The Example of Jesus: A challenge to Christians in a politically divided nation

"Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the 'Cause,' in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism... Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man."

C.S. Lewis wrote these words in his book, "The Screwtape Letters," a satirical work that presents methods of tempting even pious Christians away from their faith. The book, published in 1942, is steeped in the political climate of Great Britain during World War II. Lewis points out in the above quote a tendency of people living in an emotionally charged political climate to begin to prioritize their political identity ahead of their religious identity. When a nation faces an ideological divide, as Great Britain certainly did during the Second World War, people tend to choose their team, bunker down, and defend their positions at all cost. In those moments, Lewis points out, religious convictions can become justification for a pre-conceived political stance rather than the litmus test through which we choose a political position.

Well guess what. We in America find ourselves once again living in a political climate marked by stark division. After a brutal campaign season, Donald Trump has been elected president and it is impossible to miss the 'Democrat vs Republican' cage match that has broken out, especially behind the cloak of social media. We are choosing sides and defending our camps. And, just as Mr. Lewis observed in another time and place, Christians on both sides are using their faith as a tool to entrench themselves further still.

In times like these, it is important to remember that we have an example of how a Christian ought to act in a politically divided community. Jesus himself was born into and forced to navigate a society consisting of a number of polarized factions. Let's first take a brief look at the social topography of Israel in Jesus's day.

Leading up to the birth of Jesus, Israel had passed in and out of periods of self-rule by the Jewish community. At the time of his birth, the country was under the rule of the Roman Empire and directly controlled by Herod, a partially Jewish agent of the Roman government who was dubbed by the Senate "The King of the Jews". Israel, therefore, contained a population of non-Jewish Roman citizens in addition to the Jewish community. In response to Roman rule and the resulting threat to traditional Jewish culture, the Jewish population in Israel divided into a number of groups, each with its own social/political agenda. The Pharisees attempted the preservation of culture through strict orthodoxy. They emphasized adherence to Jewish law and opposed assimilation of Hellenistic culture. The Sadducees were wealthy landowning Jews who had learned to benefit from living under Roman rule. They favored religious moderation and maintenance of the status quo. The Essenes were a group that chose total separation from the Roman state. They created isolated, self-sustaining communities and lived lives of piety and asceticism. There was another small group within the Jewish community, known as the zealots, who chose to resist Roman rule through violence.

It was this world that Jesus was born into - a world of Romans, Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes, and zealots. Each of them believed that they had a superior strategy for social/political progress and none of them wanted to give an inch to the other groups. Jesus navigated this world for 30 years and those of us who believe he was the Messiah must also believe that he navigated it... rather well. So how did he do it? Here are just a few observations about Jesus's behavior within his social milieu:

1. He did not "back" any one political faction. Mark 12:14 says, "And they came and said to him, 'Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God...'" Jesus did not prioritize admission into a social or political group. He instead taught and adhered to a set of theological and ethical principals that were unrelated to the political ethos of his day. His worldview was consistent rather than reactionary. And as a result, at one point or another he managed to anger or confuse each of the groups of his day.

2. Nevertheless, he did not shun anyone based on political affiliation. Jesus's followers were a motley crew with each of the political factions represented. One of his disciples, Simon, is described as a zealot (Luke 6:15). Another, Matthew, was a tax collector (Matthew 9:9), meaning that he had some Roman connections. Paul, who became an apostle after Jesus's death and resurrection, was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5). And John the Baptist, who preached in the wilderness of Israel (Matthew 3:1-4) was probably at least influenced by the Essenes.

3. He called for strict adherence to the Jewish code of ethics, but took it a step further. Behavioral box-checking was not sufficient. Jesus called for changes of heart and motives in addition to behaviors. Love (for God, for self, and for one another) was at the center of his message.

What, then, should we do? Based on the example of Jesus, I believe we Christians can take steps toward more closely emulating him in our approach to politics. Of course, this small list barely scratches the surface of what we can learn from the life and teachings of Jesus. And the huge disclaimer must be given that we will inevitably fall short of Jesus's example (which gives #5 paramount importance).

1. Internalize a code of ethics. As Christians, that means reading and studying the Bible! The Sermon on the Mount is a great place to start (Matthew 5-7).

2. Test political questions individually based on that code. We do not have a Christian political party in America and that's fine. But it means that we must not assume that we agree with every platform point of a given party. In fact, following Jesus's example, we should probably assume that we will at one point or another anger members of each American political party.

3. Check our motivations when speaking or acting. Behavioral box-checking is not sufficient. Doing the "right thing" for the "wrong reasons" is the beginning of a path that generally ends in pride or bitterness. Love must drive us. Where love is absent, we would do better to remain silent.

4. Reconnect. This one should be assumed after #3 - love requires connection. But in our day and age, we have found all kinds of ways to feel informed or helpful or socially active (put a check in the mail, post an article on Facebook) that require no actual human connection. What's more, our willingness to connect should not be based on political like-mindedness. Following the example of Jesus, we must find a way to both hold firm to our beliefs and connect with those who are different from us. Those are not mutually exclusive tasks.

5. Pray. Each of us is playing a vitally important and totally minor role in a much larger story. We don't have ultimate control over the state of our nation or our world. But as Christians, we believe in One who does. We must humble ourselves to pray.