07/07/2012 09:41 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2012

Public Jesus: Missional Politics for the Local Church

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that he represents the "Tonto Principle" in Christian ethics. He's referring to the early television program in which the Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto travelled around the Old West fighting for truth and justice. Hauerwas will typically tell about the time the two were surrounded by 20,000 Sioux in the Dakotas. The Lone Ranger turned to Tonto and said, "We're in a pretty bad fix. What do you think we ought to do?" Tonto looked at him and said, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?" Hauerwas then explains that this is the movement we all need to learn how to make -- recovering the Christian "we" from the American "we." I think he's right.

But once we have the Christian "we" in place, what should we do with it? Throughout the '80s and '90s the answer for many evangelicals was: run it for president. In the past decades the answer was more like: run for school board, city council and state legislatures. Either way the Christian "we" was usually focused on gaining political power.

For the Christian, this should be a cause for concern since the essence of politics is power and the essence of Christianity is powerlessness. Whether measured by representation and votes or bullets and bombs, politics is always a struggle for power. Since Jesus taught that the last shall be first, it seems evident that if power is the goal, then as Christians we lose the moment we agree to play the game. So why do we keep playing?

The question becomes even more troubling when you realize political parties consistently over-promise and under-deliver. Both parties -- Republican and Democrat -- make their way in the world by advancing the same delusion: "If you let us run the world we'll make it right." It never happens. If you are thinking of Charlie Brown, Lucy and a football, you are on the right track. Every political election leaves Christians on both sides of the isle saying, "Good Grief!" The reason for this is that political parties do not possess the power to make the world right.

Governments over-promise as well. The entire substantiating myth for the nation state was that nations were necessary in order to stop religious wars. But over the past century in particular, nation states have proven to be the most enthusiastic militarists and lethal war-makers in history -- religions were never as violent. It seems safe to say the past two centuries have taught us that nation states do not possess the power to make the world right either.

The power to make the world right -- to bring freedom, justice and peace to everyone -- does not come through political parties or the almighty nation state. When Christians act as though it does, we functionally deny our participation in the Christian "we."

Missional Politics

Christians believe that God is on a mission to make the world right, and that God actually has the power to do it. This power is displayed in weakness. God's mode of redeeming the way we relate to each other, ourselves, God and the world around us is through the self-sacrificial love of Jesus as it is embraced by and experienced among his followers. The fundamental tenet of this mission is this: Jesus has chosen to give the world to the powerless. We join with Jesus when we join with the powerless. We ignore the way of Jesus when we join with those who play the games of fear and blaming.

The most basic Christian political belief is that true power comes through the path of self-denial, love and service to others (including the same special commitment Jesus displayed toward the most vulnerable among us). This is among the most powerful ways human beings can participate in the mission of God.

The best way for Christians to work to bring freedom, justice and peace to any society may not actually be primarily through direct involvement in politics, but through the life of the church instead. We affect much more change to a society when we find ways to simply embody Jesus in our common life.

You want to change the world? Participate in the mission of God: Feed the hungry. Care for the homeless. Clothe the naked. Love your enemies. Be committed to your marriage and your friendships. Care for your children. Return violence with peace. Take care of the alien living among you. You want to change the world? Join with a church community that is doing its best to be good news to the vulnerable and the weak. That is what Christian politics should be.

When Jesus gets a hold of us, he transforms normal everyday people into agents of freedom, justice and peace which we will transmit to our communities. When most politicians get a hold of us, they transform us into agents of hatred, fear and divisiveness, which we will also transmit to our communities. Which is it going to be?

By voting, Christians will have a significant impact on the coming national elections, but it will not be our biggest impact. If we choose to participate in the national shouting match, these elections will surely leave us bloody, broken and falling apart -- imaging hopelessness to the world. Conversely, if we embrace the idea that Christian politics subsists not in the exercise of power, but the exercise of weakness and self-sacrificial love, then we've got a shot at being the hopeful presence our society needs.

If you would like to start a conversation about what this might look like in your church, 'Public Jesus' is a book and DVD series designed to help facilitate dialogue among Christians in regard to how faith in Christ should impact public life.