During and after studying politics in grad school, I often heard variations of the statement that, if we’re to live together, we need to avoid political topics and focus on the things that unite us rather than divide us.
It’s a tempting proposition to be sure. Our political dysfunction has reached fever pitch, and our politics are defined more by screaming heads on cable news shows than even-headed discussions across the dinner table.
The call to civility usually means avoiding topics that appear insurmountable and that make us upset, like abortion, gay marriage, or immigration. While it’s true that we are called to a higher citizenship than our country — and certainly higher than our political party — I am in constant struggle with a single question that has followed me throughout my adult life:
Is Jesus political or not?
On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the whole conversation by citing the infamous, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” passage (Mark 12:17), and Jesus certainly wasn’t partisan in any way that can be seamlessly transplanted into civic debates in 2019 America. Jesus is not a Democrat. Jesus is not a Republican. Let’s start there.
But you don’t have to read far beyond the “Render to Caesar” passage to see that Jesus was constantly, sometimes belligerently, political. He cared about justice, he co-opted political language like the word “kingdom” for his own purposes, he rebuked political figures like Pharisees, he flipped tables in the Temple, he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes — members of two wildly different social classes — at the same time. Even the disciples were politically diverse. Religious sects such as the Essenes, Sadducees, and Zealots were as much political categories as religious ones. What were their dinner conversations like?
Jesus is obviously not a sideliner or a bland apolitical blob of kumbaya morality. He’s not surprised or offended by political difference. In fact, if we understand politics as the art of living together, Jesus spoke about nothing with more passion and grace than he spoke about politics. Turn the other cheek. Give to the poor. Love your neighbor. How’s that for a public policy?
The apolitical Jesus is as real as the loch ness monster or an unbiased media. It’s a cheap cop-out for those who want faux-agreement at the expense of the radical, inclusive, plural politics of Jesus.
Sometimes I read Scripture through a specific lens that helps me understand politics’ place in the Christian walk. Obviously, the Bible is not just a rulebook to follow verbatim. That’s one flawed lens through which to read Scripture. It is not merely a self-help book, a map to get to heaven, or a list of flawless individuals on whom to base our lives, either.
At its core, the Bible is a love story between an almighty, perfect God and humanity. Not just humanity the way we like to see ourselves. But humanity defined by dysfunctions so deep that it’s hard to be in the same room with them — with us. Leave-the-dinner-table-in-a-huff humanity. Tear-your-hair-out humanity. How-can-you-even … humanity.
To love a person — whether it’s your spouse, your child, your parent, your friend, your neighbor, or your enemy — is more rich, more real, and more sustainable when you can learn to love even the parts that are unpalatable. For the left-wing liberal to exhibit love toward the climate denier and to show them respect, not because they are correct, but because God showed grace to Peter when he was wrong — that is the Gospel. For the Trump supporter to love the democratic socialist destroying the country from within because active forgiveness and grace are not just peripheral issues but fundamental to the Christian life — that reflects a real understanding of the ministry of Christ.
For some reason, many liberal Christians talk about the radical inclusivity of Jesus when it comes to poor people or the queer community, but I don’t hear them talking about radically including the Trump voter. Is that because they worship their own understanding of progress and justice more than Jesus Christ, who loved rich tax collectors, prostitutes, and blind beggars?
For some reason, many conservative Christians speak glowingly about Jesus’ love for unborn children, but rarely for the abortion seeker or the pro-choice activist. Is that because they cast stones first and seek reconciliation later, if at all? Surely faith is more than a checklist of social issues!
If you’re reading this and thinking: “Yeah, but one side is worse than the other,” you might be right, but you’re missing the point.
The more pertinent question is this: Assuming that Christians are not going to shed their political differences out of a flawed understanding of what civility means, how should we do politics? How can we live together, disagree, and have peace in our churches and families all at the same time?
Obviously there are many different responses to how love translates into the political arena, but there is one route that sounds simple but is actually a lifelong struggle: Disagree better.
Disagree fiercely. Disagree often. Disagree with the understanding that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump — FDR and Reagan — are made in the image of God, flawed beyond belief, and in need of constant redemption. Disagree with an eye for reconciliation and grace, knowing that the best way to understand God is to forgive like God forgives. Disagree knowing that politics matter, but that you could be wrong. Enjoy showing grace to the person who is rude to you as a small token of gratitude for a God who has shown you grace despite your many flaws. Treat political discourse like a game to out-grace the other. Find common cause, yes, but also find common love for Christ or humanity or cheese pizza — anything — even when there is zero ideological overlap.
Rebel against those who think the political divide is insurmountable by a God who has seen much worse. Rebel against the notion that political affiliation is identity and put forward the notion that radical love has a place in politics. And then disagree, Jesus-style. Ask questions. Tell stories. Reach out. And in the name of all that is holy, don’t debate politics on Facebook.
I have my views on policy to be sure. Ask me about environmental regulations, drone warfare, or corporate tax loops, and I’ll have a lot to say. And I do feel moments of resentment toward “the other side.” But if politics is the art of living together, and if the likelihood that political dysfunction will decline anytime soon is somewhere between “unlikely” and “never,” then politics represents one of the greatest opportunities to show the power of God in the face of massive dysfunction. In the same way that poverty presents opportunities to show God’s love to the disenfranchised, political dysfunction is a chance to show God’s love to the angry, to the broken, to the alienated, and to the demoralized — to continue God’s track record of making even the most dysfunctional people agents of God’s goodness.
Believe it or not, that sounds a lot like ministry to me.