Is the Church political?

“The most interesting, creative, political solutions we Christians have to offer our troubled society are not new laws, advice to Congress, or increased funding for social programs – although we may find ourselves supporting such national efforts. The most creative social strategy we have to offer is the church. Here we show the world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social coercion or governmental action. We serve the world by showing it something that it is not, namely, a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.” – Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

We live in a time when everything has become “political.” What we eat is fraught with ethical questions around such labels as GMO, cage-free, and organic. What we drive calls into question our social responsibilities to the planet. Where we shop forces us to think about living wages, labor unions, and global trade relations with countries where workers may be exploited. Where we live raises the issue of the encroachment of human habitat on endangered animal species. Our relationships at work or school force us to examine the rules of conduct between men and women, bosses and employees.

And in a sense, that’s exactly as it should be, not because I think moral questions are best settled by government overseers – perish the thought – but because that word “political” can have a very different meaning from the one tossed around daily by the media.

Our word “politics” comes from the Greek word “polis” or city. Polis isn’t so much a label for the bricks and concrete that form the skyline of places like New York and Dallas, as it is a way of thinking about the people who live there. Polis came to define the Greek concept of a city-state, a community of people who lived together and governed themselves through democratic processes.

Though we Americans very often use the word “politics” as a mild form of the f-bomb, politics forms a vital foundation to a healthy community: It is through politics that hyper-individualism – every man for himself – is suppressed so that cooperation – community – can thrive. Politics is the process by which we create neighborhoods where we would want to live, cities and towns where a diverse group of people may live together in peace and treat each other with respect. In the ideal polis, every citizen is valued, every citizen’s rights are protected by the group, every citizen’s voice may be heard in those forums where the values of the polis are debated.

To be political, therefore, simply means to have a viewpoint about the laws and values we believe will create a better polis.

In my previous article, “The Church as a colony,” I described the church as a community of individuals who have been adopted into God’s royal family. As members of God’s household, the church is supposed to conduct itself according to God’s laws and God’s values. The God of the Bible has a viewpoint about the polis, and nowhere is that viewpoint more vividly fleshed out than in Jesus’ first major teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount.

“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and … taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. …. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 5:1 – 7:29, (ESV) The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon begins with the Beatitudes, a series of seemingly upside-down declarations that paint a vivid picture of God’s heart, God’s values. Here we are told that the weak, powerless, wounded, and humble members of society, those on the margins, those typically overlooked by political powers and authorities, those are the very people God’s heart is most attuned to. In God’s polis, the down-trodden are lifted up and honored.

Next, Jesus challenges our own moral assumptions. It’s here where we learn the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. It’s here that we’re warned that pride, vanity, hypocrisy, and the love of material things will drive us apart from God, and from each other. It’s here where Jesus declares that God’s polis should be a light on a hill, a source of hope and inspiration, an example for others to follow.

In modern terms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount serves as a manifesto designed to speak truth to power. But the Sermon not only indicts those who rule, but you and me, and the self-serving moral values we hold dear. It sketches such a radical vision for the polis that we are tempted to dismiss it as impractical, unachievable, even threatening.

The polis described in the Sermon on the Mount is a place where the poor are lifted out of their desperation, where the powerless are protected from the powerful, where justice is guaranteed for all, where life is celebrated and safeguarded, and where the intrinsic worth and dignity of every person is protected. God’s polis would establish peace where there is war, promote love and fellowship where there is hatred, and would insist on kindness, mercy and forgiveness instead of anger and vengeance.

Yes, the church is political, highly political, but the church’s first allegiance is to God, the King, and the King does not share power. The church cannot remain the polis of God if it allows itself to be seduced by any political party, power or movement. No one can be loyal to two masters, as Jesus taught.

At the same time, the Church does not practice isolationism. Its people act as the polis of God by engaging with the political powers of our day and shining the light of truth on injustice, favoritism, abuse of power, and the rampant failures of human decency, kindness and love that fill the headlines.

The people of God, the church of God, live as the colony of God in a larger community, itself a political community. In America, our neighbors may identify as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, or any number of political affinity groups. Each of these groups has a viewpoint about the polis.

Each party sees itself as righteous. Each party calls its opponents heretics. Each day the powers battle for control of the polis, using language and tactics filled with aggression, anger, even hatred.

The family of God, the polis of God, must do a very difficult thing if we hope to stand as a light on a hill – we must resist being sucked into the political melee that rages around us. If we convince ourselves that God is a Republican or a Democrat or a Green, we have failed to read the Sermon on the Mount very carefully. If we are convinced that God’s political vision conforms very nicely with the voices we love to listen to on the radio or the internet, we don’t really understand God.

The church is political, but its political effectiveness depends on hearing God’s voice over the shouting all around us, then living faithfully as God’s people, a people committed to God’s laws and values.

The church is political, and the political mission of the church is to invite bitter political enemies to lay down their weapons and forgive one another, then to join together as God’s people, speaking truth and love to power.

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  1. “The church is political, and the political mission of the church is to invite bitter political enemies to lay down their weapons and forgive one another, then to join together as God’s people, speaking truth and love to power.”

    Agreed. The Church is called to be salt and light to a dark and dying world. We’re also called to represent truth, but when there are pastors arguing against the Word of God so they can maintain the lifestyles and ideologies favored by their parishioners, I’m wondering which side of the Church is being represented behind the presidential podium.

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