A Nonpartisan God

Monday I did something I swore I would never do: I quit my party. Not a birthday party or some social function. I don’t really host those in the first place (and typically decline invitations to those of others). No, Monday I mailed my paperwork to change my voter registration. As a result, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on either side of my family to not be a registered member of the Republican Party. (I guess I’m just the malcontent. The rogue.)

I’m now independent, unaffiliated with either of America’s two major political parties — or with any of the minor ones, for that matter. It means I can’t vote in party primaries, and the switch cost me some major political capital in other ways given the current state of things. My former party controls every level of my government, local, state, and federal, so I’ve just abandoned those who make the rules, so to speak. Much like my (former) fellow GOP-ers, I at one time celebrated that we had, at long last, taken back control. I waited in anxious anticipation for the conservatives to set in motion things many of us — and many Christians of all stripes — had awaited for years. And they did. Republicans in Kentucky advanced thrillingly pro-life legislation. They ended mandatory union dues. The national legislature began hammering out how to protect religious liberties, and the president nominated a worthy heir of Justice Scalia to the Supreme Court.

Then things turned ugly.

And I’m not talking about just in the capitals, either. People on the ground outside of D.C. and Frankfort, private citizens without any political office whatsoever, began spewing some of the most hateful, vitriolic, anti-Christ rhetoric I’ve heard in a decade — and practically all of it in the name of Jesus. At first I was shocked and appalled. Then I became angry. Now I’m just sad — and more than a little curious. Did Constantine do this to my brothers and sisters? By legalizing my faith, by declaring Christianity the religion of the Empire, did he consign us to hatred in the name of politics?

Historically Christianity and political clout haven’t mixed well. Don’t get me wrong; if you know me at all and/or read the rest of this blog, you know I’m an amateur political theologian who would use political means to safeguard biblical truths. But the simple fact of the matter is Christians can be some of the world’s worst bullies while in office — or out of it when talking about politics. We tend to push for theocracy and mock or damn anyone who would stand in our way. Sometimes we kill them (Servetus and the Inquisition, anyone?). It’s just not right. But we do it anyway.

Usually we do it because of two concomitant errors. First we elevate portions of the Bible over others, demonizing those who disagree with our rankings in the process. Second we place allegiance to our politics/party/country above the demands of the portions of Scripture we ranked lowest. Both parties do this, which is why I went independent instead of simply becoming a Democrat. But consider the following before you tell me I’m wrong about that.

1. Abortion terminates innocent human life and is therefore morally wrong.
2. The Bible consistently emphasizes the moral duty owed to immigrants and refugees.
3. Christians are called to be selfless and put God first, not America first.
4. The Bible condemns same-sex relationships.
5. Jesus never asked the sick for a co-pay or the 5,000 for a drug test.
6. They will know us by our love, not our patriotism; our caring service, not our party platform.
7. God is a jealous God, and you shall have no other gods before Him.
8. The worship of or primary allegiance to something other than God is called idolatry, and idolatry is sinful.
9. Every human being is made in the image of God.
10. God loves everyone equally.

Now, with these ten biblical truths in mind, let’s examine party platforms.

The Republicans score points for being anti-abortion and pro-traditional marriage, but lose points for being increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic, putting self and country above the widow and orphan. They also lose points for putting frankly sinful profit margins ahead of providing access to health care and pharmaceuticals.

The Democrats earn points for Care of the Other, including policies on health care and immigration. They lose points, though, for promoting the murder of the unborn and advocacy for alternative sexualities/non-binary genders. They also lose points for a sort of forced atheism in most policy-making, a theocracy of a different sort.

So tell me: how do you weigh the two on even a handful of policies? Is letting a refugee die because of fear better or worse than paying for abortifacients? Whose life is worth more? Is the shameless promotion of big business in the name of ideology (i.e. capitalism) while letting the poor die of treatable diseases better or worse than attempting to normalize once unthinkable and still evil sexual relationships? Should we ban prayer in schools or the teaching of scientific fact? Who must go: God or Darwin (because it’s evident no one will fight for both)? Both parties are steeped in pervasive systemic sin. So which sin is worse?

Listening to their followers, the Other Guy is always the enemy, the most immoral. Republicans call Democrats heathens, “snowflakes,” traitors, and generally un-Christian — all while saying Jesus would of course build a border wall because even heaven has a gate. Democrats call Republicans uneducated, anti-science, bigoted, and racist — all while saying God is love and therefore loves sinful expressions of sexuality because it’s all about love. Both believe God is on their side exclusively. Both believe God votes their party line.

Both are terribly, horrifically wrong.

The eternal God of the universe existed infinitely before the foundation of either political party, and He will exist infinitely after both cease to exist. He supports biblical causes, no matter which party — if any — claims those causes as its own. He does not blindly support the United States in everything it does anymore than He always affirms the party line. All are composed of sinful, imperfect men and women trying to serve a perfect God. No party can claim Jesus as its mascot. No party can categorically claim every member of the opposition is going to hell. And the Risen Christ will never, ever carry a flag other than his own, the standard of the kingdom of heaven.

Stop believing the lie God is always the conservative. Stop believing He is always the liberal. God is God, and He will support the righteous and oppose the unrighteous, all while loving both. He cheers for what is right and condemns what is wrong, no matter the party, nation, or person. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

And that’s why I’m no longer a Republican.

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The Reluctant Political Blogger

I tried. I really did. I even solidly succeeded until now, a mere four weeks out from Election Day. The last thing the American people need right now is a thirty-year-old minister writing another political blog about the Christian view of this wretched campaign, but an article began circulating today from another blogger, and it demands a response. As you know, I have criteria for this sort of thing, and anything I write of this ilk must meet three requirements: 1) it needs to be said; 2) it needs to be said by me; 3) it needs to be said by me right now. This meets those criteria.

And so . . .

As much as I love political theology, I’m an abstract thinker. I like talking in generalities more than nuts-and-bolts specifics. That’s why I deeply enjoy reading theological critiques of political systems and ideologies but remain loathe to tell people how to vote at times. Sometimes the choice is clear, and I can unabashedly support a policy or candidate because of my interpretation of the Bible. Other times it’s so murky — and I take so seriously my role as teacher and its associated stricter judgment — that I can’t tell people to vote one way or the other without great reservations. I don’t want to endorse the wrong candidate or position and falsely lead others into error. (That’s true for everything I do, but particularly applicable here, in a realm of deep division and ambiguity.) Where the Bible is clear, we are bold; where it is silent, we are cautious. I fully believe Scripture can give us a proper answer to any proper question, but sometimes that’s more a matter of digging and induction than it is a thing of citing chapter and verse.

This is one of the former moments. And yet it’s a monumental decision to make. The future, the fabric of our country will depend on the candidate who makes it into the White House. Don’t get me wrong, though: any president has limited power, and so those possible futures also depend largely on literally hundreds of other people. But the president leads the way. The president, too, has checks on the power of those people, most notably in the veto and the appointment of Supreme Court justices. All of these factors must be considered when weighing our options and evaluating the (inevitably false) promises of the ones running for our land’s highest office. So let’s keep our heads about us and remember we trust in God, not the president, for the good of our nation.

Short of some delightful deus ex machina rolling around in the next twenty-eight days which will remove both major party candidates from the running, one of the two of them will be our next president, the next face and voice of the American people. I say “one of the two of them” because, well, let’s face it, this is America. Our first-past-the-post, zero sum game of a political system makes it nigh impossible for a third party candidate to win. Third party candidates are extremely important, however, because they help gauge the attitudes of the public. The more votes a 3PC gets, the more the other two parties think about the platform of said third party and why so many people support it. In this election, the Johnson-Weld ticket is garnering support simply because many see it as a more morally acceptable choice than Clinton-Kaine or Trump-Pence. (I don’t, but that’s because I find the social policies of libertarianism are biblically indefensible.) Votes of conscience aside, we will have either the next President Clinton or the first President Trump come January.

[Brief Aside: your vote is a vote for your candidate, regardless of probability of success. Don’t succumb to the bully’s tactic of “a vote for not(X) is really a vote for Y.” It’s not. Your vote is counted for your candidate. By this failed logic, any vote for not(Y) is a vote for X, and so everyone is actually voting for every other candidate on the ballot other than the bully’s preference.]

If, then, I cannot support the Libertarians as a biblically and morally acceptable candidate, who can I? No one, as sad and as terrifying as that is. I realize we vote for both candidates and parties; both are factors in how we decide to cast our ballots. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here: Christ is nonpartisan. You will not see an elephant, nor a donkey, behind the throne of God. Policies on both sides are frankly appalling from a biblical viewpoint, and we thus cannot delude ourselves into saying Jesus votes Republican/Democrat/Labour/Tory/Monster Loony/Green/etc. We are free, then, to say we align with a majority of a party’s beliefs, and perhaps even Scripture does as well, and that majority suffices to secure our endorsement/affiliation. For some, party allegiance is enough to make them vote for anyone the party puts on the ticket. For others, like me, party is a consideration, but it ultimately comes down to the personal policies of the individual running under the party banner. Sometimes the opposing party’s candidate seems more theologically sound, and thus my vote goes to him/her.

In terms of this election, well, it’s rough. Democrats stand in opposition to God on such things as abortion and marriage. Republicans oppose God in their treatment of refugees and promotion of private business above clear public good. The candidates themselves make the decision no easier. On the one hand, we have a hateful, egotistical pathological liar, and on the other hand, there’s a hateful, egotistical pathological liar. One candidate has committed indefensible atrocities and promotes horrific policies; the other has said indefensible statement and promotes something akin to the early stages of a nascent fascism. Godlessness abounds on both sides. Most Americans — and virtually all Christians — speak of voting for a lesser of the two evils. I’ll leave that logic to your own conscience, but remember this: the lesser of two evils is still evil, and your vote is an endorsement of that evil.

I think the most common Christian argument I hear for Mr. Trump (I’ve only heard one for Mrs. Clinton) is that “The Donald” has the potential for good. This sort of utilitarian “greater good” argument typically refers to the nomination of future Supreme Court justices. It’s true that a Court populated by Clinton nominees would have disastrous consequences, literally resulting in untold numbers of deaths (via expanded abortion) and a massive push to privatize religion in every way. But is the possibility of a more conservative Court, the hope of staving off these things worth a guaranteed Trump White House? Is the damage he is also likely to potentially cause a worthwhile price to pay for the potential good he could do? I’m not one for utilitarianism myself, and I quite doubt the ends always justify the means. Since I rather lack the gift of prophecy, I can’t tell you what the man would do; I can’t even guarantee what Mrs. Clinton would do. All I can say is I personally don’t believe nebulous possible futures are a sufficient reason to vote for an evil candidate — and the more idyllic, the more utopian those futures seem to be, the stronger my skepticism grows.

The enraging article serving as the proximate impetus for this blog called Mr. Trump a Christian far above the likes of a pastor/writer I admire deeply. Mr. Trump may now be a baptized Christian; he may not. I can’t judge his soul. But until I see the fruit of the Spirit displayed in his life — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — I will have my doubts. (For the same reason, I am skeptical of Mrs. Clinton’s claims to biblical Christianity.) And to play the “holier than thou” game with a deeply devout Christian makes me fear for the souls of some of Mr. Trump’s followers as well. I’m not sure of the criteria for holiness they used, but they are flatly unbiblical.

Similarly I find it difficult to digest the comparisons made between either candidate and some of the more colorful biblical figures such as Samson, Jacob, and Simon Peter. Does God use imperfect men and women to accomplish His divine purposes? He has to if He want to involve humans, as there are no perfect men and women to carry His standard. But each biblical figure who did great things did so in the name and fear of God, proclaiming His holy work in power and humility. Can anyone tell me either candidate is doing the same — that they will do the same? No. You can’t. Because they don’t and they won’t, regardless of whatever evangelical leaders endorse them for their thirty pieces of silver. Frankly I consider both candidates to be evidence of God’s judgment upon this nation, wicked rulers, not a hero(ine) in the name of Christ.

I apologize if I’ve seemed harsher with Mr. Trump, but more Christians endorse him. They make arguments in his favor, whereas most Christians recognize Mrs. Clinton is impossible to endorse from an orthodox Christian paradigm.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m not saying a specific wunderKandidat will singlehandedly keep Christianity out of the shadows (because they can’t, and the Church is healthier when it is costly). But I do ask you to examine Scripture — all of it. Search it and get a feel for the will of God for the world. Take the gospel of Jesus Christ to heart and openly apply it to all facets of the public sphere, including this election. Discover how the Holy Spirit would have you vote to seek the good of this land, our nation of captivity.

And may God have mercy on us all when we go to the polls.

A God without Borders

Immigration has long been a point of contention in American politics, and it seems to have come to a head recently with President Obama declaring executive action on the matter. I daresay that at the heart of the bitter dispute between the president and Congress is a struggle for political power having nothing to do with immigration policy, but the constant war and arguing has at least brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of the American political consciousness. Republicans say we should reinforce the border with extra personnel and arms and immediately deport any illegal aliens, sending them back from whence they came regardless of the circumstances which drove them to flight from their countries of origin. Democrats think we should grant forms of amnesty to illegal immigrants, subject to a very specific (and somewhat stringent) set of criteria, and the border, while needing to remain secure against potential terrorists, should still be generally open to those who can cross it without posing direct threats to our national security (extra resources optional). Should a Christian side with one party or the other — or neither?

I think it’s important to begin with what Scripture teaches about the sojourner and the stranger. Abraham himself was an immigrant, called by God to leave his homeland for an as-yet-undisclosed country (Genesis 12). While I don’t recommend passing off your wife as your sister like Abraham did (a nasty habit his son inherited, more’s the pity), I do believe this can be a starting point for this discussion. Abra(ha)m left for a land of promise, passing through multiple other countries and city-states along the way, generally abiding by local customs and laws while doing so. His great-grandson, Joseph, though a Hebrew, became an administrator of Egypt second in power only to Pharaoh himself (Gen. 41). As administrator, he used his authority to care for all peoples who came to Egypt seeking assistance in the famine, including the very brothers who had sold him into slavery years before. In Joseph we have a precursor to the Mosaic law’s care for the Other.

The Torah received by Moses gives a great many injunctions about immigrants. Repeatedly throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses, “And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Immigrants into the land controlled by the Hebrew people are to be treated fairly and justly, regardless of what brought them there. They’re not even required to become part of the community of faith (although, if they do, they are to be held to the same laws and moral code as the worshiping Jews, including mandatory circumcision); they may safely dwell among the children of Abraham as distinct — but equal — peoples. Indeed, the ethic of reciprocity (a.k.a. the Golden Rule) is mentioned expressly in regards to immigrants: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34). At no point is the sojourner/stranger/immigrant to be considered less than a “native” Jew. They are to be loved and provided for, regardless of anything else. And at all points, the people are to remember that they, too, were once strangers in a foreign land.

Certainly the New Testament upholds that ethic. Both the Greatest Commandment and the parable of the Good Samaritan teach us to love others as ourselves and to help them in their need, even if they’re of different nationalities, religions, or other criteria. Paul’s missionary journeys, Peter’s visit to Cornelius, and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch show us that our God recognizes no borders. The Gospel is a message to all peoples, all countries, all ethnicities (Mt 28:19-20-; Lk 2:10; Acts 1:8). Any border we may draw and then try to protect is an artificial boundary designed to keep people out — thereby making them not “our problem.”

Yes, borders keep us safe to an extent. And yes, they do protect our standard of living since they prevent people from making demands on our tax dollars. But have you ever considered that we have enough wealth to make Solomon blush, that perhaps we should be inviting people in so we can care for them through sacrificial giving? We are to give freely to everyone who asks of us — but not giving just what they ask for, but going above and beyond (Lk 6:29-31,35). If anyone, immigrant or otherwise, comes to us asking for food, shelter, safety, work, education, or anything else, we are to help them in every way we can. This is a duty which takes no heed of human law.

Should immigrants come to our country (or any other) through the established, legal channels? Yes, they should. There should be a respect for the laws of the nation they wish to make their home, and that begins with adhering to the legal immigration process. But which of us would look at a fellow human being, a brother or sister in Christ, who comes from a country ravaged by war, disease, poverty, and famine, and tell him or her to leave a place of safety simply because they didn’t file the proper paperwork? Who among us would be so blatantly jingoist and xenophobic that we would rather watch people suffer and die without doing something to help them just because it might cost us something?

America was a melting pot, a nation of immigrants who founded a new country because they sought freedom: freedom of religious practice, freedom from persecution, freedom from early deaths after a lifetime of suffering. How quickly we seem to forget that fact when other people want to do the same thing our grandparents and great-great-great-great-great-grandparents did. If it weren’t for immigration, I myself wouldn’t exist (being the blend of Welsh, German, and Irish blood that I am). Why do we fear the Other, the very diversity God created and loves so very much? Why do we forget that people of all nations will worship around the throne of God (Revelation 7:9)? Why are we unable to remember the exact thing Moses and his flock were required to keep in mind: we were once strangers in a foreign land?

And so whenever someone asks me my position on immigration, I’ve decided to simply quote Deuteronomy 26:5-9, something which was to be recited by every Israelite during the presentation of the offering of first fruits:

You shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Political Theology: Ideologies

One of my major interests in the field of public theology is political theology. It’s exactly as it sounds: the theology of politics. Political theology encompasses everything from whether or not Christians should vote to just war theory and back again: political engagement, running for office, separation of church and state, voting preferences, pacifism, civil disobedience, you name it. I intend for these topics to take up several posts here at the blog, so don’t expect to get all of my thoughts on these today (unless you buy me caffeine and chocolate chip cookies). Today’s post is going to be a general overview of ideologies and the theology behind them.

It’s election day here in the States, so let’s start with democracy. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” (or something like that). And it’s true: democracy is far from perfect, but at least it’s the least of the evils. People have voices in the government and the power to mold public policy by proxy (in theory). No single individual can drive the government into wanton corruption, and the government has checks on its own power. Individual freedom is promoted, just as God gave us free will. Which all sounds pretty good, right? So what’s the problem with democracy? It can turn the public into nothing more than an amalgamation of disinterested, selfish voters who promote only their own agendas. Instead of cheering for the common good, people start cheering only for themselves. This is particularly true when democracy is utilized together with capitalism (as it is in America). The free market economy may be the most competitive in every way, and it may yield amazing profits for the successful, but it absolutely fails to care for the marginalized. The limited role of the democratic government shifts responsibility solely onto the shoulders of individuals — and individuals rarely accept the added burden of caring for someone else as they should. (“It’s my money; I earned it; he’s not even working; why should I pay for his medical bills?”) That sort of selfishness/defensiveness leaks over into voting practices: I vote for the candidate who will do the most for me and promote my personal agenda, not the one who will ignore my own desires and do what’s best for the nation as a whole. Definitely not a Christian view of loving one’s neighbor, but at least people are free to try, whether they actually do or not.

But let’s look (briefly) at the alternatives. Socialism has always been highly stigmatized in America, but Europe seems to have embraced it in major ways. It generally allows the public to retain voting rights and a voice in government, but the government is far more extensive than a federalist republic’s take on democracy. The free market is scaled back as the government takes on additional responsibilities as a service provider: health care, transportation, media, etc. It’s true that a socialist government eliminates any sort of competition when it assumes control of these areas, and it’s also true that the overall quality of each of these has the potential to suffer greatly because of the lack of competition. On the flip side, however, this means the public has unfettered access to the services they need and receive (largely) unbiased news programs, newspapers, etc. (Or at least they do in the best instances.) The government therefore provides the care we should each be showing our neighbors, giving them medical care, shelter, food, and other life necessities. It’s not holy, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Communism and fascism are two sides of the same coin, two ideologies so far apart on the spectrum of political thought they almost meet each other as they go around the circle. Communism demands the government take full control of every individual’s life, providing for it (as best it can, which is to say, not at all). Fascism does much of the same, but only for its preferred demographic (and tries to systematically remove everyone else from its populace). Even though these do provide, in limited ways, for their people, neither one does so with the measure of human dignity, freedom, and love deserved by those who bear the image of God. Their governmental provisions and care are nominal at best, and they can hardly be described as meeting the Christian ideals, particularly given communism’s historical hatred of religion in general and fascism’s misappropriation of the same.

Each ideology (almost) has good and bad, then. Democracy does well in its promotion of freedom and public involvement, but it lacks any sense of responsibility for taking care of the Other. Socialism scales back those freedoms to a degree while stepping up its care for its citizens. What solutions do we have, then, for establishing a Christian political ideology working in the constraints given us?

Let’s be clear on one thing, first of all: a theocracy is not the answer. You can attempt to legislate morality, but at the end of the day, people will either a) completely ignore your ethos or b) follow them without truly believing in them. If it’s the former, then no one is behaving morally, and your theocracy has failed. If it’s the latter, then people are religious in name only and not true believers, and your theocracy has still failed. And a theocracy gone bad was the beginning of sorrows for many, many people: the Anabaptist martyrs (murdered by Catholics and Protestants alike during the Reformation), Servetus (slowly burned at the stake by order of John Calvin during his reign of Geneva as high theocrat), innocent colonists accused of witchcraft (hanged, burned, and pressed to death by their Puritan brothers and sisters) . . . the list goes on. Earthbound theocracies simply won’t work.

What do we do as Christians, then? We operate under our respective forms of government and live Christian lives promoting Christian values. Political involvement aside, we should bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers and take steps to care for those who cannot care for themselves. In a democracy, we’re free to do so — and we need to, since the government will offer only very limited assistance at best. A socialist government may do more, but I’m not convinced it should. The Church needs to step up to the plate as she has throughout history. Why do so many hospitals have affiliations with religious groups? Because the people of God recognize our duty to care for the sick. We as Christians built the hospitals; why don’t we run them, working to make healthcare affordable to the ones who so desperately need it? Why can’t we provide transportation assistance for those who simply need a way to get to where they need to be? Why don’t we provide food to the hungry and homes for the homeless instead of relying on government aid programs? I believe a government, whether democratic/capitalistic or socialist, has a responsibility to care for its people in material ways, but I don’t believe it should be the primary caregiver. The primary caregivers are the people of God who can care for soul as well as for body. We as Christians have a duty to promote these things in our churches, in our personal lives, and (as needed) in our governments. (We’ll tackle advocacy in a later post.)

Since it’s election day here, I want to leave you with this thought. The words of John Wesley should still be heard even today as we cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.

JW on voting