Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflections on Christian political engagement

2016 has been quite a year for political debate. As I have been reflecting on the Church’s role in politics, two points stand out in my mind. (These are general observations; they have nothing to do with Trump or any other current event.)

1. We need to be more humble.

Politics tends to make fools of us. When I was working in the aerospace industry, I never had anyone from my church tell me how I should design satellites. This is because we recognize that building a satellite is a complex task that requires specialized training. And yet, when it comes to global economics or foreign policy, I often hear Christians talking as if it is the Church’s job to tell the government how to do it right. Surely, however, the problems posed by global economics and foreign policy are far more complex and unbounded than the problems I tackled as an engineer. How should a seminary degree make one any more competent to recommend economic or foreign policy than to advise in satellite design?

Often, Christians seem to be operating on the rather self-righteous assumption that the government does not really care about justice, and the Church must therefore speak prophetically against the corruption and bigotry of the state. Having just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I recognize that this assumption is sometimes justified. Most politicians, however, are genuinely seeking to create a just and prosperous society. We must have the humility to recognize that people may seek the same goals we seek without endorsing the policies we prefer.  

2. We need to carefully distinguish error from sin.

There is a difference between being wrong and committing sin. For example, consider a question of modern physics: does dark energy exist? Two Christians may disagree on the answer to this question. Since dark energy either exists or does not exist, both Christians cannot be right. Nevertheless, the Christian who gets the answer wrong has not committed a sin; he or she has simply made a mistake.

Likewise, Christians may disagree on most questions in politics without committing sin. Take for example the issue of gun control. Christians stand on both sides of this issue. Some genuinely believe that increasing gun restrictions will reduce violence; others genuinely believe that reducing gun restrictions will reduce violence. Of course, both sides cannot be right, but this does not mean that one side is guilty of sin.    

Nevertheless, there are certain issues on which Christians must agree. An obvious example from American history is slavery. Two hundred years ago, Christians stood on both sides of this issue. Some genuinely believed slavery was a great injustice; others genuinely believed slavery was morally acceptable. The latter were not only wrong; they were also sinning. They had not simply made an erroneous calculation or misinterpreted the data; they had violated the law of love which lies at the heart of the Christian faith. 

In engaging modern political debates, the Church needs to exercise careful discernment in determining which issues are non-negotiable and which issues are open for debate.