Politics, Injustice and the Kingdom of God
Having just come through election time, it’s good and appropriate that I was recently asked my position on abortion and what we should do about it. While I know that there are a wide variety of opinions in this area, I thought it would be an opportunity for me to share some of my thoughts on politics, injustice and Christianity.
First of all, I stand with historic Christianity in affirming that life begins at conception and that abortion is taking the life of an unborn child. While society always seems to frame the debate as a seemingly impossible conflict between the rights of a mother and the rights of the unborn, I feel it’s important to clarify what ‘rights’ are being compared. Once we agree that we’re talking about a woman’s right to convenience (although I realize the inconvenience can be significant) and the unborn child’s right not to be killed, there’s very little to debate.
Regarding what Christians should do about abortion and other injustices in society, I think the best place to start is to ask what kind of injustices existed in the first century, and what Jesus and the early church did to address them.
As you look at the history of first century Rome, you see that infanticide, homosexuality, slavery, adultery, incest, totalitarianism, and government corruption of all kinds were rampant. But Jesus never seems to have organized public campaigns or staged protests to sway public opinion or oppose government policy. It seems to me that He instead places emphasis on the transformation of individuals through the Gospel and the purification of the church and its practices. Rather than trying to reform a pagan nation to make it act more 'Christian' He focused on the kingdom of God, an invisible counter-culture of believers submitted to the rule of Jesus as their new King.
It's interesting how his focus played out in the development of the early church and the Roman Empire. There is no record of early Christian lobbying against the evils of their day. Rather with infanticide, for example, they took the lead in rescuing and adopting infants that had been abandoned (rather than trying to cajole the parents into keeping them). See this quote from early church historian Rodney Stark:
“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
He quotes Emperor Julian from the 4th century saying that “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Roman society was deeply moved by the mercy, love and sacrifice of Christians and no doubt many asked what their motivation was. The testimony of the early church was powerful, and their words pointed people to Jesus as Saviour and King. As people embraced Jesus, they were discipled in both the power and ethics of the Kingdom of God and the society was eventually won over, faith in Christ became widespread, and Christian virtues grew to dominate in the broader society. (And this in turn brought with it many new problems.)
William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr won great victories in swaying public opinion against slavery and for civil rights. Those efforts and their victories need to be celebrated and remembered. But the effectiveness of their approach was probably mostly due to the fact that they were calling Christians to act more Christian. They lobbied nations at times when the majority in them claimed to follow Christ but were grossly inconsistent in their practice. In societies like ours today, where the Gospel is largely not known or embraced, we run the danger of misrepresenting Christianity as mere moralism if our focus is on political causes rather than evangelical hope and acts of love and mercy.
I am deeply concerned about abortion and countless others injustices in our society. I believe every believer needs to be discipled in the ethics of the Kingdom, and each of us needs to apply them as best we can in the various realms of authority that God has given us. But I don't think that the church's main posture towards society should be that of a special interest group or moral lobby, trying to force unbelievers to act Christian. Rather I think that Christians need to act more Christian, and as a church we need to take leadership in society in, for example, ministering to women in crisis who, without our support or counsel, will feel they have no other choice than to take the life of an unborn child who is precious in God's sight.
That being said, God may give a unique burden to certain individuals in the church to seek to influence government policy and public awareness. That is part of the diversity of the body of Christ that God has created. When we do seek to pursue societal change however, I think it’s important that we not let it overshadow our responsibility to love our neighbour and point people to Jesus. Whether in people's lives or our society, we can't forget that what God seeks is transformation not just reformation.
As Michael Horton wrote, "The gospel of power is an enemy of the power of the gospel."
It’s because of these kinds of issues, that I hope you’ll join me in the New Year for the launch of small groups. I’m excited for us to come together for Bible study and prayer, but also with neighbourhood-sized mission projects that I pray will transform our town through the Kingdom of God, the way Jesus and the early church transformed the Roman Empire. Would you pray about hosting a group? Leading a group? Attending a group?
In awe of Him,