political engagement?

I have been wrestling with how a church best does political engagement lately. As one of the new leaders of our church’s social justice team, this is a big question for me. To politically engage or not engage? How much? How? I was challenged recently by my friend Dave and his post, and by Greg Boyd and his post. You should read both, or this rest of this won’t mean much.

First off, I agree with most of what both of them said. I really liked what Greg said here:

Sadly, instead of confessing our greed and ungodly divisiveness and sacrificially pooling our resources to serve the poor, we tend to rather point the finger at government while positioning ourselves as people who are smarter at spending public funds and solving tough issues and more righteous in caring about the needy. I suspect the American Church has been so divided, so influenced by American greed and thus so impotent for so long, most can’t even imagine it being otherwise. Related to this, we’ve relinquished so much responsibility for caring for the poor to the government for so long, most American Christians can’t picture the Church itself, without the aid of government, taking responsibility for this.

And here:

And notice this: all the while we’re wading through these issues and fighting over what we think Caesar should do, we’re still spending 97% of our wealth on ourselves and not getting anything done for the Kingdom.

If you have read his blog post, I totally agree with his analysis on that particular situation. It makes sense that the church do something themselves- why wait around for politicians to do it? But how about this. I really really believe that we should give up, for the most part, car culture in this society. I also know that won’t happen until we burn up all of our oil and it becomes insanely expensive to own a car. So what I would love to see is higher gas prices that reflect the environmental mess that burning gas makes, or I would love to see much higher miles per gallon standards for cars. But what could Christians do in the face of our environmentally damaging culture? Even if you totally disagree with my opinion, aren’t there issues, like this one, that Christians can’t solve outside of politics? I want to see us care for God’s creation, not consume it for our own personal benefit. Sure a church could all bike everywhere, care for a local park, garden, buy forest and preserve it, be careful that their lifestyles doesn’t do environmental damage… but that just delays the inevitable. Shouldn’t we engage politics, too? Or just do our best outside of politics?

Read Dave’s post, then read my reply.

This post has been bothering me, especially as I am moving into my new role as the leader of the social justice team at my church. What is the best way, as Christians, to create change? What should our involvement in politics be? This post challenges me, as have other things you have said about politics. I am not quite as disenchanted of politics as you, (I still hold out a hope that change can happen through politics), but I do appreciate your challenge of putting our hope in politics.

I guess I have two questions. Does it have to be an either-or? Does it have to be either doing something ourselves or petitioning someone else to do it? Shouldn’t we do both? Change our own lifestyles, convince those we know and have influence with to change theirs, and then petition those in power to do the same, to change policies? I agree that we shouldn’t wait around for our government to change the world (if we do we’ll be horribly disappointed) but at the same time I think it needs to be part of the whole answer.

Second question: If Christians don’t participate in politics, aren’t we being separatist? As much as we may think that politics doesn’t work or is corrupt, shouldn’t we still try to challenge the system for the better? Isn’t opting out of political engagement just ignoring the systems and the powers at work in our world ? Isn’t opting out of the systems that we live in making us isolationist? I may hate the way that politics work, but if I chose to simply ignore politics and not be engaged, how is the Kingdom of God ever supposed to touch the political realm?

Either way, I don’t think that Christians are very good at any of this… we aren’t very good at addressing the world’s problems, either through personal lifestyle changes, through Christian communities deciding to live differently, or through engaging politics. I think we should learn how to do all three well.

Or we could just sit around ignoring the world, and wait to go to heaven. ;)

Please please please tell me what you think. I really want opinions. Stay out of politics and try to build the Kingdom, or engage in politics as part of bringing the Kingdom? If my church wants social justice, how should we get it?


7 thoughts on “political engagement?

  1. Maria,

    Thanks for the push back and the thoughts…I haven’t had time to think too much about your response, but I do plan on giving it some thought/time this weekend, so hopefully I can offer a better response then!

  2. I would suggest that you watch the most recent sermon from Blackhawk this past week. Chris busted the myth “America is a Christian Nation” and touches on some of what is expressed here in your blog. As always, Pastor Chris does a great job of pointing out our responsibilities as christians in politics. Hope it helps! 🙂

  3. Personally, I try to stay out of politics and focus my attention on electing politicians whose views most closely mirror mine. I don’t think it’s wrong to engage the process but what you’re suggesting is a bit more involved and I think one should be called to it much like one is called to the pastorate. If that is your passion, then go for it but realize it will take much more of your time than you anticipate not to mention that it will limit your ministry effectiveness. By that, I mean you’ll have less time to lead others to Christ. I can respect your passion. My political views are opposite of yours so you might not like the discourse I would have on some of these issues but I think in reality, no matter what your view, it’s a matter of do you have the time to commit to this?

  4. Maria…here are some thoughts in response to this post…
    I think your analogy with cars can be useful…but I think I still might disagree somewhat with what you’re saying (and let me know if I am mischaracterizing your position in any way). While there are issues that are pressing in government (such as responding to poverty, the rampant injustices in our ‘justice’ system, environmental issues, global issues, etc) that the church should also care about, I don’t think that means that churches should put themselves in the position of petitioning the government to affect change.

    One example that might cause some questions about this position could be the Civil Rights activism led by Martin Luther King, Jr. However, this effort was fueled in large part by civil disobedience, and I see it more as evidence that if the church works together to embody a particular idea and lifestyle (in this case, integration and equal treatment regardless of race) DESPITE governmental policies, political change can happen. I may have to think about that a bit more, but I do see a difference between the involvement of churches in the Civil Rights movement and that of an organization like Sojourners today.

    That said, I don’t think that it’s [always] a waste of time, ineffective, or inappropriate for Christians, individually (and in some cases corporately, though this can get a lot messier a lot faster), to work within the political systems to try and change policy. But I think it needs to be done with a proper perspective: citizens of the kingdom first and foremost, citizens of a worldly empire a very far and distant second.

    The church exists in order to point to the glory of God and work of Christ by living out the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the American church does not exist in an ideal situation because for centuries, we have failed to live out and embody this mission as radically as the scriptures demonstrate and teach. Because of this, we have a muddled situation where the role of the church and the role of government aren’t clear, creating a situation where the church is reliant on the government to fulfill tasks that the church should have done, and the church has been relegated to a secondary role in society. This failure of the church to teach and demonstrate radical Kingdom discipleship has also led us into countless wars as well as economic, environmental, etc. disasters.

    That’s the situation we are in – but that doesn’t change the church’s primary mission. Instead, it adds a secondary mission of treating and healing the wounds that we have created in the past, which may require lobbying, petitioning, and working towards governmental policy changes – but the primary mission of the church is the same as it always has been, and the secondary (and temporary) mission should never be seen as a substitute for the original mission, which is an embodiment of a particular lifestyle that often defies logic.

    So, should churches or Christians try to get the government to reduce the numbers of cars on the roads? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be much more effective if churches across the country simply refused to give in to the “car culture” and lived differently, in the process providing an example as well as resources for others who want to live this kind of lifestyle? I think this is what happened with the Civil Rights Movement – protests often led by churches living and preaching an integrated lifestyle. Regardless of what the government was going to do, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not simply spending a day lobbying, but instead was living a certain kind of life. His example was so extreme and counter cultural that many were unjustly persecuted for living this kind of life, yet it was so powerful an embodiment and proof that a new world was possible that it started a change in the entire way that our country views race and personhood.

    It seems that when the church throughout the scriptures and history actually takes its primary calling seriously, the world changes. We arguably have secondary “clean up” goals due to our failure to follow our primary mission, but I don’t think we should set any of those secondary goals as the standard or as an acceptable part of our primary mission.

    But, tear me apart and let’s continue this dialogue! 🙂

  5. Pingback: More thoughts on the church and American politics… « can’t catch my breath

  6. Pingback: can’t catch my breath » Blog Archive » More thoughts on the church and American politics…

  7. I’m not going to tear you apart. I agree with you.

    I guess part of it is the problem of the “world as it is” verses “the world as it should be”. Ideally we could simply focus on the kingdom of God as our primary focus as Christians and work outside of government completely. The problem is that we are unorganized and not quick to move as Christians, so, as you said, we become reliant on government. We don’t see a lot of potential for these big Kingdom changes to come about through the church so we decide to see if we can get a reflection of that kingdom change to come through politics.

    I wish the church were ideal. I wish we actually lived out the Kingdom of God. I know that the Kingdom is here but not yet fully here, so we are never going to fully live out the Kingdom in this time, but I wish we took it a little more seriously. I wish churches cared a little bit more about what was going on now on this earth and not only about life after we leave this earth. Then I wouldn’t feel the need to turn to politics. If the church took the renewal and healing and redemption of the broken systems and people of earth seriously, politics would look so silly in comparison to the radical and beautiful change the church could bring about.

    So the question isn’t politics or not politics, really, the question is how do we get the church to act out it’s role in collaborating with God’s redemption of the world? I long for this…

    Got any ideas?

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