A Christian Reflection on the Antitheses of Voting and Jesus’ Narrow Way

For the first time in almost two decades, I plan to vote in an upcoming election.   I am not proud, nor do I plan to wear an “I voted” sticker.  Mine is a confessional statement.  A repentance.

I am not a “loyal citizen” of the nation, as much as it may offend my close friends.  I am, instead, a person torn between my first and only allegiance to a Kingdom not of this world and the sense I have that the powers of this nation have become more ruthlessly cruel than ever in my lifetime.[i]

You must understand that I am not a Democrat.  I was raised to be a “conservative,” but I found that my reading of the Gospel changed the way I understood the Christian’s relationship to this world’s politics.  As I continued to read Jesus, the apostles, and especially John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel, I realized that none of them (especially Jesus and John the Baptist) ever encouraged Christians to seek power in this world’s power structures.  This was, inherently, anti-Christian (in the sense that it is the opposite of what Christ taught), because the politics of this world are exercised through violence and exploitation of the weak.

Instead, their politic was one which was antithetical to the politics of power and, importantly, their engagement to those politics was purely prophetic.  Apparently, we followers of Christ would not change the world by working our way into the structures of powerful kings and rulers (something Jesus was tempted with when he was tempted in the desert), but we would strive to create an alternative Kingdom—God’s Kingdom—in and among the kingdoms of this world.  And this Kingdom would grow like yeast in a lump of dough or like weeds in a garden to gradually overturn it.

The politics of the King of our Kingdom are about servanthood, humility, and peacefulness–not power, self-aggrandizement, control, and violence.

Few people who call themselves Christian understand the Gospel this way (the way I think we do at Forging Ploughshares).  For this reason, for almost two decades, I have found myself a critic, not just of this world’s power structures, but of people who claim to follow Jesus and who dismiss the message of the gospels as they pursue political power for their chosen party.   The apostle Paul (as Paul Axton has articulated so well, so often) would, I think, call this “doing evil that grace may abound.”

In other words, many of my friends and neighbors, people that I preached to for years, I believe have rejected everything Jesus taught in the pursuit of control of the Supreme Court, for the purpose of overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Being willing to oppress and cage children whose families seek asylum from corrupt governments or gang violence and blindly supporting a man who is accused of sexual assault without even caring whether the claim is adequately investigated because you want to “save unborn babies” is engaging in evil in order to do what you take to be good.

Take, for example, evangelical support for the endlessly corrupt Trump administration.  Or the insanity of the Republicans in the Senate who have hypocritically broken every one of their own rules and run over any opposition no matter who it hurts or who it decimates for the purposes of taking over the Supreme Court (Lindsay Graham’s shouting “God, you all want power!  I hope you never get it!” is, perhaps, the most revealing moment of gas-lit, Freudian slippage I have ever seen on television—Shakespeare could not have written greater irony).

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is, perhaps, the ugliest example of this evil in the Trump era so far.  Acknowledging that the claims of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh were, as yet, not proven, it was clear to nearly any onlooker that the Republicans were dead set against actually looking to see if they were true (and, admittedly, the Democrats were using these women [and any women who have been sexually assaulted] as well).  That said, it was easily apparent that no amount of hash-tagging “MeToo” would affect the steely hearts of a bunch of old rich white men inches away from controlling what they’ve lusted to control for forty years by putting a younger version of themselves in the court—a white man of obvious means with a self-documented history of bullying, carousing, drunkenness, and womanizing privilege.

Meanwhile, the “Christians” I have known in recent years have blindly gone along with it and even defend it—because, they, too, believe in the politics of power over and against the person they call “Lord” on Sundays without realizing that calling Jesus “Lord” means putting oneself at odds with “voting Republican” for the purpose of establishing “good” through power and control.  They do not realize that they have aligned themselves with the very wealthy hypocrites James chastises throughout his letter.

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? James 2:5-7

How could people whose sacred text contains these words have ever thought that putting the world’s greediest, most lecherous and gluttonous sexual predator in the office of president was a means of doing good?  How could they still claim to follow the one who said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head?”  Simply put—they can’t.  And the world recognizes it, even if they don’t.  And my neck (along with those of my friends) bears the scars of the people who have tried to behead me for saying so.

That Said…

That said, as much as some of my more progressive friends who are just as angry about the current state of affairs believe that voting “Democrat” this year is our only hope, I don’t.  I do plan to vote Democrat, but only because of my guilt that my “brothers and sisters” whose daily church is Fox News have sold their souls to put evil in power.   And, at this point, I am convinced (however self-deluded I may be) that my voting is not about taking power as much as it is about checking the power of the most evil group of people I can think of.

I feel like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestling with how to confront the political evil of his time.

Today, in response to the Kavanaugh decision, a friend of ours posted a picture of a woman in tears on her Facebook.  Like all things Facebook, one has to trust that the story behind the image is true, but this story seemed plausible.  It was an image of a woman weeping after the Kavanaugh confirmation because she wondered if women who had been sexually assaulted would ever be believed or even heard.

And, at that moment, as much as my friends are urging one another “Let’s hold them accountable at the polls,” the only words I could muster were “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice,[ii] for they will be filled.”  These words, one of the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, promise that in God’s Kingdom, those who are hungry for what is right will be satisfied because they find what is right and just in Jesus’ Kingdom.  This, of course, is not possible in the economy of power of this world’s political structures, no matter which Caesars, kings, or presidents and senators are in power.  This is because the politics of power are antithetical to self-emptying politics of the Kingdom, which is the only true way to peace and real justice.

Yet, this is an idea which is so far removed from our imaginations as to be nearly incoherent.  And it is precisely because we cannot imagine a life without power that it is so.  Or, as Jesus said it, “It’s a small gate and a narrow way to this Kingdom, and few find it,” a statement rarely quoted in today’s Americanized Christianity which sees no tension between Jesus’ call to “let the little children come to me” or “go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me” and turning asylum-seeking children away or the selfishness of prosperity theology.  In a recent conversation in which I argued that VP Mike Pence is not a Christian because of his willingness to participate in and defend kidnapping innocent children whose parents are seeking asylum, I was told, “You’re claiming someone is not a Christian because of their politics?  Come on!”  Apparently, in this new faith, one can do all manner of anti-Christian evil and as long as one calls it “politics” the call of the Gospel is irrelevant.

My response?  “You will know them by their fruit.”

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend which I am hesitant even to share, but which I have concluded indicates that I, also, clearly struggle to find Jesus’ gate.  I told him that even as there is so much public pressure to overcome the tradition of the dismissal of women and children who claim to have been sexually abused or assaulted, I, too, in my darkest imagination (even knowing all of the statistics) have worried about being falsely accused of abuse.  In my heart of hearts, I know that Donald Trump’s vile fear-mongering speaks to a fear deep in my own heart.

My friend, wisely, admitted that this is a legitimate concern and that there are evil women out there as much as there are evil men who could, in fact, take advantage.  But he challenged me back that saying so could only hurt the “movement” which is drawing attention to centuries (millennia) of injustices to women.  There is, I suppose, no shortage of modern naiveté in assuming that such injustices can be cured with the proper application of democracy and social revolution.  But, as he and I talked, it occurred to me that the thing I’m really afraid of is my own vulnerability.  I’m afraid of my own cross.

The truth is, as a man, the socio-political structures in place favor me on this issue, and as a white man, even more so.  And I draw some comfort in that, knowing that a person who makes an accusation may not be immediately believed.   But that position of privilege puts those who are not in it at a disadvantage—one which is easily exploited by the Trumps and (perhaps) Kavanaughs of this world.  And, so, I find myself resistant and worrying that a change in this privilege makes me more vulnerable.  As it must.

Acknowledging, for the moment, that this supports my theory that what is behind all politics of power is fear (fear of insecurity, or of death—which John has told us that perfect love has “cast out”) the real idea that I must accept is that, as a follower of Christ, my own vulnerability is simply an accepted reality, or, more precisely, the entire point.  To follow the one whom the apostle Paul has said, “emptied himself” of power by becoming a human, a servant, and obedient to death on a cross, means that I, too, must empty myself of power (privilege) and become like him, obedient to death, even death on a cross.  Jesus, himself, said, “Pick up your cross and follow” and in another place, “A student is not greater than his teacher,” (meaning, if they did it to me, don’t think they won’t do it to you—be ready).

And this concept is entirely foreign to the pursuit of political power.

This year, I am voting for the first time in nearly two decades.  I do not do it lightly, and I do not do it proudly.  I do it begrudgingly, having agonized about it for nearly two years.  I do it primarily because I recognize the failure of the American churches to articulate the Gospel as Jesus preached it and, in doing so, have adulterated the Gospel of kenosis (self-emptying) for the false gospel of power and nationalism.   I do it because, if all Christians believed as I do, Donald Trump and these power-hungry monsters would not be in power, for all Christians would have seen what was obvious—that what we are seeing is the opposite of our faith, an idolatry of epic proportions, and would have been too busy being salt and light to have been taken in by Trump’s angry, hateful rhetoric.

But, as I vote, I will do it with eyes wide open, knowing that what I am participating in is not the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew so carefully taught us, but the kingdom of this world that is fallen and cruel.  I do it knowing that my real hope for this world is that, after we have been crucified with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him on a new earth, one without earthly kings and presidents, one without powers and principalities, one that is just and peaceful.

I do it, repentantly, praying as John the Revelator did, “Amen.  Even so.  Come, Lord Jesus.”

[i] It is difficult not to hear NT Wright arguing that Jesus’ Kingdom may not be of this world, but it is certainly for it.  In this way, Wright argues for participation in the politics of power and violence, something he can hardly avoid as his church structure is tied to the British House of Lords.  This I take to be an equivocation and a contradiction to of Wright’s own teaching on Paul’s statement that Jesus has disarmed these powers (a question I once had the privilege of posing to Dr. Wright).

[ii] Most often translated “righteousness,” the word from the root dikaios, is likely better translated “justice” (think hunger and thirst for what is right or just).  In the first century, the term “righteousness” carried that sense. In ours, it is more likely to be understood as “personal righteousness” which is often translated to “being cleared of guilt.”  Using the word “justice” helps us to see that this was intended to appeal to those who are oppressed and marginalized, I think.

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

This piece is a part of a larger project which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends

It is appointed for each person once to die…and then the judgment.

“Well, she’s coming for a visit.” I said with some anticipation to my little raccoon friend as we crossed the valley on my way back to our mountain.  He’d managed to find me on the way out of town and had been following at a short distance, pausing only when he found something along the way more interesting than me.  Most likely what kept him following was the smell of food coming from my pack.  She had packed a few lunches for me for the trip back: some cheese and bread, one of those caramel apples from the fair wrapped in wax paper, and a bottle of fresh water.  The bandit (I had taken to calling him that) stopped and gave me a quizzical look when I spoke.  I’m never sure whether he’s really understanding me, or just being a raccoon.  But, for a moment, I got the feeling that he was puzzled by my sense of excitement and my anticipation at her visit. Continue reading “Chapter 3: A Conversation with Friends”

Chapter 2: Going to the Fair

This piece is a part of a larger project.  First published on Thinking Peacefully on September 27, 2013, it is the second chapter in a larger ongoing work which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 2: Going to the Fair

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Continue reading “Chapter 2: Going to the Fair”

Chapter 1: Moving In

This piece is a part of a larger project.  First published on Thinking Peacefully on September 22, 2013, it is the first chapter in a larger work which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.  

Chapter 1: Moving In

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Continue reading “Chapter 1: Moving In”

Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet

Of the “controversy” surrounding the “take-a-knee” protests among certain players of the NFL (beginning with Colin Kaepernick), much noise and political commentary has already been made.  As is usual, social media and the blogosphere have been lit up with shrill opinions since Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in protest of repeated examples of egregious police violence against young black men and boys.  Because opinions on this topic tend to be immovable, I don’t doubt that my contribution here will have little impact.  Yet, I can’t help feeling that the perspective I wish to share here may be very different from the ones typically shared—certainly in “evangelical” circles. Continue reading “Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet”

Why Ploughshares Bible Institute?

Disenchantment.

If I had to describe my experience in getting my education (I have a BA in Biblical Research and an MA in Theology) and what I had once thought it would bring me in one word, I think “disenchantment” is the one which sums it up the best. Why? Continue reading “Why Ploughshares Bible Institute?”

Can You Be a Christian and Still be Violent? (A Rift is Coming)

The following was posted on Thinking Peacefully on December 15, 2015.  You can read it here.

Well, it depends on what you think Jesus came to do.  Let me explain.

If you think Jesus came because God is obligated by nature to punish sin by sending people to hell but he didn’t want to…instead sending the second person of the Trinity (the Son) to experience a type of hell in your place such that, if you claim a certain religious belief or perform a certain religious rite you are now forgiven and freed from eternal punishment…then sure.  Most folks whose view of sin and salvation can be boiled down to this have no problem with doing violence—in fact—most folks who think of sin and salvation this way seem to assume that to be unwilling to do violence is immoral.  The reason is the whole theology is wrapped up in a simple exchange between the Father and the Son on our behalf.  Jesus’ life and teaching have little bearing on what it means to actually “be saved.”  Salvation is all about having a certain status (that of “being saved”) and that status is achieved through the actions of someone else (Christ on the cross) and a simple religious affiliation (the sinner’s prayer or baptism) on my part.  One might go so far (and many have) as to say that the central assumption in this theology is that God is, at his heart, a violent God who must atone for the sins of his people violently.  And people emulate the God they claim to follow.  Therefore, violence is the normative reality for these folks, rather than love.

This is the reason that people who think differently than these folks are often stymied when saying, “But what about Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies?”  The blank stares and mystified looks of those who hold to this view are a way of saying, “What does being a Christian have to do with any of what Jesus said?  We like our view of the God of the Old Testament better anyhow.  There’s a God who knew how to make things happen.”

However, if you think (as I do) that what Jesus came to do was not just a simple exchange, then…no.  I (and many others like me) don’t believe that Jesus came to die in our place in the sense that people often think.  He didn’t stand in between God and me, facing God’s wrath.  He stood in between God and me, facing mine.  Jesus on the cross was not man being killed by God, but God being killed by man.  Yes, in the Old Testament, God worked around violence and sometimes acquiesced to violence.  But, as Hebrews 1:1-3 says,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3 NIV).

In other words, “Jesus is the complete revelation of God.  This is what God always wanted us to know about him.  It supercedes what we take God to be in the Old Testament because God hadn’t revealed himself to us fully until Jesus.”  And in Jesus, we see a God who would die himself rather than kill you to defend himself from you.  Jesus is God dying in our place, but in a way different than we thought.  He died because he loved those who hated him.

In this view, salvation is not about a simple exchange to keep you out of hell.  In fact, the idea of salvation is full and robust.  It is about the coming of God’s full kingdom to the earth, his will on earth as it is in heaven.  Salvation is met out through a group of people who believe that Jesus’ way of doing life (a cross-shaped life) is the solution to all of the sin of this world (and all sin is a type of violence we do to ourselves, one another, or God).

“Salvation” for folks who believe this is about following Jesus on the way of the cross.  It’s about saying, “If Jesus is God dying because he’d rather die by his enemy’s hand than kill his enemy, then I’m supposed to be a person who’d rather die by my enemy’s hand than kill my enemy—because I love my enemy the way Jesus loved me.”

And, yes, that means even someone who comes into your home to steal, rob, and destroy.  And, yes, even if you have a family whom you love…because if we love our family we’ll want them to follow Jesus, too.

We believe this because we believe that it is the only hope for a world torn apart by violence.  We believe that Jesus demonstrates that love is the true normative reality, not violence.  And love is enacted on crosses, not with swords.  And crosses are a daily way of life, where people serve one another rather than take advantage of one another; and those with little status are held in high esteem because God cares for all people, even those who the violent world has marginalized.

We can do all of this because we believe what the apostle Paul told us in Romans 8,

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.  The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:14-17 NIV).

We believe that those who die with Christ will be raised with him.

The first view of salvation is about hell and retribution.

The second is about cross and resurrection.

The first about violence and fear.

The second is about love and trust.

The first assumes violence is necessary and nonviolence has nothing to do with Christianity.

The second assumes that violence is unnecessary and that Christianity is about nonviolence in all forms.

The first is about a violent God who takes out his violence on the innocent to save the guilty.

The second is about a loving God who innocently receives the violence of the guilty and beckons them to follow him.

The first sees no tension between being a Christian and the pursuit of power of the Empire.

The second sees these two things in mutual exclusivity.

These two views are inherently incompatible.

A rift is coming.

So, what does this say?  Can someone be a Christian and be violent?  The answer depends on what you think Jesus came to do.  If you are of the first camp, you say “yes.”  In the second, “no.”  But here’s the thing: a rift is coming.  There is little about these views of Christianity that can be harmonized.  I’m not sure I’m willing to say that those who believe in the first view “aren’t Christian.”  But what I must admit is that I think what they believe “isn’t the Gospel.”  And I suppose that what they must admit to themselves is that what I believe isn’t the Gospel to them either.  And I don’t know what to do about that other than keep asking them to consider the Gospel I’ve discovered.  And I keep doing so, and nearly all of them reject it.

Someone will say that this is judgmental.  I don’t think so.  Here’s what I think, though.  As our world becomes more violent and as fear motivates people to think darker thoughts…as the country we live in turns more and more to guns and war…I think it will not be those who claim that Jesus calls us to active peacemaking who will be the judging aggressors.

We live in the most well-armed, richest, most well-defended society in the history of this planet.  And I believe most people are more terrified than they’ve ever been.  “More guns, more soldiers, more violence” is what I feel I see Christians saying over and over and over.  I think the time is coming when those who believe in the first Gospel will take up arms against those who believe in the second.  And those who believe in the second will have an opportunity to prove their faith as well.  It will come when a peacemaker comes to the aid of someone perceived to be “the enemy,” and the violent Christian cries “traitor!”  It’s coming.

Historically, it was certain Roman Catholics and certain Protestants who teamed up to torture and murder the early pacifist Anabaptist Christians.

This post is dedicated to my close friends who taught me the second view of the Gospel; that Jesus came to instate his peaceful kingdom here.  I dedicated it at a time when they were enduring a type of crucifixion, being, in a sense, killed by those who have publicly stated that they believe that the heart of the Gospel is the will do violence, to harm the other to save self.  Like Cain, they had wielded their hateful rock and killed the people they were supposed to call “brother and sister.”

The Gospel is something that we are told will divide us, so perhaps we should not be surprised that it often does.  I may be wrong in my view and I’m sure there are some who will think so.  And I love my brothers and sisters who disagree with me.  And I pray they will be moved.  But let those who believe in a peacemaking Messiah and those who believe in a war-making Messiah understand that, though they may both call their Lord “Jesus,” they do not believe in the same God.

Looking for the Church

Driving on the interstate with my wife tonight, we passed another giant church billboard advertising for a church which, prophetically and almost literally, meets at Six Flags here in Atlanta.  In bold letters next to a picture of the preacher in a slick suit, it said something to the effect of, “[name of church] Feels Just Like Home.”

In the darkest recesses of my mind I found myself thinking, “Then why not just stay home?” Continue reading “Looking for the Church”

Modern Liberalism’s Failure to Produce a Peaceable Kingdom: In the End it’s Just Another Prosperity Gospel

When I was in seminary at Lincoln Christian University, I took a course which was foundational to my understanding of the radical dichotomy of thinking inherent in the terms “liberal” and “conservative” which seems to have captured the dialogue of the culture we live in.[1]  While there is no question it is true for politics, it is also true for theology (though the terms are used very differently in each realm).  The course I mentioned defined some of the terminology you often hear thrown around in theological, philosophical, and even in everyday conversations: modern, postmodern, liberal, conservative, etc.  Though I believe the issues at the heart of what these terms refer to are actually ancient ones, in our class we began our study with the beginning of the Enlightenment and the impact of Immanuel Kant on contemporary mindsets. Continue reading “Modern Liberalism’s Failure to Produce a Peaceable Kingdom: In the End it’s Just Another Prosperity Gospel”

Reading the Bible Together

A few years ago I had the honor of contributing an essay to a collection of essays in honor of my teacher and friend. That collection was published as a book called Theology in the Present Age: Essays in Honor of John D. Castelein. My essay, “Reading Scripture Together: How it is that Acknowledging Ignorance Can Restore us to Community” was an application of Peter Candler’s book Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, in which Candler argues against the notion that has been prevalent in so much of Western Protestant tradition, that it is each person’s mandate to “read the Bible for themselves at home, apart from the clergy and other Christians.” Continue reading “Reading the Bible Together”