By Nathan Brown, July 28, 2017: When I have opportunities to talk about the Bible’s call to “do justice” in our world, there’s often a questioning—perhaps even warning—voice raised about whether this might draw us into politics. To which I answer, “Yes, absolutely.”
Whatever we do in public is political. Our voices, votes, influences, choices and actions are political, as are our silences and inaction. Ironically, our all-too-common corporate Seventh-day Adventist silence “speaks to a crippling misunderstanding of the church’s mission and the glaring need for clarity of our role in matters of social concern.” (Rock, page 47) In a world of so much wrong, injustice and suffering, we must regularly ask whether our silences are complicities.
Of course, risks come when Christians step into the political sphere. Much of our hesitation and awkwardness about such engagement comes from poor—and sometimes worse—examples of the church’s use and abuse of political power, historically and currently. In The Myth of a Christian Nation, Greg Boyd makes a helpful distinction between different kinds of political engagement, differentiating between “power over” and “power under.” (Boyd, pages 29-31) He argues Christian are not called to impose their beliefs and morality using political power, but that political voice is a legitimate way of seeking to lift up and speak up for others who might not otherwise be heard, protected or valued.
As Boyd points out, this does not necessitate abandoning our understandings of moral and biblical integrity. It requires an expanded and more foundational understanding of the calls that these make upon the church: “The kingdom of God advances by people lovingly placing themselves under others, in service to others, at cost to themselves. This ‘coming under’ doesn’t mean that followers of Jesus conform to other people’s wishes, but it does mean that we always interact with others with their best interests in mind.” (Boyd, page 31) Even politically—perhaps more so politically—we’re called to act by the great rule of “do[ing] to others whatever you would like them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12, NLT).
We have to learn how to be politically effective in ways that are consistent with our faith. Like any engagement in a complex society, we need to spend time working out the opportunities and influences we might have to speak to and influence our social and political systems.
This means hard work. But the risks of not engaging publicly and politically, particularly in response to our call to be a voice for justice (see Proverbs 31:8, 9), are real. Political engagement is not the only way to respond to issues of injustice, oppression and poverty, but it’s a legitimate—and faithful—way to do so.
I recently asked a newly-met friend to point me to biblical references that would serve as a guide for faithful political advocacy. She directed me to the story of Esther. With opportunity, prayer and courage, Esther spoke up on behalf of her threatened people and changed the “unchangeable” law.
For too long we’ve used “political” as an excuse for not engaging with issues in our society that the Bible compels us toward, particularly on behalf of and in partnership with those who are poor, vulnerable and outsiders.
When we recognize the Bible’s repeated calls to justice and mercy, to compassion and advocacy, “getting political” becomes an act of worship, an act of solidarity and justice, an act of stewardship, an act of faithfulness.
Borrowing from the example of Esther, and in a world that needs more voices that “cry aloud” for justice (see Isaiah 58:1), the imperatives of my faith lead me to answer questions and would-be objections regarding political engagement with, “Yes, absolutely.”
Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, Zondervan, 2005.
Calvin B. Rock, “Ellen G White and Black Theology,” in Jonathan A Thompson (editor), The Enduring Legacy of Ellen G. White and Social Justice, Pacific Press, 2017.
Nathan Brown is Book Editor at Signs Publishing House, the Adventist denomination’s official publisher in Australia. He is a former magazine editor, a published writer and an author or editor of a dozen books. He is also a co-convener of Manifest, a community exploring, encouraging and celebrating faithful creativity. This article came to Adventist Today as a news release from Avondale College. It was originally published in Adventist World.
The new issue of the Adventist Today magazine, just off the press this week, is on the theme of “The Church and Politics.” If you are not on the regular mailing list and want to get a copy, call the Adventist Today office at (503) 826-8600 or click “Memberships” at the top of our Web site.