Christian Politics

By Merle Harton, Jr.

There is, and must be, a contradiction between Christian love for the lost and the unsaved and any deed done by a Christian that promotes, encourages, or effects injury toward another person—even for a cause. I say "even for a cause" because there is a presumption among some Christians that a select range of convictions ought always to be defended, and at any cost. It is this, I think, that has given rise to the belief that political activities can equally serve both society and the continuance of our faith. It is this, too, I think, that makes it acceptable in some quarters to move from merely discussing and debating to acting against such activities as abortion and homosexuality, to name just two of many that have occupied the thought, opinion, and responses of politically active Christians most recently.

There will always be tension between the Christian lifestyle and the lifestyle of the pagan. How could it be otherwise? We are not of this world. We really are aliens and strangers here [Hebr. 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11]. Above all else, we are each of us new creations [2 Cor. 5:17]. This world, therefore, is not our home. But we are not mere sojourners here; we are ambassadors with a mission to accomplish [2 Cor. 5:20], and we have many neighbors.

So what then is our duty as aliens, strangers, and ambassadors with regard to the sins of our neighbors? Is it wrong, fundamentally wrong, to point out the sin of another person? If it is a Christian brother or sister, then clearly no, because it is our duty to help them recover when they stumble [Luke 17:3; Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1]. But there is something wrong with engaging in finger-pointing when in community with the unsaved, and I think that this goes beyond a mere issue of strategy in accosting the lost. It is something that we as Christians ought not to engage in at all.

Clearly the idea of sin is not the same thing as the idea of what is wrong. Many things can be wrong that are not sins. Although for us all sins are wrongs, we must as Christians always remember that we speak a uniquely different language than the non-Christian. We should be sensitive to this, although very often we are not. What is for us a sin may well be something good and permissible to the pagan. The pagan does not have adequate knowledge of God and therefore has no valuable idea of sin. In Paul's words, they are "darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God" [Eph. 4:18]. Accusing the pagan of sin becomes nothing more than speaking to them a meaningless word, expressing a strongly emotive utterance, or playing a kind of "air blame." It is for this reason, precisely, I think, that most debates between Christians and unbelievers (especially regarding some human activity that the Christian must denounce as abhorrent and sinful) end up in a tangle of cross-purposed emotions.

So how do we overcome this obvious obstacle of meaning? Through proper strategy. This is not a theoretical matter, but a practical issue that calls for a good tactical solution.

The true expression of political will for a Christian ought first and foremost to be aimed at the continuance of family and the preservation of a faithful community, for that is where the church is. When that political will attempts to go beyond these boundaries, it becomes an effort to construct a society that would pose no threat to the Christian lifestyle, working as it does toward altering minds, making believers of all, and healing the sick through a political process of social change. The undercurrent of this utopian, humanistic ideal—even if simply an idea of human progress toward utopian forms of existence—is not merely the view that we can change society in this way, but the more important presupposition that it is really the proper activity for a Christian.

What complicates the issue immensely is not that we do not have political duties, for we most assuredly do. We are to submit to our authorities [Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; Hebr. 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-14, 17]. In a democratic society, however, we are made active participants in the entire process of authority-creation: we ourselves originate the representatives, the lawmakers, and the laws. In our democratic system, at least, it is our duty to be political creatures after all. If, then, we are obligated to take an active, civic role in the governance and conservation of our larger society, why not go ahead and fashion it to suit our faith?

Because it is improper and misguided strategy.

First, from the standpoint of Scripture, it will never be successful [see Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 17:20-37]. The world in which we find ourselves (as aliens, strangers, ambassadors) can never be changed into an ideal state through any political process. And this is why humanism will never keep its promise to us.

Second, it does not come near to solving the obstacle of meaning. So long as there are believers and unbelievers, there will always be a linguistic barrier to the proper understanding and appreciation of our concept of sin. Where there is a commonality of belief on the political issues, this process can be a fortunate venture for all citizens, but otherwise it will always stumble when there is a division that issues from hearts that have not been changed.

Third, and finally, it is not a strategy that was given to us by Christ himself. Rather, this strategy is actually a dynamic surrogate, an effectively disguised replacement for what is really our proper response to the wrongful behavior of the non-Christian. It was always within Jesus' power to bring to the world a political settlement [Matt. 26:53], but that was not his way. He brought about change one person at a time.

The Quaker apologist George Barclay has said: "One man cannot inflict enough bodily suffering on another to make him change his views, especially in matters that are spiritual and supernatural" [Apology,Prop. 14:4]. The product of that compulsion will only be hypocrisy. Instead of trying to change hearts through the ballot box, we need to befriend the lost and unsaved, to give them any needful help, to be good specimens of our faith, and to share with them our special joy. Just as George Fox "lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars" [Journal, Ch. 4], we too should live a life that does not give rise to the reasons and circumstances for strife. We ought to be a new soil, a rich bed of life that grows not stinkweeds and bramble, but a healthy, verdant and reproducible growth. We ought, above all else, to cultivate our families in the Christian lifestyle and to bring our faith with us to the workplace. Just as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman [John 4:7-26], the adulterous woman [John 8:3-11], and each of his disciples, we should first be friends to others, for only in the resultant dialogue can we together find the common meaning of what is politically good. Through this dialogue, between friends, hearts and minds can be changed.

As ambassadors on this earth, we are no longer to regard anyone "from a worldly point of view" [2 Cor. 5:16], because that is inconsistent with our duty to proclaim the "message of reconciliation" [2 Cor. 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:18], which is the Gospel. But this message, this good news, is unintelligible and valueless if it remains spoken in a language our neighbors cannot understand, and so we (aliens, strangers) must be careful strategists. We ought not only to speak a worldly tongue, but to create the proper occasions for our special dialogue.

We have many neighbors—more outside of the church than within. Jesus did not ask us to judge or constrain our neighbors [Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37]. On the contrary, he commanded us to love them, even in spite of our convictions. Therefore, our duty as citizens of a democracy should not replace our equally compelling duty to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient [Col. 3:12]; we should look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others [Phil. 2:4], forgiving each other [Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13] and going so far as to carry each other's burdens [Gal. 6:2]. Consequently, we need to balance our duty as citizens with our duty as Christians—without replacing the latter with the former, without hoping that by realigning the world we will somehow manage to improve our spiritual lot, without holding so fast to our sociopolitical convictions that we make them idols and worship them as false gods.

"Christian Politics"
Copyright © 1998 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved