How Did We Get Here? On Politics and Discipleship

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Many Christians, on both sides of the border, are looking at the current political climate in the United States with disbelief and wonder. How did we get here?

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a lecture at Calvin College by Dr. Vincent Bacote, Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. Dr. Bacote is a theologian and Kuyperian scholar, so I was particularly interested in hearing what he had to say about the present state of American politics.

His message pleasantly surprised me. Rather than assigning blame to certain politicians or hot-button issues, Dr. Bacote asserted that the problem is one of discipleship.

The embrace that the rhetoric of fear and hate has received from folks in communities that once embraced the gospel illustrates how far our communities have moved away from it. Not only have we moved away from it, but some of us, in our frustration with the chaos of politics, have disengaged from them altogether.

There are a number of issues at the root of the chaos that we are experiencing in American politics right now, but there are two issues of faith formation that I think we need to identify in order to address these issues.

The first problem that we struggle with is what Christian Smith and Melinda Denton dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a problem with how we engage the Bible, and in turn, how we engage in relationship with God and others. Adherents to this worldview approach the Bible as if it were an instruction manual, and in doing so, abuse the living and active Word of God by tearing it out of its context for proof-texting and eisegesis.

This is how the lies of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are generated. Lies that, to put simply, tell us that faith can be reduced to the statements that "God wants us to be good", and that "God wants us to be happy". It is also the lie that God is “out there”, and that we are autonomous beings who are free do our own thing because of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In this worldview, public responsibility is tossed to the side, and personal preference is elevated as an idol.

The second problem we face is that the Church needs to be catechized about its responsibilities. Dr. Bacote pointed out that the modern world facilitates isolation, so our catechizing must involve what it means to live in relationship with one another. The Christian faith is not so much about our personal choices as it is about our communal identity as the people of God. Christians need a larger vision of what we are called to do as servants of Christ.

Discipleship is about more than knowing facts. Discipleship is about how we faithfully steward the gifts God has given us in the communities within which God has placed us. This is why Dr. Bacote said that Christians should commit to two things: practicing lament and engaging in the public sphere.

Lament is very different from despair. While despair wallows in sadness, lament culminates in hope. As the Psalmists, when we lament, we name the sinfulness of our condition and our world. But we also name the power of God to destroy all that harms and to put things right again.

Engagement in the public sphere is a matter of recognizing the calling that God has placed on our lives as the people of God sent on the mission of God. This means removing the barriers to the gospel wherever we find them: by serving in ministries of mercy, by living in relationship with those who are oppressed, by giving generously of our time and gifts, and by exercising our right to vote.

Our faith, like our God, cannot be relegated to spheres. The living God is active in all areas and calls us to join in this important work. This means speaking up for the biblical values that we treasure--values of loving our neighbor, welcoming the stranger, and honoring the value of every life created in God’s image. It means actively seeking to better understand our history and our present context, both here and around the globe. And it means recognizing and naming what is broken, and advocating for more just laws.  

In a world of despair and disengagement, God calls us to engagement and hope. It is a great responsibility, but also a privilege, and it is what faithfulness to God looks like.

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