Series: The Un-Christian Clichés That Christians Say
I’m kicking off a couple reflections on the false and un-Christian clichés that Christians throw around. I’ll start with one I’m hearing a lot these days… “pastors shouldn’t get political.”
I am not a democrat or a republican. I am a Christian. That is my “political position,” and being a follower of Jesus is deeply political. The two-party system of US imperialism is secondary to the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Disciples of Jesus are to be in the world but not of it (John 17:14-18). For thousands of years Christians have spoken out about the evils of various governments and societal structures and have been marginalized, exiled, and even executed for doing so.
Jesus is my Savior, King, and Lord. He has claimed dominion over my life and my political allegiance is to him alone. The values I seek to embody, albeit imperfectly, are taken from his own life and teaching. I communicate, report to, and submit to his rule afresh each day. Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7) is the political manifesto I seek to live by.
Jesus regularly called out the evil of the religious leadership of his day (Matt 12:4, Jn 8:44, Matt 23:27) and the appointed politicians (Lk 13:32), while proclaiming a new political system was breaking into the world called the “kingdom of God” which was embodied in himself (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus appropriated the common language of the Roman political system “κύριος” (“Lord” used as a title for the Caesars) “εὐαγγέλιον” (“Gospel” used to describe the “good news” of the Pax Romana of Caesar Augustus’… “βασιλείας” kingdom), and “υἱὸς θεός” (“Son of God” also used to describe the divine-human nature of the Caesars).
Jesus was tried and executed by the convergence of a bankrupt religious system and the imperial power of Rome. Jesus’ execution was very political…
They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
It was the trumped of charges of sedition, blasphemy, and claims connected to a messianic kingdom that landed Jesus on the cross.
Furthermore, there is an entire prophetic tradition throughout the Old Testament, ending in the Book of Revelation, of servants of God “getting political” confronting the corruption of kings, priests, and empires.
So how in the world could good Christian people in the US make a statement like “pastors should not get political”?
Part of the issue in the US, is our assumption that we are a “Christian nation.” In a sense, the US church is in the middle of an identity crisis. We suffer from a kind of missional amnesia, in which a fundamental aspect of our identity has been lost. This problem has a deep history. The North American version of Christianity that most of us inherited goes back to Emperor Constantine in AD 313. Up until Constantine, Christians were a rogue, and periodically illegal, religious movement that experienced several rounds of imperial persecution. At times, the primitive church met in secret spaces, subversively scratching the fish symbol (Ichthys) on cave walls to identify meeting places. They riskily met under threat of death.
This small renegade movement, with no buildings, no professional clergy, no committee meetings, between the time of Jesus’ death on the cross in the 30s and Constantine in the 300s, grew numerically across vast geographical distances. With no program of evangelism, no formal mission statements, and little resources, they became a force to be reckoned with.
While the growth of the church up until that point is difficult to explain, the explosion of growth after AD 312 is quite explainable. Emperor Constantine with his vision of a cross and voice from the sky saying, “in this sign conquer,” changed the course of history and the identity of the church forever. Constantine had a history of self-aggrandizing visions, and military conquests that sealed his power. Perhaps the emperor was operating more out of a political necessity than spiritual conversion—he was not actually baptized until he lay on his deathbed twenty-five years later in AD 337. Regardless, he transformed the faith like few individuals in history.
Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion birthed the Constantinian system that continues into our inherited US version of the church. Initially this adoption had an incredible and powerfully relieving effect for those early Christians. First, they no longer had to be arrested or killed for following Christ. Secondly, confiscated properties were eventually returned. The blending of religion and state power also had negative effects. The church devolved at times into a hotbed of scandal, gross extravagance, and hypocrisy. The professional clergy model was born, and, in a sense, Jesus was dethroned, replaced by the emperor. Vast church building projects were launched of unparalleled grandeur in human history.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Inadvertently beginning the fragmentation process that resulted in the multitude of competing mini-Christendoms of denominations today.
Of course, while the Christendom church has many blemishes, she also has many beauty marks. Much of the hyper-critical stereotypes of emerging generations fail to take into consideration how the church has transformed the world for the better in incalculable ways. The church has gifted the world with hospitals, universities, shelters, and food banks. Not to mention the movements like abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and so on, each largely pioneered by Christian leaders. Christians have served as the moral leaven in ancient and modern times, lifting the gaze of humanity to the higher virtues.
Yet the version of Christianity we have inherited in the US is not the fish-scratching, secret-meeting-in-caves version. It is primarily an attractional only model: build it and they will come. Overseen by professional clergy, who receive special tax exceptions from the empire. It operates in the Christendom assumptions that we are a Christian nation and most of the people are already Christian. There is expectation in this arrangement that good people will go to church, as it is a cultural norm. The empire and the church work together as complementing institutions that shape the behavior and societal norms. Gregory Boyd calls this “The myth of America as a Christian nation.”[i]
In God, Neighbour, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good, Walter Brueggemann identifies three “markers of empire” that recur in ancient and modern imperial iterations. 1. Extraction: empires extract wealth from the vulnerable and transfer it to the powerful. 2. Commoditization: empires reduce everything and everyone to a disposable commodity, bought, sold, traded, possessed, and consumed. Everything and everyone has a price. 3. Violence: empires enforce imperial policies and practices of commoditization and extraction with violence.[ii]
Brueggemann goes on to say that while there are other empires in the global arrangement, globalization is primarily spearheaded by the United States, “with its inexhaustible consumerism, its unrivaled military power, and its growing economic gap between haves and have-nots, is a forceful, willful practitioner of extraction and commoditization.”[iii] While globalization brings great benefits overall for most of humanity, a small handful of very powerful people are benefiting disproportionately.
Empires use a religious tradition to legitimate these activities of commoditization, extraction, and violence. In the US, it is the Christian church that has been used in this way. When we study closely the life of Jesus, we can see that his Church and US imperialism actually make strange bedfellows.
The problem is trying to help people who have gone to church their whole lives see this is like trying to help a fish understand the water they depend on for life in their fishbowl. So, again frequent criticism of people who challenge long held assumptions rooted in colonialism and nationalism, “how can a pastor get political” or “what kind of pastor would say that”? Well, those very different than the imperial church can envision in the current mental model. “Pastor” has been equated as a kind of spiritual butler, and chaplain to the US imperial church. So no, many of us are not that. Some of us are called to reach the emerging generations who have seen these incongruencies and rejected the church outright. Gen X and Millennials seem to be questioning this amalgamation of Christ and empire. We are trying to reclaim the early church, by reaching forward into the kingdom of God breaking in from the future.
For the last 50-years many “pastors” have simply been chaplains of American empire. We have harbored racism, sexism, nationalism, and consumerism in their congregations in the name of God. This is how you can have a whole multitude of people who make excuses for the behavior of Donald Trump, and vote for him even though his actions and words are blatantly un-Christian. I’m taking responsibility for my role in that, repenting, and seeking the renewal of the church. This includes naming and confronting evil.
The main reason so few pastors actually “get political” in the public square or from the pulpit is that it would cost them members and money. It’s my prayer that God would raise up a generation of leaders who faithfully follow Jesus, and have the courage to speak and embody the truth no matter what the cost. The world needs a Church that is more Christian than American. In this time of massive reset, may that Church arise again.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, God, Neighbour, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 1–2.
[iii] Ibid., 6.