Do We Have a Political Vocation?

This story is not merely about the ethics of telling kings that your wife is your sister. It’s a story about what happens when we assume others will mistreat us: We often end up mistreating them.

“This year is going to be tough.”

I study theology and politics, and when I show up to speak to a church or school about faithful political life, someone will often introduce me with a statement like this. “Things are going to be so hard, we need Kaitlyn’s help.”

These pastors and leaders also want to start out the conversation with the one thing we can agree on: Politics is exhausting, our relationships are strained, and we’re bracing ourselves for the conflict surely coming.

I understand this impulse. I have seen the true destruction that politics can cause in communities. Yet I wish we would pause before falling back into this familiar trope. While it names a common experience, it can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When we prepare for an election year by constantly reminding ourselves how challenging and divisive it will be, we risk feeding ourselves the message that our neighbors disagree with us, our opponents are impossible to reason with, or that half of the country hates us. We conjure up our worst memories of political dysfunction and steel ourselves to face the same again.

Our bodies and brains have learned to protect ourselves from the experience of being surprised by that pain. The challenge for many of us now is to address how those past experiences have shaped us, paying special attention to the way reasonable self-protection can morph into an armor so hardened to the outside world that we expect disagreement before we discover it, anticipate anger and malice before they arise.

We risk cutting ourselves off from surprising agreement, miraculous reconciliation, unexpected kindness.

On a Wednesday evening in my own church, a man said at the end of Bible study that he had to “get political” for a minute. Based on what I knew about this man, I assumed I wasn’t going to like it. I braced myself for navigating a tense discussion. The words that came out of his mouth next were words of repentance over a political position he no longer held. Not only did I unexpectedly agree with him, his humility and honesty strengthened our community.

I have also found that our low expectations of others don’t merely cut us off from surprising goodness, they can tempt us towards sin.

In Genesis 20, Abraham and Sarah move into the region of Gerar, and Abraham pulls his regular ruse of telling the king, Abimelek, that Sarah is not his wife but his sister. Abimelek wants to take Sarah, but God speaks to him in a dream and tells him not to touch her. Abimelek confronts Abraham: “What have you done to us?” The king and his kingdom faced judgment from God because of Abraham’s lie.

This story is not merely about the ethics of telling kings that your wife is your sister. It’s a story about what happens when we assume others will mistreat us: We often end up mistreating them. Abraham defended himself by saying he was afraid he’d be killed for his wife: “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place’” (Gen 20:11). The irony of the story is that a few verses before, the king told his officials his dream, and the Bible says “they were very much afraid” (Gen 20:8). Abraham’s mistaken assumption that there was no fear of God in this place caused him to act without fear of God.

Our suspicion can not only lead us to sin, it also threatens to warp our moral reasoning. When we enter into conversations with the assumption that we and our neighbors are on opposing teams, we can end up thinking that we must believe the opposite of whatever they believe. We can allow divisions, dictated to us by our political world, to determine our thinking, instead of engaging political differences with curiosity and willingness to discover surprising common ground.

I am not naive about how deep our divisions run, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to ignore the depths of our polarization and political dysfunction. But Christians should do the hard work of believing better of each other until we are given reason to distrust or disagree. When we preemptively decide someone is our enemy, we aren’t treating them as a whole person made in the image of God.

We will have a healthier 2024 if we hold these truths together: Our political life is deeply dysfunctional, and we can expect the Holy Spirit to continue to work in surprising ways. We live in the “already and not yet” — the time in which we experience the brokenness of sin yet also glimpse signs of the coming redemption of all things.

One of the gifts Christians can offer our political life is a resilient hope that while we await that redemption, we will still see “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13).

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