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Politics or Jesus?

Tuesday, 20 February 2018  | John Yates




Introduction

After recently reading a review of To Change the World by sociologist James Davison Hunter, I was provoked to read his work. His persuasive thesis is that, in engaging the powers of the political realm, American Christians have been ensnared in the world’s ways of doing things. Given that recently a fairly unified Christian front decisively failed to stop same-sex marriage (SSM) from becoming law, many Australian Christians seem to be increasingly subject to the same sort of seductions to which our American brethren have succumbed.

At root this is a deep spiritual problem. Lacking the power of the Lordship of Christ, many frustrated believers feel like they must do something to be useful for God in the midst of a dramatic decline of national righteousness. The power of the political sphere is the obvious avenue to bring change, even if the humble Lordship of Christ (Matt. 11:29) operates in an exactly opposite way to the coercive power of legislation. Looking forwards I can foresee the Australian Church losing one political battle after another, all the while being distracted away from her chief concern, the abiding life of Christ.

Political Christianity

To start with patterns from the US, the fact that 80% of white Evangelicals who voted did so for Donald Trump signals the enmeshment between this part of the American Church and the Republican Party. Over the decades, champions for this sort of alignment have included famous Christians like Charles Colson and James Dobson. Less well known is the alignment between Evangelical progressives like Jim Wallis, mainstream liberal Christianity and the Democrats. Whilst conservative Evangelicals look for a return to traditional Christian values, progressives seek for Christ’s justice to come to the powerless, such as blacks, the poor and women, through political means. A third much smaller bloc, the neo-Anabaptists, represented by scholars such as J.H. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, consider participation in official political action a form of compromise and idolatry.

The issue of politics and the Church encompasses many issues. I can think of committed believers for whom matters like Israel and Palestine, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, global warming, abortion, euthanasia and so on are intensely engaging. What disturbs me about ‘political Christians’, to both the Right and Left, is that their zeal for a cause often comes across as more intense than their passion for the Person of Jesus. Why is this?

Politicisation of Everything

We live in a day when everything is being politicised, because in the popular imagination politics stands for the power to influence others. A recent example of this is that, when marriage registry offices were recently opened for the first time to same-sex couples, they were all flying the rainbow flag of the LGBTI movement. So powerful has been the political success of this lobby that its core values have now become part of the identity of Australia as a nation. As with the earlier feminist-libertarian victory in regard to abortion, we are now subject to what a friend of mine calls ‘institutionalised lawlessness’ (Matt. 24:12).

But surely this is a reason for believers to become involved in political action? Possibly, but not as it is commonly practiced, for the political understanding of most Christians is deeply confused. To think that politics shapes culture, rather than the reverse, is back to front. As Hunter explains it, the de-Christianising of the West came through dense networks of anti-Christians taking possession of the culture-making institutions of society, particularly higher education and the arts. Despite every good intention, the average believer has no access to the more elite ‘clubs’ from which social change is initiated. Unlike, for example, the wealthy, educated, aristocratic group that William Wilberforce drew together, the ‘Clapham Sect’, few believers today have influence in institutions that re-invent how people see reality.

If political involvement cannot bring a foreseeable remedy to our nation’s moral decline, should we take more radical action? Perhaps exercise the ‘Benedict Option’ (Rod Dreher) and withdraw like the monks of the Dark Ages into creative communities whose enlightened moral and spiritual values will eventually lead our nations out of the abyss of secularism? Whatever historical precedent that may exist for such action, it hardly seems to fit either the Great Commission or the need of the hour.

There is a way forward, I believe, for the re-discipling of our nations  (Matt. 28:18-20), but it will require unprecedented humility.

2 Chronicles 7:14: Can God Listen?

Recently, fourteen of Australia’s most senior Church leaders publicly appealed to the PM and Opposition leader to make good on their undertakings to uphold religious freedoms. This political act is as completely unsurprising as it is hypocritical. How often and how loudly have our spiritual leaders been speaking up, inside and outside the Church, for the cause of our persecuted brothers and sisters in other nations? Why should a national Church, which has so blatantly sinned against the Lord by failing to pray and advocate for our afflicted brothers and sisters (1 Sam. 12:23), expect God to hear appeals for our rights? Do we secretly believe that our long Christian history entitles us to some sort of preferential treatment? Perhaps in God’s good purposes we need to be oppressed in order to be revived (Hab. 3:2)? Popular Christian choruses sometimes pipe up enthusiastically about a ‘near revival’, but is this realistically imaginable? The answer is ‘Yes’, but not in the mode of power that many selfish Christians are seeking.

The Revival of Christ’s Presence

When Hillsong leader Brian Houston publically committed to the traditional view of marriage and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney put $1m into the ‘No’ campaign against SSM, it became patently clear that political causes have the power to unite historically polarised Christian traditions. But both contemporary Pentecostals and conservative Evangelicals have lost touch with the source of real power. They have drifted far from their roots in the great revival movements of previous centuries that transformed the character of Western Christianity. It is idiocy to imagine that the Lord would send revival through the organised Church whilst it has its own internal elites and clubs who exercise political power in a way that does not look like Christ crucified (Gal. 3:1). Institutionalised Christianity can never defeat institutionalised evil.

Jesus said to the politically savvy Pilate, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’, and went on to show the true character of the divine rule by death, resurrection and visiting people with the Spirit of uncontrollable repentance, joy and a radical change of lifestyle (John 18:36; Acts 2:37-47). The mass of comfortable middle class church leaders and their members do not really want to lose control of their life options. There may be, for instance, a market in peddling worldview programmes as a remedy to the spiritual decline of the West, but Jesus is not a set of mental images you can learn, cultivate and studiously apply. The power of the presence of the risen Christ cannot be contained in any wineskin, within or without Christianity. When we are broken enough to accept this and renounce any hope we have placed in politics, perhaps the Lord will visit us with his mercy (Luke 1:78).

Conclusion

When the Australian Christian Lobby recently called on the ‘standing army’ that had formed to oppose SSM to prepare for bigger battles ahead, they reinforced the feeling amongst many Christians that something must be done to save Australia. Political engagement however is not the kingdom priority our nation needs if there is to be any remedy for lawlessness in the land. We need the powerful presence of Jesus in his compassionate wisdom in all the culture-making spheres where ‘Christianity’ has been so soundly defeated (Eph. 3:10). This does include politics, as well as education, the arts and many other dimensions of culture. However a Church compromised by political and other powers will never experience the limitless power of God that can change the world. We need to return to seeking the Spirit power that took hold of our lawlessness and defeated it at the cross and went on to raise Jesus in perfect righteousness (Rom. 8:11; Heb. 9:14). Only by abiding in the life of Christ can there be any transformation of our cultures. This has happened before, and can happen again, but only if we humbly submit to the final reality about divine power: ‘If Christ is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all’. May God turn our hearts to Jesus before any other power.

John Yates is an ordained Anglican minister and chair of the Evangelical Alliance Foundation.


Comments

Andrew Kulikovsky
February 27, 2018, 1:14PM
Why does it have to be an either/or scenario? Why not seek both God's personal transforming power AND political action?

Why don't we follow William Wilberforce's example and do both?
john yates
February 27, 2018, 2:51PM
Hi Andrew, I think you will find the either/or dichotomy is not the message of the article. But people are generally not so holistic, in practice. John Yates
stuart lawrence
June 12, 2018, 7:25PM
Yes I agree. I thought it was sad that Margaret Court and Israel Falou did not just talk about their faith in God and tell about how they came to know about God in relationship and challenge people about this, rather then about gay marriage.

Likewise Fred Nile and others slander Muslims rather then pray that they come to know Jesus.

I talk about Jesus to Muslim Students at University of Sydney and about our religion of the book.

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