Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Whether today’s inauguration causes you to feel more hopeful about our nation’s future or more anxious, I hope Christians can pause for a moment to reflect on the role that our faith plays in our political engagement. If we’re not happy with the voices that loudly proclaim direct knowledge of God’s will for American politics (often arising on the right), and we’re not ready to agree with the voices that insist faith has only a marginal role to play in our political discourse (often arising on the left), what’s the path forward?
My favorite line from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address – delivered near the end of a brutal and bloody war – was his observation that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” It was a simple recognition of our shared humanity and shared faith, even at a time when we were killing each other in a conflict over the deeply immoral practice of slavery. Lincoln did not accuse those fighting for the Confederacy of not being “real Christians,” he did not claim that God had personally assured him that the Union’s cause was just, and he did not assert that God's plan for civilization hinged on the outcome of the conflict. Instead, he recognized that those on the other side were just as sincere in their faith as he was.
Did that humility weaken his resolve to win the war and end slavery? Not at all. Did his empathy for those supporting the Confederacy lead him to look the other way and ignore their support of a deeply unjust institution? Hardly. Humility and empathy shaped the way he engaged his opponents, not his commitment to the moral claims underlying the conflict.
The answer today is not, as some insist, to exclude commitments grounded in faith from our political discourse. The answer is to articulate the public relevance of our faith commitments in terms that reflect humility and empathy. Three helpful questions emerge from the powerful example provided by Martin Luther King Jr.
First, is faith being invoked as a conversation-stopper? Dr. King’s faith was inseparable from his public witness. Faith was not out of bounds for him, but his faith was not invoked to shut down dissent or signal an us-versus-them worldview. His opposition to segregation was grounded in his belief that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” However, he went on to explain that “an unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.” King did not ask his listeners to embrace the religious foundations of his truth-telling (though many did); he asked them to embrace the resulting moral claims, regardless of how one arrived at them. He brought his faith into the public square without a trace of embarrassment, but it was the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.
Second, is faith being invoked as a rationale for self-righteousness? Dr. King’s practice of Christian love did not always make even his own followers comfortable. He challenged his followers to overcome their fears and refused the easy path of telling them what they wanted to hear. Even within the black community of his own city, Dr. King showed that love is not passive – it pushes, it stretches. Dr. King worked to motivate the community to organize and persist in the Montgomery bus boycott, and he encountered significant resistance to his efforts initially. In loving others – friend or foe, black or white – Dr. King did the work that allowed him to see the world through others’ eyes, but he insisted that they expand their view to encompass a truer, less isolated vision of their own well-being.
Third, is faith being invoked in ways that foster hatred of our opponents? Dr. King preached and practiced love for his enemies. Loving the white man, according to King, was in part a response to the white man’s needs, for the white man’s personhood was greatly distorted by segregation, and “his soul greatly scarred.” Dr. King’s advocacy was always a call to restore the relationships that were only possible when black Americans and white Americans stood equal before the law. His invocation of faith made clear that even white segregationists were worthy of the beloved community.
If we seek to build the beloved community over the next four years, how should Christian faith shape our political engagement? If we aspire to follow the examples of Lincoln and Dr. King, we cannot accept the reflexive demonization that increasingly seems to shape Americans’ struggle for justice. Political conflict is inescapable, but authentically Christian engagement must recognize that justice is not ultimately about power – it’s about relationship.