‘Tis that wonderful and jolly season again.
When two men in suits tussle for power, and everyone else breaks off into polarised groups and starts hurling proverbial rocks at each other.
This impending federal election is approaching us in what many have described as “unsettling times.” Wars, debates about religious freedom, and an ongoing global pandemic all contribute to a climate in which it is almost impossible for most of us to fully wrap our heads around the immense complexity of the world in which we live. These large-scale issues are front and centre whenever we switch on our TV, or our phones, but let’s not forget that most of us also live personally frenetic lives; trying our best to juggle busy work and social schedules as we also try and show up for our kids, partners and loved ones in a meaningful way.
I often find myself crawling to the end of the week, glass of red wine in hand, unable to think meaningfully about much more than which show I’m going to binge-watch until I fall asleep.
It’s little wonder that when we turn our minds to some of the bigger questions of our day, like: who do I want governing our country for the next three years? Or; how should I think about [insert issue]? We find it so difficult to navigate them well. Some of us just ignore the issues; others pick a side and fight to the death.
But what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in the midst of a complicated political landscape?
Here I will provide you with a comprehensive 7-step guide to….
I’m kidding, I don’t have the answers.
But like most people, I have some thoughts about how we might navigate seasons like these without losing our sense of self.
During election season, for example, many people take to their keyboards reminding us that being ‘Christian’ requires that we remain apolitical - not engaging in the endless furore surrounding “worldly” governance. Others passionately contend that Jesus’ message is primarily, even exclusively, political in nature - which is why we must fight for our place in society and be advocates.
So is Christianity political, or apolitical?
I think the answer is simply: yes.
Politics, overly simplified, refers to a particular vision for the way society should be organised and governed. Each party spends campaign periods trying to communicate what their vision for the country is, how they would lead, and why that benefits you. It would be foolish for us to think that Jesus had no vision for how the world should be organised and governed. His continual references to the ‘Kingdom of God’ are, at a very basic level, an invitation to participate in the world in a different kind of way. It represents an alternative vision for how the world should operate, and so is by definition a political vision.
In the words of Tom Wright: "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all in their various ways about God in public, about the kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven through the public career and the death and resurrection of Jesus"
By the same token however, Jesus’ discussion on the Kingdom of God never descends into partisan games, derogatory language, or attempts to aggressively undermine his opponents. He was far removed from 'political animals' like the zealots (the contrast between the two being exposed as he was tried next to Barabbas) as well as from the religious leaders who had assimilated their own aspirations with the prevailing Roman authorities. Jesus stood at a prophetic distance, operating within a system of governance without feeling that it was beyond critique; even fervent critique.
This is perhaps a simplification of a complex truth (because this is a blog) but I think it carries the essence of something important.
Prophetic distance is a wise place for us to position ourselves, politically. We need to distance ourselves from partisanship, from the tropes of nationalism or despondency. But most importantly; and the real point of this short message, is that we must distance ourselves from the relentlessly disparaging, thoughtless tirade of aggression, despair and disdain that often embodies both sides of the political spectrum.
As people of faith, what we stand to lose during decisive political moments is far more than an election; we stand to lose our hope.
Our work in seasons like this; seasons of war, plague, political tension and increasing global complexity, is to continue what Walter Brueggemann calls the ministry of imagination. We are to imagine a world more beautiful than the one we live in presently; one that is more loving, kind and just. Our collective commitment is to imagination; our work is the work of prophecy. We must aim to be artists of justice and peace.
“The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
Of course we must vote.
It is a genuine privilege to be able to participate in democracy governance, to be able to contribute to the future landscape of Australian society. But our votes must be cast along the lines of hour hopes, not just our fears.
If we give up on hope then we cede our faith to despair, and these two cannot long co-exist. This is not a call to mindless optimism or cheap positivity; it is rather an invitation to courage and vulnerability.
We need to be courageous enough to believe that the hope of God is always more beautiful and more powerful than any darkness that exists; and we must also be vulnerable enough to risk the pain of opening ourselves up to the vision of God’s Kingdom that moves us toward living out this just and peaceful world.
There is a commonly quoted refrain from the prophet Micah: “act justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.” I have come to see that these are not three independent categories, but ones we must see as interconnected. You cannot act justly without loving mercy; but you also cannot act justly without walking humbly with your God. A justice promoted on the altar of aggression and fear - that belittles or demeans those on the other side of whatever fence your argument was constructed - is no justice at all. It is just the other side of the tyrannical coin. At the same time however, a commitment to humility that doesn’t seek a world more just, is not humility but abdication. We are invited to act justly, not to love justice. To quote Wright again, the whole point of the gospels is "...the coming of God's kingdom on earth as in heaven [so as] not to impose an alien and dehumanising tyranny but rather to confront alien and dehumanising tyrannies with the news of a God - the God recognized in Jesus - who is radically different from them all, and whose Justice aims to rescue and restore genuine humanness..."
Following Jesus is difficult. It requires us to be thoughtful, compassionate, and hopeful. None of these things come naturally, at least to most of us. They must be worked at, contended for.
So why not begin the work of being more hopeful?
And be gracious to others as they do the same.