A Biblical Case for Political Engagement

faith-and-politics

*never you mind that these are the two things we are NOT supposed to talk about.

You may have heard it said “Let’s leave the politics to the politicians and the believers to the gospel”, or something like that.  

To the extent that we as Christians should not be enslaved or beholden to politics, I agree.  To the extent that one thinks the gospel (the good news of Jesus) doesn’t intersect with political realities or that it is somehow more Christian to disengage from the political sphere, I will have to disagree.  

On a practical level, it seems naive to insist there is no overlap.  Even to disengage from politics (activities associated with the governance of a country or other area) is a political choice.   On a spiritual level, God sees love for Him and love for others as interconnected. It is a human thing, not a God thing, to separate the two (doesn’t Jesus surprise us when he is asked of the greatest commandment, that he responds with two?).  

So why should we as Christians engage with politics?  And if so, to what extent?  

Loving ones neighbor does not happen in a vacuum divorced from politics and the governance of peoples.  The American mindset automatically goes to loving my neighbor as meaning solely loving individuals, when that is not the mindset of most of the world (which are of more collectivist cultures), and certainly not of the biblical witness.  The bible recognizes group, not just individual, responsibility.  It even recognizes systems, not only individual players.  Therefore, we are not just to do good to individuals, but as we are able, to do good for the larger community

The Apostle Paul, in Gal 6:10, exhorts us “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

The passage states “as we have opportunity” to “do good to everyone”.  Yes, the priority of care ought to be for the family of believers but this DOES NOT mean the exclusion of all others.  

First, let us look at do good to everyone”:  

Too much evil has been done in the name of “good” / “God” that He is NOT about, and, unfortunately, we even see this playing out in these times by people claiming to be Christian.     

We cannot be clear enough on what it means to do good FROM THE BIBLE.

Yes, we are not saved BY good works.  But we are saved TO DO good works.   So what is the good work we ought to do?  The Apostle John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, believed that God’s love lives in a person through action on behalf of the ones in need (1 John 3:17-18). James, most likely the half brother of Jesus, taught that true religion is caring for those in need (James 1:27).  He even goes so far as to make the outrageous claim that a faith that is not accompanied by works, and the notable example he uses is caring for those in need, is dead and no better than demonic (James 2:14-19)!  Jesus himself dropped on his disciples that to care for the least of these was to care for Jesus himself and was the litmus test of eternal salvation (Matthew 25:31-46).  The common thread of what it means to do good is to care for those in need…to do justice.  Even, and maybe we need to be reminded especially, those we do not consider as “us”.  

Lastly, let us look atas we have opportunity”:

We must remember that during the time of the writing of the epistles most folks were not people in power but were people without the right of Roman citizenship (Jesus himself did not have citizenship status) or at least not in positions to affect direct political change.  Their opportunities to do good for larger society, at the policy level, was limited.  Even from that context of the new testament the case has been made for political engagement. 

But if you want more scriptural models it is helpful to go to the Old Testament when Israel was once a Theocratic nation state.  There we get some frames for what God’s government could / should look like.  I won’t get into all of that here (check out the books of the law for that) but suffice it to say that the laws of the government were about personal purity as well as just relations, with special considerations for the more powerless of society (and gasp! even provisions in the government for taking care of the poor!).  God took seriously not only individual actions but political actions.  When Israel strayed from His way the prophets took them to task.  Isaiah makes a scathing rebuke to the lawmakers of his day declaring “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,  and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil,  and that they may make the fatherless their prey (Isaiah 10:1-2)!”  Amos warned “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate (5:15a).”  The gate was the central place of political exchange.   It was Israel’s job to engage in politics…for good.  They did not take that seriously, and so God took the kingdom away from them.  

But we’re not a theocracy anymore so why engage in godless politics?  

Remember also that Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah were not priests or part of the theocracy of Israel either, but they affected policy of the pagan government for the good of those in need.  

If you are a citizen, and a citizen in a democratic country no less, you have more opportunity than most to do good that affects a great number of people.  And as Uncle Ben famously said, Jesus had said before him “to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” 

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2017: A Year of Lament…and Deeper Healing

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excerpt from my end of the year letter…

This was a hard year in many respects: nationally (increasing natural disasters, divisive politics, senseless deaths, policies further marginalizing the poor), locally (sharp rise in homelessness and the housing crisis in LA), and as a church family (more uncertainty for our undocumented siblings, tragic deaths, marriages in crisis, and chronic illness taking out local leadership).  I’ve had to learn how to lament (about 40% of the Psalms are lament): to cry out to God in the midst of pain.  We like celebration.  We don’t like lament.  But God’s been showing me that lament is God’s invitation into a relationship so intimate that He wants us to process our pain with him, not a kind of relationship that only allows us to speak when it is in praise.

Yet, He has opened my eyes to the work He is doing nonetheless.  We’re seeing favor in our community like never before, our attendance numbers are slowly increasing, our discipleship has multiplied, but most of all God has been doing deep healing.  Our life groups have persevered through the storms.  We are working on better structures to care for the church community.  Although circumstances may not have changed drastically, many of our local folks are in a much better place with Jesus than they were a year ago.  A handful of key local leaders even preached during Sunday services for their very first time!  God, in his love, has brought many difficult issues to light.  But it’s only through this process that we can see more clearly and the work of deeper healing can take root.

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 7: It is a Reversal of Status

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Final Part 7 of 7 in a series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

7. It is a Reversal of Worldly Status

In all the talk about who is great, who we want to make great again, and who is the g.o.a.t. (aka greatest of all time), God’s view of who is great is completely the opposite from the world.  To God, whatever is highly valued by the world is detestable to Him (Luke 16:15) and whoever is considered least in this world are the ones who are great in His eyes (Luke 9:48).  God’s Kingdom is the complete reversal of the world’s kingdoms.    

How do we know that God does indeed have special favor and esteem that He bestows on the “least of these”?  It is through something that this world can never give…intimacy with Him.  Think, in the bible, to whom and when God personally appears and shares special intimacy with people: an old childless nomad in the desert, a shamed bi-cultural stranger in a strange land, a little boy born of a barren mother who was raised in a temple, a runt of the litter shepherd boy, and a virgin teen girl from a poor neighborhood, just to name some.  In my experience too, the people i have come to know who have had the most amazing supernatural revelations and experiences of intimacy with God are people that this world overlooks.  

Gus came from a family of 8 siblings, growing up in poverty in a rough neighborhood.  He is someone that society has overlooked.  He doesn’t have any advanced degrees.  He was notoriously violent and struggled with substance abuse.  That was until the Lord met him about 7 years ago.  Since then God has been transforming him and he has a relationship with God that i’m jealous of.  

About a year ago our church was doing a bible study in the book of Daniel. Daniel himself was not someone “great” before God stepped in; essentially he was a trafficked teenager who was enslaved and likely castrated in service of a foreign king in a foreign land.  One of the first and most miraculous ways God revealed Himself to this boy was to not only interpret this mad king’s dream but to reveal to Daniel what the king dreamed BEFORE the king even told him what the dream was.  This is an impossible task, for anyone could come up with an interpretation for a dream once they hear it, but who could possibly know what another person dreamed before they even heard it from the dreamer, except God alone?  And, come on, that’s a silly story in an ancient text that doesn’t happen today, right?  Wrong.

During the weeks of our bible study in the book of Daniel, God gave Gus a vision of a woman walking down the street and then hands came up out of the ground and started pulling her down.  

Gus asked God, “Who is this word for?”   

God replied “No. This is someone’s dream.”  That following Sunday, Gus saw a young adult that has been a part of our church for years.  She too was raised in this poor neighborhood and was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet for her 4 children.  God told Gus “It was her dream.”

Gus hesitantly approached this young lady and shared the vision that he had seen.     

She immediately asked “Have you been talking to so-and-so?  I just told her that I had that dream.”

Gus answered “No. God told me.”

This young lady’s jaw dropped and she went on to share how she was going through a lot of struggles and that those struggles were holding her down.  For those who may still be skeptical, God revealed yet another dream in detail to Gus and it turned out to be a different dream that this same young lady had!  

You see God lifts up “the least of these” in this world to show us true greatness, giving them insight that no human could possibly know…even to lift up others who also don’t have much in the world’s eyes, in order to demonstrate that HE sees them.  

In God’s Kingdom, HE makes the least of these the great ones among us.  

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 6: It is a Mystery Revealed

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When I was in 5th grade an illness struck my body.   My mother first noticed that my legs looked a little swollen.  She pressed down on it with her finger and let go.  An indention stayed on my leg.  She sought doctors. One morning i woke up and my entire body was swollen.  I was rushed into the hospital.  Rounds of doctors, nurses, and doctors in training were brought in to see my curious condition and prodded and poked my body.  I had to stay overnight at the hospital for days.  The doctor told my mother i would have to take steroids to treat my nephrotic syndrome (a rare chronic disease of the kidneys, that in some cases can lead to kidney failure no matter what treatment is used).  She was told that the side effects of these steroids could stunt the future physical growth of her middle child.  She recounts her shock and the fear when she heard this news.  there was no guarantee that the steroids would cure the illness.  There was no history of such illness in our families or my siblings.  There was no explanation for the cause of the sudden onset of this disease in her child.  

If someone was faced with these facts in their life, there could be all manner of responses and questions:

Why did this have to happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this?

What kind of God would allow something like this to happen to a child?

Oh, well.  What can you do?  Life is ultimately meaningless chaos.

OR

Could it be that there is something deeper happening than what we can see, at the present moment?  

Turns out there was.  

You see, for some strange reason, my mother and I can recount an unexplainable peace at the time of these events.  Yes, i wasn’t bleeding out and yes, the staff at the Children’s Hospital of LA are amazing.  But a lot of my mother’s friends were surprised that my mother was so relaxed in the midst of such uncertainty.  She was too.  And there was certainly no good reason that I would be at peace staying overnight for an indefinite amount of time in an unfamiliar place.  I was a total mama’s boy (and may still be ;)) and was terrified of the dark, constantly insisting that I not be left alone in such cases.  But there I was, a 10 year old boy, telling my mom she didn’t need to stay with me and that I would be alright, though there was no clear evidence that I would be.  

Turns out I was admitted into the hospital on a Sunday morning.  Everyone at our church found out what had happened and were praying for me.  Turns out my future youth leader, a person who would later influence my life in a significant way, visited my church that Sunday.  Turns out a member of the english congregation of our church worked at the hospital i was in and came by my room to visit.  Turns out that, contrary to what should have happened after taking steroids for years after that Sunday morning, I am now the tallest member of my family.  

I grew up in the church but, to me, God had no relevance to my life.  Everything was in our control.  Until it wasn’t.  These events created a shift in my perspective that God is not far away but is near.  He is personal.  He knows me.  This time in my life are my first memories of praying to God.  

You see, if it wasn’t for this illness, that seemed random and meaningless, I would not have the relationship with God that I have today.   

You see, Jesus is at work.   

I’m not saying there won’t be hardship that you still have to go through.  I’m not saying it will always be a linear path.  I’m not saying you will get an explanation in this lifetime.  But He is at work nonetheless and, like the parable of the growing seed, He is doing something for good.  Just because we cannot see a reason for what is happening doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  The Kingdom of God is a mystery revealed.  We don’t know when the mystery will be revealed or to whom, but it is all only a matter of time. So let us keep holding onto His hand.      

What Does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 5: It Starts Small

2015 spring retreat

our church spring retreat in 2015

Part 5 of 7 in an ongoing series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

5 (of 7). It Starts Small

Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God starts small but becomes great.  

I’ve had the privilege to join in on the Kingdom that is unfolding through the story of our church.  

It all started in late 2004, or more likely before that in a lot of other unseen ways, when Chris and his wife Maggie decided to move into an apartment in the working class neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.  God had given them a dream to see a thriving church in LA’s urban Eastside for and made-up of the working class community.  

Those early years were really rough as it was difficult to build trust with neighbors who were suspicious of these outsiders. Many small bible studies started and folded.  Chris was physically assaulted and struggled with depression.  Other outsiders from the community joined them as a team for periods at a time, praying with them for the community and spending time with people of the community.  

In the summer of 2006 a game of catch football started in the back alley of Chris’ apartment complex and it soon gave them and their team connection to a group of youth.  A youth group began with the leadership of another team member that came in, Ryan.  The vision for a community non-profit, In the City, was also born around this time, which is currently directed by an original team member, Jenny, who has been here the longest along with Chris and Maggie.  In the beginning of 2007 Chris was released by his supporting church to be full-time in the neighborhood for a church plant in the neighborhood.  The church started by meeting in the apartment carport with about 20 people.  

In the fall of 2007, Chris went to a Lincoln High School football game and encountered a woman from the community who was serving the hungry players dinner from her own paycheck.  This woman turned out to be Lucy, a key person of peace of the neighborhood.  She soon received Jesus and immediately started reaching out to the people in her life.  The church grew to nearly 40 people.  In the fall of 2009 two JV football players from Lincoln High, across the street from the apartment complex, joined the youth group and then invited two more friends.  Together these high schoolers grew in Jesus and in leadership, bringing vital energy to the youth group.  By the beginning of 2010 this church had to begin renting space from a local elementary school.  

In the fall of 2010 Chris met Isabel and Gus.  Isabel had been crying out for someone to explain the bible to her.  Gus wanted nothing to do with the church.  But nevertheless they eventually went and were transformed and grew into sobriety from substance abuse.  They reached out to their network of friends about the Kingdom of God.  By 2011 the church had grown to nearly 70 people and moved to meeting at a local middle school.  

In 2013, Chris’ family returned from a year long sabbatical in which they experienced a breakthrough in healing ministry in Mexico.  Healings started to break forth in greater ways in the church.  By the end of 2013 the church moved into a new building that is on the main thoroughfare of the community on Broadway.  

In 2014 an East LA church plant was commissioned out from our church and the elder team of our church had its first locally raised leadership.  Now in 2017, our church has more local leaders now than “relocator” leaders.  And these local leaders are now discipling others.  The average Sunday attendance is 80 people and at least 120 are weekly connected to the life of the church. We are more connected to community organizing in the neighborhood than ever before, weighing in on affordable housing and community peace coalitions.  There are so many more unnamed people and untold stories that have made up this larger story.  

Sometimes the works of the Kingdom of God seem small, fruitless, hard, long, and not worth all the pain.  But without those small and seemingly insignificant encounters, decisions, and sacrifices we would not be where we are now.  We know God is far from finished with the dreams He has for this community and its impact well beyond its borders.  

In the midst of the labor, let us bear in mind that the Kingdom of God may start small but it always becomes greater.  

What Does the Kingdom of God Look Like (in Real Life)? PART 4: It Is Good

Galvans&Mathiesons

(from L to R: Gus, Dorothy, George, and Isabel)

Part 4 of 7 in an ongoing series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

4. (of 7) It is Good

Again, i don’t mean good in the sense that it makes everyone feel nice but good in the sense that the Kingdom of God does right.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, understood in her song to the good King that His Kingdom lifts up the lowly and brings low the lofty (Luke 1:46-55)

It is indeed rare to see good in this broken world.  It is even more rare to meet someone who inhabits the goodness of His Kingdom.  

That is why I have been blessed to have met a woman by the name of Dorothy Mathieson.  We received word that she is dying of cancer and it’s only a matter of days left of her life here on this earth.  Dorothy is a sweet old self-deprecating Australian woman, and she has become like an abuela to many in our community, even though we only spent a short time with her.  

Australia!?!  Yup, that’s right. That’s the kind of influence this woman’s life has.  

Dorothy is so humble it took some work to find out more about her life.  She is so ready to listen to others, shares their stories, and empower them in God’s presence that it’s easy to forget to ask about hers.  Dorothy gave at least 40 years of her life to God’s work: decades in the slums of Manila, Philippines.  Then with international students from countries that want to kill Christians, and then with overburdened and worn out pastors. She was single for much of her life but later in life she met George who had the same heart as her.  She went back to school and, together with George, that’s where she sharpened how to practice the presence of Jesus and hold on to Him through all manner of pain and trauma.  And then she turned around and gave away what she learned.  Through it all she NEVER gave up on Jesus.  

On top of this she was one of the sweetest and most joyful women you’d ever meet, that you’d never know all that she had been through.  She’d seen so much pain and injustice she should have been a bitter old person.  Yet, she chose to let the Prince of Peace rule her.

She taught us how to hold onto Jesus, like koalas from Australia.  She has been instrumental in bringing many key folks in our church community into the presence of Jesus for significant inner healing.  Her ministry has deeply changed the way i mentor, counsel, and disciple people.  She called us in LA’s Eastside, rascals though we are, some of her favorite people.  And made it a point to drop by on her occasional visits to California.  

Anyone that’s met her wants to be like her when they grow older.  I want to be like her when I grow older.  

THAT is what a life immersed in the goodness of the King and the Kingdom looks like. THAT is what it looks like to finish well.  THAT is a life that held onto God’s Kingdom and it made ALL the difference.

Will we walk in the goodness of the Kingdom?  

What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)? Part 3: It Comes With Power

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(our youth group at a winter camp in 1994)

Part 3 of 7 in an ongoing series to attempt to answer the question, from my own experience and witness, “What does the Kingdom of God look like (in real life)?.”    

#3. (of 7) It is Accompanied by Supernatural Power

The first time I, that I am aware of, encountered supernatural power was near the end of my middle school years.  One night I had a bunch of my good guy friends, that were also part of our church’s youth group, sleepover my house.  It was a good time full of jokes, farts, and late night confessions of secret crushes.  The next morning we all slowly woke up, except for one of my friends.  We thought it would be funny to pull a prank on him to wake him up by throwing him into our bathroom tub and blasting him with a shower-head of water.  

He didn’t wake up.  

Our laughter soon turned to concern.  He was breathing and he showed no signs of sickness.  We tried to open his eyes, but his pupils would pull away from view.  Then this strange low growling and groaning started from this friend of ours.  Our concern turned to fear.  Soon we started yelling at him, slapping him in the face, and threatening for him to wake up and that it wasn’t funny, whatever joke he was trying to pull on us.  Our friend started pushing us off of him.  Now our friend was not a big guy by any means, but we couldn’t restrain him.  Even my older brother got involved, and he was a big guy.  My brother sat right on top of my friends chest demanding that he wake up.  My friend, even with his hands restrained by us the best we could, was starting to buck my brother off his chest.  And the strange mutterings continued from our friends mouth.  

Chaos was upon us.  

We were desperate and in way over our heads dealing with something none of us could explain but were sure was something ominous.  One of us called our youth pastor to come to my house in this time.  Our youth pastor arrived and with a couple words of rebuke to whatever was messing with our friend, the darkness was gone and our friend woke up.  

There was no joking or “A-Ha! I got you!” statements afterward.  Only the feeling that some kind of madness had passed, beyond our understanding.  Our youth pastor spoke to us about spiritual warfare in the Kingdom of God and how to deal with it.  Soon after our youth pastor started a bible study with us, and you better believe the word of God came alive to us like never before.  

 

Fast forward about 20 years later.  God was calling me to transition out of youth ministry into becoming an associate pastor of adults at our local community church.  Right around that time it was Thanksgiving season, two days before Thanksgiving to be exact.  I was with two of our church elders, Gus and his wife Isabel, finishing preparing some thanksgiving meals we were going to give away to folks in need in our community.  Gus was also there to prepare for the sermon he was going to give the coming Sunday.  As we were finishing up, Gus was complaining about a sudden cloudiness in his head and a weird sickness.  He felt he needed to lay down.  I asked him a little more about how he was feeling, learning by this time that God is the source of supernatural power even to physically heal.  Gus shared that this fog in his head was preventing him from preparing his sermon and that he had experienced this strange feeling before when he was around demonic elements on his mission trips abroad.  

Sensing spiritual attack, I called over Isabel to pray with me for Gus.  I prayed to God first for this sick feeling to be gone and to rebuke anything that was trying to mess with Gus.  Then Isabel prayed for Gus.  We checked in with Gus.  

The sick feeling was gone.

Gus shared with me that when I rebuked it in my prayer he felt something pulling his head and then when Isabel prayed he felt it break off fully.  We gave thanks to God for the miracle we had just witnessed.  Gus was then able to prepare his sermon.     

This last story is significant because Gus experienced healing from a physical ailment as well as deliverance from spiritual oppression.  God has power over ALL.  It reminds me that the physical and the spiritual are not completely separate.  We do not fight a battle against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces at play in our midst (Ephesians 6:10-12).

God’s Kingdom is not merely about talk but it come comes with power (Mark 9:1, 1 Corinthians 4:20).  

If we are people of the Kingdom of God, under submission to the King, we have authority over ALL darkness (Luke 9:1-2, Luke 10:19-20) because our King, Jesus, has authority and power over ALL things (Matthew 28:18).  

Let us walk in His power, not ours, as we step forward today.   That makes ALL the difference.  

learning to love holistically amongst the urban poor