In 1994, almost 50% of the public considered themselves to have a mixture of democratic and republican political beliefs. As of 2014, those stats has changed to only 39% of people. At least a quarter of both parties, consider the other party to be dangerous to society. Polarization in secular American politics has only increased since the 2016 election. With most Republicans living in rural America and most liberals living in urban America, the people groups are growing farther part in ideals and similarities in day-to-day lifestyle. For Christians, it begs the question: What does this mean for the American church?
Christians all around the country have spoken up about the, often times, sickening polarization they see in their pews. However, just as many Christian voices have spoken up about a particular political party or politician. Even Christian voices from other countries have spoken out. British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England, N.T. Wright said this, “There is a striking, radical polarization between your Left and Right that I have to say is really disturbing because it distorts so many issues. This Left-Right polarization forces people to say: We are all on this side now!Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. We can’t understand what we are hearing from some of your politicians on this point.”
Clearly there is polarization in American secular politics which has vast and many implications. As a result, how are Christians to respond to such a change? Should the church be involved in political issues? Should we try to be uniting forces or stand up firmly for what we believe in? Well, the conflation of political affiliation and religious affiliation is not actually that new. In fact, Jesus’ life caused quite the political stir, especially for those in power who he refused to serve. His devotion was elsewhere.
Matthew 22:15-22 says the following:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
This passage has always fascinated me. I think its notable that Jesus saw through the Pharisees. This is important because it illustrates that there will indeed be people of ill-intent in our worlds, political spheres, and academic discussions. We should be educated and informed enough to have confident discourse with them. However, Jesus did not respond to their ill-intent by trying to trick them or outsmart them. While he is clearly displease by their hypocrisy, he still simply answered their questions in a manner that was true to his heart and his goals while on earth.
The next part about this passage that interests me is Jesus’ stance. In a sense, Jesus took a strong stance here. He held true to his beliefs that we are indebted to God but also that we have a duty to the state. These things, though, are meant to be given separately in the sense that they do not require the same things from us. The state requires our service, money, and civic duties, while the church requires our spirits, offerings, and community care. These things may look similar but are, in fact, quite different.
On the other hand, Jesus did not take a stance. He did not belittle the political leaders, he did not post himself higher than his peers, and he did not choose one thing over the other. Jody Howard says this about the church’s tendency to be partisan: “It is intrinsic to the nature of the Church to be political. It can’t be avoided. Nevertheless, I recognize that some may chafe against my use of political, taking it as they do to mean something fundamentally partisan. The fact that it is strange for us to think of the political, divorced from the dominant parties of our political system, illustrates something of the problem. The Church, then, is by nature political, but it is not naturally partisan.”
We can be political without being so partisan. We can support goodness, fairness, and justice in the best way we know how without being antagonistic. We can participate in healthy discourse without being argumentative. As Christians, we are called to be political. We are called to fight for what is good and care for others. We are not called to be partisan and if we should ever have to be, those moments should be more rare than common.
In his historic address to Congress in September of 2015, Pope Francis said, “The Golden Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities, which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.” I have a clear political conscious and stance. I have firm beliefs and deep-rooted cares in the word that have been shaped by my faith. I hope that all Christians do. I will vote and behave and live as a result of these beliefs. But I do not have to hate as a result of these beliefs. I never am called to hatred; it is not of God. I am angry and saddened when I see the actions of people that I disagree with but I am moved into action, not frenzied argument. I hope to incite love with love. I hope that is what the church does. And that is, I believe, what Jesus would do.