The common preacher with the church on the corner of an American city in 2024 is faced with quite a dilemma.
OUR CURRENT CONTEXT
Here’s the pastor: he or she is over 50 years old (on average), and consequently remembers their first computer, the advent of the internet, and the rise of social media. The inspiration to join the clergy in many cases came before all that, so the church they grew up in did not have to process the knee-jerk responsiveness of a 24/7 news and misinformation cycle. If the church had political leanings, they were often long-standing and consistent over time, never faced with the uproar of a pandemic. The political debates between Carter and Reagan, for instance, two self-professed church-going Christians who talked about prayer and virtue, were civil. There was no interruption or name-calling on stage and in front of the eyes of the rising generation of children.
But here’s the church: the last two election cycles have introduced a level of uproar, even among Jesus-followers, that encourages them to immediately project unfiltered reaction to a public audience that includes complete strangers outside of their own context. Conspiracy theories have become so widespread that they are now a rising, legitimate field of study in the modern university, with its own researchers, classes, and books (the graph of its popularity has spiked upwards since 2001, when the first videos circulated declaring the terrorist attacks to be an inside job). Pastors, who in the ’80s might lose their job over the transition into modern worship styles, are now concerned that every public statement (or lack of immediate statement) on any controversy that hits the airwaves may land them in ongoing conflict or termination. Anecdotally, and perhaps consequently, I would suggest that pastors are more likely now than ever to resist encouraging young people to enter the clergy. Imagine the 20-year consequences of that.
The latest “things I never learned in seminary” headliner is how to talk about politics, because the option of remaining diplomatically quiet is largely passing. The pastor has to figure out how to preach Kingdom when the public is clamoring for a kingdom.
WHAT JESUS REALLY MEANT
Jesus never did this successfully. Rather, no one heard what he was saying. At the opening curtain he said, “The kingdom is near,” which was the love language of the Hebrew people. They had been seeking a kingdom for a millennium and a half. When he went to multiply bread, the people recognized a pattern they had seen before. As the king of Rome kept the public in check with bread and circuses – free food and free Colosseum competitions – the one that they wanted to be king was working miracles and also providing bread. James and John realized that he was about to depose Herod, so they sidled up alongside him and asked to serve at his left and his right when he claimed the kingdom – to be his Vice President and his Secretary of State (Mk. 10:37). In the end, the Romans perceived the threat, and when they finally pinned it down, they wrote a mocking “King of the Jews” over his drooping head. Jesus would not be king. But Jesus had no intentions of being the kind of king the people wanted and the powers feared. He was a different king entirely.
They still didn’t get it. When he rose from the dead, they asked again if they could have their kingdom, a fortress of strong walls and armies and a general like King David (Acts 1:6-8). Instead, Jesus knocked down all such walls by sending them to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. He was the King of kings, but he would not be a king.
What This Means For Us Today
There are a few messages that I as a pastor am trying to instill in my congregation as we approach what promises to be another year of turmoil.
- You don’t have to have a kingdom to forward the Kingdom. Remember, when the people first asked Samuel to give them a king instead of a judge (in Hebrew, a MLK instead of a SPT, the title used for Pharaoh rather than the one used for Moses or Gideon), God warned them not to. The king will take your sons for his armies, your daughters for his kitchens, and your money for his friends. They demanded a king, and God allowed them to vote him out of office (1st Samuel 8). The pursuit of earthly power is a distraction and idol to those whose main purpose when they get out of bed in the morning is to introduce people to Jesus. Jesus chose crucifixion over coercion. We might do well to seek conversions rather than conquest.
- Anxiety and anger are the fruit of faithlessness. The fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace…(Gal. 5:22-23). The King of kings can use the kings like pawns, like he did Cyrus of Persia to overthrow Babylon. It doesn’t mean God’s people need Cyrus or much less that they should ever throw their weight behind Cyrus by voting for him. We might not go to the dramatic lengths of John Calvin, who, knowing only monarchical rule, insisted that when an evil king is put in power, it is God’s way of punishing the people for their sins, so one should humbly accept it (4.20.25). There is perhaps a more nuanced approach to justice that we see in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. That said, we can live at peace because the Lord of lords is good. The command to repay evil with good is not only a command; it is the promise that we don’t need to answer with revenge.
- Jesus can read. He can read your social media pages. The one who said that if anyone calls someone “empty-headed” they will face judgment and if they call anyone “fool” they will be in danger of the fires of hell (Mt. 5:22) can see what you post. I say this repeatedly and in no uncertain terms – the one who created the world with a word knows how to read, and he’s following your stuff.
- We don’t have to support anyone but Jesus and anything but truth. It’s interesting that the population that is so determined to say that one’s gender cannot be changed by changing one’s pronoun is not equally attentive to the fact that one cannot change one’s faith by choosing a denomination. Politicians who claim to be Christian or to defend the Church should be subject to immediate and thorough scrutiny. When a candidate says that he will not ask God for forgiveness because he doesn’t need to, cheats on his multiple wives, commits business fraud, doesn’t go to church, doesn’t know how to say the names of the books of the Bible, and then claims to be a Christian, it seems like Jesus-followers would remember the teaching about good trees not bearing bad fruit (Mt. 7). One would think they would be inspired by the prophet John who derided King Herod for his philandering, even though Herod claimed to be Jewish after his father converted. Somehow, loyalty to party has trumped loyalty to truth. It should not be this way with the people of God. Rather, should the Church regain its prophetic role, it will be a force to be reckoned with by any political party or candidate. Imagine the public perception of the Church is that her voice is so uncompromised that she can be appealed to like a courtroom judge from whom neutrality to party is required because commitment to law is so strong. I am telling my church that holding one’s own side accountable before one critiques the other is the fulfillment of the instruction to take a log out of your own eye before taking a spec out of someone else’s (Mt. 7:5).
These are a few of the messages I’m conveying to prepare a congregation for a potentially tumultuous election year. I’m honestly not worried about it though. Again from the prophets, I draw a promise, that when all the world is a desert, we who know Jesus will be like trees planted by streams of water that always stay green and that bear fruit in every season (Jer. 17:7-8).
Now check out: Christian Nationalism: A Crisis In The American Church