A number of things help here. The first is to define ‘public life’ more broadly than ‘political life.’ As long as we think that the only way to be a public Christian is to do battle in the political sphere, we will for the most part be frustrated and angry—for few of us ever acquire much political power, and, what is more, power politics is much less powerful than we think. But the moment we broaden our definition, the anger and hyper-partisanship drop a notch or two, for we begin to discover that there is always something that we can do to make the world a better place. It might be through political praying, through journalism, through the arts, through making public virtue attractive by our own example. The list goes on.
The second thing that helps is to make some distinctions, namely, (1) between theocracy and influence, (2) between moral principle and political strategy, and (3) between the calling of the individual and the calling of the church.
Take the first distinction, a distincti0n that hyper-partisanship often blurs. Theocracies identify a particular political group (a nation, a party) with the will of God and seek to advance God’s will by force. Ancient Israel was a theocracy in this sense. But theocracy in this sense is behind us, for Jesus reigns over all nations and groups. What is more, he aims to rule the heart, calling for a level of voluntary allegiance that a theocracy in the older sense could never pull off. Sadly, Christians still often tend to think about America theocratically—and this is a mistake. It feeds hyper-partisanship—the tendencies to demonize those who oppose us and to use underhanded or ungracious means to put things right (since, after all, we are fighting for God). Christians should, rather, think in terms of influence, not theocracy. Influence is harder to identify, and it calls for patience not only with ‘the opposition’ but with each other. Influence does not necessarily pay obvious dividends. But that is OK, since Christians do not enter public life to win (Christ is in charge of winning). They enter public life to serve, come what may. We can live with ambiguity and small returns since Christ and Christ alone will make all things right in the end.
Take now the second distinction—between moral principle and political strategy. Hyper partisans tend to blur this distinction as well, giving a political strategy the same value as a moral principle. Moral principles are grand behavioral truths that the church must teach and model. The Ten Commandments give us a great summary: We may not, for example, kill, or bear false witness, or steal, or covet, or take God’s name in vain. These all have bearing upon public behavior and they must be proclaimed as such. But the moment the church moves from saying, “Do not kill (unborn children)” and “do not steal” to advocating particular strategies for reducing/ending abortions and particular strategies for reducing theft, the church enters the area of fallible human solutions involving human consciences. Hyper-partisanship elevates such human solutions to the level of divine law—and this must not happen in the church, for such an elevation binds consciences where the Bible does not bind them. To put the matter another way, the church has a dual obligation in these important matters: (1) to declare God’s law and (2) to guard the consciences of all its members so that no member feels like a second class citizen because he chooses to advance God’s moral law in one way but not in another.
The third distinction is between the calling of the Christian and the calling of the church. Hyper-partisans often confuse these two callings—assuming that their burden is God’s burden (which is why they become ‘hyper’) and therefore rightly the burden of the church. But God makes a distinction here. He calls individual Christians to many types of public involvement depending on training, gifts, and opportunity. But he calls the church more narrowly—namely to pray for his kingdom to come and to make disciples of the nations (which includes caring for the weak in the name of Jesus). When a hyper-partisan spirit invades the church, it not only divides her, but it also distracts her from the business God has given her to do. There is a great irony here. Hyper partisans get hyper because they deeply want to change things for the better. But when they draw the church away from prayer and disciple-making (things that the church alone is equipped to do), they deprive the world of the two things that change it most profoundly
It seems many conflate civility with compromise. But they’re not the same, are they?
Civility could be a mask for compromise. But this is not at all necessarily so.
Properly motivated civility is an expression of a number of things that the Bible teaches and values. (1) First, there is Jesus’ command to treat others as we would want to be treated—with respect. Jesus disagreed profoundly with the Pharisees, but when Nicodemus came to see him (John 3), Jesus received him with courtesy. (2) Civility expresses humility—an acknowledgement that I might not be right, or completely right, about whatever is at issue. And who among us can ever be sure that he is completely right? We all ‘see through a glass darkly’, we all have ‘logs in our own eyes.’ The people who agree with us politically are likely to share our blindness and so we are less likely to learn from them than we are to learn from those who come at things from a different angle. But we will not learn from those who think differently if we are rude and refuse to listen courteously to what they have to say.
Theologians teach “common grace”—the notion that truth ‘pops up’ in unexpected places. They also teach ‘total depravity’—which means that sin and lies ‘pop up’ everywhere as well—even among the ‘good guys’ (the group we like to see ourselves belonging to). We would all do well to learn from James 3:13-18
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Some believe pastors need to “stand up” more, but don’t they mean to simply echo partisan talking points?
Of course pastors need to ‘stand up’ for the truth. They are ordained to preach the Word and if they do not do this they should leave the ministry. But what, more precisely, is the word that they are to preach? It is the gospel of Christ, the great fact that God has fulfilled every promise and every command in his Son, that he has given his Son in substitutionary atonement so that we may be reconciled to him and to one another and, by the power of his Spirit, set on a new trajectory by which the law is fulfilled in us by faith. Any “standing up” that obscures this message by ordering the life of the church around partisan issues is a failure of NT pastoral calling. As Paul put it, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.”
This does not mean that a pastor may not speak out on the pressing moral issues of our time—marriage, abortion, violence, greed, war, to name a few. But it does mean that he must take care not to speak out on them in such a way as to mandate a particular strategy for nudging the culture into greater conformity to the standards of God in those areas. When, for example, he mandates for his flock one particular strategy for improving the state of marriage in America, he endorses not God’s law on marriage but man’s law. And man’s laws are always imperfect.
The pastor as individual citizen can think and act in whatever ways his conscience dictates. But the pastor as preacher—as prophet speaking from the pulpit—has the dual obligation of (1) declaring God’s law (as fulfilled in Christ) and (2) protecting his people from their consciences being made prisoner to human laws.
How does a Christian model Christ-like temperament in a world of talk radio, cable news, social networking, blogs?
Christians will hold firmly but with humility to their convictions, knowing that they may be wrong, and thankful that they themselves do not have to win for good to triumph.
They will listen carefully, they will be unafraid and therefore patient, and they will moderate their language, refusing to pigeonhole people or positions, refusing to demonize the opposition, admitting with humility that the truth pops up everywhere. They will be on the lookout for common ground, seeing themselves as servants of the common good not only with regard to the issue at hand but with respect to the relationships between the people who disagree. They will position themselves as servants, not winners.
Back of all this behavior will be faith, hope, and love: (1) faith that God loves them and will take care of them no matter what happens to them or to America, (2) hope that God will one day vindicate the rule of Jesus and along with that, all that is good and beautiful and true (we represent Christ, but we do not have accomplish what he alone will one day accomplish), and (3) the love that chooses, like Christ, to serve and care without strings attached, and without the need ourselves to win or be vindicated.
At heart, Christians will follow in Jesus’ footsteps by heeding Jesus’ command to “deny themselves and take up their cross.” They will, like Jesus, fully enter the world as its friend, letting go of their need to win, seeking instead to serve. If they suffer for doing so, then so be it. If Christ suffered and ‘failed’, then why shouldn’t we?
If you could give one piece of advice to a Christian in this political season, what would it be?
I have two pieces of advice.
First, identify and repent of political idols in yourself. An idol is a God substitute—anything that we find it hard to live without. In political life we easily fall prey to idolatry—whether it is a vision for America of which we have become too fond, or a particular candidate or party or piece of legislation upon which we have become too dependent, or a freedom that has become too precious to us (many of us just want to be left alone—whether it is regarding taxes or gun possession or our sex lives). Political anger is often evidence of idols being threatened—and we would do well to search our hearts, for God hates idols.
Second, get together for a serious conversation with a Christian who disagrees with you politically. Talk through your differences in an unhurried setting, aiming as you do so to listen carefully to him and to look for common ground. As you interact distinguish between moral principles and political strategies in your own mind and help him to make that distinction in his. If you can find common ground make a plan to take some action together. In any event end by praying for each other and for the advancement of what is good and right in our country.