Steve Ostovich is the third scholar to respond to our Fall Forum question about the role of Christians and the church in political advocacy. For our Fall Forum, we have asked four scholars to respond to a question examining one facet of contemporary religious life, and we will publish their responses every Thursday for four weeks. Read other responses by Vance Morgan and Myriam Renaud.
At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message? This is a good question not only because we are entering what is developing into another ugly and divisive election season, but because it takes us to the heart of discipleship. Christians in all their various ways constitute a community of hope. This hope is a response to God’s promise of the return of the Son of Man and the establishment of a new political order called the Kingdom of God. And I want to stress that the promise of the Kingdom of God is a political promise. No matter how much Christians try to privatize this promise as an individual matter of hope for a blessed afterlife, the promise itself is expressed in terms of justice and love that remain political and cannot be reduced to private affairs. An individual can’t bring about justice by him or herself any more than one person can love without others.
At the same time, we must recognize that the earthly reality in which we live is not one of love and justice. Living under this promise therefore means Christians have a vocation to resist the injustices in the world and to be politically engaged. Any and all forms of politics and government fall short of the promised reign of God and therefore are subject to criticism and, if possible, change. To put this in terms of the question, Christian hope means that whenever the dominant political discourse attempts to draw a boundary or to impose a limit beyond which Christians (and therefore Christian hope) are not supposed to go, Christians are called to trespass those boundaries and limits in the name of hope. To exclude the Christian message from the political sphere, for example, would exclude Christian hope from political life. Christian participation in political life, anywhere and everywhere, is not in itself a distortion of the Christian message.
The message of hope reflects the apocalyptic “DNA” of the Christian tradition, with its visions of the future—a new heaven and a new earth. However, in addition to its emphasis on hope, this apocalyptic heritage has a dark side. It can be the source of dangerous distortion when it comes to Christian political behavior. Apocalyticism (which is found in the New Testament gospels, as well as the Book of Revelation and elsewhere) characterizes the world as a battleground between light and darkness and calls us to live in the light.
This dualism makes it all too easy to demonize those who are considered to be in darkness. What apocalyptic literature reveals is God’s plan for this evil age, in which the outcome of the final conflict already has been determined. Christian apocalyptic texts call us to remain steadfast in spite of (or maybe even because of) our suffering for our faith. We remain zealously steadfast, apocalyptic literature declares, because we know that according to God’s plan we are destined to be victorious, and our oppressors are to be utterly destroyed. Indeed, apocalyptic writers understand the strength of those who oppose us as a test of our faith. Under the influence of this apocalyptic dualism between light (us) and dark (them) we, the faithful, may never entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. In short, we end up dictating to God what justice is and feel free to persecute those whom we exclude from God’s Kingdom.
This blind zeal marks the history of Christian crusades and religious violence against those deemed to be living in darkness (both within and outside the Christian community). It also marks the tone of current political discourse. History has taught us how dangerous such dualistically tinged zeal is, which is why there have been, and are, strong voices insisting that religion be kept out of politics. But keeping religion out of politics has its own danger—we are tempted to settle in to our world, and no longer hear hope’s call to resistance and transgression.
Fortunately, there are people who shake us out of our dogmatic and soporific acceptance of what is, and awaken us to a vision of what has to be, who call us to live effectively in hope. They are able to proclaim the apocalyptic message of hope without linking that message to the dangerous aspects of a dualism that excludes and demonizes. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his struggle against the racial injustice that continues to demand our attention. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King describes being unable to understand how his campaign of non-violent resistance to injustice could be considered extreme by white moderate clergy. At the same time, he was not ashamed to be called an extremist, for the history of his faith was chock-full of extremists from Amos to Paul and beyond, including Jesus himself, “an extremist for love.” Extremism was not a bad thing if it meant recognizing that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and feeling called to change this condition. King preached hope, and resistance, but also preached that we should love our enemies, not long for their destruction. “The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies,” King declared in his famous sermon, “Loving Your Enemies.”
There is no place in politics where Christians should not enter, no area that remains outside critical consideration in light of the Christian hope for justice. Therefore, the issue is not about a place where Christians should or should not go, but rather about how we engage in the task of resistance and how we live out our hope. The German political theologian Johann Baptist Metz writes about the love that informs Christian action for justice: “Love does not consist in its refusal to take sides, but rather in the way it takes sides, that is, without hatred or hostility toward people.” (The Emergent Church, Crossroad, 1981: 4) We are not called simply to accept the status quo and let God take care of any changing that needs to occur; neither are we to be so certain of our righteousness that we believe we can act with sovereign impunity and without owning up to the evil we do. Rather, we must have what Søren Kierkegaard described as the “humble courage” of faith. This is a risky business, and we must try to listen with the humility of an open mind and act with love if we are to be Christian disciples inside or outside of the political realm. Our hope calls for no less.