Engaging the Public Square as Christians: A Challenge and a Conundrum

The sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18—2:5 today in church triggered a lot of thoughts about how Christians should interact with and behave in the public square.

This is an ugly election season. Neither major candidate is a model of moral integrity, and the behaviors of both in the public square in their exercise of power (whether financial or political) leave much to be desired. Sadly, some Christians are lining up behind each candidate and defend that person in ways similar to those employed by secular political pundits and strategies:

  • Excuse or minimize unethical actions or words. Instead of admitting the ethical shortcomings of their candidate, these Christians will say that the bad things about their candidate are misreported or that what has been said and done is not really that bad (especially in comparison with the other candidate!!).
  • Deflect criticism. This tactic attempts to shift attention away from the candidate by changing conversation to another topic. It is not about the manipulation of power to gain a presidential nomination, it is about the Russians hacking emails! It is not about saying outlandish things on a whole series of topics, it is about the media that distort everything!
  • Ignore other input. The two major news services are blatantly partisan and one-sided, but Christians on either side of the divide will only read the input that confirms their prejudices and political choices (because the other news outlet is always false or twisted in its agenda!).
  • Demonize the opponent. Both sides are now demonizing the other candidate in their speeches, commercials, and biased news services.
  • Make apocalyptic predictions. The candidates and the media are full of apocalyptic rhetoric, so typical of an election cycle. The other candidate will lead the country to inevitable ruin from which there will be no return.

The Bible tells us throughout its pages, both in the Old and New Testaments, that the character of leaders matters. As I listen to some fellow Christians, this is not taken seriously enough for both candidates. The character discussion tends to be about the other candidate, who is viewed as the enemy. Thus, it is possible to fall into mirroring the dominant cultural political narratives, tactics, and attitudes in ways that can override biblical mandates. The Apostle Paul in this passage is calling us to a very striking counter-cultural way, a life of testimony to the Crucified and Resurrected Christ in humility and service.

This is the challenge. Is it possible to get involved in such a sordid political climate without being consumed by the cultural mindset and way of doing things, even if one is convinced it is for a worthy cause? If involvement is the option, to what extent and why? How do we live a life of humility and powerlessness before a sinful world? Are we willing to plead for God’s mercy for both, deeply flawed candidates, either of whose election might not bode well for the country and perhaps the church?

The conundrum is that the people of God also are called to have a prophetic voice in the world. How to do this with a 1 Corinthians 1-2 perspective and set of commitments? How to work for change (not power!) without compromising the cross and our faith?

I can offer no solutions. Perhaps we simply must live with the tension between the challenge and the conundrum, ever mindful of both. How can we be truly Christian at such a time as this?

August 13, 2016

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