An Appeal to Christians Concerning the Relative Insignificance of the Presidential Election

I was asked to submit a piece on the subject of “evangelicals and politics” given the passions that underly this year’s election.  It is scheduled to be published in Columbia Theological Seminary’s preaching journal in November.  As always, I welcome your feedback, both positive and critical, in the comments section.

 

In the spring, I asked my daughter where she would like to visit if she could travel anywhere in the world. Her 8-year old answer: “Monticello.” Apparently I have done something right as a parent. My cup runneth over.

We flew into Richmond early on a Friday, then drove to the plantation. It is a land of shadows and ghosts, the plantation’s mystique exacerbated that morning by the sweltering fog. We toured the house and walked the grounds. Though I was well familiar with Jefferson, it was remarkable to see his genius through the objects that comprised his life: maps, fossils, journals, scientific tools, musical instruments, and the famous library. At the end of our visit, we began the slavery tour on Mulberry Row.

I was not prepared for the emotional impact of this final tour. It was not the reconstructed dirt-floor shacks that got to me, or the Hemmings saga, or even the reality that this President owned over 600 human beings during his lifetime. I knew those facts from books. What the facts can’t make you feel is proximity. Mulberry Row is virtually in the physical shadow of the mansion.

I simply could not shake the conception of people being born, living, and dying, knowing nothing beyond a few acres in the shadow of such opulence. They lived in a closed, totalitarian universe that defined reality. Those born there must have simply assumed that was the way the world had always worked: whites in the mansions, blacks in the shacks, world without end.

I walked to the President’s grave, and when my daughter trailed off I shook my fist and had some choice words for the dead man and his enlightenment project.  For if a system that is predicated on education, science, and human progress is capable of producing such injustice, then something about those worlds of thought is patently wrong, not contradictory, wrong. I know all that is harsh, but even Jesus thought some sins were unforgivable.  “Woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

I have been tasked to write some thoughts about how we Christians might navigate our charged political environment in the wake of the American presidential election. Monticello is no doubt a windy route to get into this discussion. My point is to suggest that it is time to shake our fist in a new way. We have shaken our fist at “the system” for a long while, and of course there were many Christians in Jefferson’s day doing the same. But perhaps, as with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s situation, the system is no longer salvageable. So shouldn’t we shake our fist at the ideas that birthed this self-destruction, and move on to build the system to which we are called? I am talking, of course, about the Church.

I’m not going to bog this piece down with a bunch of disclaimers. I have read Romans 13 and the prophets. I am not advocating for some sort of ecclesiological isolationism. I am advocating for a fresh magisterial vision of Christendom: first as ethnicity, then as nation.

In our compartmentalized world, where religion has its safe and tidy place, the conversion texts of the New Testament make little sense. This is principally because the texts aren’t about conversion as we know it. Yes, a choice is being made and there is a crossing over, but why must this be ritualized by baptism, profession and community? And why in Acts does a thoroughgoing emphasis on the ethnicity of the gospel’s hearers persist? One reason is surely because the message required and created a new ethnicity. For them, baptismal water was thicker than blood. Zeba Crook of Carleton University argues that this is precisely how we should understand the term faith in the context of the New Testament: not as a private assent but as the loyalty that cohered the ancient systems of empire, slavery, even philosophic guilds.[1] “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Such a very physical assertion was nothing short of a reimagining of the facilities of the human person. We are talking about something far beyond the “fictive kin” construct that the social science critics push. Early Christian conversion was more like stem cell research.

New ethnicity, of course, naturally births a new nation. I suppose this is what made Rome so nervous about our ancestors. Our present pluralism is homogeny in comparison to theirs, and the Caesars certainly had little interest in tamping down on new religious thoughts. The problem was that the Christians didn’t act like a religion. They meant instead to function as an interstate, self-sustaining nation. Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts has noted this in Paul’s letters, where an emphasis on geography, autonomy, and economic solidarity constituted the church as an “alternative society.” The letters, then, were “Paul’s instruments to shore up the assemblies’ group discipline and solidarity over against the imperial society, ‘the present evil age,’ ‘the present form of this world that is passing away.’”[2] Sometimes I think that communist nations who suppress the Bible understand it better than we do. We Christians have been playing with political explosives all along.

What does all of this matter to republicans and democrats, supporters of Trump, Clinton, or whoever else? I would not go so far as to say that the election doesn’t matter. I do suggest that it matters far less than we have been groomed to think. Amidst the intemperate passions over certain jobs in Washington D.C., can as I as a preacher engender such a vision of our vaulted sanctuary that makes the White House pale in comparison? Can I love the Bible with such heart that we are tempted to enshrine it under black lights for tourists to view? Can I boldly announce to patriots that there is a precious new patriotism available to all?

My ethnicity is Christian. My nation is the Church. And we have no boundaries.

Jefferson Grave

[1] See Zeba Crook, Reconceptualizing Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2004), pp. 200ff.

[2] Richard Horsley, “1 Corinthians: A Case Study of Paul’s Assembly as an Alternative Society,” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), pg. 52.

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3 thoughts on “An Appeal to Christians Concerning the Relative Insignificance of the Presidential Election

  1. I can hear you delivering this piece, flowing from an engaging family story, aimed at delivering us to a place where we might be able to understand your premise, though few of us would be willing to open our spirits, our minds, to embrace a new patriotism, because it is seemingly new territory, and completely outside of the box. But I believe you were called for a task like this; to draw people to a new way of thinking, a life-changing idea (or reality) that, in Christ, our ethnicity is Christian and our new nation is the Church. Both profound … and revolutionary. And we would be set free from having to “build a wall,” if we understood that our new nation has no boundaries; and our capitol is “Jerusalem;” and our king, Jesus! Josh, I hope you are preaching somewhere because that is what God wants you to do; His gift to a church, somewhere, or maybe, somehow, to the Church, the new nation. Shalom! (John Kenney – tribulation saint)

  2. Pastor Josh,
    You requested that some of your Facebook followers give you feedback on an article you either had published or were going to have published. I read your article several times and have prayerfully considered my feedback.

    I really liked the statement “My ethnicity is Christian. My nation is the Church. And we have no borders.” This is both a masterful understatement and at the same time, a profound truth. However, I had a hard time understanding what you were saying overall in this essay. You spent nearly half of your 5 pages in this essay discussing your disillusionment with Thomas Jefferson. Yet it is unclear how this assessment of Jefferson relates to anything that follows.
    I am not sure I follow your premise. You stated that you “have been tasked to write some thoughts about how we Christians might navigate our charged political environment in the wake of the American presidential election.” While it is true this election cycle is charged, it is not as charged as some in the past. So we are not facing some new challenge. Something with this cycle that puzzles me is why evangelical ‘whites’ tend to support Donald Trump and evangelical ‘blacks’ tend to support Hilary Clinton, and both believe they are doing God’s will in doing so. This is a worrisome contradiction that tends to bother a mere mortal Christian such as myself. I know, by faith, that if both are following God’s will, this is a paradox. Maybe your essay was an attempt to help people like me understand this paradox.
    Regarding your discussion of ethnicity, I think I understand your point that by being born into the body of Christ we obtain a new ethnicity. But I see being born again as so much more than that. Think of how enormous the universe is. Even if we were traveling at the amazing speed that light travels (300k per second or the equivalent of more than 7 times around the earth in a second), it would take us 100,000 years to travel across our Galaxy ( the Milky Way), and the Milky Way is only one of billions upon billions of galaxies we know about. God is not only the God of the enormous, He is also the God of the tiny, the quantum. Think of how in the quantum world, cause and effect are reversed and of super-positioning where a particle can be in two different locations at the same time. Think about dimensions existing side-by-side with our own at the same time of which we are not even aware. No, being born again is far more than having a new ethnicity on this earth. In fact we become pilgrims journeying through the world bringing good news (really, really good news) to all who will receive it. If we truly believe that this man Jesus who lived 2000 years ago was the only begotten son of the creator of the universe, that he came to this world to atone for our sins and that he died on the cross and rose the 3rd day, that whosoever believes in him, would not die, but have everlasting life; isn’t this more than obtaining a new worldly ethnicity? Also doesn’t the election pale in comparison?
    I think many Christians today have become obsessed with politics. I also believe this diverts from our true God-given mission.
    I respect you, Pastor Josh, as a pastor and as a great Bible teacher, and I am honored and humbled that you wanted my honest feedback. As part of my feedback I would like to make a request for some future subjects for you to tackle: the question I mentioned earlier in my feedback regarding black versus white evangelical voting patterns; the problem posed by Albert Einstein asking if God is good and he is also omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, how can evil exist?; and one last question—since the oldest original manuscript of new testament writing is a copy composed over a hundred years after the original writing,, how do we know the copy we have is an accurate transcription of what the original writer actually wrote?
    Joe Ryals

  3. This would work if the majority of Christians weren’t racist, sexist, and fearful.The kingdom of God is real, but so is earthly reality and at times they must be separated, especially since everyone sins.

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