Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Cross in Politics

Clay Cooke


July 15, 2011
by Clay Cooke

 “None can be reckoned to be the disciples of Christ unless they are true imitators of him, and are willing to pursue the same course.”
      —John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke

John Calvin’s statement underscores a long recognized maxim for Christian discipleship: In order to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, his directive to “take up your cross and follow me” is central.  But what about the life of citizenship, say, in the United States of America?  Does the Way of the Cross apply to this role as well? 

Christians who defend a position of active citizenship have often had a difficult time answering this question.  They have struggled, that is, to correlate the structures and tasks of politics—the pursuit of justice and common good within a given polity—to the cruciform life.  Instead of a “politics of Jesus,” then, politically engaged Christians have usually been more comfortable appealing to a “politics of creation.”  This position states that because Christ is Lord and King over every square inch of creation, Christians are therefore called to engage in every facet of this terrain, including politics. 

This robust theology of creation is essential to a proper perspective on politics.  Nonetheless, as Mark Noll contends, it is incomplete.  For Christ who is Lord over the sphere of politics took his reign by walking the road to Calvary; his hand that governs this realm—its organizations, procedures, and theories—is stained with blood; and his head that rules it is crowned with thorns.

If you’re like me, when you consider how this cruciform perspective informs participation in public life, what first comes to mind is how it might generate behavior characterized by humility and service.  To an extent, I think this is an accurate assessment.  Yet I also think we may be missing something deeper, namely, how humility and service are made richer when seen against the backdrop of the entire Christian worldview.  The point here is that just as the politics of creation is incomplete on its own, so too is the politics of Jesus.  We are consequently in need of an approach where the politics of creation and politics of Jesus mutually inform and enrich one another—one where following Christ crucified has profound implications for redeeming political questions and concerns.   

One possible way to go about this task is to contextualize the Way of the Cross to the sphere of politics.  This is by no means an easy undertaking, nor does it happen without constant effort, reflection, and updating.  If we affirm, however, that the cross of Christ touches every square inch of creation, then in a real sense we are called as “missionaries” to the structures and tasks of civic life just as we are called as missionaries to people of all tribes, tongues, and nations.  This is why the Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman, Herman Bavinck, could speak of “evangelizing” the spheres of creation such as politics.  He believed that we could correlate the cruciform life to the pursuit of justice and the common good. 

Although this enterprise of sphere contextualization needs to be examined at length, there are a couple of foundational points I can make here.  First, a cruciform citizenship will be marked by love, for a citizen who loves will conceptualize and embody political life differently than a citizen who strives for justice apart from love.  For instance, instead of conceiving of “justice as fairness,” a cruciform love sees justice in light of the biblical picture of shalom and flourishing.  In addition, a cruciform approach to politics will be characterized by confession and repentance.  By publicly confessing and repenting, as Christians we admit that we are just as (and oftentimes more) responsible for sin and injustice as everyone else.  We do not possess a monopoly on truth, whether it is in terms of strategies to address healthcare, the federal budget, or any other policy issue.  Acknowledging these facts enables us to do something fundamental with our political discourse by openly placing our beliefs and convictions at risk recognizing that we may be wrong.

In the end, I admit that this is barely a beginning.  But I hope we can at least be inspired to join together to integrate the cross with political life.  For, in the words of John Calvin, to live as a disciple of Christ is to follow the Way of the Cross.  And a key component of discipleship is citizenship. 
















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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.”