Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics

The world has seen the inauguration of an American president whose online supporting community proudly calls “the absolute madman”. The world has also seen, in the past decades, the same country engaging in vicious forms of capitalism that subjugate and exploit poorer countries’ workers, accompanied with more bombing and killing than any other country, terrorizing and decimating families across the globe. The world has seen this country’s public debate overtaken by questions of police violence, constant shootings and gun control, racial struggles, LGBTQ movements, feminism, privilege, and revolts against the acclaimed 1% richest of the world in times of economical unrest. With all this struggle, being “politically correct” became pejorative, and increasingly labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are tossed back and forth in a constant polarization. All of it with the USA as some sort of symbol for several other countries, with its liberal and conservative, left and right dichotomy being reflected back by them, with a rising tension everywhere between those who push for one side and the other: the stereotypical religious white fascist defending traditional family and good values, versus the colored women and queer socialists who attempt to claim their rights for choice and equality. All of it being led by smart educated people on both sides, who are followed by uneducated, unquestioning parroting masses unable to break the dichotomy, unable to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to agree with one point and disagree with another without defending indefensible party positions.

Amidst this global chaos, of which America is the eye of the storm, I see some Christians affirm each other by saying it is all going to be OK. That their citizenship is in heaven alone, so none of this is their business, they can sit back and mind their lives.

It makes me want to cuss, badly.

This is my favorite critique from Nietzsche: that people, unable to deal with the hardships of life, wanting to escape, find refuge in another world. Claiming to love God, they ultimately despise the real flesh-and-blood people in front of them.

Otherworldly Nihilism: to deem this world meaningless, and to justify one’s laziness and cowardice to deal with what is before them by saying everything will be fine in the next life/resurrection. I lived like this for most of my life, holding to the book of Ecclesiastes as my guide to life, and 1 Corinthians 15 as my afterlife hope that brings meaning to it. A meaningless life with a meaningful death. This, of course, neglects all the rest of the bible. It neglects the sharp political commentaries of all the prophets in the bible. It neglects the fact that Jesus rarely, if at all, spoke of the afterlife, but rather spoke of the Kingdom of God which has come here, to Earth. The Kingdom, better translated as Reign or Government of God, present in the community of his followers, was a political expression which led to Jesus’ death due to very political motives: accused of stirring an uprising against Rome, crucified publicly under the title “King of the Jews“, which was written in three languages so that everyone in the multi-ethnic city of Jerusalem would understand the message not to challenge the status quo of the age.

What is politics, and why should it matter to Christians?

Here is how I make sense of it: Politics is the science of the Polis, the Greek word for city (πολις). In the Greek world, cities were their own states, so we can say today that Politics is the science of the state. What does that mean? Imagine how it was in the beginning: living your whole life in tribal settlements, where everyone you know is of the same lineage, with the same traditions, myths, rules, customs. Then imagine that your group and another group, with different traditions, myths, rules, and customs, settle in the same area, and instead of fighting, you decide to live together. You choose peace instead of war, you choose to share the land. In order to have that peace, and to preserve it, you choose a system of government, a way to rule what can and cannot be done, in a way that both groups can live together without harming each other. Hopefully, your system will be just. The various groups living together formed the first cities, the first states. The constant discussions on how to make that system just and fair and good for everyone became the science we call politics.  Politics is the science of living together; the science of society, of peace, and of justice. In the past few centuries, governments became far more expansive than mere cities, so that states, today, cover vast pieces of land. Although there are municipal and provincial/estate governments with mayors and governors with their local politics, we also have governments for whole countries, and thus, federal politics. In other words, today those who live in Montreal share the same land and are under the same law, with the same rights and obligations, as those who live in Vancouver, across Canada, and those who live in New York share the land with those who live in San Francisco, across the US. People who share land should learn to live together and be able to discuss peacefully about what is best for everyone. That is politics.

In the past, the areas outside the Greek city-states were, in a way, no-man’s land. If you were a rural peasant, you did not have any rights or obligations that someone from a city would. That is the scenario where Christianity grew, the scenario in which the Apostle Paul told the Phillipians that their citizenship is in Heaven (giving them rights and obligations that transcend those of Phillipi, and making them see the Christians in other cities as those with whom they had to discuss “how to live together”). In his letter to the Romans, however, Paul reflects very clearly the teachings of Jesus by telling them to “live in harmony with everyone”, “live at peace with everyone”, and “do what is right in the eyes of everyone” (Romans 12). In modern terms, I would argue Paul told the Roman Church to be politically correct: to be careful that their words and actions do not offend anyone, that all may live well together. That reflects the Christian spirit of humility and self-abnegation in favor of the other.

To say that Paul defended Christian exclusion from politics is a lie. Reading about his life in the book of Acts clearly shows that Paul knew how to navigate the political game, speaking with consuls and religious leaders and kings and even the emperor himself, making use of his Jewish status as much as his Roman citizenship (an immense privilege at the time, through which he brought Christianity to Rome and changed the world). If we are to defend Christian exclusion from politics, we should try to live like the Quaker communities and their parallel societies, or establish a religious state like the Vatican. But as long as we share society with others, as long as we pay taxes to the same government, serve under the same army, receive the same education, have the same rights and the same duties, we are living a political life, and we cannot pretend otherwise without being unjust to all those who took and still take political life serious enough to have fought for the very rights we make use of today.

Do you live in a democracy? That was only possible through a political movement. Do you have education? Politics. Do you have healthcare? Politics. Do you have police to protect you? Politics. Do you have freedom of speech? Politics. Do you earn a minimum wage and have worker rights and are not whipped and forced to work 16h every day? Politics. Do you have vacation? Politics. Are you a woman able to work and speak in public? Politics. Do you enjoy an economic system that enables you to trade and own stuff that you like? Politics. Are you able to settle disputes under the law? Politics. Are you black and able to use the same public spaces as whites? Politics. Are you gay and able to get the same civil rights as heterosexual people? Politics. And so on. Every freedom you enjoy in society was achieved by society doing politics. Every interaction with another human being is political. As Aristotle wrote, man is a political animal. Most of these things I listed was not started by “politicians”, but by lay men and women who spoke out loud and organized themselves to protest, debate, dialogue and educate.

So what now?

The only stateless regions of the globe today are international seas, and even they are under international law. I believe the natural realization after globalization, the advent of fast travel, and light-speed communication, is that our “shared land” today is not Canada or America or any nation, but the planet Earth.  Politics have, since the two world wars, come to a global level. The internet, specially, has interwoven the political consciousness of people across the globe, such that now we wonder what is our duty as North Americans in a world overtaken by conflict. Such conflicts that do not leave us untouched: the refugee “crisis” is a very good example of this. Our use of iPhones here affects the $1/day workers in the third world, our coffee may come from slave workers in Africa and Central America, our waste and pollution might lead to ecological collapse in the future generations. We cannot pretend politics only affect our local neighborhood. Today’s world is a world where isolation and nationalism simply don’t make sense anymore, despite BREXIT, Trump, and other reactionary movements which are natural backlash to social progress.

Two thousand years ago, Christianity already claimed how the new Kingdom of God, under Christ, with its radical political message of liberating the oppressed, of the Lord God Almighty standing on the side of the poor, of serving and healing one’s enemies and putting down one’s sword, would climax and continue on with every nation, tribe, and tongue, standing together before God. The Kingdom of God is not “One nation under God“, but rather, “Every nation under God“. I am not sure we will all call God by the same name or tell the same stories about him, but we will all live under the same kingdom: the same government, the same rule, same rights and duties. What are these rights and rules? Jesus introduced them in his radical message, the Sermon of the Mount (or of the Plane, on Luke’s version). Do you live under that government, today?

Isaiah prophesied about the Kingdom of God five centuries before Christ, calling the religious people of his time away from their political apathy: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58) Restorer of streets, that is a 2500 years old definition of urban ministries.

Does this actually relate to real politics?

Yes. When a black mother from poor areas of the city protests against police violence and against what they call systemic oppression, it is your duty, as a Christian, to hear the cries of the oppressed, and be like the God you claim to love. It is not your place to attempt to silence her and say she is unreasonable, defending her oppressor, without, at least, trying to understand her, trying to empathize with her, trying to listen to what she has to say. God Almighty went through incarnation and death to empathize with you, but you don’t even try to listen to your neighbor? Maybe she’s not expressing herself the way you would like, maybe you don’t like her raising her voice as she tries to be heard, but does your answer communicate a willingness to listen (by, let’s say, letting her talk and asking questions for clarification), or do they communicate superiority and pride, saying you will only listen when she, or they, speak the way you like it?

When a homosexual or queer person says ze feels excluded and prejudiced, do you try to empathize and listen like God Almighty did to Ishmael in the desert, or to Hannah when the priest thought she was drunk? (Genesis 21:8-21, 1 Samuel 1.) Or do you point fingers and try to list why you think they are wrong before they speak?

When people leave their families and life behind to come to your country, escaping from war, famine, persecution, do you welcome them, being one of Jesus’ sheep, or do you reject them, being one of his goats?  (Matthew 25:31–46)

Are you willing to do like the church in Acts and share your property to help the orphans and widows, or do you think they should just get a job? (Acts 4:32-37, 6:1-6)

When women mobilize to underline systems of oppression like Rape Culture, when they speak of the systemic problems that lead to abortion and how its prohibition harms many women’s lives, are you willing to listen and try to empathize, or will you lay a yoke from your religious law over them without lifting a finger to help? (Luke 11:37-54)

When people from other religions say they love and like Jesus will you let them speak and discuss with them how Jesus’ message may affect their understanding of God and neighbor? Will you hear how their understanding of God may affect your understanding of Jesus? Do you build bridges and strive for reconciliation between humans and God? Or do build walls, highlighting differences and not letting them speak because you already decided they are wrong since what you heard about them contradicts your own theological systems?

Will you stay silent in light of everything happening around you and egoistically disobey Christ holding on to a false hope of heaven, unwilling to try to listen to your neighbor so that you might love him, unwilling to empathize with them like Christ did to you? (Hebrews 4:15).  Will you boast of your right to believe and right to speak, while neglecting your neighbor who has the same rights?

Or will you dare to listen to the cry of the oppressed, and to speak on behalf of them when you have a public voice that they do not have, even on public debates, regardless of whether or not your religious leaders and the state will attempt to crucify you?

Will you lay your rights and privileges down, deeming even equality with God as something not to be grasped, to be with the poor and to wash your enemies’ feet?  Will you obey God and Christ even unto death? (Phillipians 2:5-8).

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29

“Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2

 

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