In recent years, I’ve gone through what I can only describe as a theological awakening. This change started when I began seeing the Kingdom of God mentioned everywhere in the bible, and I’ve since come to believe that the message of Jesus and the apostles was not salvation, but the establishment of God’s promised kingdom through the presence of His chosen King through which salvation is also available.
Now, I find myself working out the practical implications of this, and it isn’t easy. I’ve thought a lot about how Christians are to act in this world, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the way of Jesus really is radically different from anything else we see around us. I accept that the message of Jesus was the coming of the Kingdom, and that the Kingdom is already present wherever Jesus is. If Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present among those who follow Him, then the Kingdom is present among them too. If the calling of the Christian is to be like Christ, this means that preaching the message and living out the ethics of the King and his Kingdom are our primary calling. The Kingdom of God looks like Jesus, and the people in the Kingdom should look like Jesus too.
If we study the gospels it’s hard to miss that Jesus was all about sacrifice. He was a servant, and he called his disciples to love and serve one another. He demonstrated through his life, death, and resurrection that the Kingdom is not brought into existence through top-down power games. There are many times in the gospels when Jesus tells those he’s healed to keep it to themselves. He does not want his hearers to confuse his mission to set up a new kingdom with the man-centered way of fixing the old kingdom. Jesus came to replace the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God.
The worldly kingdom way of doing things is to grab power and force others to comply. The Kingdom of God way is to serve others through sacrifice and allow them to be convinced by our sacrifice that Jesus offers a better way. The calling of the Christian is to serve his enemies. The calling of the world is to exercise power over your enemy to make him do what you want him to do. The calling of the Christian is to turn the other cheek, while the calling of the world is to put down anyone who opposes you. The truth is, we think we’re doing God a favor when we embrace the methods of the world, but we are really betraying His plan for action.
We Christians mean well. We want to do good. We see a way to fix a problem, and we pursue it. We embrace the pursuit of power over our opponents because we want to accomplish good, and we would do some good if given the chance. But with our good we would bring a lot of bad. With enough power we could end abortion, and we could force everyone to pray. Through the power of law, everyone would be compelled to behave according to our definition of a moral person (which of course varies even within Christianity). We would have power and compliance, but nothing that matters to God would change. Later, when someone else takes power from us, they will force their will on us, and the cycle goes on and on.
While I’m not going to die on the hill defending America as a Christian nation, I do think this nation was founded with an assumption of Christian morals among its citizenry. Ethicist Stan Hauerwas has noted that a nation founded with such assumptions has imbedded in it the seeds of its own destruction. A nation founded on such principles requires that its citizenry keep up that sense of morality or the system breaks down. When that system begins to come apart, the natural reaction is for concerned citizens to pass more laws to compel the citizenry to live morally in the same way it once did without compulsion. The free nation that moves in the direction of increased legislation ultimately becomes oppressive. Herein lies my problem with the culture war: it assumes that if we just vote for the “right” politicians and pass the “right” laws, this will suffice in “taking America back for God.” But laws don’t produce Christ-like morality. If we succeed in the power grab, we will have only accomplished the creation of an oppressive nation. We will have not preached the gospel, and we will have not introduced people to the suffering Jesus. We will have forced them to submit to a version of Jesus who conquered because he played the power game of this world, and this Jesus will be an abomination of our own creation.
The heart of the problem is that when we pursue the world’s methods to solve the world’s problems, what we are really saying is that the methods of Jesus aren’t sufficient. When we embrace the culture wars, we are really saying the gospel is not enough, and that we have to help God out. We mean well, but the power grab method of fixing problems has nothing in common with the ministry of Jesus. Did Jesus ever pursue worldly power? Did Jesus ever tell his disciples that worldly power was the way to win people into the Kingdom? No, he certainly never did. Jesus doesn’t want to refurbish this nation, give it a new paint job, or a sound fiscal policy. He came to completely do away with this world’s system and replace it with the Kingdom of God by calling people to repent and submit to him, the chosen King. This is radical talk, it is dangerous, and it got Jesus killed.
I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t be involved in the political process. Our involvement is important to the well-functioning of our nation. However, peace does not come through political power. It will come only through humble, Christ-like service. It will come through our sacrifice, and yes, it might just come through our persecution. While I don’t agree with everything John Piper says, I agree that the gospel of Jesus is carried along by the blood of martyrs. In all our efforts to “save America” or “bring America back to God,” I suspect what we are really doing is trying to create for ourselves a version of America where it is safe to be a Christian. We claim confidence in the protection of God, but in reality, we are afraid. We don’t believe. We have no faith.
I recently received an e-mail from someone encouraging me to sign a declaration against various social ills, and join them in a protest to “stand up” for morals in America. The message’s author encouraged Christians to “pester” their pastors to “leverage their influence for the good of the nation.” Of course, this meant that pastors should preach sermons supporting particular political causes, show up at the right events, and apply pressure to their government representatives. We all know that’s exactly what Jesus and the apostles did. (Read with all intended sarcasm.) The implication of the message was clear: any pastor who doesn’t sign our petition, or send letters to his congressman is afraid to take a stand for morality in America. This form of “taking a stand” goes beyond preaching Jesus, and into the adoption of methods that Jesus, his apostles, and the early church did not embrace, to win the fight against earthly opponents. But these opponents are not our enemies. People are not my enemy. Other sinners are not my enemy. Republicans are not my enemy, and neither are Democrats.
Ephesians 6:10–13 (NIV84)10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
We should expect this “taking a stand for morality in America” talk from people who operate in the system of the world, and who believe that worldly power is the means to make change. They think in this way because they lack the spiritual vision for something bigger, more beautiful, and more holy than America. But as Christians, we should know that nothing meaningful can come out of a worldly system, and that every earthly system can only be changed by radical exposure to the Jesus who calls us to take up our cross and follow him.
And so, I object. I object to the entire project. I object to the culture wars. I object to selling out the gospel for political power. I object to thinking that this patched-up and broken-down country is an acceptable substitute for the Kingdom of God. I object to politicians and activists telling pastors what to preach. I object to the notion that if I don’t join some cause I’m not taking a stand for God. I object to the agenda and method of this world being foisted upon the church. I object to fear and faithlessness.
Every Christian I know believes we are to pursue Jesus-likeness. Why then, when it comes to the culture war, do we utterly ignore Jesus and act in every way like citizens of this world instead of citizens of the Kingdom of God? Someone please tell me, because I really don’t get it.