On this weekend between the Republican and Democratic National Conventions—a brief pause between “Please like us; we’re nicer than we seem” (the Republican theme) and “Please don’t leave us; we’re doing the best we can” (the Democratic theme)—I am remembering a few principles which shape my view of politics.
God does not play favorites—with nations or political parties. God is neither an American, nor a Democrat, nor a Republican. Charles Marsh, professor at the University of Virginia, was right to say, “God would be in every way God without America” (Wayward Christian Soldiers, p. 49). I’d add that God does not live in sweaty anxiety over America’s national elections, as if the tender strength of God’s love waxed or waned with the rise and fall of parties and candidates.
The agenda of the Kingdom of God transcends, something judges and sometimes affirms, aspects of all “political” arrangements. Christians understand the charter of God’s realm to be the Sermon on the Mount, our understanding and interpretation of which, like our understanding and interpretation of all other sacred texts, are partial and incomplete. What’s more, implementation of our understanding is complex. Political alignments are not ultimate. We make them in full recognition that political processes and governmental policies, like all things human, “fall short of the glory of God.”
God, whose character, I believe, is most fully revealed in Jesus, works by persuasion, not coercion. One result of this conviction is a strong commitment to freedom of conscience, faith, and opinion for everyone. Since God does not coerce, neither should we. Since God works by persuasion, we honor the liberty of all people to express their opinions, advance their views, practice their faiths, and vote their convictions. The only limits on such liberty are those which prevent one person’s freedom from infringing unreasonably on another’s. John Leland (1754-1841), Baptist minister and religious liberty advocate, said: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he truly believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in doing so.”
The most powerful witness the church can bear is by being the church, not by exercising political power. When the church is a community of compassion and servanthood, it shows the culture a viable alternative to a jungle of competition and selfishness. When the church practices generosity, because it trusts in God’s abundance, it provides a compelling contrast to the marketplace of consumption and greed. When the church lives by truth and truthfulness, it shows people that society need not be a vanity fair of hype, deception, and distortion. When the church treats people the way Jesus would treat them—not as strangers, but as friends; not as constituents, but as neighbors; not as “them” but “us”—the church points toward the possibility of a world at peace, reconciled, and healed. The church makes its most powerful “political” statements when it lives like Jesus. As Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder put it: “The most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon is to live in the new” (The Priestly Kingdom).