Things are tense out there.
It doesn’t take more than a casual glance at news headlines to see that things are pretty spicy at the moment. Flavours of the day include Covid restrictions and mandates, vaccination debates, the Trucker Convoy and subsequent Emergency Act invocation by Parliament (now repealed), race and LGBTQ+ issues, financial inequality, and many others. A look at the news or social media, or even just casual conversations reveals that there’s a lot of anger and a huge difference of opinion on many of these issues.
That’s not surprising, really. There’s a lot of fear and a deep sense of injustice – whether we see that as being perpetrated by the government, the “privileged”, the media, powerful institutions or individuals, or really anyone who disagrees with us… As I said, the tension isn’t really surprising. Political and social discourse are always tense subjects and prone to significant differences of opinions and fights. This is nothing new.
What is most concerning to me is the extent to which this fear, anger and fighting has permeated the church. I observe it in the posts that many Christians make, in the debates that I hear, and in the priorities that I see and hear from many in the church. It seems that many in the church have turned social issues into the primary focus of their life and discourse, whether that is against the government, in favour of justice for various oppressed groups, or just a general desire to see society become a “better place” – however we define that phrase. It is an approach that makes me wonder if we, as the church, have lost our way.
Now, let’s clarify things that I’m not saying. I’m not saying that we, as Christians, should withdraw from the world and have no say in things. We are still members of society. Therefore, we should vote. We should know where we stand on various social issues and be able to explain our stance. We should participate in civil discourse about the direction that we feel like society should go and the changes that should happen. I am not arguing that we should ignore society around us; rather, it is the degree of passion and the focus that we put on these things that concern me. I am concerned that we have moved from primarily being people focused on the Kingdom of God to being people focused primarily on maintaining or establishing a perfect earthly kingdom. It seems that our focus has shifted and is markedly different from what we see in both Jesus and the early church.
If we go to the Old Testament, we find that God’s first step in his plan of salvation was to call Abraham and to promise to make him a great nation. And He did. Abraham “begat” Isaac, who then begat Jacob, who then had 12 sons that became tribes, and eventually the nation of Israel. God called them out of Egypt, gave them a land and laws, and called them a nation. Here’s the thing:
It didn’t work.
Even with God as their head and laws given specifically by Him, the nation of Israel was a pretty spectacular failure. They simply didn’t obey. They turned aside repeatedly, spurned what was right, and eventually were punished with exile. God Himself could not legislate correct behaviour or turn a group of people into a successful, righteous nation – so why do we think we can do it? The nation of Israel was such a spectacular failure that God completely changed His approach. (Of course, I think it’s fair to argue that God had this in mind the whole time, but that’s a different discussion).
In the New Testament, the approach of Jesus was significantly different. There are some that argue that Jesus’ message was entirely political – he spoke of a kingdom, opposed the Jewish leadership of the time, and was crucified through a political process. There’s no doubt that Jesus’ words and actions caused some political turmoil. And yet, it’s really hard to read the gospels and feel like Jesus was making a deliberate effort to “be political” or even to be an activist for social change.
What we see in Jesus is an ongoing ministry to individuals. Yes, sometimes those individuals gathered and he taught them in groups, but he was worried primarily about individuals. He healed people individually as they came to him. He cast demons out of individuals. His focus was primarily on proclaiming a message to individuals – “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near” – and then demonstrating what that Kingdom should look like. But I just can’t see any indication that he did this in such a way that he was trying to gain political power or change the country at a social level. In fact, when they did try to proclaim him as king, he deliberately escaped them. Jesus’ focus was on calling individuals to decide whether they were for God and His Kingdom or not.
I see the same in Paul and the early disciples. Sure, Paul got imprisoned and ended up in front of some politicians (perhaps even Caesar at some point, although there’s no clear evidence that his appeal to Caesar in Acts 25 was ever actually fulfilled). But I can’t see any indication through his missionary journeys that he was attempting to overthrow the government, take on political power, or enact social change. Nor do I see that in his writings. The entire focus was on calling individuals to faith in Jesus and to change their lives accordingly.
All of that makes me very concerned to see the degree to which many Christians (certainly not all) seem to believe it is their purpose to right all the injustices of society, enact laws in line with Christian teaching, or to protect our “rights and freedoms”. It’s not that it’s wrong to want some of these things, it’s just that many Christians seem to have put all of their hope in achieving these objectives, when we know from thousands of years of history, including the nation of Israel, that they will never be achieved. Jesus said plainly that we would always have the poor with us, and I think the same is true politically and socially – we will always have corruption, bad laws, some degree of authoritarianism, and injustice. This is the human world that we live in, and no amount of attempted political or social change will get rid of it. In fact, our pursuit of these other goals causes significant problems for Christianity.
There are three main concerns that come to mind.
First, there is a degree of anger that goes along with this political and social discourse that does not look even remotely honouring to God. And yes, I’m talking about Christians – if I was to judge Christianity by the political and social discourse that I see from many Christians, I would run far away. And I think many are doing just that.
Second, the political and social agendas of many Christians seem to dramatically take away from the amount of time and energy spent on building God’s Kingdom. The message of Jesus and Paul (“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near”) seems to rarely be proclaimed – or if it is, it’s deeply clichéd and just thrown out there as another meme rather than personally proclaimed and demonstrated to those around us.
My third concern is that power and politics tend to lead to both corruption and resentment, and the attempt by many Christians to use these means to change society seems to be backfiring. Aside from the fact that political and social change has never led anyone to Christ (or rarely, at the very least), trying to force society in a certain direction creates significant animosity, no matter how good the ideas may be for society. It also often creates false ideas about Christianity, mainly that it is a religion of power and, therefore, no different than any other political system.
My point is fairly simple. Both Jesus and Paul, as well as the early church, seemed to have their focus firmly set on calling individuals to faith in God, and from there to a changed life. In our present day, I hear way more from Christians about how we need to change government or society to protect or improve it. I’m not so sure that Jesus or Paul would have recognized this message. I think they might have been baffled by our insistence that somehow we can change humanity by changing society rather than changing the individual.
Again, it’s not that I’m opposed to social and political discourse, it’s just that it is a distant secondary goal. We first proclaim and demonstrate the good news of Jesus in our relationships and community. Since we believe that most of the world’s problems are caused by human sinfulness, it makes sense that our focus should be on our primary purpose – reconciling people to God – not on trying to change the outward realities of society and ignoring the heart of individuals.
It is only secondarily that we discuss changes that we think would be beneficial on a larger scale. And even then, we do so calmly, recognizing that we will never get rid of injustice or solve the world’s problems. We speak humbly and with peace, hoping to make a difference, but knowing that many will simply not listen and that the changes (or protections) we think are important may never come about. And that’s okay (as in, we can be okay despite that), because ultimately our hope doesn’t rest on a perfect government or society, but in Jesus and his Kingdom.
I guess the practical question would be this: Do my words and actions show that I am primarily interested in proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom of God, or that I’m mainly interested in shaping our society to be what it should be with little to no mention of the need for individuals to change their hearts to love and follow God? A second question would be: Do people see me trusting and peaceful that God’s Kingdom will triumph regardless of what happens with our government and society, or do they see me angry and full of angst because the world or society is not doing what I believe they should?
What would it look like if our primary focus lined up with Jesus’ primary focus – the reconciliation of individuals with their God and creator? If we pursue changed hearts, we will see society change, even if it’s slow. If we pursue a perfect society, we will see only frustration and resentment. Let us choose wisely.
Too long, didn’t read (Summary)
It seems like the focus of many Christians, and even churches, has moved from the primary purpose of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and demonstrating what that looks like to pursuing a better society through social change/activism and political power. When we look at Jesus and the early apostles, they never pursued these goals. Their entire focus was on proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom to individuals. Just as the poor will always be with us, so will all the other ills of society to various degrees. As citizens, we can and should participate in political and social discourse, but always with the understanding that our goal is to grow God’s Kingdom, and we will never achieve the goal of a just, ideal society. Our best hope to move that direction is to call individuals to reconciliation with God, and to allow Him to change them. “If we pursue changed hearts, we will see society change, even if it’s slow. If we pursue a perfect society, we will see only frustration and resentment.”