The 2016 election is over. Regardless of how you voted, or how you felt about the candidates, I think we all agree that it was an unusually ugly year in the world of politics. Two deeply unpopular presidential candidates managed to wreak havoc on friendships, and even on families.
Perhaps more troubling to me was the discord that this election created among Christians. Between May and November, I lost count of the Facebook posts I saw that questioned the salvation – or at least the spiritual maturity – of Christians who planned to vote differently. The most startling manifestations of this division actually came from some prominent evangelical pastors, one of whom called those who disagreed with his political position “fools,” “hypocrites,” and “namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians.” I found myself wondering if he’d ever actually read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:22.
I bring all of this up not merely to revisit the pain of the past year, but instead to ask, “Where do we go from here?” Is there a better way for American Christians to think about the relationship between politics and faith? Is it even possible to disagree without resorting to the type of vicious tribalism that elevates our political identities above our Christian identification?
I think there is a better way forward, and - as usual – we can find the way forward in the Scripture. We don’t need to look any further than the relationships between Jesus and His early disciples.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain lists of Christ’s original twelve disciples. Most of the time we skim over the lists, or we focus on the names we know the best – Peter, James, John, and the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. But Luke 6:12 tells us that Jesus prayed all night long before choosing the twelve disciples, so He must have chosen each one quite intentionally. In other words, none of them were there by accident.
Yet at first glance, this group looks like it was assembled by a crazy person.
First, let’s consider Matthew the tax collector. Matthew was basically a Roman government employee, who had paid for the privilege of assessing and collecting taxes on purchased goods. Most tax collectors dishonestly inflated their commissions by over-assessing the value of goods, or by taxing for the same item over and over again. Most Jews hated tax collectors, as you probably know. Tax-collecting Jews like Matthew were considered traitors, on the same moral level as brothel owners and thieves.
Second, you have “Simon the Zealot” in the mix. There’s some debate whether Simon belonged to the formal political party called “the Zealots” or whether he was just a rabid Jewish nationalist. Either way, it’s quite likely that Simon hated the Roman government. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have been in favor of violent revolution. Matthew the Tax Collector’s very presence would have been a personal affront to a guy like Simon the Zealot (and vice versa).
Third, you have fishermen, like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were working-class individuals trying to make a living. They would have been less than sympathetic to tax collectors like Matthew, while probably having little time or patience for the political pot-stirring of a zealot like Simon.
Finally, you have the scheming Judas, the doubting Thomas, along with some others we know little about.
Jesus puts them all together in one big happy family (ha!) and says, “Follow me.” It doesn’t really seem like a great plan, if we’re honest. Imagine putting your most left-leaning relative, the one who voted enthusiastically for Bernie Sanders, on a committee with the most rabidly conservative Trump supporter in your family. Then toss in your cousin who works in an auto shop and has no interest in politics, along with your rich uncle who’s only interested in politics for how it will affect his portfolio. What would you expect such a group to accomplish? The answer, of course, is nothing. For that matter, it’s questionable whether they’d all be alive after a week together in close proximity.
So why does Jesus do it? What’s He trying to prove?
He’s trying to demonstrate, at least in part, that their political allegiances have to give way to Christ-allegiance. Matthew liked the Romans being in charge, Simon wanted the Jews to be in charge, and Peter just wanted Peter to be in charge.
Jesus tells them that He will be in charge. Jesus makes a powerful point by putting all of these men together in one group and saying, “Follow me.”
The point is this: Your ways are all wrong, and My way is right.
Yes, some ways are more wrong than others, but that’s not really the point. Jesus isn’t grading their alternate paths on a bell curve. Instead, Jesus spends the next few years offending the sensibilities of all of these men. One minute He would side with one group’s interpretation of Scripture, only to side with a different group the next time. The Jewish nationalists are frustrated that He won’t support their violent rebellion against Rome, the religious leaders are angry that He won’t submit to their interpretations of Scripture, and those who support Caesar suspect that Jesus is being subversive (although they can’t quite figure out what He’s up to). Jesus simply refused to fit into any of their systems.
In the final analysis, Jesus makes sure His disciples understand that His way is the only way. He won’t share their allegiance with some other leader or a political party. And what’s remarkable is that His early followers got the message loud and clear. Their close association with Jesus made their political affiliations seem virtually meaningless. All of them (except Judas the traitor) spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the King and His kingdom. Their political perspectives are so insignificant that they aren’t really mentioned again after Jesus assembles them together.
Think about that for a moment: The types of things we just spent a year arguing about vociferously – how the government should operate, who should be in charge, how we should be taxed – play virtually no role in the life of the early church. Over time, the first disciples joined with others from even more disparate groups, like the Pharisees and even Gentiles. But they all proclaimed and followed Jesus.
Jesus’ message was simple but powerful: I am the way, the truth and the life. My way is the only way.
All their political and spiritual allegiances had to give way to Christ-allegiance. I’m sure Simon still had opinions about how evil the Romans were (and he wasn’t completely wrong), and Matthew may have privately thought they weren’t all that bad (and he wasn’t totally wrong, even if he was a bit more wrong than Simon). But those views never split the disciples into factions. That’s quite remarkable, if you ask me.
What does this mean for us, as American Christians in 2016? It doesn’t mean that the issues are unimportant, or that every perspective is equally valid. But the relationship between Jesus and the disciples does mean that every single political and spiritual perspective must give way to Jesus’ perspective.
Our primary loyalty is not to our political tribe. All of our tribes are wrong in various ways. They may not be equally wrong, but again, Jesus isn’t grading our alternate allegiances on a bell curve. We are all wrong in various ways. Jesus won’t fit Himself into our systems, because His Way is the only one that’s right. We line up behind Jesus and let the chips fall where they may.
That means that we must never, never, never insist that somebody has to join our political tribe in order to be a disciple of Jesus. And we do not call other Christians “fools” and “hypocrites” for failing to check our political boxes. We might call them wrong, but only if we’re willing to admit the ways in which we are wrong, as well. Wrong in different ways, maybe even in fewer ways, but wrong nonetheless.
Here’s a basic principle: If you are convinced that your political tribe is always right, while other the opposing tribe is always wrong, you are quite likely a disciple of your tribe more than you are a disciple of Jesus. If you are willing to destroy relationships within the body of Christ or within your family because of somebody’s political affiliation, you are quite likely a disciple of your tribe more than you are a disciple of Jesus.
Again, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that all political differences are totally meaningless, especially where those political differences affect clear moral issues (like life, justice, or sexuality). I am saying that even in our disagreements, we seek to line up behind Jesus rather than behind our tribal leaders. If another tribe is wrong, they’re only wrong to the extent that they deviate from the way of Jesus, and not to the extent that they deviate from the beliefs of my tribe.
The beauty of the early church was that such disparate men and women came together under the banner of Jesus, willing to set aside their tribal allegiances to follow Him. They adjusted the way they saw the world to fit the way Jesus saw it, even when it was hard to do. Even when it hurt their pride or hurt their tribe’s standing in the world.
The question for today’s American evangelical church is whether we have the faith and moral courage to do the same.
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