Not Wasting an Election Year *

by Berry Friesen (March 16, 2016)

Most Christian congregations walk on eggshells during an election year, hoping to avoid disunity by keeping the partisanship at a safe distance.

A Jesus-following community of resistance behaves very differently.  It recognizes that the Republican and Democrat parties offer different versions of the same thing:  a plan for running an empire and ruling the world.  Because it opposes the imperial project, a community of resistance doesn’t feel invested in one side or another.  Thus, it doesn’t fear being divided into competing camps of Republicans and Democrats.

What’s more, a community of resistance sees an election year as an opportunity.  Truth rarely spoken will be revealed during the campaign scramble.  This creates the context for candid conversation about the real world.  And “real” conversation creates the opportunity for change, for conversion, for the flowering of human community that is honest, generative and life-giving.

In short, a Jesus-following community of resistance doesn’t walk on eggshells during an election year; it mobilizes for engagement with people, expecting them to be unusually open to conversation.

Do we see evidence of this approach in the Second Testament writings of the Bible?

Many Christian leaders characterize those writings as largely apolitical, reflecting the fact that the first Jesus-following assemblies pursued religious purposes, not political ones. 

Yet such an interpretation reflects a fallacy—imagining religion and politics to be mutually exclusive realms—and misrepresents the perspective of Second Testament writers such as the Apostle Paul.  He perceived the Roman Empire to be “the power of darkness” (Col.1:13) and believed the way of Jesus provided an escape into another way of life. 

By definition, the communities Paul nurtured resisted the Empire.  They understood themselves to be engaged in a struggle, “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12).

This helps explain why Paul did not need to argue the point at length in his writings; it also goes far in explaining why the Empire executed Paul for treason.

The survey of the Bible John K. Stoner and I published in 2014—If Not Empire, What?recovers this understanding of the Second Testament writings.

So how does a Jesus-following community of resistance regard the American state?  Does it desire its well-being and success? 

Certainly such a community cares much about the American people, their cities and towns, their businesses and schools, their families and households. But it does not view the American state as contributing to the vitality and sustainability of these human endeavors.  Instead, it sees that state as possessed by an imperial spirit seeking to dominate the world; its purposes lead to desolation and ruin.

This is where many of us are caught up short.  We continue to believe that for our families, neighbors and friends to thrive, the empire must succeed. 

So I suggest a small step.  Let’s get in touch with the anger and restlessness of the US electorate.  Empathy for the people with those feelings can be a doorway to new relationships within our neighborhoods; those relationships can reveal new and hopeful possibilities. 

What better time to do this than an election year?

A related essay by the same author has been published by PeaceSigns and by The Mennonite.