Christ and Culture: A Christian response to this political nightmare
We’ve all been witnesses to the catastrophic nightmare we call a presidential election this year. I’ve had and observed several conversations about religion and politics over the past couple months. I’ve noticed a growing cynicism toward government and politics, especially among Millennials and Christians, who literally feel stuck with this year’s presidential candidates between a wall and a hard place!
It’s certainly not unthinkable to imagine that nearly 1 in 4 millennials would prefer a giant meteor strike destroying humanity rather than witnessing a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency.
As Christians, it’s important for us to have a solid understanding of our role as the church within society. But Scripture and church history offer a broad spectrum of responses to this problem. So then how does, or more importantly, how should the church engage with society, and especially politics?
Christ Against Culture
We could focus on the Christian call to holy living and uncompromising values, maintaining that God’s call to holiness must be preserved from the stains of culture. Both 4th century monasticism and the modern Amish communities believe that Christianity must be opposed to the culture through complete withdrawal. Some of the 16th century Swiss Reformers also had similar responses:
“A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations.”
“Shall one be a magistrate if one should be chosen as such? They wished to make Christ king, but he fled and did not view it as the arrangement of his Father. Thus shall we do as he did, and follow him, and so shall we not walk in darkness.”
Excerpts from The Schleitheim Confession of Faith
But perhaps that might be too extreme of a response, leaving no room for actually engaging culture.
Christ of Culture
Or we could take the opposite approach and, instead of rejecting and withdrawing from the world, we could believe that God affirms and works in and through our culture. We could appreciate social agendas and programs as a means of drawing nearer to God. We might even go so far as to equate cultural activity with God’s action.
However, in this manner, the “Religious Right” often falls into the trap of idealizing American Nationalism. The “Christian Left” also falls into a similar trap by re-framing Jesus as merely a moral illustration or archetype, embracing humanism, or reducing the gospel to social progress and humanitarian aid.
So perhaps that might be too extreme of a response, also, drifting too far away from our core identity as scripture believing, holiness seeking, disciples of Jesus Christ.
Could we consider an approach somewhere in between these two extremes?
Christ Above Culture
Summa Contra Gentiles
“Since man is man by virtue of his possession of reason, his proper good which is felicity should be in accord with what is appropriate to reason.”
Perhaps we could look to someone like Thomas Aquinas, who applied reason and natural law as a lens for Christian beliefs and virtue in ethically engaging culture. We might engage culture by advocating some reasonable general precepts of the good, such as an inclination toward self-preservation, reproduction and training of children, seeking after truth and good, and living in society.
Christ Alongside Culture
Treatise on Christian Liberty
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements… [1 Cor 9:19, Rom 13:8]… Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.”
Or perhaps we could look to someone like Martin Luther, who held in tension the belief that Christians live in two kingdoms, neither of which can be escaped: the worldly kingdom, ruled by law and justice, to which we are to respond with obedience; and the heavenly Kingdom, ruled by grace and love, to which we are to respond with love for God and neighbor.
Luther emphasized that God rules over both kingdoms, not just the heavenly one, but he rules in different ways. So perhaps we could engage society by living with one foot in each kingdom, knowing and maintaining the place of each.
Christ Transforming Culture
Or perhaps we could look to someone like John Calvin, who emphasized that civil law should be based on God’s law, not simply “to enable men to breathe, eat, drink, and be warmed,” but also to promote the general welfare of humanity through a public form of religion.
Perhaps we could apply this in our context and consider how our faith could be central to transforming our culture through the life and work of the Church. H. Richard Niebuhr considers that culture might be transformed by God through the effort of Christians, moving away from self-centeredness and toward Christ-centeredness.
Well So What?
Well each of these approaches helps us understand how Christians have, and how we might today, approach engaging culture and politics. But I want to offer a bit more to the conversation: how did Jesus himself deal with the political culture of his day?
Jesus’ form of opposition certainly wasn’t withdrawal, like the Amish. Nor did he conform to the culture around him, like progressives. Nor did he lead a violent revolutionary uprising which many of his contemporaries had been waiting for the Messiah to lead.
He opposed the oppressive Roman authorities in Israel by allowing himself to be called Messiah. He eventually even declared himself to be Messiah before Caiaphas, which would have been considered a direct challenge to Caesar.
He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Look at what N. T. Wright says about this axiom Jesus uses to respond to the Pharisees:
“This has often been taken to imply a neat division of loyalties: state and church, Caesar and God, held in a delicate tension…
I suggest that Jesus deliberately framed his answer in terms that could be heard as just such a coded statement, with which he neatly refused the either/or that had been put to him and pointed to his own kingdom-agenda as the radical alternative.”
N. T. Wright
Jesus and the Victory of God
Perhaps our Christian engagement with culture and politics should be to reject the either/or that the world puts to us and to seek the Kingdom-agenda instead. Perhaps we should stop focusing solely on the ends (pro-life justices, climate change policies, healthcare reform, etc.) and begin focusing on the means and virtues His kingdom offers us, by which abundant life flourishes.
Millennials and Christians have every reason to be cynical of politics; but government is necessary – it’s part of our culture, and we should be active however the kingdom-agenda of Jesus directs us.
By all means vote, and vote however your conscience leads you, for whichever candidate you think embodies the kingdom-agenda more. I won’t hold any choice against you, even if I personally cannot conscientiously vote for either of the two major candidates.
But know that it isn’t the answer, and it certainly isn’t the place to put your trust.
The Church is the means God has chosen to engage culture and bring about change!
What if we focused on rebuilding our church communities?
What if we offered vibrant and engaging worship services for people to meet and connect with Christ?
What if we engaged in compassionate service to the community, advocacy for all human life and rights, pro-life and black lives?
What if we let go of the ends, trusting that God already has the ends in mind, and instead focus on the means by which God might use His Church to be an agent of transformation?
Martin Luther King Jr. rejected the either/or of the civil rights movement. He rejected a passive acceptance of the status quo, and he rejected the violent activism of groups like the Black Panthers.
Instead, he modeled Christ, choosing the path of nonviolent direct action. It cost him his life and he never saw the transformation he died for. But his prophetic witness and martyrdom was the catalyst for change, for the kingdom-agenda of racial equality to break in upon the culture and transform it.
May we be so bold as Christians to become such witnesses in this generation.
About the Author
Kevin Cook is a 4th year student at Asbury Theological Seminary and an Aspirant for Ordination in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). After graduating, Kevin hopes to plant a contemporary three-streams Anglican Church. He and his wife Nicole attend Wilmore Anglican Church in Kentucky.
Kevin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a Master of Business Administration from Florida State University. Kevin enjoys playing music and leading worship, reading fiction and spiritual classics, drinking coffee, and spending time with family and friends.
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