Discernment / Pluralistic World

Faithfulness in Political Uncertainty

Great forces have been unleashed politically, and the ripples set in motion are washing over our world. The 2016 American presidential election revealed that our media and political elite were not listening to their fellow citizens, or they would have noticed as the ripples turned into a wave that took them by surprise. This will push the metaphor to absurd lengths but the church seems to have been surprised too, with some Christians eagerly riding the wave while others, in appalled disbelief, were bowled over by it.

So, what do we do now?

The path that brought us to this point is easy to see in retrospect. Over a period of years economic uncertainty has grown, as contrasting statistics are used to argue for contrary policies while opportunity and jobs seem in flux on a global scale. Dreams have been shattered, communities decimated and a divide between rural and urban centers has grown. Beyond our borders vast migrations are on the move, with people fleeing war, famine and oppression, warehoused in sprawling camps, disrupting the societies they enter, and calling into the question the ideals and priorities that inform American policy. Wars drag on with no apparent end in sight, tension erupts between nations, and shadowy networks promoting brutality flourish, spawning fear that conflicts that seem to have nothing to do with us can and will suddenly sponsor attacks in the homeland. People are not talking to one another and leaders are not serving the common good.

Such things do not exist lightly on the edge of our consciousness as a society, but instead worm their way into our social imaginary—into how we imagine life and reality before we begin to think it through. They poison our sense of confidence, decrease our sense of security and increase our feeling of unrest.

Periods of uncertainty tend to produce visions of apocalypse, dystopia and disorder, and the storytelling arts of our modern world are crowded with them. The Walking Dead is not merely entertainment that panders to a taste for violence; it is rather an exploration of what it means to be human in a world where certainties have disappeared.

Periods of uncertainty cause a fearful citizenry to circle the wagons, to use an image from a different era. Authoritarian measures, calls for law and order and a tendency to see others different from oneself as the problem proliferate and grow more insistent. The desire for safety and security and a restoration of certainty makes people willing to give up hard won freedoms that otherwise are seen as sacrosanct, fragile and worth preserving.

The ancient psalmist’s call can seem a bit sentimental in a time like ours.

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
(Psalm 33:1-3)

Those whose candidates won merely feel optimistic while those who lost don’t respond well to being told they should shout for joy.

It’s natural to wonder how we should live as Christians in such a setting. There are a myriad answers being proposed, in books and articles, over coffee and in discussion groups. From what I’ve heard, they often contradict one another, some have proof texts attached, and in the end most of them leave me unimpressed. That doesn’t signify much, except that it suggests the church is unprepared for this moment of history, which should not be the case.

There is no single, definitive answer or formula of faithfulness in a time of political uncertainty that we can derive from scripture. What we are given instead are foundational truths, convictions rooted in God’s revelation we believe are reliable because they speak to the nature of life and reality as we truly find it in a broken world. So, we can reflect prayerfully and creatively on those ideas and values, seeking to find imaginative ways to flesh them out in the ordinary and routine of daily life.

The best summary I can think of for the people of God living as a minority in a pluralistic, hostile culture is found in the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-11). It involves five straightforward yet penetrating proposals for living:

We are called to be here, now (29:4)
Our focus is to be faithful in ordinary things (29:5-6)
Our goal is to help our city/culture flourish (29:7)
We will need to be discerning (29:8-9)
God’s people are people of hope (29:10-11)

So I’ll base my reflections on what Christian faithfulness looks like in a time of social, political and economic uncertainty on these five concepts. Consider my reflections not as an attempt to produce a final, exhaustive answer but as a pointer, an attempt to stimulate discussion and exploration by a fellow pilgrim along the path we take together as we follow our Lord into the world.

We are called to be here, now
This is very reassuring. Our neighbors may be anxious and fearful but we need not be. We aren’t here by chance, but by God’s call and the very safest place to be is where God wants us. Things have not spiraled out of control, even though we may have no idea why the God of history would allow events to unfold as they are. Even the fact we aren’t sure how to be faithful is not a disaster, but an opportunity to walk by faith. We can trust that God will direct us because he has promised never to abandon us. We can maintain a sense of humor as we stumble along in grace, confident that if God could use Balaam’s ass (see Numbers 22) he can probably use the likes of us.

And since we are called to live here, now, we can use a bit of common sense. Here’s one example: Ours is not just a time of political uncertainty but of wars, terrorism, refugees, hunger, and unrest. And it is a time when news, images and updates of all the brokenness of the world echoes around us relentlessly, streaming continuously into our devices and into our awareness. Only God is capable of comprehending the full brokenness of the world without sliding into cynicism or despair. We finite creatures are unable to bear the weight of sin’s destructiveness without ill effect. We feel the pressure to stay informed but the sheer weight and horror of the information becomes corrosive to our souls. Since I can do nothing about the vast majority of the news, do I really need to take on such an unnecessary burden?

Our focus is to be faithful in ordinary things
It matters to me who occupies the White House. It matters to me how America treats refugees, how we resolve the issues of immigration and health care, how we balance the need for security with the need to maintain freedom, and whether we will take meaningful steps to bring reconciliation to the racial tension that tears at the fabric of our society. These things matter to me. But truth be told, my ordinary was pretty much the same the day after the election as it was the day before.

It’s true that when political change occurs that is as sweeping as that represented by the 2016 election it’s a good time to pause and consider whether my political stewardship should be adjusted. Perhaps I will need to write my representatives on certain issues, or give some funds to some cause, or alter my level of involvement in the political sphere. Perhaps.

But wait, someone might say, won’t we be held responsible for the choices we make in a democratic society? Isn’t this a major difference between our situation and that of Daniel and his friends in Babylon? The answers are obvious: Yes and Yes—yes we are accountable to our Lord for our political stewardship and yes, we live in a democracy and the Jewish exiles living under King Nebuchadnezzar did not.

The correct answers are obvious, that is, except that these questions usually come with unspoken assumptions attached. If you mean that my involvement in the political sphere of life is a matter of obedience to Christ’s Lordship, I agree. If you mean that my political involvement must reach a certain level of activism you deem acceptable, I disagree. I think it is wonderful that some believers are called to be active in the political sphere of life. I bless them for their involvement, pray they might be wise and prudent, and hope that God’s glory and the common good might increase as a result. The problem with activists, however, is that they want all of us to be more involved in their cause. I get it—they are passionate, their cause is good and righteous, and if more of us did more, then much more would get done. That is all true, but also rather irrelevant. In my ordinary, politics makes up a very small slice of life. I want to be faithful in it, and am happy to learn from you how to be more effective, but it is not central to my calling, and it would be disobedience on my part to make it so.

Bono put it well: “I’m a musician. I write songs. I just hope when the day is done I’ve been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness.” I’m a writer. So, my ordinary consists of ordering my life so I have uninterrupted time to write, to do research, read and study, and to have extended periods of quiet because my imagination shrivels without it. My ordinary doesn’t seem like much, and certainly doesn’t seem to be a formula for transforming the world. But it is my ordinary, and I am content to be faithful in it, believing that as you are faithful in yours our faithfulness might add up in our Lord’s gracious economy, to be more than the sum of the parts.

I cannot change the world; I cannot even cause my neighbor to vote correctly or to be less fearful. I can only be faithful, and trust that God will use it. I believe we are called to nothing else. So, let’s do it with contentment, and do it well.

Our goal is to help our city/culture flourish
Even if I don’t like what my nation is like I am called to serve my neighbor for the common good. Daniel and the other Jewish exiles were not to withdraw into a ghetto in Babylon but to be involved in Babylon’s culture and to seek its good. So, we should try to figure out, given who and where we are, how might we do the same for our city, culture and world.

Getting together with trusted friends to brainstorm the possibilities can be good. And occasionally people make suggestions that we can reflect on to see if anything might apply to us.

Here’s an example: after losing the election to Donald Trump, independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin Tweeted ten things Americans should do “if Trump governs as an authoritarian like he has promised.” Here is McMullin’s list:

1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.

2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.

3. Watch every word, decision and action of Trump and his administration extremely closely, like we have never done before in America.

4. Be very vocal in every forum available to us when we observe Trump’s violations of our rights and our democracy. Write, speak, act.

5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.

6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.

7. Defend others who may be threatened by Trump even if they don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.

8. Organize online and in person with other Americans who understand the danger Trump poses and who are also willing to speak up.

9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.

10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

Depending on your political and theological convictions you will doubtless agree with some of McMullin’s suggestions and disagree with others. That’s fine, and central to the process of being discerning. Still, begin with this list—and find others—and figure out what it might look like for you to intentionally seek the good of the city, culture and world in which you are called by God to live. And of course this list is primarily about political stewardship under President Trump—while our concern must touch on all of life and culture within our ordinary.

We will need to be discerning
Being discerning isn’t merely a task we perform occasionally but a way of life, of interacting with others. We can be safe places of warm hospitality with people across various political, religious and ethnic divides to whom we can give the gift of listening and asking questions. Unhurried conversation is a precious thing, and too rarely experienced.

And if we are convinced our political leaders are unqualified and promoting wrong policies, we will need to be discerning in how we speak and act in response. For one thing, we will need to be civil even when those around us fail to speak and act with civility. For another, the scriptures instruct God’s people to speak of their leaders with care.

“You shall not revile God,” Israel was told in Exodus 22:28, “nor curse a ruler of your people.” Eugene Peterson in The Message translates it this way: “Don’t curse God; and don’t damn your leaders.” In the New Testament St Paul refers to this text when he appears before the Jewish Council. Paul is speaking, Ananias disapproves of what he says and commands a guard to slap Paul in the face. “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” Paul retorts. “Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3-4). When Paul is told he has just addressed the high priest, he immediately apologizes and quotes the Exodus text as the reason. And in case we wonder if the command applies only in a theocratic setting, St Paul extends the principle to Christians living under the rule of the Roman Empire (Romans 13:1-7). And St Peter, writing specifically to believers living in a society that is hostile to their faith tells them: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).

Does this apply to unjust rulers? Absolutely: consider the emperor who was in power when Peter wrote his epistle. Some texts of scripture are notoriously difficult to interpret but this one doesn’t fall in that category.

We need not demean an official to stand for and to speak out for what is right. In this we can learn from the dissidents that resisted Communist tyranny. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union and Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia both were trenchant critics of their Marxist governments without needing to speak dismissively of specific rulers. I am not claiming they never did so, since I am not a scholar of their work. But I read both extensively during the Sixties and Seventies and what I remember is not the sarcastic denigration of specific officials but forceful arguments for the rule of law and freedom rooted in the permanent principles of human dignity, responsibility and justice. Such arguments essentially diminished unjust rulers not by calling them names or by appending negative adjectives but by appealing to truths so great that any who ignored or repressed them were petty in comparison.

God’s people are people of hope
The Hebrew poet who calls us to joy and gratitude is not being sentimental, purposely ignoring the brokenness of things in order to be happy. Rather, the brokenness can be endured because it is not the final word in the story. The Creator has not stepped away from his creation nor abandoned it and to realize who he is brings overwhelming awe at his greatness, power and glory (Psalm 33:8-9). This means that current events, with all the ups and downs, need not define our response or shape the music of our hearts. There is something far greater than all this, and when our souls are centered on it, the fluctuations of current events remain meaningful without taking center stage.

The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
the plans of his heart to all generations…
The king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Is the correct person in the Oval Office? Remember that no president can save us from the brokenness and that the Lord still reigns. Is the wrong person there? Remember that God can frustrate foolishness and that the Lord still reigns.

Sometimes a friend asks whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future. I don’t see how a Christian can be either. I can see things that could make me feel optimistic, and other things that could make me feel pessimistic, but those are just passing fancies based on what are ultimately fleeting events. I need something secure and stable at the root of things—and even then my emotions can be more unruly than I prefer. Besides, our optimism is often frustrated and our pessimism is often proved wrong. The primary metaphor underlying of our social imaginary, the essential foundation on which our heart rests is something we can nurture consciously. Is the reality of God’s promise like a shadow or a rock to me, a mist or a fortress?

Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you
(Psalm 33:20-22)

What I meditate on, and steep my consciousness in can transform my doing, thinking and being, and the promise of the gospel is that God has not withdrawn from me.

It might be wise to resurrect a biblical greeting that was used when God’s people faced uncertain times—“Be of good courage.” The story goes like this:

For three generations the people of Israel had been a nomadic tribe freely wandering the hills and land of ancient Palestine. Abraham had been the first, the patriarch who was followed by his son, Isaac and in turn by his son, Jacob and his family of twelve sons. Then famine swept through the land, as sometimes happens in a dry place dependent on seasonal rains. Harvests failed and the sprawling pasture the Israelites depended on for their flocks dried up. Word was that there was food in Egypt so Isaac sent his sons there to purchase supplies, and in a series of events that need to be read to be believed the Israelites ended up moving to Egypt as refugees fleeing famine. At first things went relatively smoothly but then political change in Egypt transformed attitudes. The Egyptians feared there were too many Israelites in their land, and that in time of crisis they could not be counted on to remain loyal. So they changed the marketplace, and enslaved the Israelites in a system from which there was no escape. The Israelites prayed, but God was silent.

If you have read the Bible you know the story, how that at long last an improbable man named Moses was used of God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. They wandered first east and then north up into Palestine until they reached a wilderness area, Paran, famous for the caverns that pocket it’s hills (known as Badiet et-Tih today). At God’s command Moses sent spies into Canaan to search out the land they expected to become their own. The task was not without risk, of course, since the Canaanites had zero interest in giving up their land to the newcomers.

So, when Moses sent out the spies he had a special word for them: “Be of good courage,” he told them (Numbers 13:20). Later, after the Israelites are settled in the land war breaks out, and Israel’s army becomes trapped between two enemy armies, the Ammonites and the Syrians. The Israelite commander tells his officers of his plan for the battle, and recognizing the danger they face tells his men, “Be of good courage” (2 Samuel 10:12). Centuries later the exilic prophet Daniel is visited by a spiritual being so grand that he falls to the ground, trembling before such overwhelming glory. “‘O man greatly loved,’” Daniel was told, “‘fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage. And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, ‘Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me’ (Daniel 10:19-20). And the phrase appears again, repeated twice in a letter written by St Paul. He is talking about the transience of life, the frailty of our bodies so broken in this fallen world, and the yearning we feel for something more permanent and settled and certain. “So we are always of good courage,” the apostle says. Right now we walk by faith, not seeing the One we serve and looking forward to the day when our Lord’s kingdom is fully consummated. “Yes, we are of good courage,” Paul says, and in this in-between time when Christ’s kingdom is established but not yet fulfilled “we make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).

Be of good courage. I suggest this should become a blessing we say to one another as we end conversations. Be of good courage. Life may be uncertain, our neighbors may be afraid, and we may be disappointed by all that is unfolding but these things, though significant, are not the ultimate realities. The tomb remains empty, God’s promises remain certain, and Christ remains King. These are the ultimate realities we face; they have not changed nor will they. So, be of good courage. If our imaginations are so pummeled by news and rants of uncertainty and fearfulness that our hearts fail within us, we can choose to spend more time embracing reality than focusing on the transient and trifling affairs of a world gone astray.

A lot more could be said, of course, but remember this is meant to be a pointer to stimulate thinking and discussion, not a final answer. Take it from here. And whatever the details, be of good courage.


Evan McMullin tweets @Evan_McMullin.