by Alexei Laushkin
American Christians offer two distinct witnesses in the public square. One witness is focused on abortion, marriage, and sexual ethics; while the other is focused on social justice for the poor, the marginalized, and downcast.
While there are a smaller number of Christians who hold to both kinds of emphasis, the norm is that both groups do not look that kindly on one another.
One of the tendencies of Christian Unity is to see the good in all things, or at least to see Christ across difference. While that might have an element of truth as it relates to God’s truth being clear across the traditions because his character is the same and therefore can be seen in a range of theological and cultural traditions because of the similarity of His essence; this is not the case when it comes to the moral and political judgments of Christians. There are not necessarily bits of good to be seen everywhere, and assuming that all Christian approaches to public life have some good is a mistake.
A worldview that says well we should limit abortion and expand the state in other areas to cover the poor, and also take care of the refugee, and also encourage and support children being raised by a parent or parents, is actually not drawing from the best from across the church’s witness, instead it ends up being a fairly incomplete and incoherent type of Christianity.
The Witness of the Church is Grounded in the Kingdom
All epochs of history find their culmination in Jesus Christ. Therefore in some real sense all political philosophy and history has a definitive end point in the kingdom to come. I don’t mean that the future kingdom will be absent order and reign, as that would be a mistake in thinking.
What I do mean is that Jesus shall reign and we will be reigning with him in the new heavens and earth. There will be perfect justice and a new form of organizing and forming social life (what we call politics) will be fully established.
As such the witness of the church across time is always trying to point to foundational truths that supersede all temporary kingdoms and politics. Our witness in a very real way is seeking to be anchored in the timeless.
Consider this letter from Patriarch Tikhon to Lenin written in November 1918 the one year anniversary of the October Revolution. As a piece of Christian political literature it is anchored in a time and place. It is judgmental in tone and reflects a sense of the church that was, is, and will be.
While we can not nor should we try and replicate the exact political temperament of early 20th century Russia, there are lessons to be learned about what Christian engagement ought to look like and be rooted in from the referenced letter and indeed from across all of Christian political engagement.
Here are a few that we might consider.
The Importance of Unity and Reconciliation
Considering the judgment of the whole church and its fundamental unity is an essential task when attending to the political voice of the church. Any structural sin or serious schism, as can be found in the United States across race in particular, renders its contemporary political judgment incomplete.
As an example, much of what passes for political judgment from the right falls to adequately account for the entire true and lived experiences of those who have sought God fully across all parts of the church.
Reconciliation is also key to the political judgment of the church. It is the foundational duty of every Christian to reconcile his or her times back to Christ. This is part of the foundational act of the political witness of the church in every society. To render back what is true and just and rooted in Christ back to the society.
In some cultures this will mean engaging deeply in the political process. In other cultures given the hostility of the culture or government to lived Christian faith, the faithful option will be standing outside of the culture and intentionally choosing a position of disempowerment for the sake of the conscience of the seared culture. Now at times Christians are placed in the position of the disempowered, which was the case in this country and by fellow Christians no less. In such times the Christian is living in the Exodus and looking for the God that frees and changes entire peoples.
The Limits of Christian Political Action
As important and good as it is for Christians in a particular time to be involved in politics, governance, and civic society, there are real limits to the relative emphasis a group of Christians can put on this process.
The social gospel, as can be found on the left even to this day in morphed forms, cannot bring in the Kingdom of God to earth. It can make earth more just and achieve a proximate justice which is very important, but it is unable to turn the hearts of parents to their children, or turn the hearts of a people back to a deeply rooted following of Jesus.
So while intervening in famine is a good and godly and significant and holy act, and intervening to set the captives and marginalized free from oppressions, and stretching our willingness to be hospitable are all deeply right acts, and rooted in so far as they are done in the name and in the spirit of Christ; they are unable in and of themselves to create a rooted and full spiritual awakening in a people.
Therefore works of justice, no matter how right, are good and full but in and of themselves tend not to be able to just stand alone without a call that also speaks to the spiritual reality of all people.
A Divided and Politicized American Church
The fundamental division of the church across race (a decision taken up, supported, and implemented for many many decades by white Christians), renders the full political judgment of the American church fundamentally incomplete.
Its politicalization makes the church only able to muster moral clarity in pockets of society. In some ways when the right and left elements of the church are functioning coherently it does have the potential to elevate the national discourse, but that is more by accident than any sort of movement of unity and clarity. One example of this is the unique relationship forged between Senator Coons (D-DE), Senator Lankford (R-OK) and the President all around a common emphasis of prayer.
As the culture begins to take on ever more secular tones, what should the church say and how is an open question. Any strategy that relies on the courts to deliver us, will always be a bit of a fools errand. Courts may stave off the worse but they won’t bring a sort of unified clarity that would very much help Christians in America in the early 21st century.
A Few Take Aways
Given the politicalization and racial sin of American Christians what should we be looking to do?
- Speak more cautiously. Consider the whole when discussing public policy. Realize the politics impacts the implementor and recipient.
- Break the bonds of party. Christians must speak more neutrally even if they are more affiliated with one party over another.
- Develop an independent voice. Learn enough about the details of public policy to realize where non-faith voices are taking various conversations and instead begin to chart our own distinct path in a way that helps restore our witness as trusted pastoral presence and away from our affiliation as prophets of partisanship.
- Be persistent about issues of conscience. Society needs reminders of what is wrong and ill in the society. That means the voice of Christians have to be present enough in local communities to see the grave common challenges.
- Develop a culture of engagement. Christians shouldn’t be consumers of the news, instead they should be active and participatory, giving to groups that are charting this new path and starting groups of their own.
A century from now. If the church is able to unite and help reconcile our current cultural moment back to Christ, it will play a role in perhaps keeping the society from total decay. Just a little bit of salt can prevent a lot of rot. Time to go from the judgers of the world around us, to doing our part in being a presence that brings some light.
Alexei Laushkin is the Executive Director for Kingdom Mission Society.