I hesitate to write this post because I don’t want to spark an endless debate or add wood to the ongoing conflagration that everyone sees once they log in to Facebook. I’m not a huge fan of politics and social media. I understand that it can be done intelligently and respectfully, but often politics are reduced to pithy “truisms” with a URL to red meat articles that lambastes the opposing side. Thankfully, God in his kindness and foresight blessed us with the “hide” option.
I’m not writing to comment on this vitriol. I’m much more interested in the trend among both sides of the political spectrum to invoke the Bible as a defense of a political position and often in contradictory ways. I think this trend has to do with a misunderstanding of the politics of the Bible. The interaction of biblical politics and our own American context is a complex one, but I hope to encourage more thinking and less cherry-picking in this short post.
The Problem of Improper Reading
One of the greatest temptations we as Christians face is to overread a biblical verse or story based on our own context. For example, sometimes Jesus’s saying about himself in John 12:32, “When I’m lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself,” has been interpreted to mean that when God’s people really worship Jesus, he’ll save people through his people’s example. This statement may be true in some way but not based off this verse. The next verse tells us that Jesus is actually speaking of his “lifting up” (i.e. death) on the cross.
That was pretty easy. Let’s take a look at a more relevant example from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people called my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear them, forgive their sin, and heal their land.” This verse has been applied to Christians in America countless times. The idea of Christians praying for America so that “America can be great” in the eyes of God “again,” however, is an improper application of this verse. If anything, the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is fulfilled in Christ. Th previous verse (7:13) echoes the curses of the law found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Verse 14 is God’s way of saying, “Just because you’re under the curse, doesn’t mean you’re permanently stuck under the curse. There’s a way out, and it’s through repentance.” Of course, the “way out” of the curse is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. America is not God’s people. The church is God’s people. Jesus did not die for the US; he died for his people. Even if America continues its long history of committing evil against God, God’s people are secure in Christ, safe from sin and curse.
The Explicit and Implicit Nature of Biblical Narrative
Before I get to the beef, I think I need to address an important hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) point. The Bible is a subversive book. It’s subversive because it undermines humanity’s corrupt way of thinking about the world, and it does this in two ways: explicitly and implicitly.
Explicitly, the Bible tells and shows us that we are sinful. We are incapable of loving God and doing what he tells us to do. We are incapable of repentance. We are stiff-necked, hard-hearted, dead in our sins kind of people. We are told because of God’s faithfulness to his promise and his kindness toward us, he gave his Son as a sacrifice for our sin, and he gave the Spirit to call us to his Son, convict, sanctify, and live in us. The Bible is clear about these facts. Jesus is Lord of all and Savior of his people.
Implicitly, the Bible speaks to a great many other questions. Because we must receive these answers from Scripture by means of implication, we must work hard to ensure that we are not misusing Scripture. This can be really hard and really frustrating. Sometimes, Scripture does not give an answer to a particular question. That’s okay. The Bible is not an instruction manual for everything. It’s not an instruction manual at all. It’s a story or a history of God’s dealings with his people. Actually, it’s more than narrative, so maybe we can call it “theological and ethical instruction through reflection on history, poetry, epistle, and apocalypse.”
Well…okay, it’s difficult to really sum up without generalizing too much. The point I really want to make is that the message of Scripture is cohesive and unified around God and his dealings with his people. Everything that we glean from Scripture – our hermeneutics, our interpretations – should be submitted to the main point: Jesus is Lord of all and Savior for his people. Without that point, Scripture loses its cohesive nature, and we end up doing what we want with Scripture, which is what got us into trouble way in the beginning of things.
So Where’s the Beef?
My complaint is that we pick without reflection verses to justify this or that political policy or democratic, socialistic, capitalistic idea. I’m not saying that Christians can’t use their reflections on the biblical message to justify policies on immigration, healthcare, racism, or environmentalism. The more biblical we are, the better. I’m not convinced, however, that the Bible cares about where “America” comes out on the issue.
As far as the Bible is concerned, America is as good as Rome (or rather as wicked as Rome). In the beginning of several gospels (Mark in particular stands out to me), Isaiah 40 is quoted in reference to John the Baptist. It’s the “prepare the way of the Lord” passage. Isaiah 40 declaring the coming rule of Yahweh to save and to judge the earth. If John is preparing Jesus’s way, the gospels are declaring the Jesus is both Yahweh and king of the world.
In a world where Caesar rules over everything significant, a king comes who is greater than Caesar. One of the only times Jesus mentions Caesar is when he is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes. Jesus famously takes a coin with Caesar’s face on it and says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him.” Explicitly, it appears that Jesus is saying there are two kingdoms and one is not concerned with the other, but there are other implications to Jesus’s words. They raise other questions. Why mention God’s belongings at all? What actually belongs to Caesar? Doesn’t everything belong to God? Jesus appears to be saying it doesn’t matter what Caesar claims for himself. If Caesar wants you to pay taxes, pay them. Be concerned with what God wants from us because he owns everything.
Imagine how political that message actually is. Caesar is not lord, Jesus is lord. Jesus, amazingly, rarely mentions Caesar despite the obvious contrariness of Jesus’s message with Rome. This is intentional. Jesus isn’t merely focused on replacing Caesar’s temporary kingdom. Though Caesar rules today, there will be a time when his kingdom is no more. Jesus’s kingdom is now, and not yet, from now and forever. God already passed judgment on the kingdoms of the world in the Old Testament. We know that God’s rule isn’t limited geographically by borders or by ethnicity or by time or by money or by progress. Caesar’s rule, and by extension, any other non-Jesus kingdom, including one whose borders extend from sea to shining sea, is limited.
It would be great if America or any other country submitted itself to God, but there will be a time when America will no longer exist. Why should it? God’s kingdom is better.
Where the Rubber Meets Route 66
The difficulty for Christians is that we live in two societies. We have a dual citizenship. One society is a democracy or something resembling it. We have a say in how society is run, and we play a part in its success. Our choices and hard work matter for the society and ourselves. The other is an autocracy. We submit lovingly to the One who commands us how to live and supplies us with whatever we need in order to fulfill our purpose in that society – we work, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. One society is incredibly individualistic. The other, while concerned with the individual, emphasizes unity with each other as brothers and sisters.
Can you see how this might cause conflict and how it makes reflecting on Scripture for political guidance difficult? Here’s a harder question: when what’s good for America contradicts what is right for a Christian what stance will we take? Besides that, a lot of America’s values line up with Enlightenment values rather than Christian ones. At the end of the day, Jesus calls people to himself in submission to his Lordship. America attempts to preserve the right of the individual to believe and act as they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. America has defended slavery, butchered natives, developed and implemented eugenics programs, and still battles with racism and poverty and abortion. America is postmodern, agnostic, pagan, and so on. Worst of all, America doesn’t submit to God but in many ways still invokes God to bless it.
The answer is absolutely political. Jesus is Lord of all and Savior for his people. Christians, our dedication to our first and best citizenship is the answer. Our faithfulness to Scripture and to our Lord is the best political action we can take. The obligations we have as a church to preach the gospel, take care of each other, and live lives that have been redeemed by God takes precedence. In some cases, we may end up having to take political action in the American context. But we must be humble when we do. We don’t know everything, and the Bible is as concerned about America’s rule as it is for Caesar’s. America is a part of the world that is passing away, let the work we do in it have eternal value. Let it be honoring to God. Let us be prepared to work hard and pray that our reflections on Scripture cohere with its central message.