(Christian) Political Engagement in an Age of Partisan Bloodshed

*Edited on 6/3/20


I cannot help but cringe in those occasional moments when I find myself thinking about my high school and early college years. In this, I am no doubt not alone! My particular regret however has less to do with the typical subjects of retrospective angst but rather the self-righteousness through which I viewed those who were not like me. The passive aggressiveness I displayed toward others on social media is embarrassing, and, to my regret, I still occasionally engage in these practices during moments of hypocrisy. My problem, which I slowly came to realize thanks to so many individuals whose lives have crossed paths with mine, was that I truly believed I had the right answers, and there was no persuading me otherwise. I thus fully see the irony in writing a blog post on how Christians should engage politics, as though I, at the age of 23, have somehow arrived at a perspective wise enough to possess a firm grasp on how the world works. Let me state from the outset then that I do not intend this piece to be read as though it is the only right answer. I aim rather for persuasion, that, for a moment, you see things the way I have come to believe they should be seen, because I feel like my own experiences lend me something constructive to say about the disconnect between the culture of my home and my new school. What I want from this is a Church that can better be a force for justice, mercy, and peace in a world of uncaring violence.

For a Texas boy who grew up in one of the most conservative cities in the U.S., the political environments I have been a part of are surprisingly diverse. I grew up in the conservative world of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and TheBlaze, learned in a fundamentalist and Christian conservative private school as a high school senior, and served in a Baptist church in college that became increasingly concerned with social justice causes during my stay there. My experience at that church was especially formative. For the first time, I truly had an opportunity to consider why people different from me come to the conclusions they do. It also led to two realizations, first that partisan disagreement is not always a matter of which information is true but how this information should be correctly interpreted, and second, that everyone persists in talking past each other. We rarely model God in meeting people where they are, and few consider at necessary times the question of whether certain aspects of their own worldview might just be wrong.

Looking at the current state of America’s political culture, it is evident that we are currently suffering from an epidemic wherein we all believe we are right, and to a destructive degree. I would daresay this belief in being correct is the primary reason why our political culture has become so hostile as to engender violence; we are all so invested in our ideas and convinced that our ideas are not only correct but necessarily good—and that those who promote our ideas promote goodness out of good intentions—that the other side is necessarily evil by default. The other side cheats to win. The other side lies to their followers to win their loyalty. The other side is so clearly wrong, they must be beholden to powerful special interests (though, there is an element of truth to this…).

Because we think we are right and that the other side stands against the good, anger becomes the appropriate response. What rational person would not feel anger in such a situation? However, anger does not come without its risks. Anger can lead good-minded people to do great things, but it can also lead them to make reckless decisions. Worse, anger can lead bad-minded people to do horrendous things. Anger must never become our sole expression of emotion in the realm of politics. It must be balanced by other emotions—hope, patience, empathy and love for the other—or we risk a possible reality where verbal jabs are exchanged for Molotov cocktails.

Outlets that cater to sensationalism, such as network and cable news, talk radio, and the conversion of these voices into twitter profiles, should be fully blamed for creating a culture of militant orthodoxy. Their presentations often adhere to a reality tv format, stealthily designed to shape how the viewer interprets the world and acts within it. Everything in these programs, from the stories they choose to cover to the guests they invite to the way these stories are highlighted, serve to nudge the viewer in the way they should go. In the end, these formative influences give us what we truly want. We desire comfortable tribalism and the stability it offers over the kind of uncomfortable exploration that often comes at the expense of our social bonds and identity. As any good tv producer knows, the open secret to building a viewership base is to give people what they want to see.

The counter to this is obviously inclusion, diversity, and engagement (by ethnicity, gender, AND viewpoint; debates about this strike me as an unnecessary choice)…and building news feeds which reflect this. In listening to voices outside our circles however, I equally think that the necessary first step toward healing this rift is for us to recognize what we share in common. At the most fundamental level, we all want the same things—security, love, respect, peace, flourishing, etc.—we just disagree on how these things can be best achieved, and to what extent. We also share the same flaws in the political sphere: we both often operate with the belief that our own policies, since they try to accomplish or promote certain goals or values, should therefore be supported by anyone who seeks to accomplish these same goals or values, and we both rely far too much on talking points and idiotic, virtue-signaling platitudes thereby deadening the possibility of fruitful conversation with sloppy thinking and self-righteousness. Finally, we would do well to acknowledge that the vast majority of people do not wake up and decide to be hateful that day. The process is much slower and arguably driven by a fear that takes many different forms: fear of a loss of control, fear of a loss of security, fear of competition, and a fear of inaction in the face of (perceived) radical change.

Recognizing this first step, a better aim for Christian political engagement in our current situation might be to seek agreement on the foundational principles that start and form the conversation of our ethical discourse, basing our decisions on similar ethical thinking. But this is the crucial point: we need not require full agreement on the political methods or policies that best promote a society where these ethical principles are promoted. Our locations, times, and formative experiences will always enable us to approach problems from different perspectives. The best course of action, then, is not baptizing our political views in Bible verses but rather welcoming civil conversation and debate about whose policies better promote the flourishing of our  neighbors within our places of resident, the same places in which we live in exile and also find our welfare in. (Jeremiah 29:7)

For my Christian readers, Deuteronomy’s model for law-making provides an insightful paradigm for making ethical decisions. Deuteronomy’s law code explicitly updates and reinterprets the laws of the Covenant Code in Exodus 20:22-23:33 for Israel’s new life in the land of Canaan. This law code is the product of a reform movement that sought to centralize Israel’s worship in the Temple while likewise democratizing worship to households. In doing so, it tried to persuasively mediate between Moses and the present situation, altering laws so that Israel could maintain their community of faith while still meeting the challenges of the present age. The significance of this is that Israel recognized that certain moral demands stand firm, whereas the ethics that execute these demands are open to flexible treatment.

In accordance with this reforming spirit, Jesus explained some laws as mere concessions while ultimately heightening the moral demands of the Torah, particularly the Decalogue.[1] Paul, meanwhile, approached ethical formation with a concern that the Gentiles would still fulfill the law but that they would do so in a Christian way, that is through the “love command” which fulfills the entire law in principle. Paul then gives practical shape to this love command by grounding his churches in the story of God: Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is the realization of the prophetic hope of the inclusion of Gentiles within God’s people (Israel), thus Scripture can provide concrete, ethical precedents for his churches through the prophets, psalms, wisdom literature, and especially the laws required of strangers in Israel.[2] Thus, for both Jesus and Paul, the Law is useful for the ethical instruction of believers, even if the way in which it is followed is updated to reflect different stages within salvation history.

How might the example provided by Israel’s law then shape Christian principles for ethical thinking? First, it needs to be said that the Torah is far from perfect, and its contents are open to critical examination. I think Israel’s heart was in the right place and that its (God-given I should probably add) principles for living provided a needed transformation of its ancient context, but Israel’s execution was often poor, inconsistent, and even too idealistic in some places. Some of Israel’s unaddressed assumptions, such as the necessity of slavery or its appalling regard for women’s value in certain cases, are likewise harmful and fall short of the creation ideal that Jesus came to reinstitute. However, in its attempt to adhere to the Law’s higher principles, Deuteronomy provides a wealth of good—its concern for the least of these, its inclusion of “Levites, aliens, widows, and orphans” in the nation’s civil life, its restrictions on existing slavery laws, its combination of property laws with a safety net system that attempted to interrupt cycles of poverty by providing food, forgiving debt, and limiting servitude, its unparalled care for strangers and valuation of human life, its respect for land, its promotion of thankfulness and stifling of entitlement, and its requirements of personal responsibility. These are the kinds of ideas that should inform our ethical discourse. This is what prophetic witness looks like when it gets practical.

If you find yourself wanting to immediately respond to this with a defense of your side, an explanation of how the other side really is as bad as you think they are, or even simply a “Yea, but…”, then may I suggest you consider the possibility that the call to take up prophetic witness is no guarantee of prophetic clear-sightedness. As Jesus once warned, before you condemn your brother, remove the log that is stuck within your own eye.

This is not to say that all ideas are legitimate. God forbid we let some of the horrible things people propose go unchallenged, nor should clear falsehoods be given equal attention in the name of fairness. Rather, it is to say that ideas must be addressed before they are condemned lest we risk throwing out potentially good ideas in our haste to condemn the clearly bad—a risk I am convinced is too often bipartisan reality. Doing this work will be neither easy nor comfortable, and it will require openness and wisdom from us all, especially when it comes to better discerning when to follow the majority vision or story of a group and when to elevate minority voices against it. Nonetheless, regardless of success or failure, we owe it to each other to try.

The present crisis within our political culture was brought about in part by a lack of listening and the dehumanization of the other, and it will only be undone, not through condemnation, but through, first, recognizing our own hypocrisy and, next, recognizing that the people we oppose are just as human as we are.

And who knows…we might just learn something from each other.

[1] This is clearest in the Gospel of Matthew, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
[2] See Chapter 6, “Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction” in James W. Thompson, Moral Formation According to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (2011), for an insightful look at the role the Law played within Paul’s moral instruction.

Image: “The Keyboard Warrior” by id-iom, Creative Commons 2.0.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/id-iom/27942959696

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s