Episode 44: What’s Christian About Your Politics?

To kick off a new season, our Executive Director reflects on whether becoming a Christian means ceasing to be anything and everything else.

 

  • Intro/New Producer (00:34)
  • A Basic Christian Political Task (02:49)
  • Go Deeper (13:00)
  • Prayer (13:55)

To kick off a new season of The Christian Civics Podcast, Executive Director Rick Barry reflects on the theme of witness and incarnation, and the intersection of missionary theology, New Testament church unity, and American political divisions. Produced by Lauren Larson.

Shownotes:

The Cotton Patch Gospel (Affiliate link.)

Episode 34: Protests and Prayer

Light to the World: Navigating Politics in Light of the Christian Story

In this episode…
  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

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REFLECTION

What are the “status symbols” you still hang on to in the church? What are the parties, activities, or commitments that you think mark someone as being less mature in the faith than you?

TRANSCRIPT

Rick: It’s probably not surprising that we’ve taken a lot of time off from the podcast: The pandemic, civil unrest, conspiracy theories spilling over into a violent insurrection just a few blocks from our office. The past year has changed our mission field a lot. The questions that Christians in the US are facing about how to relate to politics have been changing. And they’ve been changing really quickly. And the rest of the leadership team and I…we needed to take some time to make some hard decisions about our work. There were some projects we were really excited about that just aren’t the right fit anymore, but there are also some new needs and opportunities, that I never would’ve imagined us taking on a year ago, that we’re actually really excited about now.

Our New Producer

But there’s a third category of things we’ve been working on: The stuff that we probably should have done a long time ago, but never got around to because I’m just one person and we didn’t have the finances to bring on anyone else.

One of those things is hiring a producer to help us finally get this podcast to you more regularly. This is something my co-founder, Danny, and I have been talking about for a while, and a decision we committed to toward the end of last year. But it wasn’t something we were able to do until pretty recently.

So, now, we have a new producer: Lauren Larson. She’s a Texas native who’s worked in broadcasting for over a decade, covering the inside world of government for Federal News Network. She also produces radio shows like Good News for the City, and earlier this year she started working with me on all things Christian Civics Podcast.

With Lauren’s help, we’re kicking off a new season of the podcast today. And I’m talking about “season” like, “season of a show,” a bunch of episodes produced and released as a block. Not “season of life.”

Subjecting OUr POlitics to Christianity

This week, since the podcast is kicking off a new season, I think we should probably talk about one of the ideas that’s absolutely foundational to the work we do at Christian Civics:

For the most part, your politics aren’t Christian. Your party’s not Christian. Your political ideology’s not Christian.

Neither’s mine.

When it comes to politics, our job as Christians isn’t to help one group of broken image-bearers rule over another group of broken image-bearers. Our job as Christians is to redeem our people and our cultures and our traditions. Every human movement will always fall short of the glory of God. Not just the ones we hate. And even the ones we really, really like.

What’s Christian about us is not the tribes we’re part of. Scripture acknowledges that every believer is part of certain…sometimes the Greek is translated as tribes, or nations. Missionaries today call them “people-groups.” Southern or northern? Raging liberal or reactionary conservative? Christians come from “people-groups” because all people come from people-groups. But Christians? God sends us back into our people-groups as his witnesses and ambassadors.

Our job as Christians is to look at the movements that make sense to us and then figure out where they reflect God’s truth and where they fall short of it. Where they distort it. “How does this tradition or this cause point to a God-shaped hole in our hearts? And when does being part of it or supporting it compromise our witness?”

And then our job is to do the hard work of explaining that good news to the people around us, while also breaking away from them, maybe even challenging them directly, when the things they’re working on would put us at odds with answering Jesus’ call.

Misunderstanding Unity and Diversity

When people are pursuing harmony in the church between Republicans and Democrats, or Boomers and Zoomers, or white people and people of color, or rich and poor, we have a tendency to try to minimize those differences. To pretend they don’t exist, or to act like the moral thing to do is to ignore that they exist.

Our lives are hidden away in Christ, they say. God is not a respecter of persons. If anyone is in Christ, he’s part of a new man! Our identity should be in Christ, not our party. Not our race. All are one in Christ Jesus!

But scripture doesn’t actually say that becoming Christian means ceasing to be anything else. The first church council in the book of Acts was all about whether there was a single “Christian” culture, a particular cultural heritage that was better for Christians than others, a single way Christians should order their lives and relate to the Roman empire. Whether Christians needed to all exist exclusively within a single, unified people-group. The answer was no. Believers were allowed to be both Jews and Greeks. Jewish believers were allowed to be culturally Hebraic or culturally Hellenistic. They didn’t check their culture at the door. They had to let one another bring their whole selves to the gathering of believers, and actually submit to the encouragement and correction of one another. They couldn’t write off other believers because they weren’t part of the same tribe.

In Philippians, Paul tells his readers to:

“...put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself could boast as having confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he is confident in the flesh, I have more reason: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”

Philippians 3:3–6

In the late 60s and early 70s, Pastor Clarence Jordan wrote a translation or paraphrase of the New Testament called The Cotton Patch Gospel. His goal was to give his southern, mostly white, Southern Baptist church members a way to connect with the regional and cultural references in the New Testament. When he gets to that same passage in Philippians, he renders it like this:

“...put no stock in status symbols—even though I myself have plenty of these symbols. If anybody else thinks he has status, I have even more—a baptized church member, a white man from an old Southern family, a 100 per cent Anglo-Saxon. As to religion, a Protestant; as to dedication, giving all outside agitators hell; as to church rules and regulations, spotless.”

The Cotton Patch Gospel, Philippians 3, paragraph 1

I really like that he renders “confidence in the flesh” as “status,” or “status symbols.” The things that let us separate ourselves from other people in our minds.

When Paul says in Galatians and Colossians that there’s no man or woman, Jew or Greek, free or slave, it’s important to remember that those were three major distinctions in social status at the time. They were three major social divisions. He wasn’t saying you need to stop being Jewish or stop being Greek when you become a Christian. He wasn’t saying you need to lose your genitals and become gender neutral. He wasn’t saying that slaves weren’t allowed to hear the gospel, or free people weren’t allowed to hear the gospel. He was saying that those things that give status outside the church, or those things that create boundaries between people in the world or obstacles to mutual humility, should not separate people from one another in the church.

Jewish Christians had to be willing to hear teaching, correcting and training in righteousness from the unclean Greeks. But a lot of conservatives in the church today have a hard time being called out on idolatry by someone who votes Democrat.

Greek Christians had be willing to hear teaching, correcting and training in righteousness from Jews, who they largely considered weirdly provincial and backwater. Maybe out of step, culturally. But a lot of progressives in the church assume their conservative brothers and sisters are either hypocrites, or don’t actually know God as well as they think they do.

What’s Christian About Our Politics?

If we engage with government and politics, what’s Christian about us in the world, and what gives us credibility on the topic in the church and moral standing to discuss the topic in the church, isn’t the party we’re part of, or the region we’re from, or how long ago our families came to this country. It’s not whether our families came here willingly or not, or how active we were in building up our town in the past. How deep our roots in the community go. How many people in town have our last name, or whether every generation of our family has been making more money than the generation before.

What’s Christian about our political engagement is not the people group we’re part of in the public square. What’s Christian about our political engagement is how we live our lives in the public square. How do we decide what our goals are? How do we behave in pursuit of those goals? Are we willing to challenge people who share our goals for the sake of being consistent with the faith? Are willing to honor people who don’t share our goals and be honest about the ways they do well? To be honest about the fact that they still reflect God’s image—maybe even the ways they reflect it that we don’t?

Now, this is obviously a lot of very big, very broad statements. Fifteen minutes or so on a podcast isn’t really enough time to dig into all of the theological support for this, or go through what’s different about how people in Philippi thought about people-groups compared to the way we think about people-groups today, or start working through all of the ways to apply this idea. That’s what our classes are for. And if you’re listening to this, you’re gonna have a chance to join one of our classes very soon. More on that in the next few weeks.

What we try to do on this podcast, episode by episode, is highlight small ways we can let the manner of our lives be worthy of the gospel when we engage with the public square. We try not to get caught up in, how do we make sure the objects of our scorn or the parties of our votes are worthy of the gospel. Not, what’s the Christian thing to denounce, or who are the Christian people to ignore?

The manner of our lives.

Sometimes, highlighting how Christians can let the manner of our lives be worthy of the gospel in the public square takes the form of interviews with people who work in politics or government. Sometimes it’s gonna be short excerpts from our classes. Sometimes it’s gonna be a reflection like this one, or an editorial like back in episode 34. And sometimes it’s gonna be a looser conversation between different leaders in our ministry. But our hope is that every episode can, at the very least, demonstrate how a specific member of the body of Christ is thinking, speaking or acting differently because of their faith. Hopefully, by highlighting that, we can all explore how we need to let our faith can change OUR approach to politics, too.

That’s a lifelong project. None of us are gonna be finished works until Jesus comes back. But, if you’re looking for some help getting started, jump-starting that aspect of your discipleship, you can buy a copy of Light to the World: Navigating Politics in Light of the Christian Story. It’s a four-chapter Bible study and discussion guide, exploring how the Bible’s themes of creation, fall, redemption and restoration can challenge us to change our attitudes and behavior in the public square, and it’s a great place to start, whether you’re on your own or leading a small group through these questions.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, search our hearts and know us. Show us the ways in which we still assume that the things that make us part of a people-group also give us moral standing over other people in the church. Teach us to stop using your faith to bolster our partisanship, our political zeal, and start submitting our politics to the scrutiny of the faith, even when we are already sure that our politics reflect your heart.

We pray these things in the name of Jesus, who sees more clearly than we do, understands more deeply than we do, and was already far more capable than we are of envisioning what your Kingdom would be before he ascended to sit at your right hand.

Amen.

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