In Which I Offend Everybody: An Introduction

Cover2This excerpt is the Introduction from my upcoming book, “A Better Country: Recovering a Political Theology of Kingdom,” coming (Lord willing) in spring 2018.

Politics and religion. These are the two topics that are off-limits in polite conversation, sure to provoke controversy and conflict. If you don’t want to sour relationships with your in-laws, don’t bring up either of them at Thanksgiving dinner. If you want a healthy, peaceful work environment, avoid these discussions around the water cooler. Many a friendship has been strained or broken by these immovable mountains of firmly-held conviction. It’s an unwritten social rule: avoid politics and religion.

This book is about both.

That probably means I’ll end up offending everybody with what I’m writing, but that’s not my intention. Actually, on second thought, maybe it is—maybe we all need to get a little offended and rubbed the wrong way in order for Jesus to break us out of the straightjacketed worldviews we’ve constructed for ourselves. I want this book to be challenging both to right- and left-wing readers. I want to make both Fox News viewers and MSNBC viewers uncomfortable, to assault the assumptions of the #MAGA crowd and the Bernie bros.

But I don’t want to be controversial just for the sake of controversy. That approach, favored by so many pundits and politicians, tends toward division rather unity. And I don’t know about you, but I’m awfully tired of all the division going around lately. I long for “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). But if I’m to be faithful, controversy may be unavoidable. I’m trying my best (however flawed—you can be the judge of that) to follow in the footsteps of a King who offended both the right-wing and left-wing camps of his day. He ticked off both the Pharisees (basically the #MakeIsraelGreatAgain party) and the Sadducees (the big government liberals of the first century). It ended up getting him killed. If I really am being faithful, it would be naïve of me to expect a better reception.

In “stirring the pot” in this way, I’m also not trying to tear down Democrats or Republicans, or come up with a third party or convince everyone to be independents—and I don’t think Jesus is either. He had some pretty blood-curdlingly harsh things to say to the Pharisees, but he also loved them, dialogued with them, and even knocked one off his high horse (hello Paul) and used him to reach the very people those Pharisees hated most. Jesus loves Democrats and Republicans, but he’s not content for any of us to sit comfortably ensconced in our presuppositions. He’s still knocking us off our high horses with the radical claims of his kingdom—claims that, we may be surprised to learn, are far more political than we may have thought.

Jesus isn’t a Republican. He’s not a Democrat either. He’s not even an Independent. He’s the King, and his monarchy lays claim to every political ideology and passes judgment on all of them. The agenda of his kingdom cuts across right-wing and left-wing priorities alike, offends everybody, rescues some, and in the process turns the world upside down. His answer to the Pharisee’s question on taxes (Matthew 22:15-22) was more than just an artful dodge; it was an astounding claim. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus didn’t mean, as some have tried to interpret him, that some things are Caesar’s and some things are God’s, and if only the state would stay out of the church’s business (or vice versa) everything would be hunky dory. Rather, he was saying something far more profound: “Sure, Caesar owns some things, so give him what’s his. But God owns everything, including Caesar himself and all his coins. So there is no realm of government or policy into which my kingdom does not intrude.” As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which the risen Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not say, ‘Mine!’” At the end of the day, Caesar bows to Jesus, and so does every political party, whether they know it or not.

If you’re hoping this book will lay out various positions on health care, taxes, immigration, etc. that you can agree with (or write off in disgust), I’m afraid you will be disappointed. I will certainly not refrain from stirring the pot where I think it’s necessary, but for the most part, I will try to avoid direct policy proposals. That’s intentional. My purpose in writing this book is not to set forth a list of positions with which Christians from the left and right should get on board (as if I know better than everybody on both sides!). Rather, my goal is that the priorities and values of Jesus’ kingdom would become the primary shaping force in how you think about and evaluate policy.

The values and priorities of Jesus’ kingdom are the truths that unite us, but it’s okay to disagree on the application of those values. Jesus never said (to the chagrin of my liberal friends), “Blessed are those who support single payer health care.” He did, however, insist that “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), to the grudging consternation of some conservatives. It’s impossible to proof-text policy positions on socialized medicine. But Jesus’ beatitude just might have something to do with how we think about health care, if we’re willing to let him blow up our categories and presuppositions. Christians of good conscience and godly character can disagree as to what exactly Jesus’ blessing has to do with health care policy—whether, for example, it means the government should provide health care or the church should or another of a multitude of options. It does, however, give us a fixed value that should function as our north star in all these discussions: the dignity and value of the poor. This means that, whatever your views on welfare or health care or taxes, it’s unacceptable for Christians to dismiss the plight of the poor as irrelevant to their opinions on the subject, or—far worse—to smugly scorn the poor for being poor, as if it’s their own fault that they’re poor and if only they tried harder they could become candidates for our compassion.

I feel like that last sentence should go without saying, that every follower of Jesus everywhere should be able to stand up and shout “Amen!” (or whatever it is that Presbyterians would do) in response. But in recent years, these self-evident truths have come under attack and been called into question. The obvious claim that both the Old and New Testaments specifically and repeatedly side with the poor is now met with derisive cries of “Liberal!” The Christian church’s millennia-long public agenda of mercy and peace has been replaced by a clenched-fist embrace of “law and order.” The belief that our public leaders should be held accountable to a moral standard—a basic and nearly-universal assumption from John the Baptist to the Founding Fathers—has been replaced by a shocking evangelical embrace of selective moral relativism. This slippery slope of obfuscation has brought us to the point where I can turn on cable news and watch ostensibly evangelical leaders doing exegetical gymnastics to defend presidents paying hush money to porn stars or to extol the virtue of exacting revenge on our political opponents.

This is why I’m writing this book. I’m weary of calling out the emperor for having no clothes, and I’m aghast that so many evangelicals are willingly joining the delusion and stripping down themselves. But I’m not just pointing fingers here; for the past decade I’ve been on a spiritual journey in which I’ve slowly begun to realize all the ways I’ve been parading around nude as well. This is a journey I’m still on, so the essays in this book are more of a “work in progress” than they are the declaration of anything definitive. Reformata semper reformanda—”reformed, but always reforming”—is my motto here. I’m sure there are areas in which I’m wrong, and that a decade from now I’ll look back on some of the things I’ve written and wince. That would be a good thing, not just an inevitable byproduct of changing opinions, but as a goal to aim at. I want to grow, I want to change, I want to become a more faithful disciple and more effective citizen of the kingdom. And that means being wrong—often—and owning up to it.

In this book, I want to push myself and the evangelical church in two directions—backwards and forwards. Backwards, because I want to rediscover something we’ve lost. The subtitle of this book is “Recovering a political theology of kingdom” for a reason—not “inventing” or “discovering,” but “recovering.” As 21st century evangelicals, we are heirs of a rich political tradition, stretching back through the Reformers and medieval Catholics and early church fathers to the Old Testament prophets and the King of Kings himself. For centuries and millennia, Christian philosophers and theologians articulated a theology of kingdom and culture which the Church then advanced and, in doing so, revolutionized the world. Isaiah’s prophecies and Jesus’ beatitudes and Augustine’s City of God and Abraham Kuyper’s lectures and the contributions of so many other saints compose a political worldview of inestimable value. But today, like a treasure buried and lost, we have forgotten this heritage. Slogans and sound bytes have replaced theology and careful thinking. We have sowed an empty wind of philosophical ignorance, and reaped a whirlwind of cultural disaster as a result. And so I want to go back to the “ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16), “stand in the gap” (Ezekiel 22:30), and “rebuild the ancient ruins” (Isaiah 61:4).

But I don’t just want to go backwards; I also want to move forwards. Because the call of the kingdom is ultimately not backwards to any imagined utopian past (whether 1950’s America or any other time period), but forwards to the coming utopian future: “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). The values of the kingdom come—the new creation and the new Jerusalem—are the values that are to shape and guide God’s people in the present, in this strange time between the first and second coming of the King. So I refuse to be content with the way things are, nor will I simply pine for the way things used to be. Rather, I invite you to long with me for the way things will be one day, when the King puts everything right and wipes away every tear. One day health care will be replaced by healing, poverty will be swallowed up by riches, taxes canceled by inheritance, politics transposed into praise. In the meantime, let’s construct a political theology with aching sighs and do the messy work of politics with groaning hearts, praying as he taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

It’s time to dive in. So buckle up, put a helmet on, and get ready to be challenged and chastened and (hopefully) changed. Politics has always been a wild ride, and a book on political theology only more so. But the end goal is worth it, to be counted among this number:

They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:16)

So desire and dream with me. Our citizenship is in heaven and a better country is ahead. Let’s go.

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