Here’s a question for you, a spin on the classic “WWJD.” Which news network would Jesus watch? Would he binge on Fox News? Or would he soak up MSNBC? Listen to any right- or left-wing pundit, and you’ll come away thinking that Jesus is the exclusive property of their political tribe. Conservative personalities point to their traditional morality and “one nation under God” civic religiosity as proof of their Christian bona fides. Liberal commentators, on the other hand, trumpet their supposed compassion and tolerance as virtues which make them the only correct answer to the WWJD question.
So who is right? Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? Or is the answer to reject both extremes and, like 42% of Americans, identify as Independent? Does Jesus turn off both Fox News and MSNBC, and watch C-SPAN instead?
Of course, the question isn’t really about which network Jesus would watch. The issue is how our identity as citizens of the kingdom intersects with our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. How should Christians vote? How should Christians talk about politics on social media? And how should Jesus’ kingdom shape our political priorities?
One of the most pressing needs of our time, at least in American evangelicalism, is to rediscover a theology of kingdom that helps us navigate turbulent political waters. Engagement with political power is fraught with danger on every side, but knowing the Bible’s grand narrative of king and country, and finding our place within it, will help to shape us into those who represent Jesus well in the public arena.
The history of the Christian political right, as well as the Christian political left, is littered with examples of what not to do, and helpful role models who could guide our journey towards responsible citizenship are few and far between. N.T. Wright lays out the problem insightfully, writing,
“Christians, particularly in the United States, have simply baptized the right-wing and left-wing politics of a deeply divided society and claimed this or that one as Christian, to be implemented and if possible exported. Listening to the sub-Christian language on display among those exultant at the killing of Osama bin Laden was an example of the right-wing tendency; anything that advances the worldview of Fox News is assumed to be Christian, wise, and automatically justified. The left claims the high Christian and moral ground of a concern for the poor and the marginalized, but again this regularly parrots the elements of liberal modernism, not least its new sexual ethic, without any attempt to scale the true heights of the gospel vision in the New Testament.”
On one hand, “anything that advances the worldview of Fox News is assumed to be Christian.” This, to varying degrees, is the prevalent political framework within much of conservative evangelicalism. But on the other hand, the Christian left “regularly parrots the elements of liberal modernism.” Neither side captures the grand vision of what it means to be citizens and ambassadors of a kingdom that is plowing aside every rival reign. Whether we don the mantle of “moral majority” or “social justice warriors,” or whether we retreat from politics altogether into monastic seclusion, too often we’re missing the point of what Jesus’ kingdom is all about. For whether we identify as Republicans, Democrats, or any other political party, our true identity transcends politics. We pledge our highest allegiance to the King.
A KINGDOM IDENTITY
The kingdom of God transforms our political engagement by altering our identity. God has “delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Now we are citizens of the kingdom and heirs of the world. As kingdom citizens, we must approach politics the way we approach anything else: as outsiders, temporary residents, and ambassadors of a king whose reign will outlast every other political system. America and all her presidents will one day be consigned to the dustbin of history, but those who participate in the reign of Christ will shine like the sun forever and ever. This doesn’t mean we neglect the temporal, physical realities of our society, but it does change our perspective.
At the outset of the Babylonian exile, the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles living in Babylon, addressing their questions on how they were to live as strangers in a strange land. Surprisingly, he didn’t tell them to hate their new home, or even to sit tight and wait out the seventy years of exile. But neither did he tell them to get comfortable and blend into the Babylonian melting pot. Rather, as God’s distinct people in a foreign land, their calling was to extend blessing and fruitfulness wherever they were planted. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,” was God’s instruction to them, “and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). For the duration of their exile, their well-being would be inextricably tied up with Babylon’s well-being. So even though they did not belong to Babylon, they were to work and pray for its prosperity.
Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles are helpful for us too, as “strangers and exiles” (Hebrews 11:13) awaiting the arrival of our kingdom citizenship in fullness (Philippians 3:20). We seek the welfare of America, or wherever else God has sovereignly stationed us as exiles and ambassadors, and pray to the King on its behalf, for when America prospers so do we. The church should be a force for blessing in every community where a kingdom outpost is stationed, and a force for blessing in our broader culture as well. That’s how our exile is supposed to impact our neighborhoods and nation.
But our identity as strangers and exiles means that even as we seek blessing for America, we do so with a very different agenda than our neighbors. This is not our home, this is not our culture, and this nation’s political fights are not our political fights. Even if we hold American passports and vote and participate in the political process, even if we run for office, our participation in the political process is as foreign ambassadors, not as natural-born citizens.
Think for a moment of what it means to be an ambassador. France’s ambassador to the United States, for example, represents the interests, culture, and nation of France both in their public statements and personal life. Their public words speak on behalf of the government which commissioned them. They engage with the American political process, but often their positions on various issues will cut across the typical right-left divide of American politics, because they are representing an entirely different set of priorities. And their personal lives are supposed to conform to the highest values of their culture. Ambassadors have been recalled for scandal in their private lives, because such scandal casts disrepute on the nation they represent.
2 Corinthians 5:20 says that “we are ambassadors of Christ” who have been commissioned with “the message of reconciliation.” As citizens of Christ’s kingdom stationed here as temporary residents of America (or any other nation), we are ambassadors representing the interests, culture, and values of our homeland. In our personal lives, we are called to conform to the highest standards of holiness, for we do not represent ourselves but the King who has sent us. When we interact with our neighbors, even ones who look just like us, we are engaging in cross-cultural communication, embodying the values and culture of New Jerusalem. In our public statements—whether in the political arena or on social media—we speak on behalf the King with a message of reconciliation.
Our identity as ambassadors also means that we, just like that French ambassador, will probably speak and live in a way that cuts across the right-left political divide. We represent a kingdom with an entirely different set of priorities. So even if we belong to a certain political party, we do not toe the party line. We are not Republicans. We are not Democrats. We are not even Independents. We are monarchists, pledging allegiance to a King who is more conservative than any conservative and more liberal than any liberal.
So if you are completely comfortable within any political framework, or can cheerlead for any political party or leader without reservation, you’re probably not walking in full allegiance to the King. Our kingdom speaks judgment on right- and left-wing priorities alike, offending both the Pharisees and Sadducees of our day. And our kingdom advances a radically different agenda that cuts across the political spectrum. We work for the sanctity of human life both by advocating for protection for the unborn, and also by rising to the defense of every group silenced by oppression—even the ones that conservatives or liberals would rather remain quiet. We seek human flourishing both by generosity to those in need, and also by critiquing and reforming the institutions that perpetuate their poverty. We celebrate “law and order” as a blessing from God (Romans 13:4), but also work tirelessly to ensure that “liberty and justice for all” truly becomes reality to those who are subjugated by the twisted caricature of an unjust justice system. We obey the command to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) by shining the light of truth and righteousness on all corruption and falsehood, beginning with our own ranks and our own hearts first. Our political activity should scandalize conservatives and confound liberals—just like Jesus did.
THE GREAT REVERSAL AND THE VOTING BOOTH
If we are representing the values of our homeland, the way we pursue political goals must conform to our kingdom’s upside-down (or, rather, right-ways up) agenda. The great reversal that Jesus ushered in is casting aside the powerful and prestigious and proud, and raising up the humble and dependent and meek. This great reversal extends far beyond the walls of the church and touches every area of society, including how we engage as citizens and activists in the political process.
I fear that much of our Christian political activity eschews the harder work of the great reversal in pursuit of the short-term allurement of power. We think that the success or failure of our cause rests on the number of our votes or our proximity to power-brokers or our ability to shout-down the opposition. So we end up campaigning and politicking and Facebooking in a way that looks no different from the rest of the world. We ally ourselves with the rich and powerful and proud. We broadcast outrage on social media. But might does not make right, whether it comes through the barrel of a gun or a ballot box or a “like” button. We forget that worldly influence cannot advance the kingdom’s agenda, because at the heart of the kingdom’s agenda is the promise that all such influence will one day soon be overturned. Attempting to advance the kingdom through the political force of a ‘moral majority’ simply baptizes the serpent’s strategy for power and makes us servants of his agenda—even if it comes with a Christian coating. Any other way of kingdom-building other than Jesus’ way doesn’t actually advance Jesus’ kingdom, only our pretend ones.
When we confuse the advancement of the kingdom with the advancement of our political goals, we will inevitably jettison the values of the former in pursuit of the mirage of the latter. But holding to the priorities of the great reversal can give us great clarity, even if that clarity comes at great cost. If faced with the choice of embracing arrogance, manipulation, and fear to win a political victory, or to stand in humility and kindness and lose the battle, then we should choose loss. No matter what issues are at stake, the values of the great reversal and our kingdom witness are more important, and will ultimately prove victorious. Any strategy that neglects kingdom values isn’t politically savvy; it’s naïve and shortsighted. The boastful and strong may win elections. But only the meek will inherit the earth.
This puts much of our political activity today in a sobering light. It is very possible that the millions of dollars that Christian advocacy groups funnel into pushing a “values” agenda is not actually funding Jesus’ agenda at all, but instead is being laundered back into Satan’s empire. We partner with anyone who will give us access to power, regardless of whatever violence they do to our gospel or our witness. We fool ourselves into thinking that the ends will justify the means, and that achieving our electoral and policy goals will somehow be a win for the kingdom. After all, there are “important issues” at stake. But in doing so, we have bought the very same lie that the snake sold to Eve, complete with its ruinous consequences. We have attempted to construct a “Christian America” apart from actually submitting to the King and embracing his priorities and values. We have traded our birthright of ambassadorship and gospel witness for the bean soup of short-term political victories.
I don’t think that one has to look very far to see that something is rotten in the state of American Christianity. The subtle and toxic intertwining of political power with kingdom goals has stripped evangelicalism of whatever moral high ground we once possessed. Most of the vaunted political conquests won by the church have turned out to be pyrrhic victories, achieved at the cost of our mission and credibility. Looking at the fruit which three decades of the ascendancy of the “Christian political right” has reaped, all I see is the wreckage of our public witness and wholesale cultural retreat. Three decades of culture wars have not resulted in revival. Instead, I see much more darkness, deceit, and division in our culture and churches that there used to be. Younger generations are abandoning the pretense of adherence to the Christian worldview en masse, driven primarily by a disgust with the American church’s political syncretism. Churches are riven with bitter disputes over politics and unable to separate truth from lies. The kingdom citizens who remain in our pews have recognized this changing cultural landscape and ecclesiastical chaos with alarm, but by and large have responded by doubling down on the same bankrupt strategy that brought us to this precipice. All the while, as our culture continues its accelerating slide towards destruction and as our churches fracture and falsehood seems ascendant, the snake is laughing. We have been duped into thinking we were building cathedrals, when this whole time we were really just painting over Satan’s temples with a pseudo-religious façade.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t elect Christian candidates or try to persuade our representatives to act on legislation that promotes truth, righteousness, and human flourishing. We can and should and must seek the welfare of the city where God has sent us into exile. And to a great extent, elections really do determine the trajectory of a nation. As exiles here, we should care about the trajectory of America. But our hope for altering America’s future cannot rest on electoral victory alone. The true church will probably never be a majority in any nation this side of the New Jerusalem, so the best hope for America is that the kingdom colonies within her borders would be such salt and light that our cultural influence would outweigh our electoral power. This means that our relatively easy work of partisan organizing and get-out-the-vote politicking needs to give way to a harder mission: winning hearts and minds with superior news and superior love. The best way to “fight for the soul of America” is to fight for the souls of Americans.
After all, our hope is not in our ballot box wins, but in a King who has promised that nothing will stop his mission. No cultural change, no sexual revolution, no election can get Jesus Christ back into his tomb. He is alive and on the loose, and his truth is marching on. The kingdom of Jesus Christ will not advance by the strength of our votes but by the quality of our sacrificial love, not by the verdict of a Supreme Court decision but by the verdict rendered at Calvary, not by “our man” sitting in the White House but by the perfect Man sitting at the right hand of the throne of God.
We will overcome the present spiritual darkness the same way that we will ultimately overcome the serpent in the end: “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, and because we did not love our lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). We follow a King who has promised that not even the gates of hell will prevail against the triumphant march of his church, so we can move confidently forward, knowing that he will win in the end. We don’t have to cling to the fading past of a “Christian America,” for we are not people of the past. We are people of the future, heralding the coming kingdom that will overthrow America and every other realm. So let’s politick and organize and vote and love in light of those future realities, working for the healing of a broken world and calling rebels into the same kingdom that first welcomed rebels like us.