When We Surveyed the Wondrous Cross…

“…have we, as people of the cross, allowed ourselves to become people of the empire?”

Last summer I had an interesting meeting over coffee. I was the press secretary for a center-progressive Christian organization committed to articulating the biblical call to social justice. She was a staffer at a conservative Christian organization that did not agree with mine. We had been connected through a mutual acquaintance because we were both interested in reaching across the aisle.

She was very surprised that I wanted to talk about faith, but talking about faith isn’t unusual for me: When I was on staff leading evangelism and prayer at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, my boss used to say of me, “She loves talking to people about Jesus and talking to Jesus about people.”

In this case, though, talking about faith was also a tactical maneuver: Because of my progressive politics, many Christians—my brothers and sisters—automatically assume that my faith is unsound or insincere. Christian progressives often have to work double-time to prove that we’re actual Christians. Talking about what unites us—our trust in Jesus for everything, our embrace of the cross—tore down some walls. She shared entries from her prayer journal. What could have been a polite meet-and-greet turned into a conversation among sisters. We both left encouraged and surprised.

The more that I meditate on the cross, I find myself amazed at its power to turn enemies into siblings. Christianity is a radical faith—at it’s heart is a rejection of power, which is utter foolishness in a city like Washington. Why would anyone who had all that power, all that authority, all that glory willingly and lovingly give it up for people who just don’t appreciate it that much?

And the longer that I am a Christian, the more I am surprised that both political parties continue to court the “faith vote” in general and the evangelical vote in particular. Surveys taking the temperature of these so-called values voters abound, either offering hope or despair to aspirant politicians and their platforms. But Christ’s followers are called to be like him, and a group of people who are ready to divest themselves of power, a group of people whose fundamental value is sacrificial love should be the most dangerous, unpredictable voters out there. 

But when I—per the great hymn’s instructions—survey the wondrous cross, I can’t help but wonder why it’s been so easy to politically pigeon-hole us. It is impossible to meditate on the cross without considering how absolutely astounding it is that, in Christ, God would not only become small and human, but that he would willingly experience death at the hands of his own creation in order to break death’s hold over us. Or that this great, almighty God incarnate in a bloodied and crucified man would offer forgiveness to those who killed him as he died. Or that Jesus, facing his coming death, would consider that time of humiliation, abandonment, and agony—on behalf of humanity—as the hour of his glory.  The amazing and divine love of God as revealed through the cross “demands my soul, my life, my all.” That’s an allegiance that transcends every political identity and ideological claim.

So why have we, as people of the cross, allowed ourselves to become people of the empire?

Why have we allowed ourselves to consider someone’s political affiliation as a proxy for her or his theology?

Why have we allowed political identity to cause division amongst sisters and brothers?

Why do both parties, each extolling values that we should all hold, believe that they have the corner on how Jesus would vote?

To paraphrase Tim Keller, the pastor of my church in New York: Perhaps the problem is not that Christians are too fundamentalist, but instead not fundamentalist enough. The King who we worship and whose Kingdom we proclaim was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross, rejected by the religious and political elites of this time. The King we worship and whose Kingdom we proclaim did not “count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6–8)

Is our allegiance to that King or to a party whose leaders are vying for power?

That coffee last summer challenged us both to see the other through the cross. Not as opponents or enemies, but as daughters of the King and sinners both in need of grace. And like our King we both took up our crosses and died a bit to our agendas and political tribes, surveying together, the wondrous cross.

6 thoughts on “When We Surveyed the Wondrous Cross…”

  1. Juliet,

    Thank you for your post. I really appreciate your observation about dying to our political agendas in the name of living out the Gospel. I think that’s the aspect about modern U.S. politics that disheartens me the most. That as a body we’ve fallen for the trap of putting politics ahead of faith in terms of importance. Especially when holding accountable whatever side with which we identify the most.

    Beyond accountability though, so many times I myself have done and seen believers avoid relationships with other believers because of differing political orientations or convictions. Like you, I agree that no one side has a monopoly on the values that we should hold as Christians, so I am encouraged to find words like yours as contributions to the blog.

    1. Thanks D! I would definitely say I avoided relationships with people who held different political beliefs than I did–to my detriment. Stephanie, one of our other Body Politic writers, has become a dear friend, a "Soul Sister" as we say. We pray together and I treasure her friendship. We have such different views but my life would be so empty without her friendship. But we came together on the point that though we’re Americans, we are Christians first and that requires recognizing our sisterhood through Christ first.

  2. Also, I now have the song stuck in my head. Which isn’t the worst song to have stuck, but I’ve been humming/whistling it now since I read the post. Thanks, I guess?

  3. Thank you, Juliet, for posting this thoughtful and personal piece. I am interested in the purpose of stirring politically-oriented Christians, on the left and right, to rethink party affiliations in light of a shared faith.

    What do you mean by allegiance to "a party whose leaders are vying for power?" In our political system, citizens have an active role in deciding who the authority will be. Judging by the dismal popularity of political parties, I would say most Americans, including Christians, don’t feel much allegiance to their political leaders these days.

    Voters and Christians identify with a party based on whether they see their values reflected in the platform. I doubt most Christians vote against their individual consciences to push a party line rather than to support their own beliefs. Americans’ allegiance is to their own view of how the world should be.

    For example, if there is a biblical call to social justice, and political methods are the way to realize that justice, how can you consistently "die to your political agenda" while keeping faith? It seems like such a faith is tied to picking up the cross of political action to enforce social change. Picking up the cross and accessing political power don’t seem to be at odds in this case. Which tenets of the progressive agenda would you be willing to die to?

    As far your friend’s surprise that a progressive would discuss sincerely-held faith: Would it be unfair to say that the major public intellectuals on the left are openly hostile to Christianity? Think of the power centers and outlets where leading progressive ideas reign today: academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Slate, Salon, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, etc. Not exactly welcoming to religious people. You likely saw this Nicholas Kristof column chiding the progressive Manhattan set for looking down on evangelical Christians: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster.html

    Perhaps the real target here is broadly defining the role of the Church in America. Do Christians in both parties confuse the Church with America? That question challenges me as an American and as a Christian, and less as a Christian who is Republican. It has been thought-provoking to read Richard John Neuhaus on the topic:

    "It must be admitted that over these fifty years the churches have been of little help in restoring a politics of democratic deliberation about how we ought to order our life together. Those churches¯once called mainline, and now more aptly oldline and, increasingly, sideline¯have planted the banner “Thus Saith the Lord” on the cultural and political platform of the Left. The evangelical Protestant insurgency has often planted the same banner on the cultural and political platform of the Right.

    "For the purposes of this reflection, it matters little that those on the Right have greater political potency. With notable exceptions, both are enemies of a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment; both contribute to the political corruption of Christian faith and the religious corruption of authentic politics."

    From: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2009/01/our-american-babylon

  4. Will, I think you bring up some good questions. I would start first by challenging professing Christians to examine whether their political beliefs (and their attendant agendas) are viewed in light of the Gospel. Yes, we are Americans, but we are also citizens of a Kingdom that has it’s own set of values and laws to which we’re accountable. In other words, are our politics consecrated to God–does God get a say in them? As I have experienced sanctification I have seen how I have become more moderate-to-conservative on some issues where I had held more progressive views; I have become more progressive in other areas. So I think the first–and constant–question we must ask regarding our political beliefs is "God, what do you say about this?"

    One area in which I’ve had to die to my political agenda is the issue of abortion. While I still absolutely do not believe that women should be criminalized if they have abortions, I have had to submit my beliefs about choice to my understanding of human dignity, the image of God, God’s sovereignty, and grace. That’s caused me to become much more moderate-t0-conservative on this issue as I have viewed it in light of the Gospel.

    I appreciated the First Things piece, largely because I think the Catholic church has done a better job than the Protestant church when it comes to integrating faith in public life. Catholics are not as easy to pin down in terms of a voting bloc and I think that’s how it should be.

    To your point about the way public intellectuals on the left are hostile to Christianity, I experience that too even though my politics tend to be progressive. When I worked in evangelism at Redeemer, I was also attending grad school for public administration/policy. There would be people who would also outright ignore me once they heard what I did. I got pushback from a lot of people because of my religious beliefs. And I don’t defend it or think it’s correct.

    I would be careful though about the way we view our political system. By and large, you have to have a HUGE ego to think that you could lead large bodies of people and make laws and decisions on their behalf. I’m sure that there are many political leaders who are not vying for power, but want to do the right thing, just as I’m sure that this is not the case for many others. So as Christians I think we need to be careful about leaders–any of them, from any party–being seen as a savior (I cringed whenever people spoke about President Obama that way and I still do). These are still men and women who–even if they have good intentions–want power to implement/execute those good intentions. We can’t be uncritical about our political leaders and blindly follow because we cling more to our platforms than the cross. And I say that as someone who has had to learn to let God pry myself off a platform to embrace the cross!

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