With Election Day just 17 days away, I’m compelled to address politics. I feel like it would be negligent for me not to. Relax. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, or take the presumptuous tone of a bumper sticker that says, “You can’t be Christian and [insert stance on a political issue].”
Still, why is a column about “faith and values” speaking about politics? Well, to quote another bumper sticker, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus certainly spoke politically in words and actions. When he said the meek shall inherit the earth, when he healed people on the Sabbath, when he associated with Roman centurions and outcast lepers alike, and when he peacefully rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, the center of political power, with the people receiving him as the Messiah who would overthrow the Roman empire and return Israel to its former glory, he was an embodiment of political discourse. Ultimately, Jesus was executed for being too political, but I doubt any follower of Christ today would say that he should have kept quiet.
Still, talking about politics is challenging. It’s nerve-racking to speak politically in certain social circles and even with family. Why is this? Are we worried that we don’t know enough, and we might sound ignorant? Is it because we don’t want to rock the boat? Or is it because talking about politics exposes our allegiances? If people see where we stand, they get a clearer picture of who we really are, the values we aspire to, and the things to which we pledge our loyalty. When it comes to one’s discipleship with Christ, that loyalty is a pledge of our whole life, and no one wants to be exposed as a hypocrite.
In baptism, Christians give their lives to Christ — which, in and of itself, is an overtly political act. In her book The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor, Kaitlyn Schiess compares baptism to a naturalization ceremony. Like naturalization, baptism is the moment when we pledge allegiance to Christ the King, enlisting ourselves to the mission of God, and affirming our heavenly citizenship. The Rev. Anna Humble of United Christian Church, Austin, preaches, “Baptism is, and always has been, a profoundly political act, wherein distinctions of race, class, gender and ability are washed away, and all become one in Christ Jesus.” Schiess writes that in Jesus’ day, “everything revolved around the Roman ‘domination system.’ There were rulers and the ruled, and your identity was based on who you had authority over and who had authority over you.”
This is the context into which Jesus gives us a baptism that overturns empirical power structures. As Jesus says, the first are last, and the last are first.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the resurrected Jesus appears to his followers and tells them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” That verse has been the rallying cry for many a Christian mission trip, several of which I’ve led before. The Rev. Humble points out, however, that this misses the political significance of that “Great Commission.” The nations Jesus spoke of baptizing were the same nations over which Rome had ultimate authority. Essentially, the disciples are being told, “Go and make defectors.” Humble concludes, “Their commission was, quite literally, to invite Roman subjects to pledge allegiance to a new kingdom and a new King.”
That new King, Jesus of Nazareth, spoke politically by saying that there is no greater command on our lives than to love God fully, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Following Jesus baptizes those who follow him into that body politic.
Loving people, no matter who they were or where they came from, was an overtly political act then, and it remains so now. This is because love, the kind of love Jesus requires his followers to practice, is not individualistic, but always looks out for the common good. In other words, love is not limited to me and mine, but is meant to be lavished on the whole neighborhood with radical, countercultural generosity until there is no longer any manipulative power differential of us and them, pure and impure, housed and unhoused, wealthy and impoverished, gay and straight, able-bodied and differently-abled, cisgender and gender non-conforming, for we are all one in the love of God that is too big for self-serving politics.
It is impossible to compartmentalize our faith from our politics, because to love as God loves is overtly political. So, I’m not telling you who to vote for, but I am suggesting how we vote. “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
When it comes to our political decision-making, it’s not about what will benefit or vindicate me, but about what will make our neighborhood more like that kingdom Jesus talked about so unabashedly that he was willing to die for it, the same kingdom that Christians pray will come right here and now on earth as it is in heaven. Above all else, though, good neighbor, remember in all your political speech, actions and decision-making that love does no harm.