A week and a half ago, I was invited to give a lecture at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA on “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian Citizen?” It was a great blessing to be hosted by such a thoughtful and engaged congregation, and a great opportunity to present in relatively-concise form many of the thoughts I’ve been pondering and researching the past few years about Christian political identity. You can read the full text and hear the full audio of the lecture at the Davenant Trust’s website, and I encourage you to do so, but here is an excerpt that will hopefully stand well on its own, developing the first half of Luther’s famous dialectic in The Freedom of a Christian:
What does it mean for a Christian to be the “free lord of all”? Freedom is of course the dominant theme of American political discourse, even if we rarely know quite what we mean by it. This theme also dominates not merely Luther’s writings, but the New Testament as well. Galatians 5:1 proclaims, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” In Romans 6:13-14, Paul admonishes us, “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” And in the next chapter he says, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ. . . . But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom. 7:4, 6) And then just a bit later, in one of the most famous chapters of Scripture, we read,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . .
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:31-39)
What is this message of freedom? It is a proclamation of freedom from sin, from death, and from the law, the three masters that have enslaved fallen man since Adam. But how? For we know too well that we are not free from any of these three things in the sense of having them wholly removed from us. We all still sin daily, hourly, sometimes grievously. We are all still under the authorities of laws of all sorts—not just the civil laws that we are so fond of complaining and bickering about, but the moral law of Scripture and nature that governs all our conduct and reveals the fact that we sin daily and hourly. And of course, we are all subject to death, the ever-present reality of futility, grief, and separation that we in the modern world have sought to hide ourselves from but which has a way of thrusting itself into our lives when we least expect it. So in what does our freedom consist? It is that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Death is not a separation for the faithful, but a reunion. Sin is a separation only if harbored and clung to. And therefore the Law draws us toward God rather than highlighting how far short of him we fall.
In short, the freedom of a Christian is the freedom from fear. Hebrews 2:14-15: “he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And 1 John says,
“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (4:16-20)
What does all this have to do with a Christian’s citizenship? Everything. Consider how much of our lives of earthly citizenship are dominated by fear. Fear of enemies abroad drives our defense policy. Perhaps even more intensely in recent years, fear of our political foes at home drives our partisanship and our voting. Consider this election. Most voters hate both Hillary and Donald, or did at least when they felt they had other options. So why are they they voting for them? Because they’re terrified of the alternative. By stoking and channeling fear of Hillary, Trump has managed to sustain a strong coalition through every misstep and humiliation. And likewise Hillary with Trump. Fear of persecution, of loss of influence, or simply fear of regulation and taxation, hits to our pocketbooks, drives most of American politics. And of course, when you put it this this way, you should see that the Christian’s earthly citizenship includes an awful lot more than politics strictly speaking. Our social lives, beginning with kindergarten and continuing right through our careers, are dominated by the kind of jostling for position driven by fear of being an outsider, fear of being unpopular, unloved, or insignificant. Fear of change, change that might destabilize things I hold dear, or leave me marginalized, is another dynamic that drives our social lives. The same dynamics underlie so much of church politics as well.
Such fear is to some extent inevitable whenever we try to find meaning or rest our identity in our social lives, for we are restlessly seeking something that our souls can rest secure in, and nothing finite and fallible can possibly provide such security. When those around us fail, then even when we turn to religion to sustain us, we seek security in our own actions and merits, hoping to impress God somehow so that he will give us his stamp of approval.
It is to all this that the New Testament, and later the Protestant Reformation, pronounces a firm “No.” In Christ alone we find our rest, we find our safety, we find our security, and in Christ as grasped by faith alone, not earned by any works or status. In him alone we are to find meaning, in him alone we are to root our identity, and having done so, we find that this identity is unshakeable whatever the world may throw against us. Our family may fail us, our church may blow apart in an ugly scandal, our government may turn godless, or crumble altogether, or fall to an invading hoard, and yet the Christian need not and should not fear or lose heart. This is what it means for Paul to say that “our citizenship is in heaven,” that “our lives are hid with Christ in God.”
The primacy of this citizenship serves to radically qualify and relativize all earthly loyalties and sources of identity, to establish a radical detachment from all earthly attachments. By this means the Christian learns to walk by faith and not by sight, clinging not to the things that pass away, but to the source of resurrection life. . . .
Whereas the majority of earthly politics proceeds on the basis of fear, the Christian’s political engagement ought to be characterized by a profound freedom from fear. Yes, bad politics can do a great deal of evil, and we should not be apathetic or complacent. But bad politics, even at its worst, cannot do as much evil as we often fear—it cannot bring the world to an end, it cannot overthrow the kingship of Christ or frustrate God’s purposes in the world, it cannot even succeed in separating a single saint from his Lord. And while dangers of Hitlerian proportions do sometimes loom on the political horizon, the reality is that they are far rarer than we like to think. The conviction that in every election, the apocalypse is upon us, that with every foreign policy misstep, the fate of our nation and the stability of the globe is doomed, and with every bad domestic policy, our freedoms are gone and we are about to be subjected to tyranny, is perhaps a particularly American pathology, displaying the misplaced millenialism of the American civil religion. But a tendency to invest politics with too much significance, and accordingly to respond in fear every time it doesn’t seem to go our way, is a natural human temptation that can be tamed only with the recognition that there is a king above all earthly thrones, “who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance,” before whom “the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales” (Is. 40:12, 15)
Imagine if Christians could actually live in light of their conviction that the Lord is King, working out his will despite all of our bad decisions, that Christ is coming to make all things new, and that nothing can separate us from his love? Imagine what a difference it would make to have millions of citizens engaged in the political process motivated by courage, conviction, patience, and fortitude rather than reacting in fear and insecurity? This alone would mark a transformation, even if the policies the Christian pursued were in no way distinctive. [Which, as we shall see subsequently, they are in several ways]