Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Disciples After the Election
Vincent E. Bacote
In June, I wrote about political discipleship for Capital Commentary and my conclusion mentioned “the horror show that is the roller coaster of history between Fall and Consummation” and the attendant temptation to check out of politics. Following the election, some regard the current moment as a horror film come to life, and others as horror averted. For the latter, concerns about unbridled political correctness, the working class, religious freedom, and the Supreme Court were among the issues that led them to vote for the president-elect. The former were worried about a campaign characterized by incendiary and divisive rhetoric, Trump’s boorish and bullying character, and his political inexperience. As I write this, protests against Trump continue, numerous (by some reports as high as 300) incidents against minorities have occurred, and our social media world continues to bring out some of the worst from both sides. A unified country seems a lofty but vain aspiration.
What are disciples of Jesus to do in this time of great division? I offer three exhortations:
Resist the temptations of the moment. The calls for rethinking Christian political witness are ongoing since the election. While few have urged a full-scale retreat from politics, warnings abound about the corrosive effects of politics, particularly the intoxication with power. Stepping away from power is a great temptation, but this view suggests that the only way we can use power is by making a bargain that includes corruption of our soul. Power carries opiate level potency for sure, but is it really the case that it cannot be well stewarded for the common good?
Succumbing to despair is a second temptation that has grown since the election. Many of us have seen the high level of distress among friends and loved ones since Trump’s victory. Even though we have heard good answers to the question “How could this happen?”, it does not reduce the fear, grief, and anxiety of many who wonder whether we are entering four years of sociopolitical wilderness. Though protests indicate the resolve of some to fight for a better country, the heart cry of many citizens after Election Day reveals a despair that makes some wonder if it is even worth trying to participate in this process.
The temptations to dismiss power or yield to political despair are very real, but a greater reality is the hope that ought to characterize Christian witness, private and public. This is not denial masquerading as hope, but the disposition proper to those who lament the distortions of power and the traumatic realities that can yield despair. I Corinthians 15:58 urges Christians to keep at the Lord’s work because it is not in vain. This hope is rooted in the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not the rapidly shifting winds of circumstances-- historical, cultural, or political. Political engagement is part of the life of discipleship and must go on. Those who follow and worship a resurrected Savior will face severe temptations but reminders of Christ’s ultimate authority can lead us toward a more hopeful disposition and practice.
Pursue citizenship opportunities in a contested domain. There are genuine reasons for the exasperation and worry about division in the United States, but the reality of division should not surprise us. Part of the opportunity and challenge of citizenship is participation in a public square populated by people of different ethnic backgrounds, social classes, education levels, religious and philosophical worldviews, and political commitments. For Christians who take seriously the belief that sin deeply alters the perspective and practices of humans, the reality of a divided public space should be unsurprising. Taken at full strength, a strong view of sin helps us see that at times this division will be quite intense and deeply lamentable.
Such a view is not surrender to division but an important element of a realistic perspective about the challenge at hand when we work for a united country and pursue a vision of the common good. This realism tells us that a lack of clarity is “normal” even for Christians made alive to God by the Holy Spirit. As Paul says “we see through a glass darkly.” We may be on a path to greater clarity as God works to transform each of us, but none of us has “arrived,” and we all have blind spots and myopic tendencies. When we fully reckon with this, we do not yield to hopelessness but recognize the hard process of arriving at relative agreement about what comprises the common good, to say nothing of particular political strategies and policy initiatives.
In a contested domain, one of the opportunities for Christian citizenship is patient yet persistent construction of bridges between points of division. In this regard, one of the greatest post-election opportunities for many evangelical Christians is an expansion of political concerns that includes those from minority communities and other religious groups. For certain, the president-elect drew great attention for statements about Muslims and Latino immigrants, statements that have caused a sense of dread and fear among citizens with this religious or ethnic identity. As well, Trump’s statements about “law and order” in African-American communities has come across as pandering to certain stereotypes.
Disciples of Christ are called to consider the concerns of the neighbor; the current moment is ripe for serious engagement with the political priorities of religious and ethnic minorities. Earlier this year, John Inazu wrote about this in his review of Mary Eberstadt’s It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies. Inazu’s review reflects the pre-election conventional wisdom that a near inevitable challenge to religious freedom was ahead for those the book identifies as “white traditionalists” (think white evangelicals and conservative Catholics). He emphasizes failures and opportunities for this group:
Consider first American Muslims. Traditionalist Christians and traditionalist Muslims harbor many theological disagreements, but they share a common unease with many aspects of progressive sexuality. Yet at a time when these two groups ought to be building bridges toward one another, many traditionalist Christians are doing just the opposite. Instead of coming to the aid of their would-be reinforcements, many have lobbied for fear-induced “anti-Sharia” laws and joined conservative politicians who castigate Muslims as disloyal second-class citizens…
Black Christians are another potential reinforcement for the ground troops. Many black Christians (and other non-white Christians) share the biblical values of white religious traditionalists... Those who bear the scars of “the old civil rights” are far better positioned to resist rhetorical challenges from advocates of “the new civil rights.” But instead of recognizing their need for black Christians, white religious traditionalists have largely ignored them, and many remain indifferent to the challenges of personal and structural racism that persist in this country.
Though the results of the election have somewhat altered the pre-election fears about religious freedom, Inazu’s words remind us of a lamentable past and present us with an opportunity that remains in this divided moment. In his closing section, he explains why this remains a Christian priority:
White religious traditionalists ought to be motivated by more than strategic alliances. They should defend the religious liberty of Muslim Americans not because they’re looking for reinforcements, but because religious freedom for all is a gospel imperative. They should stand with black Christians not because they’re in search of a rhetorically useful alignment, but because the gospel transcends race and calls us to bear each other’s burdens.
This overlooked gospel imperative calls us toward the difficult work of building these alliances, and not only would this be one way to build bridges in a time of great division, but it would also be a public witness to a living, active, compassionate, and courageous public faith.
Embrace the opportunity for a deeper catechesis. Another great post-election discipleship opportunity rests with the teaching role of the church. “Catechesis” is an unfamiliar word to many, but it is another word for “teaching” and in some Christian traditions, it occurs through a teaching tool of questions and answers, the catechism, that convey the whole sweep of Christian belief.
What does catechesis have to do with the path of discipleship after the election? This election season has catalyzed a great deal of vexation about Christian faith and public life. While the church should always be teaching the fullness of the faith, the deep public implications of faith often receive lesser emphasis, even in churches that discuss politics (but limit it to discourse about issues and voting). In this time of heightened attention, the church can help congregants revisit (or discover) a life of discipleship exemplified by love for neighbor that includes winsome and imaginative public engagement, a posture of humility that attends deep convictions, and a commitment to the flourishing of all humans that runs counter to the cries of those only concerned with their personal rights.
This election season may be Exhibit A for the roller coaster of history, but it is also a tremendous time for Christians to display public faithfulness. Much has been written about what Christians have done wrong in public, but this moment presents the church with an opportunity to show what we can, by God’s grace, do right: to form disciples whose love for God leads to love of neighbor and the flourishing of all.
-- Vincent E. Bacote is an Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.
Extending Justice—Sharing These Ideas with Others
- What does the idea of “political discipleship” mean to you? Are there particular aspects of the 2016 elections that have helped to illuminate its importance and urgency?
- What are some areas at the local level where you or your friends and neighbors have felt compelled to deeper engagement with the political process because of the elections?
- What are some ways you can help your church community embrace its teaching role and call one another to the “winsome and imaginative public engagement” that the article describes?
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”