The sense of despair that normally comes in the election cycle for me has only been amplified by the fear, hatred, and violence of the rhetoric and personalities of this particular cycle. In the past, my electoral gloom has been caused by the fact that my own understanding of the way Biblical Christianity interacts with the political realm is so radically different from that of most Christians that I felt hopeless. Affiliating myself with the Mennonite tradition has changed that, somewhat. This cycle, however, it has been shocking not just that so many “evangelicals” have come out in support of Donald Trump (whose antics, claims, and promises are blatantly immoral, violent, and evil), but that many of those are people I know, people to whom I have taught the Gospel of Jesus, who I hoped would be able to see that, based on that Gospel, they cannot support someone reveling in such evil.
All of this said, the depression-inducing problem is no different this year than in prior years—just (as already stated) amplified. The issue is that politics is about power. It is about control. And the power and control of politics is wielded through the sword. The government wields the sword, wields violence, to enforce the will of the people (supposedly, and whether that will is just or not). We vote because we are attempting to influence which people will wield that violence, using that violent power for what we deem is best. For this reason, engaging in the political world is inherently antithetical to a life shaped by the kingdom teaching of Jesus, who rejected the use of that power for a different kind of power. Engaging in the political world is, in essence, denying that the Apostle Paul’s claim in Colossians 2 that Jesus, in his death, disarmed the powers, making a spectacle of their impotence. To say, “I want to participate in choosing who wields that power” is to say, “Jesus has not disarmed that power.” This, in my view, is at the heart of the contradiction of Christians being involved in politics.
This view, however, does not (contrary to NT Wright’s near constant criticism) mean that Christianity has no political message or must be seen as a “two-kingdom” or “escapist” worldview. NT Wright is correct that the message of Jesus is for this world. However, he is incorrect that this means we can or must participate in the political powers. The politics of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles is not participatory but prophetic. That John shouts his criticism of Herod outside of Herod’s palace is not a justification of voting or running for office, nor (as Wright would argue) is Romans 13. It does, however, imply that the Gospel is political and is definitely note politically irrelevant.
So, why do more Christians not understand the tension between Christianity and politics as I do? The problem, as my good friend recently said, is that when your understanding of what salvation is boils down to an exchange between Father and Son on our behalf and requires no more of us than repeating a belief statement or getting dipped in some water, then Christianity itself is just about a standing before God and has no real impact on how we live our lives, our attitudes about money or power, and our willingness to do violence. It, eventually, has nothing to do with whether we love our neighbor, much less our enemy. And, historically, when Christians have seen no tension between being united by the cross of Christ and the wielding of power, you find they tend to always side with the oppressor over the oppressed.
Ironically (and as we are seeing now) evangelical Christians are denying the very people Jesus identified with (the alien, the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the prisoner, the punished) to support those who claim to be able to offer security, safety, and prosperity. These are the promises of too many despots and dictators: from Caligula to Hitler.
The conservative Christians I know sound more like Nietzsche than Bonhoeffer to me.
My aforementioned friend went on to say, “The message of the cross is out of alignment with that of Donald Trump in that where Trump is about obliterating enemies, Jesus makes friends of his enemies.” This I agree with passionately because it is the heart of the gospel. Jesus did not die for the purpose of forgiving us for some mystical offense to God’s preferences about certain actions (how most define “sins”), but because our violent and destructive desire to fill his role in our lives (sin) sets us against him such that when God became a human and demonstrated the kind of life he had in mind for us, we killed him.
Where my friend lost me was when he said, “Therefore, perhaps, the goal of Jesus is that Trump might use power for good.” To which I had to interrupt: “The problem is that kind of power cannot be used for good because that kind of power is antithetical to the kind of power wielded on the cross.” The statement “The goal of Jesus’ cross is to make friends of Jesus’ enemies” is in inherent contradiction to the notion that “perhaps we can use the power of the sword with which to make friends of our own enemies.” Swords only make enemies. Crosses make friends. (My friend did restate his comment and would, I think, agree with this point–I’m taking him out of context on purpose to make a point.)
What we must do to understand this is understand how, exactly, it is that Jesus “makes friends of his enemies through the cross.” This is accomplished by a reading of Ephesians 2, in which the Apostle Paul is describing how Jesus has made Jew and Gentile one people. In that passage he states:
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph 2: 14-18 NIV)
This passage is complemented by Paul’s words in Colossians 1:
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. 21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Col 1:19-23 TNIV)
In Ephesians we find Paul proclaiming that God, in Christ, has destroyed what enmity we have for one another by reconciling all of us to Christ (his reconciliation of Jew / Gentile should apply to male / female, black / white, Christian / Muslim, straight / gay, Republican / Democrat, etc.). And that reconciliation begins with being reconciled to God. Notice that Paul does not say that he has put to death God’s hostility toward us (as is the assumption of most Christians). It says he has put to death their (Jew and Gentile—our) hostility, and in Colossians the enmity which is put to death is in our minds, not God’s.
How does Jesus “put to death” the hostility of those whose desire to be in God’s position (sin) makes God and all others a threat and, therefore, their enemy? He does it by receiving within his body, through the cross, their hostility and letting it die with him—offering no retaliation (as retaliation always escalates violence–and all sin is violence we do to one another, a wielding of power to control another).
This is how Christ brings peace: not by wielding the sword and not by political force or by participation in a political system. He brings peace by wearing a cross and dying for those who hate him, by defeating their death in his resurrection, and offering to them a reconciliation to God through forgiveness, confession, and repentance and a reconciliation to one another in a mutual “dying to self” that happens as a result of choosing to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.
This, Paul tells us in 1 Cor 1, is the real power of God which the Jews (because they were already faced with their own crosses under Roman rule) stumble over and the Gentiles think is ridiculous. But, for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God to truly change things. It looks foolish to the perishing because we can’t seem to un-think that power can work for good…we can’t seem to rethink that God’s power is a different kind of power. Those who are perishing are seduced by the myth of power and redemptive violence. But, Paul insists in that passage that the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom.
For this reason (both because we struggle to understand it and because the powers look so tempting), people who claim to be Christians don’t just vote, many are voting for someone whose life and stated ideals are the complete opposite of those which Christ came proclaiming. I, for one, have struggled to believe that a Christian could participate in politics (by holding office or voting) and still be Christian—but I have tried very hard to be humble and allow for Christians to think differently than I. But, I cannot imagine how someone can be a Christian and vote for a person like Donald Trump.
That said, this year I have decided that if Donald Trump (and likely Ted Cruz) wins the nomination for President, I will be voting. Not because I support the other guy (or gal)—because I can’t. It is because the kind of evil, hate, and fear that these men represent is so far beyond the normal political evil of our nation as to constitute (what I take to be) the same type of evil which led to the holocaust. If this happens, I will vote. But you’ll see no sticker on my Facebook profile proudly proclaiming it. After I do, I’ll most likely have to spend some time in prayer—repenting for denying the cross of Christ so profoundly. Oughtn’t I, instead, simply “Know whom I have believed” and be “persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day”?
Simply stated, to participate in the powers is to deny that Jesus’ way of doing life was the correct one. As members of Jesus’ kingdom, we reject that the powers have any power, they are a laughingstock. And our lives are a prophetic (and political) witness to the fact that they already have been made powerless, and that war has already been ended, and the enmity between us has already been put to death. For now, we live as that witness and wait for the moment when, as Paul again states in Philippians 2, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”