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Sunday, November 22, 2020

Preparing for Communion During a Political Dispute

 When I recently posted dismissively on Facebook about recent claims by the president's legal team, someone told me: "You need to repent of your sins, please." When I pressed him for an explanation, he claimed that Bible prophecy promises four more years of Trump and Pence in the White House.

Spiritual significance of political choices

These were hardly the most serious challenges I have received to my beliefs or actions in and following the recent election, but they highlight an important aspect of where we are right now: our political choices and relationships have profound spiritual implications. Both serious and unserious people have made strong claims about right and wrong, truth and falsehood relating to this specific election season and particularly the presidential election. Many of these claims are made with an appeal to the Bible.

It is fairly common knowledge that the Christian life ought to be characterized by both faith and repentance: that is, believing God's Word about salvation (and in general) and turning from sins to God. The time of preparation for Communion is a time for particular focus on these responsibilities: it calls us to examine not only our relationship with God, but also our relationships with fellow-Christians. In my church, Communion is observed every week. As a part of the weekly preparation, I have to examine my life, including the political part. I have been thinking about this, and I felt that others may benefit from my thoughts.

The dangers of political discussion

Political discussion is a minefield, especially on social media. Some people have to engage in this discussion regularly, and hopefully they realize how important it is to be careful. Others may feel inclined to get involved in political controversies even against their better judgment. Both groups should consider how to engage in the right way and how to take corrective action when they have failed to engage correctly.

When we enter seasons of self-examination in the middle of a political dispute, it is important to understand that not all political disputes are of the same kind. Some are mainly differences of opinion about prudential issues, and the participants' commitment to truth and to right treatment of other people do not come into serious question. Someone who is engaging in such discussions thoughtfully and peacefully does not have cause for great concern about where they are personally. Such discussions can continue without interruption or hindrance to relationships with God and others.

There are other matters that involve evaluation of the participants' faith or character, but even these are not all on the same level. For example, take the command to not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Most Christians would not understand that to be prohibiting Christians from being involved in politics, in which cooperation with non-Christians is usually necessary. Most would, however, see it as placing some limitations on the degree of partnership with unbelievers in politics. Between the two extremes of boycotting politics and making no distinction in politics between believers and unbelievers there is a great deal of liberty.

Now, it is very likely that one Christian will think that another Christian is approaching too closely to one of these extremes. The Christian with the complaint will have to decide whether to make an issue of it and, if so, how far to go. This will depend on how sure the first Christian is of his or her objection and on how major of an issue he or she thinks it is. The line between an issue of personal liberty and an issue of character or truthfulness is not always clear.

If the first Christian does voice an objection, the second Christian must decide how to respond. The second Christian may or may not come to agree with the first Christian on the issue at hand. If he does not agree, he will have to decide how to deal with the disagreement. He may decide to change his behavior in order to not harm his relationship with the other Christian. He can do this if he feels that his prior course of action or argument is one that he is free to either pursue or not. His deference in this case is not an admission of wrong but a concession for the sake of peace. Such a concession will not be enough to end every controversy, but it should be enough to end most.

If, on the other hand, the second Christian is unable or unwilling to change, the first Christian has a choice. He or she must decide whether this is an issue of faith and obedience so clear and major that it requires a line to be drawn or whether it is a matter of each individual's personal relationship with God, for which each will give an account at the last day. In other words, is it a liberty issue?

At any point in this process, either party may commit sins against the other that do not flow directly from the main issue. These may need to be addressed, as well. The timing for addressing them is a matter for discretion.

Now when one comes to prayer or Communion, he is commanded to examine his relationship with other believers. If the individual has sinned against another, he must set it right. If the individual has been sinned against (in his or her judgment), the individual must address that either by releasing it to God or by challenging the offender over the offense.

The dangers of political parties and candidates

This is the broad outline. Now let's complicate it a little. Many controversies in any election (and probably the most interesting ones in this past election) center not on policy per se, but on differences over the proper response to the lies and sins of a candidate or party. In fact, the controversies can touch on the faults of multiple candidates and parties. The nature of the controversy will depend on whether the disputants agree on where a political actor has lied or sinned.

If I call something a lie or a sin (maybe even a crime), I may get various kinds of pushback. Someone might say, "That is not a lie or a sin," or they might say, "We don't have enough information yet to say that they are guilty of a lie or sin." Sometimes, people even seem to be confused in their own minds about which of these two positions they are taking.

These claims are different from ones that center on the context of an admitted lie or sin. Others will argue, "Even if/though that is true, XYZ by the other party or candidate is worse." Or they may say, "There is no significant difference between what this party or candidate is doing and what the other is doing," implying that the criticism is not useful for determining an appropriate course of action. On the other hand, they may argue that I am giving the lie or sin too much or too little weight compared to a similar lie or sin on the other side.

In evaluating these criticisms, I have to determine who between us has learned and studied enough to come to an educated opinion. One or each of us may need to continue the discussion in order to come to a better educated opinion. I must also seek to determine which of us has made the best use of the knowledge and skills that he has. If one of us should know better than to take the position he does, that is a different matter than simply not knowing any better. In addition, I must decide how sure I am of my own conclusion. And finally, I must determine how important it is for each of us to reach the correct conclusion: is this something on which we may agree to disagree?

Self-examination in a dispute about parties and candidates

Now, let us say that in the course of this controversy I come to prayer or to Communion. I should not stay away from special seasons of prayer or Communion: I may, however, need to address a controversy first. I may even need to delay my prayer time in order to address an urgent problem.

A problem is urgent if it requires immediate action. I may need to immediately confess that I have said or done something wrong. I may need to immediately confront the other person about something I believe they were wrong to do or say.

However, some problems just take time. I may need to continue with prayer and Communion and then pick up the discussion afterward where I left off. I may need to take a break and come back to it. Or I may need to drop it altogether. I have to make these decisions prayerfully and thoughtfully, always seeking to understand and apply the Word of God with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Concern and hope in a developing political realignment

We are in a time politically that can test family and spiritual ties. It is important to recognize both the need for those ties and the seriousness of the challenges that they face. In my part of the church, there is deep and abiding conviction of the evil of abortion and of sexual immorality, as well as of the evil of policies that encourage or enforce them. There is at the same time a growing but still lesser (and in my opinion inadequate) estimate of the evil of the words and actions of our current president. We are experiencing a breakup of the Republican Party and a re-alignment of American politics driven largely though not entirely by the president.

There is still room in this environment for differences over strategy, but that room is narrowing quickly. Some Republicans and former Republicans will be shocked to find that former allies may consider them as bad as or worse than Democrats who embrace abortion on demand and value sexual autonomy more than religious liberty or civic virtue. They will be stunned that this evaluation will be based on their embrace or rejection of soon-to-be-former President Trump. Some will be horrified at being told that they are on the wrong side not only of Biblical revelation or the Constitution, but of common grace, natural law, and the best of philosophy. I am not shocked. I am grieved. 

But although I know what is coming and have experienced some of it already, I have hope. Out of these deep differences, we may learn to think better, live better, and communicate better with those we disagree with politically. As we grow, we will realize more and more how much we depend on those ties and on seasons of devotion.

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