Most of us have been refreshing news websites more than usual these last few days. We’ve done more than a little addition and subtraction related to the number 270. We’ve had a good refresher in US political geography. Our eyes have become quite quick at discerning red from blue, light red from dark red, light blue from dark blue. Some of us have even found ourselves caring more than is natural about the workings of this obscure creature known as the electoral college.
Whatever the outcome of the US election itself, it is already clear that the social divisions that plague our communities have not gone away. There has been no massive unifying reaction to the presidential term that is about to expire. In that sense the situation in the US remains similar to many other western countries, Canada included. In such a context, we might wonder, what is the role of the church?
For starters, and what follows can be little more than that, the role of the church is something more than standing by and gaping at the social carnage. These political events are important. Elections are important. Democracy is important. But it’s also important for churches to remember that the work of politics isn’t just ‘out there’. To really be engaged in politics is not the same thing as watching the news and venting on social media. Politics, in its true sense, is not a spectator sport.
The church is itself a political entity. The church of Jesus Christ has its own sense of what the good life is, how power should be exercised, what qualifies as sound economics, and how we are to respond to disruptions in the social order. When the church is engaged politically it is engaged in these things through its own channels, even as it speaks to the matters of public life. In fact, what Christians have to say about matters of public policy is strengthened when it comes out of the church’s own work of mercy and justice.
Working with our neighbours to address local needs is political work. Serving on boards and volunteering in our communities is political work. It’s hard and complex and sometimes maddening, but it’s important and it’s more valuable than standing by aghast at the legal (and sometimes illegal) rugby of federal politics.
A second thing follows from this. In a divided time the church must be a body that is deliberately working to overcome the divides that so disrupt and threaten the larger culture. Too often individual churches are havens for political partisanship—and that partisanship is made all the worse by our flippancy in applying spiritual labels to those we do or don’t like.
A third thing follows immediately: the church must be on the side of justice, equity, hope, generosity, and truthfullness. This is where our inclusion in the story of Jesus places us. Biblical ethics do not allow us to sit out every contentious issue. It’s true that values and virtues like these need definitions, but working at those definitions is part of the church’s calling. It’s in digging into these all-important definitions, using the resources of our heritage of theology and praxis, that we can locate the all-important bridges spanning the growing social fissures. In doing this the church endeavours, as it always has, to shape lives that meet the present moment with grace and courage.
Finally, or ‘finally’ with respect to a blog post such as this, we should remember that part of the church’s role is also to hold out hope. Christians of all people should be those who know that tomorrow doesn’t have to be fully and completely shaped by today. This can be hard to declare when we see pictures of armed people in the streets and listen to the vitriolic language that today has become so common. And yet, to be a Christian community is to bear witness to the possibility of newness, and to the conviction that when a good God is at work in the world, the possibilities of the future aren’t held down by the frustrations of the past. In theological terms, the God who restores is the God who creates. There is no shortage of power or goodness. And this God is the one worshiped by the church that is one, that is holy, that is catholic–the church that through the Spirit’s power declares our common humanity.