Culture, Politics, and the Church: A Third Way

third way

Another politician was heard using suspect theology to argue a political position last week. While it isn’t a new tactic, it does leave one scratching your head and asking- “Is this the best we can do?”

The late, controversial figure Andrew Breitbart once said that, “politics is downstream from culture,” and he was right. What he meant by this is that our political positions are often conceived from our already-established feelings and judgements about things. It’s no secret that the landscape of media has become completely polarized- we all instinctively look for the stories and facts and arguments to legitimize our positions. It is also why many attempts at political conversation on social media usually end in respective parties lobbing accusations of intent at one another. Debate turned argument turned fight– and for what? No one is convinced. Each party retreats to the same corner we came from, only a bit more bruised than before.

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt looks at the social and moral psychology of people’s political and religious convictions and he comments that, “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” So Breitbart saw that our political positions come as a result of our cultural influences; and Haidt insists that it is our gut intuition that drives us while our reasoning works to catch up (and explain it all); and if -by the example of Sen. Hutchings (and many, many others from both major parties)- it seems that theology acts as the veneer of religious after-thought…then no wonder Christians are confused about how to interact with culture and politics, leaving many leaders claiming that the Church has lost the culture wars.

I’m personally wrestling with this very question. How do we do it? Is the game already over? I can see the stream of globalizing Western culture going a certain way, its tide growing ever stronger, and how it sharply diverts from both our historically American heritage and our New Testament-mandated Christian calling, in unique ways from each. And I care about going after the original design that God had in mind for His Church, transcendent of time/place, and also for our nation, fixed in time and place (and yes, I think that God has specific purposes for the nations of the world, each one valuable and distinct.) But is it too late? Has bad theology been swept downstream for so long, mixing with cultural favoritism and raw emotional instinct, and now this is what drives our political decision-making?

I want to advocate for open and logical debate, yet we lack the available format and practical experience to have good and productive discussion. I want to say that emotion-less discourse will yield better results, yet our history as a young nation has had its fair share of pain and serious wounds tend to stir up legitimate emotion. I want to work toward preserving the basic rights enshrined in our Constitution while also seeking to understand Biblical scripture, yet our culture seems to think they are both becoming irrelevant. I find myself constantly asking: What is the best way for a Christian to engage with culture? How does the Church exist within a political realm?

If you’re waiting for my big answer to emerge, don’t hold your breath. Some days I feel very discouraged, sinking into a temporary depression about the state of our nation and the state of the Church. It feels heavy and like we are careening toward a cliff’s edge. Other days, I sense the hope of the Holy Spirit- a light that breaks through the darkness and illuminates the One who is asking for more of my heart, more of my life. And then there are moments, which come very seldom, but act as breadcrumbs leading toward the promise of a feast somewhere.

One such moment came as I was reading Elmer A. Martens’ writing on the element of deliverance in his book, God’s Design. Martens writes,

“As a divine warrior, Jesus showed himself victor over demonic powers. His was a greater power than the political power of Rome. As a suffering servant Jesus laid down his life on the cross. In retrospect one can see how the kaleidoscope of deliverance requires both divine warrior and suffering servant.”

What if the way forward for Christians was to fully give ourselves -our minds, our wills, and our emotions- over to Jesus himself? What if the implications of this submission and this possession was that we took on his nature and went a peculiar third way? Jesus was not singularly a political Messiah; He was not merely an obscure nobody. Somehow he was both- and therefore, something more. He fulfilled the longing for a triumphant King and also embodied the passive lamb. He challenged authority on behalf of the guilty, yet he didn’t resist his own unjust arrest. He was praised and he was scorned. He was lifted high and he was rejected. Jesus confronted the ugliest of darkness and he was ministered to by angels. As Martens puts it, Jesus was both “divine warrior and suffering servant.” The way of Jesus transcended the dichotomies of this world; the way of Jesus was not either/or but something more. Should we expect our own journey to be anything less?

I have an inkling that the way for Christians to engage with culture and politics is by being a vessel for the living Spirit of Christ to be represented through, even if it looks like nothing we’ve seen before. It will likely not be by way of seeking power for the sake of dominance or by retreating into sanctified ghettos of our own making. Our spiritual warfare may look a lot like being a suffering servant. Our advocacy may go the way of the cross. It is not about being Left or Right; its not about being liberal or conservative. Our posture must be bent toward something else entirely, somewhere beyond the immediate horizon. This third way is not by power, and it is not by might, but by His Spirit. Whatever that looks like, where ever He leads us, let us be awake and ready to follow.

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