Suggestions to guide our election year conversations
By David Faber
Many of us have strong feelings about the major party candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are profoundly polarizing, loved by supporters, despised by opponents. For many voters it seems that the only reason to support one candidate is because he/she is not as bad as the other.
We are also passionate about public policy issues—gay marriage, religious liberty, gun control, abortion rights, immigration policy and terrorism, to name a few. And our sound-bite, short-attention-span culture feeds our passions. As a result, political discussion in America is deeply rancorous and prompts this question for many of us: How should we as Anabaptist/evangelical Christians approach the upcoming election in a way that befits followers of Jesus?
We represent Jesus best when we remember who we are. Christians in the New Testament are identified as exiles. In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter addresses believers as "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation." Paul reminds the church at Philippi that our primary loyalty is to God's kingdom, not to our nation (Phil. 1:27; 3:20). In the Old Testament, the Israelites exiled to Babylon are commanded to "seek the shalom (peace, prosperity, flourishing) of the city where you live" (Jer. 29:7).
But what does it mean to function politically as exiles? Negatively, it means that we should not expect any political party to embody the kingdom of God. We should avoid idolizing either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Positively, in the words of prominent evangelical pastor Tim Keller, being an exile is loving your community but not assimilating to the values of that community.
According to the Sermon on the Mount, the people of God are also called to be a light to the world and a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14-16). Political discussion in America is extremely rancorous and deeply polarized. So how might we, as a community of exiles, model a different way of participating in the political process?
Here are five suggestions that can help us to model an alternative way of thinking and talking about the contentious issues of the day.
1. Remember the things that we agree on. We can do this better by distinguishing between ends and strategies. Ends are the goals that we want to accomplish by means of political policies. Strategies are the policies themselves. By way of analogy, suppose that we are going on a trip. We can think of ends as our destination and strategies as the various routes that we can take to get to our journey's end.
As followers of Jesus, we should be pursuing the same ends. Article 12 of our USMB Confession of Faith identifies some of these ends: "We believe that God instituted the state to promote the well-being of all people. Christians cooperate with others in society to defend the weak, care for the poor and promote justice, righteousness and truth." We should be talking and thinking together about these and other goals. And our discussion of candidates and their positions should be focused on these biblical ends.
Of course, the candidates themselves are unlikely to talk about their positions in terms of biblically informed ends. Most political discussion is in terms of individual self-interest and national pride—neither of which are political goals that we see in Scripture.
2. Recognize a diversity of strategies. While we share political ends, followers of Jesus may disagree about the best strategy for reaching those ends. If we recognize that we may advocate for different strategies, we can have a unity that does not demand uniformity.
The average American discusses politics at the level of policies, and American political culture primarily demands loyalty and identity at that level. So a person is identified by his or her view on whether abortion rights should be restricted or protected, views about immigration policy, gay marriage, climate change and the like. Being recognized as conservative, liberal or moderate is connected to one's view about various policies.
As an exile community, we define our political identity by the ends that we pursue. But we also recognize that in a fallen world it is not always clear which strategy to follow as we pursue biblical ends. Sometimes one strategy goes a long way toward achieving end A but does not help us with end B while another strategy doesn't do much for end A but really helps out with end B.
Let's think about one of the contentious political issues of our time: abortion rights. Because of space limitations, this example will be overly simplified. One end that Christians agree on is the value of life. Some Christians defend public policies that severely restrict or perhaps entirely prohibit pregnant women from access to abortion. Others support policies that are intended to make abortion a less attractive option by providing more services to pregnant women and to families with young children. In spite of differing strategies, we want the same thing—to affirm the value of life.
This is not a suggestion of relativism with respect to strategies. It may be that one strategy is superior to another. But it does acknowledge that it may be difficult to tell which strategy is better. Christians should be willing to advocate for different policies. But we should remember that the ends we seek unite us.
3. Focus on hope more than fear. Much contemporary political discussion is little more than fear mongering, and many Christians engage in their own versions of it. Sometimes it feels as if we are the only ones trying to make the world more the way God wants it to be.
1 Kings 19 tells the story of the prophet Elijah's fear and despair at the unfaithfulness of God's people. He hides on Mount Horeb, fearing for his life. Yahweh asks him why he is there. Elijah replies, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only left and now they are trying to kill me too" (v. 14).
God's reply is instructive. He identifies a pagan—Hazael, king of Aram—and an Israelite—Jehu, king of Israel—as people who will carry out God's purposes. He identifies a successor to Elijah—the prophet Elisha. And he says that there are 7,000 in Israel who remain faithful.
It must have been astonishing to Elijah that God was using a pagan king for his purposes. But while Elijah feared that he was alone, God was working through a wide and perhaps unexpected variety of people to accomplish his purposes. Similarly, we should remain hopeful and confident that God can work in the messiness that is American politics.
4. Listen deeply to those who disagree with us. A retired Mennonite Brethren pastor once said that when he was criticized he always tried to figure out what his critic got right. Contrast this pastor's attitude with the prevailing wisdom in political campaigns to never let a criticism go unchallenged. When in political conversations, we should always try to hear what the other person gets right and acknowledge our agreement.
Political conversations tend to take place among like-minded people. As a result, political positions—regarding both ends and strategies—often seem obvious. How could anyone think other than the way that I do? And where there is widespread agreement, it becomes difficult and even intimidating for a person with a minority viewpoint to express that perspective. So listening carefully to those who disagree with us demands intentionality. Seeking out those who disagree with us in order to listen and learn from them rather than persuading them would mark us as part of an unusual political community, perhaps a city on a hill.
5. Speak with civility. Only after listening should we graciously offer an alternative vision. Here too we have the opportunity to be a counter-cultural presence in our society. American political discourse is frequently angry and often mocking. Within the Christian community, it is tempting to question the sincerity of someone else's faith because they disagree with us about some political strategy. Or we view a candidate as the anti-Christ or a policy position as a sign of the apocalypse.
Paul implores followers of Jesus to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Speaking the truth in love requires, first of all, that we speak the truth. We should do our best not to repeat falsehood or innuendo. Many Christians failed at this over the past eight years with their claims that President Obama is a Muslim. We must not let that kind of thing happen. Lovingly speaking the truth requires that we seek the good of the person we are talking with and not our own advantage.
God calls the church to be ambassadors of God's kingdom. We cannot abandon the American political process. But our participation in that process should model an approach that contrasts with much of the contemporary political culture. These five suggestions can provide a start for this model.
So here is one final suggestion: Initiate some of these difficult conversations with a commitment to follow the five principles suggested. Initiate them with other individuals, within your congregations and with others outside of your congregations. Perhaps then we may, as an exile community following the Prince of Peace, be a city on a hill in the contemporary political scene.
David Faber is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Tabor College and a member of Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan.