Religion and Politics Part 3: Living By a Different Narrative

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Luke 6:27–28

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,” says the Lord.  But “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Romans 12:14–21

If only our political leaders or, perhaps more importantly, those who demonize or canonize them, would take the above words from Scripture seriously. Knowing a perverted form of Christianity (in the form of “Christian nationalism”) had a role in last week’s attack on Capitol Hill is no less than sickening. And if the sight of “Jesus Saves” banners alongside “Trump” banners carried by people storming the Capitol building–which led to five deaths!–doesn’t lead to serious self-examination, I can’t imagine what would.

Political leaders, obviously, are also culpable. Whatever anyone makes of the alleged voter fraud in the 2020 US presidential election, it’s clear to me at least that since election day President Trump as conducted himself in an entirely egotistical, narcissistic way. No humility. No grace. No dignity. The last few months alone taint any semblance–however small–of his accomplishments while in office. He’s done himself no favours, and to that end has done a disservice to his country.

It doesn’t end there, though. Now having impeached President Trump for the second time, the Democratic Party shows itself to be no less prone to pride, division, and to be more interested in power than the interests of the nation. Really? With less than a week to go in his presidency? And now the possibility of a senate trial after Trump has left office? What an auspicious way for Biden’s first term to begin. So much for healing the division.

So much of what really motivates politicians is behind the curtain. Media interviews, tweets, soundbites, carefully crafted statements–none of this gets to the truth in an honest and truthful way. Yet the curtain is, to my reckoning, transparent, if not by design than certainly through the rhetoric we hear from the left and the right.

What happens to a nation, to a community, when those who hold polar opposite views are unable to see one another as genuine human beings? What happens when rhetoric completely overtakes dialogue? What happens when all each side of the political divide seems capable of is attacking their opponents and self-righteously defending themselves?

Let’s face it, the emperor has no clothes.

But those of us who are concerned about the welfare of our neighbourhoods, communities, and our countries don’t have to subscribe to the narrative of political opportunism, vitriol, and sensationalism. Especially those of us in the church of Jesus. In fact, if we take our Savior seriously, we absolutely cannot. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. There are no caveats here. No exceptions. No footnotes or small print.

The words of both Paul and Jesus invite us into a different, more life-giving narrative. Think of the apostle’s words from the passage above from Romans: Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. Those supposed followers of Jesus who stormed the Capitol or who sought revenge by impeaching a president whose term is basically over reveals hearts that have indeed been conquered by evil. One of the worst kinds of evil is that which is thoroughly convinced of its righteousness. It’s the kind of evil that seeks potentially good ends but by whatever means available.

Eugene H. Peterson, in his book The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way, says this: “The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American way.” In this book he talks about how means and ends need to be congruent when we talk about following Jesus. He says it better: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us.”

Living by a different narrative, one shaped by life in the kingdom and following Jesus, means unsubscribing to the idea that politics–the ways of conducting ourselves as a community and seeking the common good–necessarily involves hating our enemies and doing whatever we can to defeat them. More than that, if succeeding in politics and having our way–even if we think it’s the best way–means we have to plunge our souls into this abyss, we’re actually better off losing the political fight. Jesus, after all, did say something about losing our lives in order to save them. In his kingdom victory may well look like defeat, but perhaps recognizing this is the start of not only saving our souls but loving our enemies.

Religion and Politics? Am I Crazy?

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Colossians 4:6

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:1-4

Religion and politics—two subjects that we shouldn’t discuss in polite company. Allegedly.

And why? Presumably because all such discussion leads to heated, even divisive arguments.

And why does that happen? Again, presumably because each of us can have very strong opinions which we feel passionate about and are invested in—intellectually and emotionally.

To probe a little bit deeper still, this is, I think, because religion and politics concern some of the fundamental questions about who we are as human beings and what it means to be a community.

For example, when I think about politics and political parties, there are questions that come to mind. What is the role of government? How should power be divided between the federal government, provincial or state government, or local government? Why is that important? Where’s the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility? Different political parties can have profoundly distinct answers to these questions.

And all this without even broaching the subject of the relationship between religion and politics!

I raise these questions primarily because of what I’ve been watching unfold amongst our neighbours to the south. But not only because of that. Over the last few years I’ve also paid a little more attention to Canadian politics. We’ve got our own shenanigans, certainly. Very little of it has given me confidence in our political institutions.

But what really concerns me is the seemingly unbridgeable divide between political opponents. Yes, politics has always been a dirty game in many respects. Many people have long been cynical about the prospects for political unity. There’s always been mudslinging. Political attack ads are nothing new.

However, what I think is new is the extent of the division and partisanship, the degree to which the political culture has reached an almost thoroughly distrustful and angry tone. There is virtually no overlap between people on the left and right, no willingness to have honest, more nuanced conversation about fundamental issues. Can you imagine, for example, Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole going for coffee? To be honest, much of what has been going on lately in politics–in our country and south of the border–has felt like self-parody.

A significant part of the problem is the media, because in the fight for ratings and profit in a highly competitive industry political pundits, newscasters, and reporters have all become—admittedly or not—thoroughly biased in their approach. Networks and news organizations play to particular audiences, skewing certain stories deliberately, focusing on or even ignoring specific stories altogether. It feels disingenuous and all it seems to do is feed the fires of discontent and disunity. News no longer only covers politics; news is political.

Ok. So say I’m right about all this. What’s to be done? Surely our political systems are too large, too unwieldy, and too deeply entrenched for any real change to occur.

Maybe that’s where religion comes in.

But won’t that further division and deepen the antagonism? After all, that’s subject number two that we should avoid discussing.

Here’s where I address my own so-called tribe specifically: Christians, followers of Jesus, those who claim to believe the Bible, rely on its promises, and adhere and live by its teachings and principles.

Now, I get there is no one Christian tribe. We are sub-divided beyond reason in some respects. Hopefully, though, I’ll be saying something most followers of Jesus can affirm.

Here’s what I think: we need to cultivate and therefore model what it means to have meaningful, winsome, respectful conversation with people who profoundly disagree with us.

In other words, to talk without yelling, getting angry, and listening only to know how we can refute someone else’s point of view.

It means learning to see even people with whom we have deep disagreements as individuals made in the imago Dei, worthy of dignity and respect, as people we can’t reduce to labels and group affiliations.

It means wanting to win a person more than the argument. Who cares if you’re right if you’re being a jerk about it? What did the apostle Paul say about love in 1 Corinthians 13 again?

It means being able to understand those who differ from us on their terms rather than resorting to simplified caricatures or, worse, misrepresentations of their positions and ideas. To this end, we do have to have a willingness to have our ideas corrected or at least amended.

And it also means walking away from a conversation rather than allowing yourself to be caught in a toxic social media comments section or an escalating argument that’s generating more heat than light.

It also means, unfortunately, that there are going to be times when such conversation is impossible with some people. We may have to resign ourselves to the reality that there will be people who refuse to be civil in their tone and humble in their posture. No matter our best efforts, some conversations will not go or end the way we want.

Certainly it means that however important politics is, Christian eschatology doesn’t begin and end with another election cycle or political debate. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, not Trump, Trudeau, or anyone else.

All of this means wanting to exhibit the qualities—indeed, the fruit—of the Spirit in our lives, our attitudes, our words, our conversations, our relationships, and our public engagement of important issues.

Is there more to be said on this? I have no doubt. But no less.

Honestly, don’t we want to be people who, through abiding in Christ, know the difference between God and Caesar? Each has their place, to be sure, but one is temporal and one is eternal. Best not to get the two mixed up and find ourselves investing too dogmatically and vehemently in the one that cannot bring us ultimate peace.

In the meantime, if we do it right, with civility and humility, I think religion and politics are precisely the things we should be talking about.