By David Mason Barr
My parish, like many, has struggled to discern how we might think more carefully and holistically about the Church’s relationship to the current political climate. And so a few weeks ago we had the pleasure of hosting author Michael Wear. A former White House staffer, Wear served in President Obama’s faith-based initiative as an adviser on evangelical Christianity. He is the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2017), and he has found a stable niche advising religious and political organizations about the contemporary Christian landscape.
His talks were undoubtedly helpful to our politically diverse congregation, and most of us came away with a deeper desire to hear one another’s opinions and to love one another even in this volatile moment. And while I still am not sure how much our hope in Christ should prop up any faith in our politics, I came away thinking that perhaps some measure of discernible hope can and must spill over into the structures and institutions in which we are placed.
One of Wear’s main concerns is how the Church might think about politics as a way of blessing one’s neighbors. His aim here is to move beyond the Right’s Moral Majority efforts at cultural influence and the Left’s political activism. The Christian tradition, Wear argues, has its own goods to offer the political sphere — the distinct value of persons being made in God’s image, sacrificial care for the poor and distressed, etc.
Much of his effort is tough to argue against, in theory. Of course the Church should bless the world! Amen and amen. However, I admit to being initially skeptical.
Most of my thinking regarding the relationship between politics and the Church has been informed by the work of contemporary theologians — like Stanley Hauerwas, Philip Turner, and Ephraim Radner — who have a chastened optimism about Church and state working together meaningfully. Today’s Church, in my estimation, has overvalued cultural influence and political power, and undervalued her primary call to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body of Christ.
Christians have so focused on various agendas, programs, and strategies that they have forgotten how the Church herself might live within her God-ordained contours. Certainly this has been used as an excuse to be apolitical and avoid speaking against obvious injustice, but before the Church can do anything in our current moment, she must actually be something. A fragmented conglomeration of competing voices is not much of a voice at all.
So I have become increasingly wary of any Christian effort to influence the political order or speak out within the public square I am tempted to think of such efforts as naïve — perhaps theologically aware, but ecclesiologically unreflective and thus too optimistic. However, my mind changed as a few of us debated the contours of the Church in exile.
One of Wear’s primary scriptural points was the injunctive from Jeremiah 29:7 to “seek the welfare of the city.” I was quick to point out that this command also involved Judah’s nearly indistinguishable melding into the Babylonian world, taking part in pagan idolatry to the point that the Israelites almost seem unwilling to be ransomed from their captors. This text is not about missional attitudes but about divine judgment. And the point of divine judgment is above all repentance, not political engagement or mission.
What I realized was that the command to seek the welfare of Babylon was still clearly a command. Additionally, punishment and repentance do not necessarily occlude the call to serve, but accompany it.
Jeremiah’s prophetic word is certainly not naïve, and there is little about this situation of captivity that seems politically expedient. He demands that the Israelites resist listening to false prophets (vv. 8-9). And he is also clear that those who attempt to remain in Jerusalem will be punished in a more severe way (vv. 15-20). God demands that his correction be endured.
What is remarkable here is how God’s work of restoration actually begins in Babylon (vv. 12-13). The repentance almost seems designed to yield the spilling over of welfare and blessing in such a way that the care for the city also belongs to the penitent. And so the figure requires that the penance and the blessing go together. Israelites living in Babylon are to seek out the larger welfare of their enemies, presumably not just in isolated missional efforts, but as a punished people operating under the institutions and structures that keep them.
The struggle for the Church, of course, is her dilapidated state — disorganized, shrinking, and often superficially activist. But in terms of how smaller Christian communities and even individuals think about their relationship to the political world, the spiritual attitude that we should cultivate leans undoubtedly toward blessing, service, and repentance.
The Jeremiah passage pushes us to hold together a vision of the penitent Church as also the Church seeking out the welfare of her context — a Church living out her captivity and enduring correction while attending to the complex web of relationships and obligations that she does not choose for herself but yet is commanded to serve.
What this means practically is not entirely straightforward, but it probably does not fall perfectly within the available models: a kind of guarded caricature of a Benedict Option retreat; a political activism that hopes mostly in itself; or the Kuyperian search for a model of political engagement that is adequately thoughtful and strategic.
What Wear’s lectures forced me into realizing is how public our repentance must be. It’s not that Babylon cares about our struggles, or our God, or even our penitent tears. But if we genuinely want to seek the welfare of whatever cities we find ourselves within, the work will only rightly begin as we repent and seek God’s refashioning of our lives — and that of our neighbors.