Although I hate cold weather, there is something truly wonderful about this time of year. The leaves are bursting forth with an exciting array of diverse colors, the holidays are fast approaching, and… well, pumpkin spiced everything! But, what I truly abhor, even beyond the more frigid climate is the political deluge that we all suddenly find ourselves in again. I can’t watch television, listen to the radio, or even feed my YouTube addiction without hearing one political party flinging poo … er, I mean mud at the other one. And you know what, nobody is surprised. In fact, we expect it. This sort of trash-talking is so much a part of politics that we wouldn’t even recognize it if it wasn’t so dirty. I’ll be honest, if publicly approved slander wasn’t slathered across my TV screen, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it was election season.
And yet, in the midst of all this “patriotism” Christians are encouraged to participate via their votes. Now, I’ve nothing personal against Christians who vote. I mean, hell, knock yourself out. But I just want to offer a different perspective. Because rather than seeing it as my Christian duty to vote, it is my faith that actually compels me not to vote.
Despite what you might think from how Christians often act or speak around this time of year, Jesus actually had very little, if anything, to say about governmental politics.1 And when you think about how incredibly politically-charged first century Palestine was, it is truly amazing that he said next to nothing about governments, especially the Roman government. There are, however, a few times that Jesus and the political arena cross paths.
One of those times would be when the Pharisees (and their fellow haters) tried to trap Jesus between two strongly opposing political parties.2 You see, in the first century, the Jews were on extremely shaky ground with the Roman government, which is actually putting it rather lightly. The Jews were known for their frequent rebellions, perpetrated by insurgents known as Zealots, who were often led by a self-proclaimed Messiah (since the Jews believed that their “chosen one” would be a fierce political/military leader who would overthrow their oppressors and restore the glory days of Israel’s Davidic dynasty). Well, because of all this tension, there arose two parties of Jews with regard to paying taxes – those who believed that paying taxes was necessary to keep the peace with Rome, and those who believed that paying taxes to Caesar was an acceptance of Roman rule.
Well, onto the scene steps Jesus, and knowing how popular he is becoming with the crowds, the Pharisees present him with this hot-button issue in the hopes that no matter which side he chooses he will inevitably alienate half of the people. So, they ask him, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In response, Jesus asks to see a coin, and questions, “Whose picture is on this coin?” Caesar’s, obviously. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And all three Synoptic Gospels say that the people were amazed at this teaching.
Now, here is what Jesus is not doing by saying this. He is not choosing a side. You see, the issue behind the issue is the question, “To whom should our allegiance go, Caesar or God?” Jesus is saying, give Caesar his money, and give God your allegiance – an answer that neither the Romans nor the Zealots would have liked. But that’s just how Jesus rolls; he finds the third option that cuts to the heart of the problem. A second thing that Jesus is not doing is that he is not telling people to be politically active. He wouldn’t have to. The Zealots were more than willing to be politically active, even to the point of militancy. What Jesus is saying is that politics and governments, soldiers and Caesars aren’t where our concern should be. So, Caesar Augustus wants your money. So what? It’s his graven image on it anyway, along with the inscription divi filius (“son of god”). I mean, it’s not like the religiously pious were too holy to spend the money.
So, to our knowledge, this is the closest that Jesus ever gets to taking a political stand. And what does he do? He essentially calls for a separation of church and state. He effectively opts out of the discussion while, at the same time, pointing people to the real issue to be dealt with – where our loyalties reside. This teaching alone should give us pause when it comes to thinking that loyalty to God means participating in the political arena.
Just like the taxes incident, Jesus at another time explains the difference between how governments work and how his kingdom works. At one point in his ministry, his disciples are arguing over who would be the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom.3 Jesus hears their bickering and says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”
Jesus is showing the incredible upside-down nature of the kingdom of God. Worldly governments function based on power struggles. The idea there is to gain the upper hand on other people and subjugate them to your rule. Jesus’ kingdom, however, works the other way. The idea here is to place yourself below others, to serve them and honor them as being above yourself.
No matter how you cut it, the self-sacrificial nature of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the self-asserting nature of worldly kingdoms. The two realms are running in opposite directions. One is about placing your status, your views, your opinions, your values, and your agenda above that of your opponents. The other is about placing yourself under. Now, when it comes to trying to vote a politician into office, which one of those comes closest?
I think that when we think of it in these terms, Jesus-like terms, we can see the cultural imperative to vote for what it really is. Sure, it’s not a violent expression of vying for dominancy over others; but, it is still just that – trying to gain the upper hand so we can assert ourselves and our agendas.
Now, this raises the question – what about voting on issues that don’t assert yourself over others. I suppose in those cases, I wouldn’t have anything really against voting. However, I think if you are open and honest about each and every political issue, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t force your views on other people to one degree or another. All in all, it is the kingdom of God, and not any earthly kingdom, that will save the world; and the kingdom of God is about servant power from placing ourselves below others, not overlord power from placing ourselves above them.
Last of all,4 I think that we should consider a very telling event that took place at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Right after being baptized, Jesus is led out into the wilderness where he is tested and tempted by none other than the Devil himself.5 Both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels record three specific temptations that the Devil presented to Jesus, one of which was the temptation of political power.
Taking Jesus to the top of a mountain, the Devil shows him all of the worldly kingdoms. “You can have these,” he tells the young Messiah, “if only you will bow before me.” But Jesus doesn’t do it. All the kingdoms of all the world – Persian, Roman, Chinese, and Mayan6 – and Jesus wouldn’t do it. Think about that. We will opt into the power-over politics of the world, even though it runs contrary to Jesus’ kingdom. We will engage in “justified” violence, even though it runs contrary to Jesus’ teachings. I think that given the opportunity to gain global political dominance, there are probably few (if any) politically-minded Christians who wouldn’t be willing to compromise on this point.
In fact, compromise is exactly what the church ended up doing some 300 years after Jesus. In the 4th century, the Roman emperor Constantine offered the church political power. We accepted that offer, and within a few short years Christians are no longer being martyred for their faith; on the contrary, we have begun killing others. You see, even though it took a few centuries, eventually the Devil was able to convince Jesus’ followers to take the very same bribe that Jesus had initially refused.
And that, my friends, is why I don’t vote. Because I am tired of the church looking like Rome. I am tired of the power struggles and the culture wars. I am heartbroken and weary by the amount of damage “Christian politics” has brought to our world. And I don’t think that the problem is that we just haven’t quite found the right way to run a “Christian government,” or that Christians just haven’t had enough political power to really pull it off. Somehow, we got it in our mind that we could give our allegiance to Caesar, seek power over others, accept the Devil’s offer, and in the end come out looking good. But we haven’t. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
In church we often sing this song that says, “In Christ alone my hope is found.” I once heard someone ask, “If you haven’t yet lost all hope in all politicians, can you really claim that all your hope, and your only hope, is in Jesus Christ?” I don’t think you can. As long as we have any hope in politics and government to save our world, to right the wrongs of social injustice, to create a better and brighter tomorrow, we have held back part of our hope from Jesus and placed it somewhere else.
In Christ alone my hope is found. Not partially. Not primarily. But, alone.
Why waste my time voting then?
1: I say “governmental politics” because I want to distinguish that I am speaking specifically about governmental affairs. Some theologians refer to theology being “political” in the sense of being concerned about the polis (the general populace). But, for the sake of this blog post, when I say “politics” I’m referring to things directly tied to our government.
2: Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26
3: Mt 20:20-28; Mk 10:42-45; Lk 22:25-27; remember at this point that they are still envisioning the kingdom of God as a political Davidic sort of earthly realm.
4: For this blog. I could certainly add a ton more to this issue.
5: Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13
6: To name just the big ones in just the first century