Many Christians feel lost at sea this (U.S.) election. For some, the traditional loyalties that have anchored us have been severed. We have been thrown off-course, with no obvious way forward.
Perhaps our disorientation is prompting us to inquire freshly into how the biblical story engages American society. Perhaps during this election month, we can make some sweeping decisions about how we will think and live after the election. How can we re-narrate Christian politics in light of scripture? And, how can Christians model a new way of living in community?
Not only at the polling booth but also beyond this election, Christ followers can be guided by the biblical story. The Bible narrates Christ’s restoring purposes for His world. Scripture unfolds the true story of the world; it even tells us the story’s ending. In order to be faithful to this story, we need to regain a sense of our ‘otherness’ to the political process.
In a moment, I will offer seven trajectories from the biblical story that may guide us I our political engagement. A couple of initial thoughts for reflection: we cannot evaluate what is happening in an entire nation based on whether its President claims to be a Christian, or not. Voting should be steered by policy that honors Christ rather than by a candidate’s claim to Christian affiliation.
Also, voting out of a sense of our own place in the biblical story moves our politics beyond party lines. We can move beyond party-political allegiance to seek policy that reflects Christ’s purposes for His world.
A biblical vision for society
So much in scripture is relevant to this discussion, but for the purposes of this short article, let me offer seven trajectories from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy might be a surprising choice, but it makes sense as a biblical example for politics because it is the “national charter” for ancient Israel—Deuteronomy set the agenda for their nation.
Some background: Deuteronomy called ancient Israel to live as kin with one another (e.g. Deut 14:28-29; 15:2, 7; 16:11, 14; 24:14-15; Matt 5:21:24). People were to treat each another as family. Living together as family, everyone was to be given the opportunity to flourish, especially the slave, the widow, the refugee, and the orphan. All of these were to be kin.
Similarly, Christ followers are called to discern: which policies are calling our community to care for one another as family? Whose political talk is calling us to count a cost for others?
Now, seven trajectories that emerge from the biblical story. I chose these trajectories by discerning how the biblical story, especially Deuteronomy, encounters American society.
First, creation care
In Deuteronomy, the land and its abundance are gifted by Yahweh. So the creation is sacred (e.g. Deut 7:13; 8:10; 16:13-15; cf. Exod 23:10-12; Psalm 148:1-10). Wendell Berry writes that “we are . . . required to honor in all things the relation between the world and its Maker.” Arguably, climate change, in light of its sheer irreversibility, is the pressing concern facing this generation. We didn’t start it, but we are now responsible for it.
Second, protecting the most vulnerable
Scripture always places the ‘weakest’ at the center. Jesus had the reputation of eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners (Luke 15:1-2; 16:19-31). In Deuteronomy God demands: “There shall be no poor among you” (Deut 15:4; cf. Acts 4:34). God does not desire a ‘great’ or a ‘prosperous’ nation so much as a nation that lives well together, as sisters and brothers, as kin. This is true greatness. Examine each political party’s track record in helping the most vulnerable: those who are poor, mentally ill, incarcerated, or sick.
If human vulnerability requires our compassion, then vulnerability at the beginning of life and the end of life is also important. Abortion and assisted death should concern us deeply.
Third, protecting democracy
Scripture’s egalitarian ethic supports open political processes and fair voting procedures. Deuteronomy was remarkably democratic in its ancient context. The king was greatly constrained (Deut 17:14-20). The judiciary was to be selected by the whole people (Deut 16:18). The biblical trajectory of fairness, participation, and restraint for those with the most power is still relevant. We should inquire: which candidate will limit the influence of corporations and big private donors upon future elections? Which will promote equal electoral participation? If the answer is “neither,” then let’s make some noise!
Fourth, responsible governance
Deuteronomy provides instructions for the offices of the state: judiciary, king, priesthood, and prophet. These office holders must be fair (16:18-20), they must not seek power or notoriety (17:20) and they must protect the most vulnerable (1:16-18). Compare leaders to these standards of responsible, fair, and humble governance.
Fifth, responsibility toward people who are seeking a home
Deuteronomy commanded ancient Israel to “love the stranger” (Deut 10:19). To “love the stranger” literally meant to have a covenant commitment to the stranger (Deut 10:15-19)! This is the strongest possible language for including displaced people within a community as full participants (Deut 16:11, 14; 31:10-12). The Bible calls upon the U.S. to offer a radical welcome to refugees and to other immigrants who are seeking a home.
Sixth, resisting racism
In Deuteronomy, every person in the land was to be treated as a sister and a brother (1:16-17; 16:11, 14). This included ‘strangers’ and servants, many of whom were foreigners (5:12-15). God’s ancient people were to live as family together, and this is God’s desire for all of humanity (Matt 5:21-24; Gal 3:28; Rev 7:9). Christians should nurture politics that knits the nation together as family, dignifying every ethnicity and group and especially those with less power.
Seventh, from nationalism to servant hearted patriotism
God gives life to every person and to every nation, in love. This is a part of the message of the famous Psalm 36: “Your love Oh Lord, reaches to the heavens” (see especially vs. 7-9). Because of God’s love for every person and nation, all nations have a responsibility toward others.
Throughout history, tragically, God’s good gift of nationhood has been corrupted by nationalism, which makes an idol of the nation. Nationalistic currents exclude people who are not ‘us,’ and they promote military decisions and trade policies that are self-serving. Scripture invites us to embrace servant-hearted patriotism: one does need to love America less, in order to love other nations more.
Let’s pray for mustard seeds
Perhaps our present bewilderment is the Spirit’s invitation to discern freshly how the biblical story encounters American society. As for me, I don’t pray for a Christian America, for that phrase continues to do damage to the reputation of Christ across the globe. Rather, I pray for mustard seeds: that beyond this election, the Spirit would continue to cultivate humble worshipping communities who are busy discerning the idols of our culture, living in solidarity with the marginalized, and emanating the joy of Christ to their neighborhoods. Also, I pray that the Spirit will give Christ followers the mind of Christ as we approach November 8th. Amen.
Mark Glanville is teaching faculty at the Missional Training Centre, Phoenix (missionaltraining.org) and he pastors at Grandview Calvary Church, Vancouver. He wrote his PhD on Old Testament ethics.