What does political discipleship look like for those in the pews of our churches? It may be preachers’ work to begin the gospel proclamation in our communities, but it is our church communities who must continue that gospel proclamation by embodying and extending the politics of God’s Kingdom in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities.
In my suburban town, there is an abundance of empty houses and vacant storefronts from a long season of financial downturn in our area. One of these smaller homes sat on a triangular lot at the busy intersection of three streets, more visible at this active crossroads. Each year, the grass and weeds grew taller, the windows more cracked, the roof slanted more steeply. Every season it sat uncared for, the sight became even more hopeless—a kind of symbol of what was happening to our whole town.
Finally, after eight or nine years of the property slowly decaying, a multigenerational Latino family moved there. Within months, they had renovated the house—piles of old floorboards stacked by the curb for pickup were signs of internal renewal. Outside, a large garden plot was plowed, with chicken wire around it to keep out critters. The grass was mowed, the weeds were chopped down. Eventually, patio lights were strung between the old trees that dot the property, two tire swings were hung from branches, and a barbecue grill emerged on the scene. Now, each weekend, all those driving by the busy intersection witness family and friends gathered over a bountiful meal, smoke pluming from the grill, and festive music playing. My heart is warmed each time I see this sight. It gives me hope for what may become of the other empty properties in our little town.
This is the kind of image the church is meant to be for the world—a sign of what is possible when a Kingdom of love and restoration comes. This is what Adam Gustine refers to in his book Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom as “the church as parable.” Parables are stories about ordinary subjects, like soil, seeds, and water, but they are a subversive force because far from simply depicting ordinary things, they also explain how the Kingdom of God works (and as we have seen, God’s Kingdom works very differently than earthly kingdoms). In the same way, the church is to be ordinary yet subversive—a community where God’s intentions for the world are already being lived out in an ordinary people. Historical theologian Justo González refers to the church as a mañana people—a people who live out God’s vision for the future today.11 Revelation 21:3 points to the day when God’s Kingdom finally comes in full on earth: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” That is the glorious mañana hope we have. Yet as the church, our task is to be this community today—ordering our common life, or our politic, according to God’s Kingdom.
Early Christians embodied a community whose social and economic life stood in stark contrast to the Roman Empire, and through their witness—not just their verbal or individual witness, but their witness as a collective people—they exposed the evil of Rome. The emperor Julian lamented that the Christians, whom he called Galileans, showed up Rome in their charitable care for people the empire deemed unworthy of resources, saying, “It is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”13 In the hospitality they showed toward the vulnerable and in their inclusion of the most marginalized, they were considered strange. Additionally, Kaitlyn Schiess writes:
The apologist Tatian noted that the church included everyone in worship and organization, making “no distinctions in rank and outward appearance, or wealth and education, or age and sex.” In a society where Roman men often pressured women to get dangerous abortions and let female infants die of exposure, the Christian community created lower mortality rates for women because of a different social ethic that valued the contributions of women—single and married—for the good of the community.
The early church didn’t just speak about a new Kingdom politic. They lived it in their concern for the sick and poor and in their refusal to kill their enemies. And they gave their ultimate love and allegiance to Christ as King, even at the expense of torture and death. Early Christians did not have voting rights (most election processes in Rome had been undermined by Caesar Augustus by Jesus’ time, and even before that, only Roman male citizens could vote), nor could they politically lobby for their preferred policies. But the early church had a political power that transcended those things—the power of their common life together, which bore witness to the truth that it is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, who is truly Lord.
Unfortunately, ask many people today and they will tell you that this is not the reputation that the church in the United States currently holds. It is the job of the church in the coming generations to reclaim its witness as an embodied “Kingdom of God” politic, so that we might become a “visible manifestation of God’s deliverance breaking into our world in a tangible manner.” Much of this work must begin with repentance over the ways we are entangled in domination, greed, and inequity.
While the church will never be perfect in the living out of a Kingdom politic, committing ourselves to the distinct politic internally is imperative if we are to prophetically witness to the world and extend that politic into our neighborhoods, communities, and nations. As we do so, our love for neighbor and our call to care for the most vulnerable in our society will bring us into contact with the political machinations of our neighborhoods, villages, and nation. Pastor William H. Lamar IV says:
We must be bold to advocate the politics of God’s realm in the church and outside of the church. I tell political leaders that we can afford good education in Washington, D.C., because God requires it. I tell elected officials that we can pay a living wage because God requires it. I organize to put pressure on Democrats and Republicans because theirs is the politics of expediency, ours is the politics of a new heaven and a new earth.
. . . Like Jesus, and many of my ancestors in faith, I want to live and to die for the politics of God’s reign. If these politics do not animate our prayers, songs, sermons, and testimonies, our speech is reduced to sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
What does it look like for the church to extend the politics of the Kingdom with prophetic hope and to engage the political systems of our neighborhoods and nations? It must look like Jesus. An extended Kingdom politic looks like advocacy for the poor and unprotected. It looks like economic policies that alleviate the burden of debt, and social policies that honor all people as worthy of care and inclusion. It looks like an engagement out of love for our neighbors and communities, while maintaining a distinction in the way we are willing to accomplish our vision—not resorting to corruption, abuse of power, or violence, yet not shying away from exposing and naming these things when we see them.
The way of earthly politics is to ask, What policies best serve me? Yet disciples of Jesus must be formed out of the ways of a politic of self-interest into a politic of neighborly love.
Finally, while Republicans and Democrats in our nation’s two-party system vie for our allegiance, as Christ followers we can recognize that either party will be greatly inadequate and undeserving of our full allegiance because no political party fully embodies the politics of Jesus. Given this reality, political diversity about US national politics will always exist within the church, and there will be vehement disagreements among the people in our pews about which candidate or which policy best embodies the politics of Jesus.
Faithful discipleship will engage in such disagreements as opportunities for deeper dialogue—and sincere challenge. In our differences, rather than seeking some middle ground or avoiding the messiness of disagreement altogether, we must let our commitment to the kind of politic named in this chapter be the basis for our unity, our guiding compass, and the grounds on which we challenge one another. Questions like, What will this policy do for the most vulnerable populations among us? or How does this political strategy reflect the ways of Jesus? must be part of the curriculum of our political discipleship and shared life.