Jun23SatJune 23, 2018
In this moment the Christian community in North America seems to be hashing out our relationship with government and empire very publicly, in bursts of off-the-cuff posts, replies and comments.
Government and empire are the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of social organization. At its best, government brings order that allows life and community to flourish in safety and sustenance inasmuch as it is ordained by God. On the other hand, empire exploits life and community to preserve and prop up its own systems of power and influence inasmuch as it is persuaded by the powers and principalities of this present age. While government is intended to serve purposes beyond itself, empire primarily serves its own purposes of self-promotion and self-preservation.
Scripture calls Christians to support and honor government. But these same scriptures call Christians to disturb empire. And the line is blurry.
Jesus intentionally sat at tables along this blurry line when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.
As best I can understand, tax collectors and prostitutes had two things in common: their fate was tied to the Roman empire and the Roman empire cared nothing about their fate. The prostitute gave her body in service to the Roman military. The tax-collector gave up his morality and community connection in service to the Roman treasury. Because they threw their lot in with the empire, they were despised by their own people. When they turned to Caesar for their daily bread they suddenly had no where else to turn.
To sit at a table with tax collectors and prostitutes incurred not only gossip and disdain but social, political, and religious backlash. They were not destitute – their ties to the empire ensured that – but their relationship with the empire was toxic.
But Jesus the Nazarene dared to come and sit at these toxic table. In his table ministry Jesus gave worth and value to their deepest longings and desires. Perhaps he learned the stories behind their fears and insecurities. It is no coincidence that the announcement of the kingdom of God came at tables filled with people who thought empire was their only hope for salvation.
These days, we can’t seem to agree on the boundaries between government and empire. The lines are blurry and the tables are toxic once again.
In recent weeks, we have become painfully aware of the US government’s policy and practice of separating children from their families as they enter the country illegally. A vocal majority of US citizens to turn the tide of public opinion and policy as the president signed an executive order to unify these families. In the course of these events, public discourse devolved and Christ followers were among some of the most divided. Christians armed themselves with scripture and moral righteousness, and those weapons swing to the left and the right. Some fiercely defended government while others waged war against empire. So often I wondered, “Are we talking about the same thing?”
Conversations on social media have become toxic. Today's Christians do not seem to have the same table manners that our Lord modeled. We have despised our own people; why should we be surprised when they feel they have no where to turn but Caesar?
Last week, the leaders in my denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, have come out with a statement in support of the unification of these families and some non-partisan principles behind immigration reform. The statement reflects our official denominational position recognizing the sanctity of human life as a gift from God, opposing induced abortion, and supporting programs that provide care for mothers and children.
Both of these statements are political. Their aim is to encourage government to work for the flourishing of human life and communities and to disrupt the elements of empire that might be distracting government from the task God ordained it to do.
But statements only go so far.
Jesus came announcing a salvation that released captives of sin and death and gave freedom for the prisoners held down by the powers and principalities of this world. In his kingdom, tax collectors and prostitutes are no longer pawns of the empire but sons and daughters of the most high God!
Jesus gave his table hosts more than statements. He gave them his presence, his friendship, his concern for their hardship and his mercy for the mistakes. Jesus joined the toxic tables and turned them over to become the platform for his kingdom announcement.
May I ask, is there anyone in your social media circle who would make you cringe if they tagged you in a post? A person or group of people who you feel would be toxic to your reputation, making you guilty by association? Perhaps they have been described as a basket of deplorables or a bunch of snowflakes? Would you be ashamed to sit at their table?
May we not forget that Christians do some of our most important work at tables. Tables make a space for people to be known at a deeper level than a label can ascribe. Tables are where we put aside our fear of scarcity and see the abundance of God. Tables are where we practice the good ordering of life we long to see in the world around us.
Christians ought to be politically engaged in persuading government to bring good order, reflective of God’s creative work, so that life may flourish. However, there is no political party, news outlet, civic leader, or church structure that is immune to the temptations and enticements of empire. Even as we take up political action, we do so in the humility that we too might be co-opted by the optics and antics of an empire that cares less about vulnerable children than scoring political points.
The kingdom of God is the lampstand to which we hold up government and it is the salt that cures the toxicity of empire.
This Kingdom’s announcement is coming to the tables of tax collectors and prostitutes. If you are too good to eat at those tables, you might just miss it. There is no guilt by association in a Kingdom that pardons sinners like me. Your brothers and sisters are not toxic, but perhaps our rhetoric is. We need to return to the table where we break bread, share our brokenness and taste the Kingdom that is bringing heaven to earth.
Note: To read more about a Christian engagement in political life, see Shawna's book, Kings and Presidents: Politics and the Kingdom of God.