Political Idolatry

So, it’s Election Day and I couldn’t be any more exhausted by the spectacle of the last two years. I’ve already heard folks on the news discussing their relief that this day has finally come. That finally the nation will put to rest this campaign rhetoric, stump speeches, and stupid CNN countdowns. I think I can understand this feeling, though if I’m honest I am feeling a little differently. At this moment, as the polls are opening, and lines are forming, I’m feeling a twinge of fear, and a healthy mix of shame and disappointment. I do not feel very good about the state of our politics, our religious institutions, our national media, or even with the fundamentals of how we as citizens interact with each other. Mostly, the last two years have left me feeling pretty gross.

And that’s where I am feeling the most challenged as a follower of Jesus. How do we engage with a world so toxic without becoming a part of the toxicity ourselves? This has always been a challenge for the world’s religious, but it has been highlighted for me as the election has droned on. We have seen commentary after commentary about the Evangelical vote, and have witnessed the complete and total high-jacking of the Gospel in service of a political platform by leaders on the right and the left. We have made idols of our politics and the fruits of that labor have been on national display for the last 18 months or so. When we make and worship idols, whether they be politics, religion, or God herself, we find ourselves quickly descending into to traps of tribalism, violence, and fear. It didn’t work for the Israelites in the wilderness, and it’s not working for us now.

Christians on the political left and the political right often read the Gospel as an affirmation of their politics, but then quickly flip it around to commandeer the supposed authority of the Gospel for their own political position. This is why we see so many articles and blogs about how Jesus would or would not vote, as if that question makes any sense at all. This is not to say that the Gospel is not political, of course it is. But if we encounter the person of Jesus as someone who came to operate within the existing power structures of empire, I would suggest that we take a second look. Over and over again we will encounter a Jesus who simply has no time for the politics of the day, or for the institutional structures that maintain them.

Greg Boyd in his book Myth of a Christian Nation says, “…we must also recognize that people who have diametrically opposing views may believe ‘they too’ are advancing the kingdom, which is all well and good so long as we don’t christen our views as ‘the’ Christian view. As people whose citizenship is in heaven before it is in any nation (Phil 3:20), and whose kingdom identity is rooted in Jesus rather than in a political agenda, we must never forget that the only way we individually and collectively represent the kingdom of God is through loving, Christlike, sacrificial acts of service to others. Anything and everything else, however good and noble, lies outside the kingdom of God”*. This is a powerful reminder to me that our responsibility as followers of Jesus, in the midst of the ugliness of politics, is to serve one another in humility and love. This includes those that we disagree with, even those who we believe are the enemy. Enemy love and sacrificial service are the Jesus platform, and this orientation radically repositions us in the context of politics and empire.

The reason I feel so gross this morning as the polls open, is that to this point I have not seen the willingness to serve one another, or the humility required for enemy love. Not only has it been absent from the broader public, but it seems to me also absent among those of us who claim to follow Jesus. This is certainly true for me. I have spent this entire election routinely participating in the kind of dark and angry rhetoric that dehumanizes those who disagree with my politics. I have justified my politics by using the Gospel and the person of Jesus as talismans of my own political agenda. I have dismissed entire groups of people as unworthy, simply because of their political or ideological positions and choice of leadership. I have done all of this while pretending that it was my faith leading my politics, rather than the other way around.

I want to be clear, I am not saying that Christians should not vote, or be politically active. I am voting today because I believe it is important for us as citizens of the empire to demand better of our leaders and systems. I can tell you as well that I do believe that the rhetoric and policy of one of the nominees is flat out dangerous and wherever I am able I try to criticize those ideas that I believe cause harm. I am asking that we reconsider how we do politics. I am asking that we lead with humility and service, and that we strive to affirm the belovedness of all people, regardless of politics or ideology. If we are unable to do this, then the fallout from the election tonight will just continue to drive us apart and make the world a truly more dangerous place.

In Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict the monks are instructed, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away from someone who needs your love”**. I’m going to reflect on this chapter as this day unfolds, and I hope that it will inspire me to reconsider the ways in which I have approached my politics. I hope that those of us who follow Jesus will relinquish our grips on the empire way of doing things, and claim instead the service and humility of the kingdom of God. I hope that we can begin to come together, affirming our essential belovedness, and live into the wonder of the beloved community. Because, when the polls close and a new President is elected, there will be a lot of healing that needs doing, and I want to be a part of that.

*Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.