Citizens First of the Kingdom

Not long after I came to Asheville, the Republican Men’s Club of Buncombe County invited me to their breakfast meeting to tell them about myself and my hopes for our church’s future.  It’s not my practice to speak at meetings, formal or informal, of political parties, but the man who invited me was a member of this church and someone I liked and respected.  He assured me that there was no hidden agenda, no intent to identify me with any particular candidate or issue, and no expectation other than I meet the folks who would gather and get better acquainted.  I decided to go. 

We met in the back room at Cornerstone Restaurant, and I enjoyed talking with the men at my table over pancakes and coffee.  After the plates had been cleared from the tables, my friend introduced me, and I began my talk in what I thought was a lighthearted way.  I said: “I was born in West Virginia and spent a lot of time there as a boy.  I remember that, in my maternal grandfather’s kitchen, over the little table where he drank his coffee in the mornings, there were two pictures.  Over his left shoulder was FDR who, according to my grandfather, saved him and his family from starvation in the Great Depression.  Over his right shoulder was a painting of Jesus Christ, who, my grandfather said saved him from sin. Every morning when I was at his house, those three faces—Jesus, FDR, and Papa Fred—looked at me as I had my cheerios. I can see those faces this morning as I speak to the Republican Men’s Club of Buncombe County, and none of the three is smiling at me.”  

It was supposed to be funny.  I thought it was.  I was the only one who thought it was.

In fairness, the men there didn’t know me, so they didn’t know that, while I have strong political opinions, I also understand that God doesn’t play favorites with nations or political parties.  As we commonly say, “God is neither an American nor a Democrat nor a Republican.”

I don’t believe that, if the Democrats were unhindered by Republicans that they would create a society characterized by the Sermon on the Mount, and I don’t believe that, if the Republicans faced no opposition from Democrats, that they would make a culture where everyone kept all ten of the Ten Commandments. Political parties are made up of human beings, which means that they are collectively as capable of sin and stupidity as any individual human being, and they are also capable of wisdom and goodness.  The fellows at the Republican Men’s Club didn’t know how little stock I put in either, or any, party, even though, at the same time, I think political involvement is an important responsibility for all of us.

I spoke to those Republican men in October of 2001, and you remember what had happened in September—on 9-11—of 2001.  All of us who gathered for breakfast that day were reeling from and grieving over the terror attacks which had recently shaken our nation and the world.  There was a lot of talk about impending war, “going after the terrorists,” and giving up some of our civil liberties in order to feel safe.  Laughter was hard to come by in those days.

So they didn’t know me, and the times were tense; but as I left Cornerstone that day, I also thought how our political culture was making it harder for us to work together to solve our problems.  It was true then, and it is true now, that most Americans are, when they aren’t forced to choose left or right, Democrat or Republican, blue or red, are middle of the road pragmatists.  We want to do what works will work to solve our problems, make our communities safer and our schools better, build and maintain a solid economic base, take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, protect people against discrimination, ensure equal and civil rights, and defend ourselves against violence and crime.  

The more locally we can work on our problems, the better solutions we come up with, because we know each other, see each other in the grocery store, sit in the same bleachers at high school football games on Friday nights, and serve each other the Lord’s Supper on Sunday at church. 

But, the broader the arena, the more polarized we become—to the point that, on the national level, the polarization is paralysis; it often seems that the only things which get done are the kinds of things which ensure that nothing gets done.  

The polarization and paralysis of our national politics are in the news we read and hear every day.  All the posturing, position-taking, and partisan name-calling on the national level have an effect on how we see each other closer to home.  We forget our commonalities and magnify our differences; we let the divisions of Washington, D.C. become divisions in our communities and families and, even, our churches.  These days, I think sadly, most churches are blue or red; there are hardly any “purple” churches left, and I think it’s a real loss.

I have a modest hope: I’d like for us to realize, or realize anew, that, as followers of Jesus, we are citizens first of the Kingdom of God and only afterward citizens of our nation.  Our primary loyalty is to the kingdom—the rule and reign, the will and way—of God made known in Jesus.  The agenda of that kingdom always transcends, something judges and sometimes affirms, all our “political” arrangements.  For a Christian, there is nothing ultimate about politics, and a Christian recognizes that governments, political parties, economic theories, and foreign policies, like all things human, “fall short of the glory of God.”

Since it is true that our first and enduring commitment is to the kingdom of God, I think Gregory Boyd, a Minnesota pastor and sometime seminary professor, got it right when he said, in The Myth of A Christian Nation: “The distinctly kingdom question is not, ‘How should we vote?’  The distinctly kingdom question is, ‘How should we live?’”   (pp. 47-48)