Christians in America

 

As our country prepares for another transition at the top, what does it mean to be a Christian in America? How do we access our rights and responsibilities as followers of Jesus in the United States?

A good, basic principle is found in a helpful quote from the late Richard John Neuhaus. He reminded us that “Christians are called to walk not the road to political victory, but the way of the cross.”

I think Neuhaus is right. But what does that mean in practice?

I have recently been reading the New Testament Book of Acts, and I think we see, in two back-to-back episodes from the life of the Apostle Paul, a guide for how we put that principle into practice.

In Acts 16, Paul and his companions have come to the Macedonian city of Philippi. As was Paul’s custom, they seek out Jewish believers to share with them the good news of Jesus. Because Philippi had no synagogue, they find a group of Jewish women praying outside the city. Paul shares the gospel, and a prominent woman named Lydia answers the call to follow Jesus.

Paul continues on in Philippi, and continues to teach and preach. While there, he encounters a woman with a “spirit of divination,” whom he heals. This leads to anger on the part of her masters, and leads to Paul and his colleague, Silas, being thrown into jail. When an earthquake rattles them free (literally), they have an encounter with the jailer – and they lead him and his family to Christ.

The next day, Paul is told he is free. Great! Take your tunic and run, Paul.

But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he tells the police, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now cast us out secretly?” (Acts 16.37, RSV).

In other words: You guys can’t get off that easily. We’re not leaving quietly when you took away our rights. Paul claims his Roman citizenship, without apology, using it to stand up for his rights and their responsibilities. He is not ashamed to say: I am a Roman citizen; give me my due.

The leaders apologize to Paul, and he heads to Thessalonica, where there is a synagogue. Paul goes in and starts teaching. Many listen and believe. But still others hear and get upset – upset enough to start what is essentially a riot. And the mob goes looking for Paul at a house owned by a man named Jason. They can’t find Paul, so they drag Jason before the authorities. And notice what they say: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also … and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).

Notice what got them so upset: Paul was proclaiming another king beside Caesar. Let’s be clear: Them’s fightin’ words. To say that, openly, in a Roman city is to invite yourself back into another Roman prison cell.

In Philippi, Paul is not afraid to claim his rights as a Roman citizen. In Thessalonica, Paul is not afraid to speak truth to the leader of the Roman empire. In one, Paul claims what is rightfully his. In another, Paul speaks clearly what is rightfully not Caesar’s. In both cases, Paul uses his voice to speak truth as a Roman citizen, in Roman cities. All while staying true to his calling to walk in the way of the cross.

It seems to me that there’s a message for those of us trying to navigate as Christians in America:

  • As Americans, we shouldn’t be ashamed to claim that reality. When our country’s pledge is “liberty and justice for all” – we should seek that, for others, and for ourselves.
  • But we must also remember that we are not first Christian Americans, or even American Christians. We are Christians who happen to live in America. As such, we must never be afraid to remind Caesar that he is not god. Lovingly, faithfully, and humbly, we must continue to pledge allegiance first to Jesus – and lift him up as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Like Paul, we who are Americans are citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. With that, come privileges – and responsibilities. Let’s wisely continue to use both, as we choose to bow to no other god but the One who showed us that the path of life goes straight through a cross.

What Elections Can’t Change

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that next Tuesday is Election Day. You’d have to be living off the grid, out in the wilderness somewhere, not to know that. Even then, if you were in a swing state, some political operative would probably still find you.

For many of us, it’s been a long election season. I would guess that most of us are ready for it to be over with – even if we’re not sure we’re ready for what comes next. This was especially true for Mary Anne Noland, who passed away in May. Her death may have been expected, but her obituary was not. It began:

Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016….

I expect that Ms. Noland’s family was trying to be funny; but they clearly were also trying to make a serious point. This is especially true, I think, for those of us who wear the name of Jesus. When I look at the presidential race, hoping to see plans that would reflect God’s heart for justice and compassion; integrity and principled leadership; real freedom and a respect for ALL life – I don’t see it.

So, for me, Election Day will not solve many of our biggest problems. While this should concern us, it can also serve as a reminder of what is bigger than politics. That as important as a presidential election is, there is much that it does not determine or change.

Here’s the deal: I will wake up on November 9 hopeful, no matter who wins. And I will do so, because:

  1. God is still God. He has been so from before Time began, and He will be so for all Eternity.
  2. Jesus still saves. He’s been doing so for nearly 2000 years.
  3. The Church gets to be the Church. Though we are flawed and cracked vessels, the Spirit of God will continue to use us to show the Grace & Truth of God. No law or limits stop that.
  4. Love is still love. No matter how ostracized or overlooked we might feel, love will always be the language we speak – and the language that others understand. Love will simply never go out of style – and, we’re told, it is the greatest of what remains.

So, as followers of Jesus, let’s not worry or rage, point fingers or withdraw in fear. Instead, let’s continue to follow the Lord of love, as we live in love – remembering that, when it’s darkest out, the light shines brightest.

The Political Church

Maybe like me, you’ve been watching some of the Republican and Democratic conventions. Part spectacle, part showmanship, part pep rally, and part democracy, it’s interesting to see who speaks at these events, and what they say.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the conventions is how they sometimes feel like church. You have a speaker “preaching” core elements of their party’s beliefs. You have enthusiasm, fellowship, music, and disagreement (just like church). And you have passion. You even have prayer – though, I gotta say, I wasn’t comfortable with this one (not least, because the minister seems to forget about Ephesians 6.12), or this one (not least, because prayer becomes just another opportunity for people to cheer or jeer a candidate they like/dislike). But most of all, these prayers concern me, because they seem to forget that the Church has its own form of politics.

It’s true. The Church has a specific form of politics. But it’s not Republican or Democrat, Green or even Independent. It’s something far different.

First off, the word “politics,” at its most basic level, simply refers to how we structure our common lives. Politics is what we do to find a way to live together. And so, every group or city, every organization or country, has a politics.

The Church is no different. What is different, though, is how we live out our politics. For the Church is not first concerned with government structures or policies, but in embodying the truth and life of a person from Nazareth. Believing that Jesus is the embodiment of God, we as the Church seek to embody his life and presence through our common life as the Church.

So, to be a follower of Jesus is to be political. But not in the way Republicans or Democrats have been embracing these past couple of weeks. But to be a Christian is to live out a politics that puts into practice what we say we believe.

So, what do the politics of the Church look like? Let me suggest it looks something like the following:

  1. We surrender our right to claim our own rights. Christians aren’t first concerned about claiming their right to live how they feel, but in picking up a cross and walking in the way of Jesus.
  2. We surrender our right to go at life alone. To walk in the way of Jesus is to bind yourselves to others on the journey. To follow Jesus is to follow him with others – it’s what we call the Church.
  3. Which leads to the next element of the politics of the Church that I believe is so often missed: we don’t leave when things get tough. Church isn’t something you “come to” until you get mad at someone, or you don’t like the music or the minister, or until “it just doesn’t work for me anymore.”
  4. And #3 is true, I believe, because we grow best when we join our lives with people who are just as messed-up, and grumpy, and selfish as we are. In fact, this is exactly why we need to find a church family, and settle in with them. If we bounce around from church to church, we take our mess and selfishness with us. But if we stay put, we are more likely to be shaped and changed by those we share the journey with over the long haul.
  5. By staying put, we learn to love each other, and to share that love with those outside the Church. And a core element of the politics of the Church is that we exist to share the love of Jesus with everyoneEvery one. Long before political parties were talking about equal rights for everyone, the Church was talking about equality for everyone. And when we haven’t been talking about this, we haven’t been the Church.
  6. That equality extends to the equal need we all have for a Savior. All are broken; all need restoration; all are called.
  7. The Church then believes that all who respond to walk in the way of Jesus are then called to use their gifts in service to others. The call of Jesus extends to everyone, as does the gifting of his Spirit to all who respond. All are called; all who respond are gifted; all who are gifted should then work out their giftedness for the sake of the Church and the world.

Imagine what the Church can look like when all 7 elements of our “politics” are on full display. Imagine what kind of gathering we can have on Sundays, and what kind of “scattering” we can embody Monday through Saturday.

So, yes, I believe in politics. And I believe in the Church. And I believe that when we get both of them right, we embody the very Kingdom of God. Not arrogantly, or perfectly, or completely. But when we understand the Church’s politics – that is, our very way of being – we become a living witness for the love of God, the presence of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s a platform I can endorse wholeheartedly.