It’s all anyone is talking about.
Let’s be honest, it’s all anyone’s been talking about over the last few weeks and months. I’m currently typing this in an airport concourse and I’m catching bits and pieces of conversations as people shuffle past. Facebook and Twitter feeds are peppered with people offering their opinion, explanation, lamentation, or celebration. The topic doesn’t even discriminate between AM and FM radio stations.
I’ll be honest, I am troubled. Specifically, I am troubled by the response of Christians. The sadness and unease I feel transcends the result. I am disappointed that Church has largely failed to recognize the very fabric that makes up the tapestry of Scripture. To clarify this point, a truncated, yet lengthy explanation is needed.
The Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is largely—if not entirely—a discourse on the character of God and His relationship with His people. But His character and relationship with His people can only be understood, initially, against the backdrop of the Egyptian Empire. Egypt exuded power and offered the promise of stability, security, and affluence to its citizens via the economic exploitation of immigrants. These immigrants were the people whom God had chosen to be His own. Fear-based rhetoric from Pharaoh was used to galvanize support from Egypt’s citizens for the advancement of Empire. Yet, through an instigator named Moses, God intervened and brought freedom to His people from the Empire.
In the ensuing weeks, months, and years that this wily people meandered in the wilderness and hunkered down to make their home in the promised land, God warned them not to pursue the allure of Empire. Yet, they would not oblige His warning. They sought a king that would give them power, prestige, and privilege.
Their own pursuit to create their own holy version of Empire led to being overtaken by a series of nations. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece. Different names. Same insidious spirit of Empire. To the community of Israel in this time, God sent the prophets. However, we face the temptation to distill these messages through American Christianity, burning off the political backdrop until only the libation of privatized spirituality is left. Instead, the prophets served the people of God messages of warning and hope in the looming shadow of Empire.
Years passed and a new Empire emerged—Rome. Rome codified its Republic with the sole purpose of expansion and conquest. To citizens and conquered alike, Rome promised peace and stability. Rome created a network of guilds to provide social mobility, wage rights, and worker protection. Industry and ingenuity flourished under the Roman Empire. And, like each Empire that came before it, there was a State religion in which total allegiance was demanded and gained under nationalism. For a Roman, all hope was placed in Emperor and Empire alike.
Yet, ever-expending sense of entitlement and prosperity always comes at someone’s expense. The same community that had escaped Egypt, stumbled in their own feeble attempts to be like all the other nations, and was deported under Assyria and Babylon, had once again found itself occupied by another Empire—however, much more cunning and subtle in the counterfeit religion of nationalism that it offered. Revolts and rebellions frequently would erupt out of unrest from periphery communities that were generally avoided by Roman citizens. It was from one of these periphery communities of rebel-rousers, Nazareth, that a poor Jewish man, formerly a refugee himself, formed the most unlikely movement that completely changed the course of history and subverted the most powerful Empire—one that the United States incidentally modeled itself after—that the world had ever known.
Rome, who prided itself on its inclusivity of various religions and belief systems (so long as they fall in line with the law), now was suddenly threatened by this homeless rabbi preaching salvation from sin and death. They crucified this rabbi, and when he conquered the grave, they fought hard to cover up his stunning resurrection. Decade after decade, this movement of Jesus-followers and their communities spread, and each was met with significant friction by Rome when they concluded that their faith in Jesus was incompatible with participation with the Empire. In fact, John’s book of Revelation is an apocalyptic discourse urging communities of faith to hold fast to the faith—even when the Empire seemed to be usurping itself over all.
These people suffered, not because of the Gospel, but because of the ramifications of the Gospel. The Gospel demands something of all who accept it. The Gospel always comes at the expense of the Empire.
So, with that said, imagine the perplexing response these early mothers and fathers in our faith would have should they see how Christians—by and large—have approached this election. What would they say to the flags that adorn our altars? Would rationale could we possibly give to the “election liturgies” that many congregations integrated into their worship services? Would they offer any indictments to our pontifications of our preferred candidate and demonization of the other? Could we deny (even if we wanted to) that we have become complicit with the Empire?
The sheer elation and despair alike of Trump’s election is enough evidence that we have ultimately placed our hope in the Empire, and not Jesus.
The hope of the world is not in an elephant or a donkey; but in the Lamb.
Empire always flourishes by power. As such, its leaders will coyly leech power from people; rather than empowering communities to be the best that God created them to be. Leaders of Empire will dangle that which people desire as an enticement to give their1 power away. “Give me your vote and I will make sure you have jobs.” “Vote for me and I’ll raise minimum wage.” “Vote for me, and I’ll give you the Supreme Court nominations you want.” Each of these promises shouted from podiums sound eerily like hisses in the desert.
Once a scarcity mindset is adopted and we give permission to the Empire to thrive, we can easily begin to do theological backflips to maintain a commitment to Christ in one hand, and an allegiance to Empire in the other. But let us never forget, Empire always commandeers the religion of its citizens to justify its expansion. Ask Egypt. Ask Babylon. Ask Rome. I cannot begin to recount the amount of times, as the election season wore on, I heard a Christian say “We just need to pray that whoever God wants in office will be elected,” before offering the safe-fail “unless that is we’ve backslid so much that He removes His hand and you-know-who gets voted in.” There is not some mysticism surrounding the electoral college—though it still is mysterious. When we carefully examine Scripture, we find that this is not how God acts. Still more troubling, are congregations who take it upon themselves to use their pulpits as partisan platforms urging their congregations that one candidate or party is the “Christian party”—all-the-while remaining unaware that it is an extension of the very Empire the people of God have historically abstained from.
Thus, while we as a people may have any number of emotions we are experiencing in light of the American election, let this serve as a remind that God has called his Church to be pockets of light in the midst of Empire. These small communities following Jesus managed to subvert Empires of injustice before and we can do it again.
The hope of the world is not in an elephant or a donkey… but in the Lamb.