Despite our Judeo-Christian roots, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be a serious follower of Jesus in the West today. The dominant culture in most Western countries has shifted over the past century, causing Christians to find themselves more and more in the margins of society, rather than enjoying the majority position which Christianity has held for so much of Western history. This transition has caused visible frustration for many Christians, tempting them to adopt a posture that is more and more combative with culture. Often Christians today talk about culture as if it is the antithesis to Christianity. This results in an us-versus-them rhetoric that is seriously inhibiting Christianity’s witness in the Western world.
Nowhere is this shift more pronounced than within the political arena. No longer being able to assume the majority position has left innumerable Christians profoundly frustrated as political platforms, congressional legislation, and judicial decisions further reinforce the reality that commonly assumed “Christian” or “Biblical” positions on countless issues are no longer the dominant views.
Exacerbating the problem is the prevailing cultural script that dictates “conservative” and “progressive” agendas. The polarization that accompanies this bifurcation forces many Christians to adopt political and cultural identities that often conflict with their identity first and foremost as followers of Jesus and as those who live and pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done; on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
In other words, being a serious follower of Jesus doesn’t neatly fit into any one political identity. As a result, many disciples are forced to compromise certain beliefs in order to fit a cultural script for what it means to be a “conservative” Christian.
Perhaps a personal example would help. Due to my Christian convictions, I consider myself deeply pro-life. As a result, I’m also anti-abortion. Staunchly anti-abortion. Trying to live this out has led my wife and I to literally protest abortion. She has even previously led the NW Iowa Right-to-Life chapter. Our position informs the way we vote, but…it also informs how we live. In fact, we’re so pro-life that we’ve also adopted three international children, taken pregnant teenage moms into our home to live with us, and helped start children’s homes in developing countries. Moreover, we’d love to be able to do even more! All of these desires and lifestyle choices fit clearly within a “conservative” political identity. Simple, right?
However, being anti-abortion also makes us want to change the very reasons why abortions are sought in the first place. In other words, we don’t want to merely outlaw abortions; we want to eradicate the very reason why anyone would ever feel as though they needed to pursue this option. As a result, it causes us to advocate for social welfare programs, universal healthcare, universal daycare, and an increased minimum wage. Financial insecurity and lack of access to robust health and social assistance programs are often the very reason why abortion appears as the only way out of a financially challenging situation for a single mom, a low-income household, or similar pressing life factors in the face of a potentially life-altering change. However, these are political positions much more historically associated with a “progressive” political agenda.
So how is one to resolve such a quandary? We desire that our political identity be shaped, before all else, by our belief in Biblical values, historic Christian principles, and the sanctity of life reflected in the Imago Dei. But our current cultural script leaves us (as pro-life believers) in a political “no man’s land.” As a result, most believers are forced to choose between two competing political camps, embracing one aspect of their Biblically informed engagement in the world while having to either ignore or make excuses for not addressing the other.
And this is just one issue.
Choosing to root one’s identity first in Christ will cause all kinds of hardship in life. Feeling like political orphans at times is only one small example. But the good news in the Good News is that Jesus told us we’d be exactly here: “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) In fact, he told us that we’d have to take up residence at the intersection of “in but not of the world.” To follow Christ before all else will often mean having to live in tensions that we’ll need to manage and not simply problems that we’ll get to solve. And so, while Truth is often pretty black and white, living it out in a world we’re called to serve, often is not.
A further encouragement, though, is that we’re also in good company. In fact, we’re in very good company. Throughout history, the Church has often shone its brightest witness, cultivated its most winsome voice, and enacted the greatest cultural insurrections when it didn’t necessarily enjoy the dominant cultural position. From the earliest disciples to periods of revival to the flourishing of the persecuted church the world over, we were made for the margins—as the conscience of the state, the voice crying in the wilderness, and as the embodiment of a counter-cultural, enemy love.
The American church would do well today if it spent more energy and time learning how to embrace life in the margins, re-learning from our own roots how to lead when we’re not in charge.
Jesus showed us how to be political without holding political office and how to change the world by serving it. The same Holy Spirit that empowered and inhabited him seeks to do the same for his Church today. He promised it would.