The saying, politics makes strange bedfellows, should be a serious reminder for Christians, now that we are nearing national election time.
Once inside the realm of politics, Christians will suddenly realize that they are now shoulder to shoulder with people or groups that they never imagined they would be allied with, or even be near to.
This is a reality of politics. It is daunting and many cannot stomach it. Add to that the dirty politics, and most Christians will just opt out, defying their call to be in the world but not of the world. It is not because for the first time politics has become bad nor that suddenly the rules were changed and Christians were not notified in advance. Politics has always been like that, ever since.
Jesus faced it every day when dealing with the ruling Jewish elite and the Roman leaders. Jesus came into a church or religion and a world so fully saturated with politics. There were four factions vying for control if not influence, within the society that Jesus landed into. The most famous were the zealots. The Pharisees of course were at the center. But each step was for Jesus a land mine and he needed to traverse the intricate pathway skillfully although sometimes, he would use those opposing forces to his advantage – pit the Sadducees against the Pharisees on reincarnation and about whose wife will a widow be when they are all finally in heaven.
The Jews in general interpreted all that Jesus said always towards political liberation from Roman rule. Then there were the Temple vanguards, and of course we all remember that Herod was not even a Jew nor the temple that he built a Jewish institution.
Sidestepping the cow dung on the road of politics becomes a required art obviously for a budding Messiah as much as the ordinary Christians of today. In our day, politics may actually be simpler because of the separation of church and state. This is the main issue in the Middle East today. The core of the problem is the controversy between a secularized or a sectarian state, either to make the government Islam enforcing Shariah law or not.
We are in a sense more fortunate that politics has not become so embroiled. And yet, as simple as it might look, politics will always be in reality more difficult and complex. Within the church for example, the pulpit cannot be use for political purposes. Within the church also, we must accept that brothers and sisters can differ on their choice of candidate, we can disagree without being disagreeable. It is part of democracy to have a choice of one’s own candidate and also a sign of maturity that we are able to accept those different from us or those who hold a different view from us.
Church also becomes enriched when we have such pluralism and diversity. Bonhoeffer warned that if in church we are all the same, believe the same thing, and voted for the same politician, then we may soon become a cult.
Politics is always about issues and never about absolutes. A good example of this is American foreign policy. Filipinos will one day wake up to the sad realization that America is not their friend and America won’t come to her aid in a fight with China. The rule to apply here is that there are no permanent friends, there are only permanent interests (meaning, as long as it is in the interest of America to protect us, then they will, not because we are America’s friend or ally). Friends will change but our interests will always remain the same. Moreover, there is such a continuing flux in political alignment, especially in the Philippines which operates mostly by personality rather than platform.
Christians are called to be in politics in order to make Christ Lord of all. It does not mean though that Christian or biblical principles will be institutionalized in government or in law, making the state a religious or sectarian state.
Christians need to learn to distill the universal principles of Christianity and the Bible and use those in politics. Of course, Christians have no monopoly of such universal principles or truths and running a good government may not always be the Christians’ forte. It might surprise many Christians that there are many so-called non-Christians who have a better grasp of such universal principles and truths and may have better skills and abilities in operationalizing them than the Christians do.
These universal principles cover such things as truth, justice, compassion, sustainability, inclusivity, fairness, equality, honor, respect, dignity, as well as, physical truths such as inflation, supply and demand, monopoly, health, technology, internet, etc. What this means for many Christians is a long learning curb, a good attitude, patience, humility and of course, openness and broad-mindedness. We have to realize that we are infants, immature in politics and we need to learn, we need to grow up or else our Christianity will remain irrelevant and superficial.
If the mudslinging in the campaign is going to discourage us, how much more will bureaucracy and wheeling-and-dealing in politics. As the bible says, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan? Jeremiah 12.5.
The call the Church is to learn what it means to be in the world but not of the world. I think this was the hardest thing for the Jews to learn, and when they failed, they went into the extreme of avoiding the world, avoiding contamination. They were so obsessed with avoiding contamination that when Jesus told them they were to be salt of the earth, it actually felt like Jesus was telling them to get dirty.
We should beware Christians who talk about politics as though it was a dirty word, we should also avoid Christians who are irrelevant to the world. The don’t touch and don’t get dirty policies of the church is what will prevent us from becoming salt and light to the world.
There is the danger of getting contaminated which is why Jesus said we are already clean by the Word He has spoken to us. The key is found there in that chapter (John 15). We need to become fruitful, which means being IN the world and making an impact (we are not fruitful by becoming pious). We can continue to do so by being attached to the vine, by being connected to Jesus constantly. It is that connection that allows us to be in the world and that allows us to have an impact.
The worse mistake is to become detached from the world. To be salt means we can make the world a more humane place to live, to help the weak and the poor, to reduce greed and materialism, to legislate law and order, to instill fairness and equality. It does not mean that when we impact the world around us that that the world necessarily becomes Christian. In an imperfect world, the best impact we can have is to make the world a better place, a safer place, and a kinder place to live.
I think the best impact of Christianity on the world throughout history has been in the area of government (instilling the rule of law and not of men, because even the kings in the Old Testament were under the Law), medicine (vaccination and eradication of epidemics because the Bible is concerned about health), and science (most of the first world scientist had two bibles, a written one and an unwritten one – creation itself. Because they knew that the Author of Creation was a rational and logical person, then the laws of nature also obeyed or followed rational or logical patterns, which made it possible for scientists to plot the course of a rocket to the moon to land in the exact spot that they targeted). Also, Christianity has since the beginning promoted the equal status of women, the humane treatment of slaves, the proper care of the environment, and the made possible the foundation of the Miranda doctrine.
If we give up now, if we don’t desire to learn to be adept in politics, if we opt for the safer path, then our gospel will become dull, docile and irrelevant. If we persevere, then the gospel could impact politics and law to bring more light to our dark world.
A good epilogue would be to remind all Christians that heaven is actually not a place, nor a destination. We will not go to heaven when we die. We should not be so concerned about leaving the planet earth that we become so heavenly minded and of no earthly good. Remember that in creation, the core of the whole process was a physical world, a physical body. God made Adam and Eve as embodied beings. God desired the physical realm that is why he created the world and us. Jesus also came that way, he clothed himself with humanness because he also desired that physicality and wanted to save that physical realm. When the whole thing ends, it is not us that will finally go to heaven but God who will come down to earth to dwell among us. The new heaven and the new earth like the glorified body, must always be construed in the same level and perspective as the original creation – physical.
Because of the Greek influence on Christianity (the enemy of the first century church was gnoticism), heaven became a place. The Greeks saw it as a place where the gods dwelt. That is why many Christians don’t care about the planet earth. They just want to save souls and let the earth burn.
The Hebrews did not have that mindset. Heaven for them was the supreme place, the highest authority, not a place, but a dimension of power, like the Supreme Court which is located on Taft Avenue, near us and among us and in our midst, but higher and supreme.
To be so heavenly minded we have become of no earthly good is a sad ending for Christians. We need to see the physicality of life as the core of creation. It is not just physical, and politics is in that sense part of that physicality, for it touches on our human existence. When we pray, heavenly Father, or Father who art in heaven, we are simply saying He lives in Taft Avenue.