every human ideology and worldview at some point.
This should not come as a surprise! The Kingdom of God is not beholden to the kingdoms (or political ideologies) of men.
Jesus didn’t mince words in his criticism of the religious leaders of his day. At the same time, he had very little to say (virtually nothing) about the political and governing structures of the Roman occupiers. His focus was on the work of the kingdom of God.
Jesus didn’t side with the Sadducees or the Pharisees. He wasn’t “denominational” in that respect. He was, perhaps, more critical of the religious camp of the Pharisees who engaged him, than the Sadducees who largely did not.
Jesus didn’t side with the Zealots or the Romans. Their fight over governing control of the province of Judea was not his focus or concern.
I am reminded of these things as I read the article, CHRIST, NOT AMERICA, FIRST, in Sojourners magazine online. I know that many of my friends who continue proudly to carry a political and patriotic flag may criticize me for reading a liberal, progressive magazine. Never mind that the article is dead on.
“Through his entire life and ministry, Jesus was notably absent from involving himself in the political systems of his day. Why? Because the Kingdom of Heaven was his priority, and living out the divine ideals of that kingdom would be contrary to those of any worldly kingdom or system of power.”
Other than an isolated statement about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, we don’t find Jesus saying anything about getting involved in what Caesar was doing. There were Centurions and other “governmental” employees and officials who appear in the Gospels, but they appear only in relation to their faith (or lack thereof) and interaction with Jesus.
As time goes on, I spend more and more of my time listening to Christians from other parts of the world, because their views provide a counterbalance to the American Christianity that I know. What I see, now more than ever, is that American Christianity is influenced significantly by uniquely American cultural and political dyes that color how we see things – for better and worse.
Aside from being comparatively weak and anemic in relation to faith expressed in other areas around the world (having a form of godliness, but denying the power of God?), American Christianity is infected by two different strains of virus (as far as I can see) that threaten to render it ineffectual and helpless: 1) a proud, nationalistic strain; and 2) an insidious cultural Marxist strain.
Most Christians seem susceptible to one strain or the other. A person cannot hold any system of this world in harmony with the kingdom of God for long because they are in opposition to each other at the root.
“Christianity isn’t a political ideology, or a sovereign nation, or a set of laws legislating values or enforcing a society’s preferred brand of morality. Christianity is centered upon Christ.”
Human systems are focused on achieving human ideals and advancing the kingdoms of this world. The political and cultural polarization we are experiencing today isn’t what the kingdom of God is about. Choosing sides in that cultural battle means (ultimately) choosing a side God is not on – because God is on not on any political or cultural “side”; God is on all sides seeking and saving the lost.
I am reminded of the story of Joshua and the Angel of the Lord who stood in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. When Joshua asked the angel, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”, the Angel said, “No!”; and the Angel added: “I am the commander of the army of the Lord.” (Joshua 5:13-14)
A better question might be which side was Joshua on? Was the Angel of the Lord or against him? (Of course, Joshua was on God’s side at that time and place.)
God does not line up on our sides. We must conduct ourselves in reference to God, not the other way around. God is on the left. God is on the right. God is everywhere calling people to Himself. The only important question is: are we with God?
Or are we pursuing our own paths?
Joshua responded by worshiping. Then he asked, “What does my lord say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14) This should be our response too, I believe. What is God saying to me now, in this present time and place where I find myself?
What is God saying to us?
I am reminded of the words Paul preached to secular thinkers of his day:
“[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us….” (Acts 17:26-27) (my emphasis added)
Paul said this to the Greeks in a city full of diverse people who were polarized in their philosophical and religious views. I have seen people quote these verses in support of tougher immigration laws (God determined allotted periods and boundaries), but they miss God’s overarching purpose: that people would seek Him and find Him.
Anything that we do that stands in the way or hinders people from seeking God and finding Him is in opposition to God. If God is bringing the harvest to us from all over the world, who are we to put up walls and keep them out?
We should be about the Father’s business as Jesus was about the Father’s business. There is no higher priority. The kingdom of God, which is a kingdom not built by human hands, is our priority as Christians.
Anything else we put above that is idolatry. Christ above all is our banner as Christians. Following Jesus in all things will, inevitably, lead to being at odds with every human institution at some point or time.
Following Jesus means carrying the cross of being true to Him, and Him alone.
Everyone, regardless of ethnicity, culture, nationality, politics, worldview, or socio-economic background, is loved by God and created in God’s image. I believe we should ask ourselves periodically:
“Is what I am doing or saying a reflection of God’s love and the image of God to others who also bear God’s image? Or am I simply parroting and perpetuating human political partisanship and cultural biases?”
I have taken years to come to realize my own bent toward political partisanship and cultural bias that stood at odds with the Gospel. I am still in the process of having my mind renewed and guided solely by Scripture and the Holy Spirit, to the extent I am able to quiet my own thoughts and hear His still small voice.
I am still learning to ask in the midst of the polarization in our country, what does the Lord say to his servant?
It took me years to realize I had thorns growing up around the faith that was planted in me from seed many years ago by the Holy Spirit, threatening to choke out the life of God in me. Many worries and concerns, distractions and passions, busyness and preoccupation on things that are of this world easily begin to suffocate the life God is trying to water and grow in my spirit. Over time, it becomes difficult to tell the tares from the wheat.
The wheat and tares grow up so closely and intermingled with each other that the sower dare not try to separate them while they are growing. In the end, the tares will be sifted out from the wheat. (Matthew 13:24-30) Thus, we should ask ourselves while it is still called today:
What are we sowing? Are we sowing toward God’s kingdom, which is not of this world (John 18:36)? Or are we sowing toward worldly kingdoms?