Flee Like the Essenes or Fight Like the Zealots?

I work with Christian college juniors and seniors who come to Washington, DC., for internships as they begin thinking about the transition from campus to career. Part preparing for this transition is considering how and why our work matters to God. Keep in mind, these are young leaders and emerging professionals sincere in their faith and interested in careers of public service in some shape or form.

As we prepare for the first day of internships, the students share the challenges they expect when it comes to following Christ in the world of politics and policymaking:

“How much good can Christians really hope to do in the political arena? How do we define success?”

“Why do Christians so often come across as just another special interest group, seeking power and influence like everyone else? We keep getting told to ‘change the world’ and we do want to make a difference, but we don’t want the church to look like and sound like every other action group.”

“So many sincere Christians disagree about which political party to join or what policy position to support, and they are incredibly hard on each other when these differences come to light. Why is politics just as divisive in the church as it is outside it?”

“It seems like Christians can ‘cherry pick’ Bible verses to support virtually any political position. Does the Bible even belong in the political arena? ”

The students asking these questions are disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated, even angry. And let’s be honest: We’ve all been there. We’ve all closed a Facebook tab or logged off of Twitter feeling similarly frustrated, disappointed or angry.

So what do we do?

There are many ways in which Christians have tried to deal with the challenges of living faithfully as the people of God while living under the authority of earthly rulers. We can turn to the Israel Jesus knew in the first century for examples of groups that embody two of the most common (and most extreme) responses to that challenge:

Flee Like the Essenes

One response we sometimes encounter reminds me of the first-century Essenes. These tight-knit Jewish communities lived apart from the rest of society. They swore no oath to any earthly ruler. They believed their separatism kept them pure as they prepared for the Messiah’s coming. Today, separatism comes in different forms and levels of intensity, but remains generally distrustful of mainstream culture and the power of major institutions like government.

Fight Like the Zealots

Zealots lived at the same time as the Essenes, but they didn’t leave culture and political power to the Romans and Greeks. Zealots believed the nation could only flourish if its rulers professed and obeyed the one true God. Consequently, they wanted to forcibly expel pagans from the land. Today, some feel comfortable using war metaphors to describe our calling in the public square. “We battle against an enemy.” “To compromise our politics is to compromise our faith.” “If you are not for us, you are against us.” In this mode of response, the church must organize and mobilize politically, working to ensure our nation’s laws and policies reference and serve biblical truth.

Learning From Both, Conforming to Neither

Again, these are two of many ways Christians have responded to the challenge of living faithfully in the presence of earthly authority. Personally, I don’t live exclusively in either of these camps and you probably don’t, either. But at the same time, there are things we can learn from them:

First, when it comes to cultural concerns like the responsibilities of citizenship and public service, it’s difficult to be active at all unless you believe that they matter to God. The Essenes and Zealots both detested the pagan elements in their culture, but because they disagreed about whether or not God cares about culture, they disagreed about what to do about it.

Second, different views about the relationship between “Christ and culture” produce different views on how Christians should live with and use power.  Are we to avoid earthly powers, refusing to engage in any exercise of coercive power, like the Essenes? Do we seek to exercise earthly powers, often coercive power, to achieve results more in line with our reading of Scripture, like the Zealots?

Are there other options available to Christian citizens when considering how to live with and exercise political power in this world? Options that take in to account both the work God has already done and the fact that he has promised to complete it? These are questions the church continues to wrestle with today, especially those Christians working as full-time as professionals in the halls of political power.

We’ll look at both of these lessons in more depth over the next two months.

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  • Dr. Peter Baker has been part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities' American Studies Program leadership since 2008 and has served as the program director since 2009. Prior to this, he worked and researched in South Africa, Ukraine, and Michigan. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Notre Dame, specializing in comparative politics and international relations. Peter and his wife, Lisa-Jo, are both ASP alumni and live in Hanover, Maryland with their three children. Peter supervises the ASP staff, the overall academic and extracurricular programming, and leads the Public Policy study track.

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