Christian Politics, rd 4: Takin’ on McLaren!

OK, let’s get back to it.  Christianity.  Politics.  What are we to do?  Does God care?

I have already made the suggestion in these posts that Jesus was radically political, but not in the way his disciples or enemies thought.  He came to announce the nearness of the kingdom of God, which would bring sight for the blind, health for the sick, freedom for the captives, and so on.  Everyone thought he’d do this by way of a military coup, but boy did he have everyone tricked.  His method would be just a little different … like, try the complete opposite.  He’d give himself willingly over to the authorities, take an unthinkable tongue-lashing and physical beating, and then take up his cross and carry it to a prolonged and excruciating death.  And then, three days later …

I’m also suggesting that Jesus’ political example was not simply one more cute thing the Son of God did that we can gloss over and chalk it up to the whole “being God” thing or to context or whatever — I think his political posture was quite intentional and intended as a precedent for his movement.

What is this movement?  A movement that actually joins the risen Lamb in his Luke 4 mission.  A movement that refuses to settle for a “gospel of sin management,” as writer Dallas Willard phrases it, where we set out to answer basically two main questions: “What do we do about original sin?” and “How do we go to Heaven after we die?”  Indeed, the mission of the church — and the gospel, even — are probably quite a bit more far-reaching than we ever imagined.

Brian McLaren photoThis brings me to some material I ran across on Brian McLaren’s blog.  McLaren, of course, writes lots of good books and speaks a lot.  His book titled The Secret Message of Jesus probably did more for my understanding of Christ as a radical, subversive, prophetic-yet-action-oriented man than probably any other work.  McLaren’s latest book, which I haven’t read, is titled Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.  Nice title!  As you can see, McLaren and I agree on the broad, far-reaching scope of Jesus’ work int he world.

Well, McLaren has been posting a series on why Christians should vote.  You can read them at the following links: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (more to come, I’m sure…)  While I still greatly value McLaren’s voice and scholarship, I must take issue with some of his points regarding the Christian’s political responsibility.  The post I take the most issue with is Part 1, where he explains why he feels Christians should vote, in 4 points.  (you should click on the link above and read the whole article if you have time)  I definitely think he gets most of the big theological stuff right, but I’m not sure his conclusions and calls to action mirror the meta-narrative he’s conveying. (I’ll put his writing in quotes and respond directly underneath)

1. True, there are plenty of reasons to be disillusioned with US politics (corptocracy and plutocracy being major ones). But in my travels in other countries it has become clear to me that even though our system has a lot of problems (and that was a gentle understatement), many other nations are far more corrupt, far less transparent, etc. If we in the US don’t try to make our system work, we’re setting a pretty poor example. Besides, in every other area of my life – church, family, business, etc. – I don’t let disappointment or disillusionment or setbacks make me withdraw into inaction. Rather, I become more committed to make things work.

Tony Campolo once said, “America may be the very best Babylon in the world, but it’s still Babylon.”  McLaren’s turning this statement around in an effort to justify participation in Babylon’s corrupt politics as a means to seek change.  Setting a pretty poor example?  Of what?  What’s a better example: A nation where every Christian votes, or a nation where every Christian lives like a Christian and takes care of the broken world around them?  To me, Christian participation in American politics as a primary means to see lasting change falls under Einstein’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.  Ask some of the original members of the Moral Majority how that worked out for them…

2. I don’t expect any candidate to be perfect. In fact, my theological beliefs tell me that I will always be choosing between the lesser of two evils – or more positively put, the better of two less-than-perfects. The fact that candidates are willing to endure the hard work, the media scrutiny, the pressure, the responsibility – of both the election and the office – can be seen a sign of something good. After all, if all a candidate cared about was personal peace, personal comfort, or personal wealth, there are a lot better ways to get ahead. So rather than say, “I don’t think either candidate is good enough for my vote,” I’m more prone to say, “Thank God that people are willing to run at all, and thank God that we have two candidates as good as the ones we have.” We could be choosing between Mugabe and Mugabe.

I think he’s settling here.  Is it God’s desire that his followers ever choose “a lesser evil”?  Isn’t this where the upside-down gospel breaks in and provides a “third way?”  OK, so I like the fact that Obama wants all Americans to have healthcare, but I also know that he will take our nation back into bloody war if need be, while continuing the trajectory of American empire-building.

Theologically, I’m not sure the continuation of McLaren’s argument flies.  Celebrities of all kinds — movie stars, musicians, artists, adult entertainers, etc — “endure the scrutiny, the pressure, the responsibility” of being in the limelight.  I don’t think Brian’s saying we should put just anyone who meets these criteria on a pedestal or play by their rules, is he?  And let’s not fool ourselves here with the motives of politicians … power, money and fame are enticing mistresses indeed. (God knew this all along, but the Israelites just had to have a king…)

3. I believe there is much to protest in our current system. But noninvolvement, it seems to me, generally empowers those who are in control. So non-voting becomes a kind of passive vote for the people in power.

OK, he really confuses me here, because passages he’s written in recent books have contradicted his sentiment above.  Since when is it the task of Christians or the church to prevent the people in power from having their power?  What’s more, doesn’t voting do the same thing he’s warning against here?  Both McCain and Obama are already powerful guys, and the guy who loses will have lots of power right along with the guy who wins.  My view is that putting one’s hope in this system where whoever raises the most money wins simply reinforces a worldly — not a Jesus-y — definition of power.  It says that in order to get X, Y, and Z done, we need to elect so-and-so, and basically accept all the awfulness that goes along with the process.  A) I don’t buy it that we need to have so-in-so in power to get X, Y, and Z done.  My Jesus has been working miracles in lives and communities since the beginning of time, and I think our biggest problem is that we simply haven’t trusted him enough. And B) We should mourn, not reinforce, the racket that is the election system.

4. I believe that a commitment to Christian discipleship should make me a better neighbor, employee, spouse, child, or parent too. Similarly, I believe that “citizenship in God’s kingdom” should make me the best kind of citizen possible, not the worst. Of course, because of my commitment to God’s kingdom, I have a broader range of concerns than I would without that commitment. (More on this in the next post.) But I believe that those concerns would in the big scheme of things make me an even more valuable citizen. My civic responsibility would certainly not end with voting, but I can’t wee why it would stop short of voting either.

OK, Brian, I’m with ya through most of the overarching points here here.  But I’m not sure “being the best kind of citizen possible” = playing by the political rules of our host empire.  Wouldn’t it be like Jesus to model a way of living that gives the powers and principalities of this world fits?  I strongly question the witness of a church that follows the “lamb who was slain,” takes the lowliest seat at the table, and becomes like a child, yet jumps headlong into a system that, by its very nature, embodies the opposite of these values.  And in the last sentence, he seems to imply that a vote is just a little part of being a citizen of this country, so why not bite the bullet and do it.  Because it’s a matter of principle!  How can a church whose commander-in-chief is a Lamb who was slain cast even one vote for a candidate who seeks change in a completely different way?

McLaren is such a trusted voice in the ongoing conversation about what it means to follow Christ in contemporary culture.  In no way am I denigrating him as a prophetic figure in the church.  (in fact, go ahead and check out this PowerPoint presentation he made at the Sojourner’s Pentecost event in D.C. recently … really good stuff)  I do, however, think he would approve of my jumping off some of his points to spur on a little healthy dialogue.  Also, I realize that some of what I’ve written above may sound a tad abrasive, especially to those who will most likely vote in November.  While I want us to have a free and open dialogue on the journey of being shaped into Christ’s image (and I want us to be shaped into Christ’s image as well!), I also want to recognize the diversity in the body, and the reality that really faithful believers have and will come to a different conclusion on the role of Christians in politics.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by thepriesthood on July 10, 2008 at 5:51 am

    ok, you’ve officially deconstructed McLaren. seriously, i tracked with everything you say here. right on. thanks for interacting with this post. his thoughts do seem to be out of line with some of his other directions as you pointed out. perhaps he’s in a new place along the journey. but i prefer your place in the journey on this issue.


  2. Posted by miller on July 10, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    so is there a situation in which you can see yourself voting… or are you saying that the only way for a true Jesus follower to participate is electoral non-participation?

    you’ve said that the office changes the man more than the man changes the office… can’t that be said of life in general? is it not possible that a man leaves the office a better than he entered it?

    is there any system of government in which you could participate? or are you suggesting that christians should never involve themselves in any form of government?

    i’m just trying to discover what the limits are here. some of these questions may sound assinine and perhaps they are… i’m just trying to find the edges of your argument.

    i mean Jesus followers are supposed to be good citizens. we are supposed to be a light in the darkness. does that ever include raising our voice in political ways? is it good form to use the vote for screaming at the top of our lungs “these people are crazy and the system for selecting them is flawed and we’re sick of it”?

    is it possible that these posts themselves involve you in a form of political intrigue? that you are in effect saying “this system of government should fail… this system of government is evil…”

    or are you saying something else? perhaps that you dislike the develpment of the political professionals?

    is it the system itself?

    or is it the men who are vying for the office that you can’t become involved with?

    it sounds as if it is the former…

    if that is true, is there any system of government you could participate in?

    great posts steve! keep ’em coming…


  3. Posted by Daniel Gray on July 10, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    “What’s a better example: A nation where every Christian votes, or a nation where every Christian lives like a Christian and takes care of the broken world around them? ”

    Do the two have to be mutually exclusive? I think we can do both. But if it makes you feel better, I’m voting, not as a Christian, but as a Democrat. If my Democratic beliefs happen to align with my spiritual ones, then I’m not gonna forgo action in one realm. 🙂


  4. Posted by Daniel Gray on July 10, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    And to respond to your actual question, yes, number 2 would be better, but neither is going to happen.


  5. Good thoughts.

    I like Brian’s theology and (most of) his politics. I even attend the church he helped found. But I think if you read between the lines, and remember what he has said before, he is really tying to get Christians who happen to have a liberal bias to vote, as a response to the large conservative evangelical voter turn out.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se. But I don’t think his argument works from a theological perspective. It’s entirely political.

    And sadly we are seeing unintentional mimicry of what he (and Jim Wallis and Tony Compolo etc) have decried about the Religious Right. Just as the Right might say ‘all good Christians should oppose gay marriage or be in support of school prayer’ the Religious Left is trumpeting ‘that all good Christians should buy into international carbon reduction or be opposed to the war in Iraq’.

    And I find that to be very disappointing.


  6. Posted by smhjr on July 10, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Priest – “deconstruct” sounds harsh. =) I’m just addressing point-by-point the problems I have with this line of thinking.

    Miller & Daniel – The edges are fuzzy, I’m afraid. Postmodern enough answer for ya? =) Shane addresses voting in the last chapter of JFP. He leaves the edges rather fuzzy as well, though it’s a fair assumption to say that he and Chris Haw won’t be voting in November. He does tell the stories of some rather subversive uses of Christians’ right to vote. One community that works primarily with immigrants and undocumented folks paired up, asked one of the immigrants who they wanted to vote for, and cast a vote on their behalf. Pretty clever.

    Another option is to write in the name of the candidate you feel best represents the values you hold dear, even if he or she is not on the ballot.

    I guess I’m mostly speaking to the masses of Christians who believe that they must choose between the final two candidates and those who place a great deal of importance in the system and therefore their vote.

    I’ll address some of your other questions in detail in future posts, but I will say that I absolutely believe that there are times for Christians to take political stands.

    Check out Mark VanSteenwyk’s fabulous post about not voting over at Jesus Manifesto. There’s a thoughtful counter-point column there as well that’s worth checking out.

    Mark VS’s final point is also mine:

    “In the end, however, I don’t want to known as that-guy-who-doesn’t-vote, but as that-guy-who-wants-the-church-to-embrace-her-birthright. Vote if you must, but please be a part of making the church an active people who confront the Powers and problems of this world head-on.”


  7. Posted by smhjr on July 10, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Christian –
    I agree with your analysis. I’ve seen political motives behind Wallis’ work for years. In fact, he’s considered formally coming out and endorsing one of the candidates (you can guess which one), despite his longtime and ardent insistence that Sojourner’s is non-partisan and simply critiquing both parties and the system in general. Like you, I am disappointed by this.


  8. Posted by miller on July 11, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    “The edges are fuzzy, I’m afraid”

    indeed they are!

    “Another option is to write in the name of the candidate you feel best represents the values you hold dear, even if he or she is not on the ballot.”

    or the candidate most likely to stir things up… may even be yosemite sam! i’d probably vote for him…

    “I absolutely believe that there are times for Christians to take political stands.”

    any examples???

    yeah, i love the idea of the church taking hold of it’s birthright! if it undermines the powers of this dark world…

    i’m pretty much for it!

    whether it means voting or not voting 🙂



  9. Posted by Daniel Gray on July 11, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    I definitely think every Christian should vote… but write in Jesus to object the system.


  10. That’s pretty much my point, Miller. I guess I’m targeting voting and political action because it’s an action that blinds the church from claiming its birthright.

    Daniel – I like that idea. It’s probably a more powerful witness than just not showing up. For instance, what if voter turnout was higher than ever … but Christian votes for actual candidates was at an all-time low?? What would cable news say about that?? =)

    I’m liking the prophetic imagination here…


  11. Posted by Daniel Gray on July 11, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    And what if every election, Jesus was represented by several percent of the election returns? That would speak something.

    I’d still be voting for my candidates, but that would be awesome for those Christians who have spiritual qualms about voting to express their write-in for Jesus.


  12. Posted by Chad on July 13, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Steve, this has been an interesting set of posts. I’m curious, though, about your statement that “voting and political action” are actions that “blind the church from claiming its birthright.”

    Could you unpack what you mean by this? I would have thought that it is the church’s condition of spiritual blindness that leads it to put too much confidence in ordinary political life, rather than the other way around. You seem to attribute a lot of agency to the process as the cause of our problem.


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