By Andy Kachel
Christianity is not a political ideology. It does not fit neatly within the confines of governance. One of the most overlooked verses in the Bible supports this idea. Hebrews 11:15-16 makes a striking statement about Christian faith:
If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
This passage comes after the author of Hebrews provides a long list of people “who lived by faith.” Within their lifetimes they did not receive the promise of Christ, but were waiting for it by faith. What stands out about the passage is the mention of “shame.” Had these followers of God considered themselves citizens of Pharaoh, to use the Israelites and Moses as an example, instead of citizens of heaven, God would have been ashamed.
What does this mean for American Christians when politics is so interconnected with religion?
Not all theologians see Christianity as compatible with the State. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
Christianity has not and does not profess to have a detailed political programme for applying ‘Do as you would be done by’ [Matthew 7:12] to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times and the particular programme which suited one place or time would not suit another.1
Most people look to religious institutions in much the same way they look to their political party for societal change. “If this societal issue is resolved by my party being in power,” a politically-minded person might think, “then the world will be a better place.” Making the world a better place is good, but political ideologies are human constructs that are easily corruptible, as are the people who embody them, both Republican and Democrat.
Christianity is, as C.S. Lewis says, “for all people at all times.” When Christianity is embedded within a political ideology, the group who supports the opposing ideology is automatically excluded. Jesus did not hang on the cross and ask the thief hanging next to him, “Today you will be with me in—are you a Democrat?”
This does not mean C.S. Lewis or others cannot imagine a Christian society, or strive for one. Lewis even writes of his imagined Christian society in Mere Christianity:
There are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one’s work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them.2
He goes on to say that everyone would respect one another and it would be a “cheerful society” with singing. While Lewis’s Christian society would be one of hard work, no consumerism, and merriment, it could not possibly include everyone. What would happen to the disabled who cannot work? What about the clinically depressed who don’t feel like singing? Lewis was not being very serious in his imagining, but if implemented, his Christian society would not be “for all people at all times.”
How then can Christians impact the world, not as a Republican or Democrat, but as kingdom citizens? Buddhism might be an unlikely place to start looking, but within their “Nine Prayers” is an utterance that closely mirrors the mindset of Hebrews 11:15-16. They pray, “May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.”3 As kingdom citizens, we should not be attached to the political ideologies of this world, but we should be active. We should vote. We should be involved in our communities. But we should do these things as Christians first and Americans second. We should approach the world much the same way a foreigner might approach a city they are visiting for a short time. To quote Moses in Exodus 2:22, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”
There must be no obstacles then for anyone who wants to be part of a church. Whether a person is an illegal immigrant or of an opposing viewpoint, all are welcome at the communion table. To use the book of Philemon as an example, just because the topic is a slave’s reconciliation to his owner does not mean slavery is okay. Due to the past work of abolitionists, slavery has been abolished. Did Christianity survive in societies with slavery? Unfortunately, yes. Does Christianity do better for itself in a society where all people are treated equally? A resounding yes! We have progressed as a religion in this regard, and society has changed for the better. Likewise, modern issues must not divide us, but they must be earnestly discussed at church so all people have equal access to Christ. We must denounce the views of those who want to create obstacles for others in accessing Christ. However, the spiritually mature among us must still invite the “troublesome” brother or sister to our gatherings, and pray that their hard hearts be softened.
1 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. London: HarperCollins Publ., 2001.
3 Merton, Thomas, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Contemplative Prayer. New York, NY: Image, 2014.