On politics, partisanship, and Christianity

Today I read a post from the ACL’s Martyn Iles, and a piece on Christianity Today about the ‘fight for the soul’ of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States (where a group feel that a broader-than-hard-right political stance is a sign of theological liberalism). I responded to the Iles thread. I often do. But I’m conscious that my responses calling for ‘less polarisation’ are often interpreted as being politically partisan, so, for example, when I commented on a post by former CEO of the ACL, Lyle Shelton, people responded by calling me a leftist.

I’d like to think politics is more complicated than this; and, that, while Christians can (and maybe some should) be partisan, we run into trouble when we think our party platform is the only expression of Christian politics.

Politics isn’t optional for Christians. The belief or affirmation at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord and King of heaven and earth. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and to give our lives to follow and serve him. The church itself is a ‘polis’ and a political actor in the world as an alternative kingdom, with an alternative king and an alternative way of life (an ethic) to those held by different political structures or empires.

The western world is politically fascinating for Christians because so much of it is shaped by Christianity and its values after the Roman empire was Christianised; so much we take for granted like hospitals, education, and human rights can be traced back to Christian roots in the west. So much of our vision of progress is shaped by Christian conceptions of humanity and goodness and the dangers of power held and systematised by self-interested groups. So much of our vision of what we’d like to conserve in the west is not just the fruit of Christianity but its roots and branches. We can’t conserve those roots and branches by throwing out the fruit, or the fruit by throwing out the roots and branches. One quick picture of the ‘fruit’ of Christianity comes in what the Bible calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, and self control. So little of modern western politics exhibits these fruit; in fact it often feels like the opposite, and we Christians obscure both the fruit and the root of Christianity when we embrace other ways of being political.

Partisanship is optional for Christians. You can choose to be an ambassador for Jesus aligned with either the conservative side, the progressive side of the political contest for the good, and do so from genuine convictions, or be ‘centrist,’ you can even, as a Christian, repudiate state based power as a form of violence and dominion and critique all sides of an increasingly bitter culture war. Those who resonate with the progressive side have to be careful to hold onto the goodness of the roots of Christianity, in order to participate in those systems or parties as a Christian presence, those who resonate with the conservative side have to keep looking to the fruit — the nature and shape of the kingdom of God — and a desire for transformation, to participate in conservative politics as a Christian presence. We need both, or to try to be both (which might limit our presence), those in the centre need to avoid false compromises where one or both sides are embracing, or systematising sin; centrism can’t simply be about synthesis, but about trying to hold truths from the progressive and conservative ‘sides’ in tension. Centrism, ultimately, becomes its own side. Neutrality, or being apolitical, isn’t actually an option; the challenge for all Christians is to be ‘Christ centred’ in our participation in politics. This means we can’t demonise the other.

Our communities — our polis — the church — should be a place where those engaged in politics from the right and left can be corrected, refreshed, and renewed for the task of Christian politics; where we can be re-centred on the call to serve King Jesus and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships and our presence in the politics of the world. If you feel like your politics make you unwelcome in the church, because the church is either ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ and there is no place for you, we, the church, are doing something wrong.

I slip, too often, into demonising those who wed ‘Christian politics’ with one partisan outlook; who make no space for the other. You’ll find me trolling leaders of the ‘Christian Right’ and speaking out against Trumpism and its various international forms. I’m aware that even speaking against polarisation is, itself, polarising… But this is not because I think Christians can’t be ‘right’ or ‘left’, it is because totalising partisanship that goes to war with the political other ends up undermining the unity of political mission and purpose we are to have in Jesus; the work of seeing his kingdom come in the world. It’s also because, while there are lots of progressive ideas I embrace, and lots of progressive voices I value and listen to, I’m actually more inclined to a certain form of conservatism (I am an office bearer in a conservative institution, after all), or centrism.

That said, my ‘politics’ is in no way limited to a vote for ‘a’ party or ideology, politics is the business of shaping a ‘polis,’ my volunteering at our kids kindergarten is also political. In my circles people don’t seem as in danger of fusing their faith with progressive politics, as they are with fusing their faith with conservative politics; but I recognise this is ‘a bubble’ I operate in. Even where the danger is real and present — that our politics is too conservative, or too progressive, and so is distorting how we present Jesus to the world, the antidote is not an equal but opposite reaction, it’s doing the hard work of re-centering ourselves on the politics of the kingdom.

This might look, for example, like calling our brothers and sisters, and being called by them, away from the political methodology or vision of the world, and towards, for example, the fruit of the Spirit, and the unity we’re meant to have that transcends partisanship because it is the unity shared by those in the kingdom of Jesus who share in his Spirit; if you can’t acknowledge that is the case for a partisan other, then this is sad and destructive.

In 2,000 years of the church, Christians, by the Spirit, have transformed political realities in ways that reflect the kingdom; we should celebrate and seek to conserve that, and grieve when such fruit is not conserved; but in thousands of years of politics and empire there is lots of stuff that is anti-Jesus; it was imperial power used to justify his crucifixion; the church has often been too wedded to such power so progress looks like consciously decoupling from such power, rather than embracing it and wielding it to protect our hard won territory, and seeking ongoing partnership and progress in the work of the kingdom, living in such a way that shows we want our prayers to be realised, and trusting that the risen Jesus is Lord and king.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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