John records Jesus stating, “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own” (Jn 15.18-19, CSB), and again in 16.33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” Something I notice in these verses is that the world, that is, non-Jesus followers, will hate us. In the second quotation, suffering (sometimes translated as tribulation or even persecution) denotes something Christians experience in a time of trouble, or calamity when we are in the process of losing hope and courage.
Both persecution and suffering were realities for the early Christians. Read their writings (I need to do so more often!) Today, Christians in Middle Eastern countries fear followers of radical Islam; Christians in Russia are hard-pressed to, if not suppressed in attempting to, share the gospel of Jesus and non-Christians are also experiencing suppression. We can name all the big and bad enemies of the world where Christians live, minister, and share life, and we must realize a confession of faith can cost you your life! Yet, I cannot help but notice Christians in the United States, those on television and social media, suffer from what I have learned to be a persecution complex–that is, the desire to be persecuted without actually being persecuted. Follow me here: Jesus told these statements to disciples who would be martyred for being followers of “The Way”.
These disciples and countless others saw the Roman Empire as a threat to the teachings of Jesus. What they faced is persecution. What we face is not–political disagreement is not persecution. Simply because someone critiques (sometimes rightfully so!) your favorite president is not persecution. My favorite example is one prominent Christian social media personality who stated that Starbucks persecuted Christians by removing “traditional symbols of Christianity off of their holiday cups.” Last I checked, we do not worship Frosty, jolly ol’ St. Nick, or a Chrismas tree. We believe in and worship the One Son of God who died on the tree of Calvary and rose again on the third day! Some Christians are so concerned with their personal standing in society they perceive mere disagreement as persecution (Admittedly, some criticism is malicious, unfair, and inaccurate.)
Recently, President Trump told a gathering of evangelical* pastors they (himself, the pastors, and presumably all of those who agree with him) are one election away from “losing everything.” Indeed, I might even interpret that statement to foreshadow the president’s approaching campaign for the 2020 presidential election. It seems the president is warning these pastors that if he, or his like-minded Republicans, do not win in November and/or 2020, everything he has worked toward will be ruined and overturned. The amount of fear in a man claiming to follow the same Jesus of the Bible that I know and follow is astounding. It seems reprioritizing is in order.
Paul writes in his Corinthian correspondence that we are the aroma of Christ. We are to leave this aroma wherever we go. Paul also writes that through Jesus we have been given not a spirit of fear, but of courage, love, and a sound mind to borrow from the KJV (2 Tim. 1.7). You see that? We do not fear anything in this world not only because through Christ we do not have a spirit of fear, but because that same Christ who gives us the spirit of power has overcome the darkness of the world through his death and resurrection. So, you see, we really are not “one election away from losing everything,” for we belong to Jesus who is Lord of all.
We must remember that we confess our salvation is in Christ alone; not in any political party, a branch of government, or especially the Supreme Court. The Supreme Judge of this universe has given us an authoritative Word by which we are to conduct our lives. Should we be active in these other areas as we see fit? Sure, but that is not for everyone and that is okay. What must be prevented is subsuming our Christian identity into an American nationalism disguised as the Christian faith. Nationalism of any kind, loyalty to any one person or thing other than to Christ and his Kingdom is blasphemy. Paul’s statements in Philippians 3 are poignant for today’s church. Those who focus on themselves, those who are “focused on earthly things,” are considered “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Therefore, because we belong to Christ and have forsaken all (things) to follow Christ, we are citizens of heaven (cf. Phil. 3.2-11, 19-20).
I do not write this to say we should not care about politics. Indeed, we should. We should give special care to those around us who do not have a voice, who are our neighbors. I write it out of pastoral concern, not only for those to whom I minister but for those who identify with the Lord Jesus. I write this because it seems a majority of evangelical Christians, or at least self-identified evangelicals, have decided to hitch their proverbial wagon to a campaign slogan rather than the Great Commission. What I fear is the coming reality that Christians will no longer have the “moral authority,” or any authority, to witness and proclaim to the broader society the life-altering, life-giving news of Jesus Christ and God’s Kingdom. What I fear is that many Christians are more concerned with gaining the whole world than denying self, taking up their cross, and following wherever Jesus calls–which is sometimes outside of our political, social, economical comfort zones, “across the aisle” as the late Senator John McCain sought to emulate. I do not write this because I want to offer contemporary commentary on Christians and political habits, though I will invariably do that in some form. But I do want to ask this: Christian, for what do you wish to be known? How do you wish to be identified? Let us all examine our faith to be tested by the Spirit of God that we would rather gain eternal life in Jesus rather than fear “being one election away from losing it all.”
*Evangelical Christian is a loaded term. David Bebbington offers his own quadrilateral and defines the evangelical as one who: (1) affirms the authority of the Bible; (2) centrality of Christ’s atoning work on the cross; (3) emphasis on personal conversion; and (4) the social expression of the gospel. I like this. I self-identify as an Evangelical in the contemporary, American (Western?) sense which is typically taken as one who stands more on the “conservative” spectrum of Christian theology–though not always! I take the term seriously, a Christian who seeks to herald (Evangel) the good news of Jesus (Christian).