Rector's Blog: When Jesus Votes
In Ireland, during the Troubles, if someone was asked, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” and they responded, “I’m an atheist,” the question would come back immediately, “But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"
During the long conflict over the status of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom, being Catholic became shorthand for pro-independence, while Protestant meant crown loyalist. It didn’t matter what your actual religious beliefs were – not really: For most people, this was not primarily a question about Jesus. This was a question about country and ideology.
While the United States is not currently at the level of upheaval Ireland experienced during those days, we are in a place of deep division. And many of the conversations I’ve witnessed or participated in could be boiled down to this exchange:
"Are you a conservative or a liberal?"
"But are you a conservative Christian or a liberal Christian?"
Being a Christian and an American is in many ways a dual citizenship. In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he makes a point of saying our primary citizenship is in God’s Kingdom, not Rome, that our primary allegiance was to Jesus not Caesar. And so it is meant to be with us: We are Christians before we are Americans, and we seek to follow Jesus not Trump or Biden.
Paul is writing the letter from jail, where he has been confined because his work is in this world and requires him to believe and say and do things that are political. Eventually he’ll be put to death by the state because his actions are illegal and deemed a threat to the status quo of the day.
That we tend not to see Jesus himself as a political prisoner speaks to our tenuous grasp on the context of his life and work. Being faithful to God does not propel Jesus out of the world, nor does it shield him from its harsh realities. Rather, Jesus’ faithful participation in God’s work compels him to live as if this world and its people matter; like his words and actions have an impact on the here and now.
We cannot recuse ourselves from the world around us: We have a part to play in its shaping. Neither can we check our faith at the door when we walk into this world to do God’s work. Christians are meant to take seriously the part Jesus plays in shaping us as citizens of this country. I know sometimes I'm more interested in allowing my political ideology to define my understanding of Jesus. Sometimes we act like liberals and conservatives first, then figure out how to cram Jesus’ endorsement into our pre-existing worldview.
I mentioned last week that I do a lot of premarital counseling. The work is not about the wedding: It’s about the marriage. It’s not about a single moment, but about a lifetime of daily fidelity. It’s about a faithfulness that draws us deeper - not deeper into an idealized future nor deeper into our own ruts and foxholes. No, it’s a fidelity that is meant to draw us more deeply into one another.
I consistently use the work of John Gottman as one of my guides, and he has taught me something powerful about marriage: He says that in a healthy marriage, two people are influenced by one another. We are often taught to be weary of being influenced by others – that our individual identity and autonomy are the highest priority. And surely there are ways in which influence can be coercive and damaging. But Gottman points out that in a healthy relationship of mutuality, we learn from one another, we are influenced by one another, we take on some of each other's likes and priorities. We are shaped in marriage, and this can be a very good thing.
Maybe you tend towards a liberal or progressive worldview. Maybe you have more of a conservative understanding of things. How is Jesus influencing you? How are you allowing yourself to be influenced and shaped by the one to whom you’re tied for all eternity? I don't mean to suggest that a real Christian can’t be either conservative or liberal: we can. I also don’t mean to suggest a false equivalency, saying, “It doesn’t matter how you vote, so long as you go to church!” There are real issues before our country right now: How we get through this pandemic, how we address inequity, how we work for racial justice, just to name three that are already on your mind.
We are called the Body of Christ. This means that when we vote Jesus isn’t just in the booth with us looking over our shoulder: When we vote, we are representing Jesus in this world. If that makes you uncomfortable, good. Me too. We want to recognize this responsibility. We want to recognize our Christian identity fully in our words and in our deeds – and in our votes.
To this end, I am so proud of Church of the Redeemer’s participation in the political system this election: Please check out our Vote Faithfully page on our website. The page has important information on casting your own ballots, as well as opportunities to drive people to the polls and serve as a poll worker. As our Presiding Bishop says, “It is a Christian obligation to vote, and more than that, it is the church’s responsibility to help get souls to the polls."
As we seek to embody Christ in this political world, we also want to recognize ourselves as works in progress. We are not going to get it all right. We want to recognize that our very system is a work in progress – that we are not always going to like the choices we are being asked to make. We will not all get on the same page between now and election day. Please remember that faithfulness to God propelled Jesus and his followers more deeply into care for this imperfect world and care for one another. Our fidelity to God requires our fidelity to one another, our care for one another, our ability to be influenced by each other, and our loving participation in this flawed system. There is a life after election day, and we will belong to each other then too.
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