Judging by what one sees in the media, Americans seem to be at war with one another. Political violence seems to be a rising problem. We are not yet witnessing the sorts of bombings and mass protests that marked the late 1960s and early 1970s in the USA but we have had politically motivated shootings and now apparently politically motivated threats of bombings. To be sure, away from social media and the mass media, the world is rather different than it appears on our screens. There are many places where people still talk to one another about their differences, where people who disagree over politics and culture are still able to cooperate in their communities. Nevertheless, it is difficult to escape the sense that Americans are being divided into tribes and set at each other. The race for the highest number of eyeballs and clicks means broadcast discussions turn into WWF events.
Christians ought to be concerned about this turn. We ought to be thinking about how we relate to such tribalism, to heated political rhetoric, and even to political violence. What, if anything, does the Scripture say about these sorts of things?
It does say something. First, it sets priorities on our loyalties. Writing to a Roman colony, where he had planted a church, the Apostle Paul reminds the congregation that however proud they were of their Roman citizenship, their first loyalty is to a transcendent heavenly kingdom that is not represented by any political order in this world. Paul wrote, “for our citizenship (πολίτευμα) is in heaven, and thence we await the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20). Paul was echoing the words of our Lord to Pontius Pilate, who had asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). He wanted to know if Jesus was seeking to establish a rival political entity to the Roman control of Judea. Our Lord answered him unequivocally: “My kingdom (βασιλεία) is not of this world. Were my kingdom of this world my servants would have been fighting in order that I should not be delivered to the Jews but my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus could not have been any clearer. He came not to set up an earthly temple nor to set up a political kingdom. He came to announce the advent of a transcendent, heavenly Kingdom, which he embodied but which is entered only by the favor of its heavenly King, by the mysterious work of the Spirit (John ch. 3) through faith alone. This heavenly kingdom, manifested on earth in the visible church, in the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the holy sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and in the use of church discipline (the “keys of the kingdom” in Matt chapters 16 and 18) is not a matter of ethnicity, wealth, or social privilege. It accepts the unlikely and rejects those who think that they deserve to enter because of deeds or earthly status.
This is not to say that Christians do not also live in and serve and represent that heavenly kingdom in their daily life. They most certainly do. To express that dual reality of the kingdom, the great Reformed theologian John Calvin (1509–64) spoke of a “twofold government” (Duplex Regimen) in the world, sacred and secular. In our daily, secular work we fulfill our vocation before the Lord by loving our neighbors, by serving them, by selling products and services at a fair market price, by obeying our employers and our civil governors, by studying well in school. We live as citizens of this twofold kingdom by checking on our neighbors, by delivering food to senior citizens who are shut in, or by working as volunteer guard to see that children get home safely from school. So, the first thing we do to make a difference in the world is to recognize that there is more to life than this world. It is only when we put this world in perspective that we can live in it properly. When this world becomes the be all and end all, it has become an idol and idolatry only fuels more rage and bitterness.
The second thing Christians can do to make a difference in the world is to recognize all human beings as fellow image bearers. The pagans have always de-humanized their opponents but Christians, at their best, have not given in to that temptation. Even in the midst of war, the Christian “Just War” theory requires Christians to recognize the humanity of enemy combatants. The Christian approach to the “Just War” has never been total annihilation but the defense of justice and the preservation of innocent life.
It is a mark of paganism to deny the humanity of political and cultural opponents. When we recognize the humanity of those with whom we disagree we will necessarily stand out. Some, who seek victory at all costs, will call us weak and even cowardly. To be sure, politics is not the Kingdom of God and it is no place for the faint of heart. When we elect civil servants we are asking them sometimes to do some very difficult and even ugly work. We know that we are not electing or appointing angels and they are not governing angels. Still, Christians recognize that service in what Luther called the Kingdom of the Left Hand is not a license to violate the moral law of God.
Nevertheless, recognizing the image-bearing status of those with whom we disagree, who themselves may deny that we are image bearers, will change our cultural and political engagement. When we treat with respect those who hate, who lie about us, who seek to oppress us and to do us harm, we testify to our commitment to and membership in the Kingdom of Heaven. When we turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) and walk another mile (Matt 5:41), even though pagans abuse us thus, we testify to the fact that a gracious, patient, heavenly King has adopted us as sons and given us a place in his kingdom even though, by nature, we are rebels.
The law convicts us Christians just as well as it convicts our pagan neighbors. We who know the free, unconditional favor of God in Christ, should be free to confess our sins. That testimony that we are sinners who seek forgiveness in Christ and from our neighbors will set us apart from those who live under a covenant of works and must always be right, even when they are not.
Third, politics is a realm of law. Fundamentally, the civil or secular sphere of the kingdom is governed by law: “do and live” (Luke 10:28). The church represents the sphere or the covenant of grace. Law never changes hearts. It does not have the power to grant new life. God’s law is good and righteous but it only commands and convicts. Only the gospel changes hearts and minds. We should not be so quick to relegate the gospel to the sidelines in our engagement in the civil/secular sphere. The gospel represents another principle. Where the law says: “do!” the gospel announces that Jesus has done it. The gospel the gateway to the heavenly citizenship that Paul mentioned. The gospel announces that Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. It is in this world but it is not of it. It announces that there is peace with God through true faith in Jesus Christ, that Jesus is the law keeper on behalf of all those whom God loved from all eternity, whom he gave to his Son, whom he is calling to new life and true faith by his Holy Spirit.
Because the gospel is true we direct everyone away from us and away from themselves. Peace with God does not lie in “following your heart” but in being reconciled to God (and he to you!) through Jesus Christ. He is the only righteous one. He obeyed. He died. He was raised. He ascended and intercedes now for all his people (from every tribe, tongue, and nation) and he shall return at the end of days to consummate his kingdom.
When God’s elect hear this message the Spirit will use it to bring them to new life and to true faith (Rom 10:14–15). Those so renewed by God’s grace will manifest that new life in their daily life. This is not a program for sudden change nor for political victory. It is, however, God’s plan. It is the way of his heavenly kingdom as it manifests itself here on earth.
In this world we shall always have trouble but Christians do have something uniquely powerful to say: Jesus is King of a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:28). By his unconditional favor to sinners, he makes us citizens of that kingdom and enables us by his Spirit to live graciously amidst the pagans giving witness to that kingdom and by loving our neighbors as ourselves.