Politics: The Way of Jesus

by Tim Isbell, November 2019
(For an electronic copy of this article, type bit.ly/tdi_dominionism into the address bar of any browser.)

While politics and religion are taboo subjects for many, they are important to all of us right now.

I am a Christian minister registered as a “no party preference” voter who pays enough attention to politics to send a few modest checks to candidates. 

I have long wondered how Republicans, who claim to run on Christian principles, reconcile many of their policies to Christian theology. And, I wondered why Democrats are so quiet about the Christian foundations of many of their policies.

My way to process such matters is to research, reflect, and write about them. If the results seem to justify it, I post them as articles on my website and elsewhere. So, over the past two months, I did precisely that. The result is this article. I hope you can make time to read it. And if you think it might help someone you know, please share it with them.

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A subset of conservative evangelical Christians believes God wants them to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions. Such far-right thinking is called dominionism.
  • Dominionists believe that the United States once was, and should again become a Christian nation. They deny the Enlightenment’s influence on the founding of American democracy. (The far-left denies the Christian influence on the founders.)
  • Dominionists generally do not respect other faiths or, sometimes, different versions of the Christian tradition. (The far-left typically rejects all organized religion.)
  • Dominionists believe the Ten Commandments and biblical law should be the foundation of American law and that the Constitution is a vehicle for implementing biblical principles. (The far-left considers itself non-religious and guided by natural law.)

Religious right-wings are not new. In the gospels, Jesus grappled with the first-century religious right. They were called zealots. They believed God wanted them to make Israel great again by taking back its sovereignty as the Jewish nation governed by ancient Israelite Law. Simon-the-zealot was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Crowds around Jesus often pressed him to use his miraculous powers to break Rome’s control over Israel. The zealots called for a return of their nation’s sovereignty and had long expected that a Messiah would come to deliver it. Jesus knew that he was the Messiah, and he heard their calls. Instead of ushering in a theocratic state, Jesus went to the cross - and invited all people to follow him. In other words, Jesus understood and rejected dominionism.

So how does the Christian right-wing theologically justify dominionism? Christians believe that someday Jesus will return, and then it will be evident to all that he is Lord of the entire Creation. Dominionists seem to think that Jesus is waiting for them to set the world in order before Jesus returns. Maybe it is possible to piece together scriptures to point in this direction, but only if you give equal weight to all passages in the Bible and then fit Jesus into it. But, if you start with Jesus, and look at the rest of the Bible through Jesus’ lens, I don’t see how to get to dominionism.

Rachel Held Evans offers a helpful perspective on starting with Jesus in her book: A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It chronicles her year-long experiment of enacting the biblical commandments as literally as possible. She points out that if we read the whole Bible as equal in truth, coherence, and authority, we end up having to accept that:

  • A father can sell his daughter (Exodus 21:7).
  • Society can force her to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28–29).
  • She must keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34–35).
  • She must cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6).
  • She must accept life among multiple wives (Exodus 21:10).

Evans' perspective challenges a cornerstone dogma of Christian traditions that claim that the entire Bible can be fully trusted. Her book offers a different cornerstone, that “Jesus can be trusted, and the Bible can be loved.”

Such thinking doesn’t come only from liberal Christian feminists. For instance, here’s a quote from Andy Stanley, a highly respected Southern Baptist minister from Atlanta: “Read the Old Testament for inspiration and motivation, but not for application. Take your application cues from Jesus.”

Or read The Christ of the Indian Road from a Methodist missionary to India in the early 20th-century, E. Stanley Jones. Or, read Let's Start with Jesus from another Methodist theologian in the late 20th century, Dennis Kinlaw. Or read the Nazarene theologian C.S. Cowles’ four chapters in Show Them No Mercy, 4 views on God and the Canaanite Genocide. Or read my meditation on Ps 139: Let’s Start with Jesus.

Leslie Newbigin, a 20th-century Presbyterian missionary to India, in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society taught that the Christian Gospel sometimes becomes a tool of imperialism. When this happens, we must repent because Christian faith is the denial of all imperialisms. At its center is the cross that humbles all imperialisms. Newbigin teaches that we are invited to locate our center in the One who was made nothing so that all might be one. The very heart of the biblical vision for the unity of humankind is that its center is not an imperial power but the slain Lamb.

Martin Luther, as paraphrased by John Ortberg in Love Beyond Reason, says, “Left to our own devices, we would always think of God in terms of power and dominance and control. We would make him after our image - we would think of him as we would want to be if we were God. But this is not the God who reveals himself in Jesus."

Christian faith, Islam, Judaism, and maybe every religion has a right-wing. They share many similarities. In some times and places, right-wings gain power through fear that leads to tribalism. Other times they gain power by believing that their god expects them to coerce followers. They use some form of dominionism to justify their belief. Such philosophies have, at their core, humans usurping the Creator’s role.

As I see it, those who claim Christian faith and promote dominionist theology to make America great again have lost their way. Instead of following Jesus, they are running ahead of him and trying to bring justice through the Law. Jesus stood solidly against dominionist thinking.

Dominionism is not only bad theology. It is also bad politics in that it opposes the initial phrase in the First Amendment of the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

So, let’s start with Jesus and look at the rest of the Bible through his lens.


Full disclosure: my religious background was (and remains) in a rather conservative part of the Christian tradition. My people generally sit on the political sidelines, watching the struggle from a distance while putting most of our focus on personal spiritual formation, community formation, and ministries of compassion. One reason for writing this article is to encourage others like me to take a fresh look into this political issue.

I believe that God’s assignment for me is to live as a citizen of Jesus’ eventual kingdom while residing at a postal address squarely in this multicultural world. Every day, God wants me to serve the people of this world as salt and light. As opportunities arise, I share the Good News of a welcoming Savior who invites anyone who will follow him to do so. Jesus never coerced people to follow him. When he says, “follow me,” I’m confident that does not include forcing others to follow his ways. True Christian faith is always an opt-in religion. In those seasons of history when Christians gain political power, they invariably move to the human strategy of coercing others. Such an approach is the opposite of authentic Christian faith.

A Christian couple with minor children in the home needs to manage the family as a Christian theocracy - that’s a matter of stewardship of the gift of children that God gives us. The leaders of a Christian church need to do the same within the committed congregants. But Jesus does not want his followers to establish a Christian theocratic form of government for America - and neither did America’s founding fathers.

Finally, I find insight and inspiration throughout the Bible, but I don’t trust it as a roadmap for my life. Instead, I’ll do my best to follow the way of Jesus. I think I’m in good company. Early Christians were called people of The Way  because they followed the ways of Jesus. There was no Bible when Constantine declared Rome to be a Christian nation in 313 AD. It was Constantine who, in the process of setting up the dominionist Roman state, commissioned the compilation of the first fifty Bibles in 331 AD.

Blessings,
Tim


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