Redefining Politics: The Center of “Political” Engagement
For many Americans Tuesday, November 8th, was an important day. It signaled a time for making America great again. Millions exercised their right by voting for the next President of the United States. For several months we witnessed political ads, watched political debates, and argued over candidates on social media (at least I did, regrettably). However, for another group of Americans the election was a time of remorse, it signaled a time when the progress stopped. Needless to say that Americans engaged politically on every level.
However, I don’t intend to discuss the political ramifications of being a conservative or liberal. I simply want to remind you that the center of life is not Washington D.C. Even months removed from that Tuesday in November, Americans are still experiencing a political hangover. But let me remind you that the center of political engagement isn’t found at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the steps of the Capitol, the Court Room of Justices, or the halls of Congress. Every 4 years we convince ourselves that it is, especially this past year. I’m sure four years from now we’ll do the same thing. We are creatures of habit. As an American citizen I believe that the election of President is important. However, Washington D.C. was never intended to be the center of our world.
We should be concerned about “politics.” I mean it was Aristotle who argued that as humans we are political animals. But we need to understand what it means to be “political.” Being engaged in politics is more than just voting for President every 4 years on the second Tuesday of November or campaigning for a candidate. Being political has to do with our daily interactions with others.
The modern word ‘political’ is derived from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis (the city).’ A general understanding of politics is simply the organization of public life. Webster states that one of the definitions of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” Christian philosopher Scott Moore argues, “Politics is about how we order our lives together in the polis, whether that is a city, community, or even family.” Rod Dreher states, “In the most basic philosophical sense, politics is the process by which we agree on how we are going to live together.” (see The Benedict Option).
Being political is much more than labeling yourself a liberal or conservative. At it’s most basic level it is about how individuals relate to each other and live together. In this case nearly every choice we make is “political” as it affects those around us, whether family, friends, or neighbors. In a sense as citizens we engage in politics everyday by the way we interact with each other (or choose not to interact). We don’t simply exist as individuals doing our own individual thing. That is contrary to the very idea of society and to experience. Rather we are individuals who engage in community. This engagement is “political.”
Practical Christian Politics
If being political is about relating and living with others, as Christians we must view our “political engagement” through a Christian worldview. The foundation of the Christian tradition – to love God and neighbor – is by application “political.” To love your neighbor is to care about someone other than yourself. Loving your neighbor is focused on the complex of relations between people living in a society. The virtues of daily “political” and social engagement for Christians are found in the Bible. Jesus taught his disciples to “do unto others as you would have them to unto you…love your enemies…give to those who ask.” He also taught His disciples the proper use of money and the value of personal virtue. These statements are found within the context of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ Kingdom Manifesto. Jesus was providing His disciples a way to think “politically” about their engagement in society and with their neighbors.
The people of God are political as we seek to represent a different kingdom by living virtuous lives. God created humanity in community and as such we are political. Being political is simply being the type of people God wants us to be, loving Him and loving others.
This is all driven by the telos, the ultimate goal of the Christian faith – the resurrection of a New Created Order that is to come. That is to say we engage politically with those around us because of the future goal of the world. The present is impacted by the future. The goal motives us to live now. The not yet drives the already.
The Center of a Political Engagement
Since political virtue and engagement is not derived from Washington D.C. we must redefine our “politics.” The center of political interaction between neighbors is found within our local context. Contrary to popular American folklore, Washington D.C. does not define our politics. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the Lord of the universe and all of history is bending towards Him, including our daily lives.
As such the center of political engagement is found around the table at the local Dairy Queen and the Garden Club planning meeting. It is revealed in the exchange at the local food bank. The heart of politics is seen on the little league baseball fields as little boys dream of one day playing in the World Series, as their coaches are exhorting them to keep their eye on the ball. The political center of America is experienced in community functions downtown on Market Street. Political engagement is manifested in exchange of ideas and values at the pharmacy. It is experienced as moms have coffee with friends and as husbands come home from work greeted by warm hugs from their three year old. The engagement takes place everywhere, whether that is at the local PTO, school board, or Rotary Club. Political virtue is revealed in rallies as local law enforcement and community leaders discuss racial equality. The core of our politics is found on Sunday mornings as you make the choice to go to church or decide to stay home. This type of political engagement ought to be strived for. It is here that we must redefine what it means to be political.
And as Christians this engagement has another meaning – we engage with others as representatives of God’s Kingdom. Through the Spirit’s power, as live and relate with others, we show the alternative political sphere – one that is ruled by Jesus. Local political engagement, moving through the simply rhythms of life – with The Father, Son, and Spirit – has significant eternal effects on those we interact with daily. We are living as exiles in this world, under the reign of the Exalted King.
As we are living within a post-Christian America, the church must realize that our Kingdom politics are completely different than that of the empires of the world. We are duel citizens. Though many Christians in America fear that losing our Christian influence in Washington politics is a horrible thing. However, I believe as Rod Dreher states,
“Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’ soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.”
America is not the New Israel. If we are going to take the Biblical Christian Story seriously, we must face the fact that we are living in Babylon. We are longing for a new and better country. And as exiles awaiting the overthrow of the Beast, we engage with others with Kingdom of God politics – loving our God and neighbor. This is what is means to engage politically.