I most often try to avoid commenting on anything political, especially on social media or from the pulpit.
Why? It’s not that I don’t have opinions. But I believe that politicians on either side will never solve our real national problems. The problems we have stem from people’s broken, selfish, sinful and rebellious human hearts. If we elected all Democrats into office, or all Republicans, would we solve our problems? No. Only spiritual renewal from God can fix this heart problem, and this world. I choose to talk about the ethics, life, resurrection and power of Jesus.
We are deeply polarized
America is at a rare, almost completely polarized place today. There is little room for middle ground. Pushed by constant media pressure, we have divided more and more into a tribal nation, where tribal “identity politics” rule. You must think like me or be on my team—otherwise I will come out against you. Each side makes Jesus a part of their political party, too. (he isn’t, as I write in The NPR Interview with Jesus). It’s a mess. Friends stop speaking. Families must avoid political discussions lest they go to war.
Again, why? Well, we feel less and less effective in handling the changes of our lives. We sense clearly that our government system is broken, but we are not sure how to fix it. Our political primary system has morphed into a place where the extremes of each party often pick polarizing candidates to run. Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are prime examples—neither are easy people to respect, feel fond of, or vote for, in my opinion. Post-election, Donald Trump’s history, nature and methodology—whether you support him or not—cause widely diverging reactions. He is a New York billionaire who gets results by intentionally pushing buttons. This all leads to a time when people throw rational discussions to the gutter to attack the “other side” in passionate tirades. This is our American world.
This has touched the Evangelical Christian church, too. Recently, several Christians in highly visible positions have commented on the Trump Presidency. Mark Galli, outgoing Editor of Christianity Today, wrote an editorial stating that, on the grounds of immorality and dishonesty, Trump should be removed from office. It created a firestorm in conservative circles, and over 200 Christian pastors and leaders responded with an Open Letter in opposition to Galli’s position. People have repeatedly asked me to weigh in. How do I feel about Trump? About this or that “out-of-control” party. Even I must walk carefully around my friends and fellow pastors.
Avoiding the pressure
No matter the extreme, I try to keep my mouth shut (or limited) in public. I do have several biblical reasons why arguing politics, for or against any leader, is most often wrong. The reasons are:
• God remains in charge of the universe, which includes American politics.
• As Christians, we are called to reach out and treat others with respect and love, even when we differ.
• As Christians, we must guide our tongues and not speak curses at others.
• I am specifically called to be a “peace-maker” in a contentious world.
God is still in charge
Let me explain these points. First, to me Scripture clearly and repeatedly teaches that God remains in charge of human politics and even uses for his purposes godly and ungodly leaders (Ps. 75:7, Dan. 2:21, Prov. 8:15, Rom. 13). Therefore, the virulent issue of, “Is such-and-such a good or bad president?” doesn’t shake me much. This leader (and all others in the world) will be used by God for his plans. Can God use poor or even evil leaders? Of course. He has all through human history.
Evidence for this is found in the books of Daniel and John. Even though Daniel describes the deeds of very evil kings, he says in 2:21 that it is God who “removes kings and sets up kings,” and in 4:32, “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” So, according to Daniel even wicked kings should acknowledge that they have their position and authority only from God. The same thing is taught in the Gospel of John. Pilate, by whose authority Jesus was finally crucified, was a governing authority set and ordained by God (cf. Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28). In John 19:10 Pilate says to Jesus, “‘Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you from above.'” Therefore, if Pilate, Nebuchadnezzar, and Darius were set in their places and given authority by God, even though they did much evil, then we have no reason to deny Paul’s assertion that “there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1).
Did God use Adolph Hitler? I was asked. I offered that great evil like Hitler or Stalin or Mao shows us the level of fallenness in human hearts. Hitler’s Germany (which ultimately lost) was critical in establishing the nation of Israel, empowering many to rise above circumstances and do noble things for others, making the use of weapons of mass destruction less likely, forcing the establishment of the United Nations, developing the space program, etc. God has his hidden movements of blessings, too, I am sure. C.S. Lewis argued that God does not make evil into good but allows evil for a season so as to bring greater good from it. God plays for the long run.
Dialogue instead of anger
Secondly, the big loss here (my opinion) in our political environment is the total loss of decorum, dialogue, and tolerance. A medical truth explains why: significant emotion, including fear, loyalty or anger, block one’s ability to rationally weigh arguments. Psychologists have found again and again that reasonable and wise decisions require an ability to push the strongest emotions to the side.
It’s not that we can’t care. But strong emotions overwhelm your decision process. Appropriate decisions require a state of relaxed awareness, a state which is informed by passion but is not persuaded by it. Sadly, much of our 24-hour news cycle is designed to enflame passion, concerns, or anger. Both of the political camps are now so polarized that the new standard of American politics (and world politics) is based on emotionally attacking the other “tribe”. Reason and statesmanship go out the door into the cold, and so do family and friends who see the world differently.
We live in an angry world. Anger is one of the densest emotions and communicates our feelings deeply and quickly. It pushes people away, and so can create a sense of safety. It allows us to immediately feel more secure and in control (whether this is true or not). When used rarely and appropriately, it can force others to stop and rethink their position. But healthy anger requires a feedback loop—anger, listening, response, resolution. Anger in America has become unhealthy. Charles Duhigg, in The Atlantic, studied the recent research on anger. He writes,
America has always been an angry nation. We are a country born of revolution. Combat—on battlefields, in newspapers, at the ballot box—has been with us from the start. American history is punctuated by episodes in which aggrieved parties have settled their differences not through conversation, but with guns. And yet our political system was cleverly designed to maximize the beneficial effects of anger. The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with one another in the public square, through a free press, and in open court. The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive at policy through disagreement, negotiation, and accommodation. Even the country’s mythology is rooted in anger: The American dream is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life has handed them.
Recently, however, the tenor of our anger has shifted. It has become less episodic and more persistent, a constant drumbeat in our lives. It is directed less often at people we know and more often at distant groups that are easy to demonize. These far-off targets may or may not have earned our ire; either way, they’re apt to be less invested in resolving our differences…Without the release of catharsis, our anger has built within us, exerting an unwanted pressure that can have a dark consequence: the desire not merely to be heard, but to hurt those we believe have wronged us.
Proverbs reminds us that it is a gentle answer turns away wrath. As Christians, we must act differently. We must fight the ambient anger we breathe. We must become peacemakers, the non-anxious presence in a room of angry people.
We must work to tame our tongues
In James 3:7-11 we read:
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
God expects that Christians should strive to watch over what they say. We are living in a time where “out loud” emoting, commenting, and posting happen with little thought. To be godly—James calls us to avoid cursing other people with the same mouth that praises God. As if we are to wisely reflect on which way down the path of the tongue we will choose to follow. The Greek word here (“should not be”) is a strong negative, used only here in the New Testament. The idea is that there should be no place in a Christian’s life for such condemning speech. When God transformed us, he poured into us the ability to speak redemption, not criticism. He gave us the capacity for new, redeemed, holy speech, and he expects us, as his children, to speak only that which is holy and right.
Blessed are the Peacemakers
Finally, Jesus specifically focuses our passions: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” As followers of Jesus, we are primarily to be about peace. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil.2:3). This is our burdensome call, in a world where there is little harmony. Seeking peace means looking for common ground. It means striving to honor and respect all parties involved. It means looking for ways to reconcile and moderate our positions. It means listening to the other side and seeking their good.
Our goals as spiritual leaders must often be constrained in our public opinion, for we are under orders. We are to consider our relationships, both near and far, as considerably more valuable than our politics. We are to be known for our goodwill toward others, and our reconciliation of those far-off, not for our politics. Per Romans 12:16-21:
Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Does this really apply to politics? To today’s difficulties? What if a ruler is acting badly? Paul goes on in the very next verses (Romans 13:1-7):
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is established by God. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
As hard as this is, it is our belief system and appeal. It seems clear and to the point, but there is more in the next few verses—just so that those under Rome’s harsh sword don’t miss it:
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
The Bible’s strong verbs are telling. We are to “be subject, avoid rebelling, act honorably, submit, pay, give respect, give honor” to those in authority. Yes, there may be times where we need to speak up against the government. In some situations, God endorses or approves of civil disobedience (see my post on A Short Theology of Civil Disobedience ). Still, it seems those times are rare, and come with specific instructions from heaven.
A trust in God which supersedes current situations is the overall theme here.
So, my brothers and sisters, here is my point in all this, and I may be wrong. Should Trump be removed (per Galli)? Or should we defend his religious-friendly policies (per the open response letter)? I don’t know—it is above my pay grade. But any time we speak out against a world leader and advocate their removal, we better be sure it is God is telling us to speak—not just our pent-up frustration. If we do stand against them, we must be willing to take the consequences (for example, jail or execution was ahead for Daniel, Paul, Peter, and Jesus). I remain committed to the fact that being a Christian is a high call; even more so as a pastor of the flock and a declarer of the Gospel. The highest.
It costs us something. Part of what we should consider in the cost is our freedom of expression, and our ability to join in with the polarizing rage of our day. Maybe, just maybe, we should trust God more, pray more, and bite our tongues more.
You may also like the humorous side of How Not to Argue.