On the Position and Posture of Politics

Faith and politics is a perennial problem, and one that’s on the minds of many people in Manitoba these days. Bill 18 has brought it to mind, but it’s always been there, taunting us. How should Christians view, or be involved in, politics?

Secularism is a narrow road, and often misunderstood. It was created by Christians (and probably deists) as a way for different denominations of Christians to come together and agree to disagree. It doesn’t actually demand that we stop practising our religions, but only that we limit the ways that we do so for the sake of everyone else. It’s not the worst system, by a long shot, but every now and then it demands more of us than we’re willing to grant it. Its spirit is to lay aside peripheral issues that divide us when we come together so that we can focus on the greater issues that unite us, allowing us to move forward together. But sometimes the demands of the gospel are simply too great to lay them aside or compromise on them under public pressure.

Some Christians hold that we shouldn’t be involved in politics at all; they’re called Christian Anarchists, and their ranks include such greats as Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day. Others hold that we shouldn’t get involved any more than we have to, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and then leave him alone. Greg Boyd, a pastor in Minnesota, preached that during an election year and watched a thousand people leave his church. See his book Myth of a Christian Nation for the story, it’s pretty good. On the other hand, many Christians hold that we should be as involved in politics as we can, that it’s our job to ensure that our nation’s laws honour God. Historically, this was called Christendom. That word doesn’t have a very good reputation anymore, but nobody complains when their government stops persecuting them and makes their religion the official, national faith. It’s only really from the perspective of freedom that we can criticize Christian privilege.

I don’t think that there’s a single answer for all Christians on this point. I don’t think that Jesus wants us all to be politicians, or even political; nor do I think that he would stop us from doing so. But while there might not be a clear call for all Christians to be political, there is a clear call for all Canadians to do so. We live in a democracy, which is both a privilege and a responsibility: the decisions we make together affect all of us, and the rest of the world. Whether or not we think that God is commanding us to do so, we have the opportunity to create laws that honour God.

At issue, then, is not whether or not we are Christians; a Christian can be no less. Nor is the issue one of whether or not we are Canadians; we do ourselves and our nation a disservice by being silent in the public square, and we are responsible for one another and to one another. The issue is the extent to which we are willing to lay aside what may be peripheral things for the sake of greater unity, and the extent to which we must insist upon holding a position that our consciences will not allow us to let drop. These are decisions that we all must make for ourselves, and we will all land somewhere on the spectrum between secularism and Christendom. No matter what position we fill on that spectrum, we are not in a position that allows us to judge where anyone else ought to fall on it. But that’s not what this post is about.

There are two things that affect the way that we do politics, whether we’re Christians or not: position, and posture. These two things will dramatically affect both the style of our political engagement, and its character.

Position

Where do we stand in the world? What is our relationship to power? There are two main positions in politics: above and below. At different times and in different contexts, we may be in both positions, perhaps even at the same time.

Politics from above, or top-down politics, is an excellent way to change the world. A few strokes of a policy-maker’s pen can do more than years of grassroots campaigning. Think of government regulations, for example: a grassroots campaign to get people to waste less energy, drive less, turn off lights, take shorter showers, and buy smaller cars, may have little effect even if it runs for years. But one regulation that requires automakers to produce vehicles with better mileage can have tremendous effects on the same issue, without most people even noticing. World Vision campaigns for international aid year-round, but one government program can provide for more food and medical aid than just about any other source. Politics from above can make a difference in the world, and do so quickly.

Of course, politics from above can also enslave people. If you want to make changes and choices on behalf of the people, and you don’t have their support to do so, then you have to control them in order to rule over them. Communism is a great idea, in theory, but in order to work it needs everyone to do their part. When you begin to enforce things on an unwilling population, we call that tyranny. That is, in large part, why we need politics from below.

Politics from below is the grassroots movements, the true democracy, that we in North America value so much. We should. We have unprecedented freedom, in many senses of the word. This is the result of us all coming together and collectively agreeing on a course of action. Inherent to this notion is the implied agreement that the majority shall rule, as well as the implied agreement that we’ll be able to talk things over and try to convince one another. Also implied is that if I can’t convince the majority to agree with me, then I’ll have to be satisfied with what they decide until I manage to sway them to my side. This is a recipe for peace and freedom, provided we have a functioning system of government and people at the top who agree to play by the rules. It also needs a majority that knows what the heck it’s talking about.

Some (cynical) people say that democracy is merely the tyranny of the majority. Certainly, it’s not always great for the minority. Others are frustrated at the slow pace of democratic change: it takes generations to change enough people’s minds about issues to actually change our world, and governments are often deadlocked with the opposition parties.

Ultimately, of course, we need both of these at the same time. Politics, to be effective, must come from above and below. Christianity started as a grass-roots movement, and for the most part it still is, but there was a long period during which it was passed down from above as the official state religion of every Western nation. The latter was a much more effective method of evangelism(!), but meant much less than the genuine choices of people to follow Christ. In our politics, too, Christians will come from both sides: Stephen Harper claims to be a Christian, and Christians may well find themselves called to politics, but far more common is the kind of politics that occurred at Steinbach Christian High School just over a week ago, when 1200 people showed up to pray about Manitoba Bill 18, the Safe and Inclusive Schools amendment. Is one better than another? What kind of position should Christians take?

Posture

Sit up straight. Stand tall. Keep your head up, kid. These references to our physical posture are metaphors for the way we interact with others. These examples of how we carry ourselves speak volume about how we perceive ourselves: confident people have straight backs, push their chests out, and look people in the eye.

Politics uses postural and positional metaphors. Seeing eye to eye, knowing where we stand, standing together, crossing the aisle, etc.

Christians use posture metaphors more than anyone. We sing “we raise our hands, we bow our knees,” even though we rarely actually do either of them; raising our hands is a posture of celebration, while bowing our knees is a posture of humility. We do both of those things before God, at least metaphorically, because we want to be humble and joyful. We open our hands to God to receive from him, and we open our hands to God to give to him. We shake each other’s hands at church and pass the peace, not out of greeting but because the action of doing so opens us up relationally to those around us. Doukhobors bow to each other, bowing to the image and presence of Christ in one another. We bow our heads to pray.

Like position, our posture is in relation to power and people, particularly in politics. If we have it, do we hold it in a closed fist? If we don’t have it, are we grasping for it? Are we treading lightly, or stepping on toes? These postures don’t always amount to one or the other; it might well be possible to charge ahead without stepping on toes, and it’s certainly possible to tread lightly and still crush others underfoot. “Walk softly, and carry a big stick,” as Roosevelt said – but that doesn’t always work either.

In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter looks at Christian attempts at social change from the past few decades. He breaks Christian politics down into three different groups: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. The Christian Right is defensive against the world, which it sees as a corrupting influence on Christian society. The Christian Left speaks out for the world (and defends against the Christian Right), even while it attempts to court the world, even compromise with it for the sake of the other. And Neo-Anabaptists have removed themselves from the world altogether, opting for their own society instead. Ultimately, in spite of their different postures toward the world (people), their posture toward power remains largely the same: grab it, and hold on to it. Remarkably, that’s the opposite of what Christ did.

What was the posture of Christ toward the world?

The Position and Posture of Christ

I hope that the controversy over Bill 18 makes it clear that it’s possible to hold to many different positions and still be a Christian. In fact, there are many Christians who support Bill 18 for exactly the same reason that many Christians oppose it: because they feel that Christ demands a choice from them on the matter. The idea that there are multiple Christian views hasn’t been coming across very strongly so far, but I hope it will. Regardless, my point here is that there can be all sorts of Christian politics, and I’m not trying to convince anyone to my view on Bill 18 here, or any other particular issue. What I want to talk about is the way we do politics: what position and posture should Christians take when we interact with others?

Christ is the ultimate example of power from above: he’s the king of all kings, the lord of lords, creator of the universe. The heavens are his throne, and the earth is his footstool, and all of his enemies are under his feet. Remarkably, this is also the position that Christians hold in the universe: we are co-heirs with Christ, and share fully in his inheritance. When did we forget this? I’ve heard a lot of defensive apologetics (and whining) from Christians lately. We complain that our religious rights are being trampled or done away with. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t just let other people take our rights, but I have two reactions to such complaints: 1) Christians in Canada are among the most privileged people in the world, and even among the most privileged people in Canada; even if we’re losing essential rights (which I’m not sure is really happening), we’re at most being brought down to a common level with others. And much more importantly, 2) do you really believe that the NDP government of Manitoba, or the Liberal government of Ontario, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels or demons or any other power, NDP or Liberals, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nero could not stop Christians from worship, so who’s concerned about Greg Selinger or Nancy Allen? Christians are, and always will be, in the ultimate position of power in the universe, whether or not our regional governments recognize it. We have absolutely nothing to be defensive about, hallelujah!

So our position is, with Christ, from above. But of course, Christ didn’t stay above! He willingly gave up his position, and all of its glory, to become the lowest of the low and start a grassroots movement. Since the beginning of time, God had been ruling from above but gradually giving more and more power to those under him (angels, nations, kings, prophets). Christ took power all the way to the bottom, to the lowest of the low, and in so doing he inverted the pyramid of power. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Christians do not lord it over one another as the pagans do; instead, whoever would be first among you must be the servant of all. Christ, being secure in his position as king of kings and lord of lords, humbled himself to the lowest position, making the lowest position the highest position. That is the position that Christians are to have, not only with one another, but most especially to the world, and not least in politics!

And what of posture? We’ve already seen that Christ did not lord it over others, but made himself a servant – a humble posture if ever there was one! And secure in the knowledge that all power belonged to his Father, Christ did not see power as something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself. Ultimately, his posture is that of cruciformity, the posture of one hanging on a cross. Christ did not defend himself against the world. He turned the other cheek, gave up his shirt when someone sued him for his coat, and walked an extra mile when forced to walk only one. Christ also didn’t cozy up to the world and compromise his teachings for the sake of popularity; rather, in the confidence of his own power, compromised completely with people by forgiving them and seeing past their sins, even while they were killing him. And he definitely did not remove himself from the world; the gospel begins with the amazing fact that he not only came here, but made himself fit in completely, giving up all of his own glory and security to do so.

Marva Dawn’s book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God speaks very well about the posture of cruciformity. Read it expecting to be humbled.

So what is the position and posture of Christians in politics today? We rule the universe with Christ, from the cross. We hold all of the power, for the purpose of giving it away. Our position as kings is only made apparent when we serve others as slaves. Our dignity and glory comes from our ability to humble ourselves before our enemies. Our rights are secure in heaven, but here in Canada we give them up for the sake of others.

We must never forget that we are crucified with Christ. Can we grasp at power when our hands are nailed to the cross? Can we lord it over others when we are naked and exposed? Can we separate ourselves from the world when we are, in fact, living and dying on their behalf with Christ? Whatever political choices we make, if we express them from the position and posture of Christ – that is, from the cross – we will honour God AND our nation.

Manitoba Bill 18, and Stereotyping our Enemies

If you’ve been paying attention to recent Canadian provincial politics (who doesn’t, right?), you can’t help but be aware of Bill 18, Manitoba’s anti-bullying bill. Or perhaps you’re more familiar with Ontario’s Bill 13, which is largely the same. Both of these bills have provoked a lot of opposition, specifically from Christian conservative sources. I can’t claim to speak for these Christian conservatives (particularly since I don’t see this bill as problematic), but I’m also increasingly discovering that I can’t align with Christian liberals on this issue. This is an issue that carries a lot of baggage, and both “sides” of the debate seem eager to throw all of it at each other.

You can read the bill here: http://web2.gov.mb.ca/bills/40-2/b018e.php

The gist of the bill is that schools in Manitoba are required to have anti-bullying policies in place that must allow for students to start their own anti-bullying groups at school, including gay-straight alliances. Christian conservatives aren’t too keen on that last part, and they may have a point. Whether or not they’re able to make their point is another question entirely.

I first heard about this bill when a member of my church forwarded on an email newsletter originating at a large church in our area. This email perpetuated every possible stereotype of Christian conservatives as homophobic, xenophobic, angry, intolerant, and altogether un-Christ-like, just by example. It repeated lies and assumptions about homosexuality (inconsistently, mind you), argued that this was a slippery slope that would lead to school-mandated clubs for bestiality and paedophilia, and implied that this was the NDP’s plan all along (NDP being Canada’s major left-wing party, which is currently in power in Manitoba). The email was so full of misinformation, projection, and assumption that it took me a minute to realize that it was actually lacking the information that was most important: it had no reference or link to the actual bill itself, nor did it have any reference to what a gay-straight alliance actually was.

I was disgusted at the blatant manipulation in this email, which included a link to a website that this church had set up to facilitate sending emails to elected representatives in protest of this bill. The email also included notice of a meeting to be held at Steinbach Christian High School, last Sunday.

I went to this meeting with fear and trembling, expecting the worst. I could only get one of my friends to come with me, as most of my friends on the moderate-to-liberal side refused to even come, because they also expected the worst and saw it as a waste of time at best. They were concerned that they’d only be offended and enraged for nothing. As we arrived, my anticipation increased: the parking lots were full, and the streets were lined with cars for blocks in every direction. We parked in an industrial park several blocks away. When we arrived inside, we were told that there “may be a few seats left in the balcony.” We got the last two seats in the balcony of the chapel, which itself was overflow from the event that was actually taking place in the gym. People were spilling out into the hallways, with over 1200 present: that’s ten times more people than have ever showed up for any political event in Steinbach’s history. If this meeting is anything like that email, I thought, then it’s going to end in a riot.

My apprehension wasn’t anxiety; I wasn’t afraid at any point. These people were mostly Mennonites, and being pacifists, I figured it wouldn’t come to that. My apprehension wasn’t eased by the first speaker, however; he started by saying that our religious rights and freedoms are under attack, which is never a good sign. He went on to thank God for our heritage, as people (Mennonites) who came to North America to avoid religious persecution, and worked so hard to ensure that we’d have religious freedom, which was now under attack. Then we were urged to give a round of applause to the principal of the school, who had set up the meeting in opposition to the bill, as well as the Christian MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, who had also publicly opposed the bill on the basis of religious freedom. Then we were urged to give a round of applause to Jesus, our true Lord (implying that our government is not); he received a standing ovation. It was starting to look like this might be the start of a Mennonite uprising, which would certainly be a singular event in Canadian history!

Thankfully, my fears were allayed almost immediately. The next speaker, who I think was the principal of the school, reminded us that this was not a political gathering but rather an information session and prayer meeting. He read the relevant section of the bill, and outlined their concerns about it. Their concerns are, in short, that the bill would require schools to allow meetings of groups on their premises whose values might directly conflict with the values of those schools, and further that the definition of bullying in the bill is broad enough that it might lead to people being charged with bullying in instances of what was unintentional offence. That is, they’re concerned that if they teach that homosexuality is sinful, it might be construed as bullying under the law. Given the current wording of the bill, that’s a possibility, however unlikely.

People were then gently urged to take action, by writing letters to the relevant ministers and representatives. They were urged to do so prayerfully and calmly, to wait 24 hours to send any letter they wrote to give themselves time to calmly reflect on it, and even to get a friend to read it before sending it. They urged respectful dialogue. Then we prayed for half an hour in small groups, and many of the prayer requests (on a handout) were for wisdom. It was an excellent example of Christians taking action together, and the exact opposite of what I had feared (and what that email had led me to believe).

What I experienced at the meeting was nothing like I had been led to believe by either side of the issue. It was not rabid fundamentalists arguing for the right to hate gay people, as some have assumed it to be. Nor was it assumed by those at the meeting that the government had a secret agenda of making us all into gay pedophiles who have sex with animals in elementary school. Even if some people who attended the meeting harboured some of those suspicions (either way), they managed to overcome them long enough to pray together for wisdom and insight, and the best possible bill to protect our kids. Now, if only the rest of us could get over the baggage, stop trying to read between the lines so much, and take each other seriously as human beings long enough to talk it out.

We don’t seem capable of disagreeing with other human beings. We can only disagree with heathens or monsters. Therefore, if we disagree with someone on an issue like this, they must be less than human somehow. It’s somewhat ironic that we’re having this problem in a debate about bullying, which is fundamentally a dehumanizing act. It’s even more ironic that we’re having this issue between groups of Christians, as being a Christian is supposed to be fundamentally humanizing, and demands that we humanize others. So please, friends from the left, let’s humanize the fundamentalists; even if their fears are overblown or illegitimate, they’re still human beings just like us who want the best for their kids – even the gay ones. Only when we’ve recognized them as our sisters and brothers can we be in any position to have a real discussion about homosexuality. And friends from the right, let’s not vilify the government, the NDP, Nancy Allen, or anyone else Christ died for. They’re not perfect, certainly, but they’re doing their best, and would probably welcome constructive feedback.

I suppose this post isn’t explicitly theological, but it needed to be said. I know I needed to hear it as much as I needed to say it. Fellow Manitobans (and Ontarions), blessings as you work through these issues.

With love,

Jeff