Part I, based on a sermon delivered in September at Calvary Memorial Church:

When it comes to politics, the followers of Jesus need to avoid two temptations, two equal and opposite errors, two extremes. On the one hand, we need to avoid the temptation to think that politics is everything. 

This, of course, is hard to do. We live in a highly politicized world. We live in a world where everything is thought of in terms of politics. From education to the environment, marriage and family, gender and sexuality, art and medicine, faith and freedom, we think about all these not-necessarily-political issues in political terms. We’re all victims, you might say, of the slow, steady process known as “politicization,” whereby we increasingly look for political solutions to solve all of life’s problems. 

This process of politicization — or “politics-is-everything” — goes a long way to explain why there is so much ideological conflict all around us, why everything from choosing bathroom signs to biology textbooks can become a political battle. Turn on the evening news and you’ll see what I mean. Everything is talked about in terms of politics. Which means everything is framed as an ideological conflict, a game of will-to-power. 

The sociologist James Davison Hunter is a keen observer of this trend, “Unless the topic is a human interest story buried at the end of the newscast or in the back pages of the newspaper or news magazine, news reporting on almost any issue is framed in terms of who is winning and who is losing in the contest for political advantage.” 

For many Americans, politics is everything. Which is why so many, Christian and non-Christian alike, pay a sort of religious devotion to their political causes, and why they put biblical-like faith in political promises. This is also why every four-year election cycle is such a big deal, why it takes on messianic and apocalyptic urgency — because our lives are politicized. 

And Christians are complicit in this. This is where the perspective of outsiders is helpful. In their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report that a huge percentage of (especially) younger non-Christian Americans think Christians are too political. “Three-quarters of young outsiders and half of young churchgoers describe present-day Christians as ‘too involved in politics.'” (155)  

Politics-is-everything is a big issue for many Christians, but it’s not the issue for every Christian. In fact, an increasing number of younger Christians, who’ve been disillusioned by politics-is-everything, have swung to the opposite extreme. From the politics-is-everything of their parents to the politics-is-nothing of their peers. 

Many Christians now live in what New York Times writer David Brooks calls “the new age of complacency.” 

“These days most of us don’t want to get too involved in national politics because it seems so partisan and ugly,” he writes. “And as a result, most American citizens have become detached from public life and have come to look on everything that does not immediately touch them with an indifference that is laced with contempt. We have allowed our political views to be corroded with an easy pseudo-cynicism that holds that all politicians are crooks and all public endeavor is a sham.” (Bobos in Paradise – The New Upper Class and How They Got There, 271). In short, Brooks says, many Americans have “turned a healthy skepticism about government action into a corrosive negativism.” (Bobos, 271) 

And so, too, I might add, have many Christians, especially those who reject the overly zealous political approach of their parents. They have reacted to that by taking on a posture (in Brooks’ words) of indifference laced with contempt toward all things political. Why vote? What’s the point? They’re all crooks. The system’s rigged. 

At first, you might think this is the right response to the idolatry of politics-is-everything. But if you look closer you find that, just beneath the surface of the cynicism, there is a similar idolization of politics. It’s not that the younger generation has toppled the god of politics; it’s just that they’ve lost faith in the god of politics. While their parents still pray to Caesar, the young have lost all hope that he’s even listening. 

And the result? Disillusionment with the god of politics. It’s not putting politics in its proper place. It’s rejecting politics altogether. But as someone has rightly said, “to avoid political action is the worst kind of politics. In most cases one can avoid it only by an attitude of self-complacency, by keeping silent, and by acting as an accomplice without assuming any risk.” 

In other words, this attitude of politics-is-nothing isn’t extreme enough. It’s an easy substitute for the hard task of love. 

When it comes to politics, then, followers of Jesus need to avoid two equal and opposite errors. On the one hand, the idea that politics-is-everything, the idolization of politics. But we also need to avoid, on the other hand, the idea that politics-is-nothing, which (although more subtle) is still an idolization of politics. 

Both are errors, and both are extremes. 

And yet neither view is extreme enough, at least not for followers of Jesus. 

I suspect it was a lovely day in Birmingham, Alabama in mid-April of 1963. But I also suspect that this didn’t do much to lessen the unusually harsh conditions of the Birmingham City Jail, where the young leader of the Civil Rights Movement found himself under lock and key. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been arrested for being a political agitator, a disturber of the peace. And all the political powers-that-be were arrayed against him. 

But so, too, many of the influential white ministers. Eight of them, in fact, penned a response to King, published a few days before his arrest, under the banner, “A Call to Unity.” Their advice to King: Don’t be an extremists. Be cool. Don’t overreact. 

I’m sure King was at least tempted to heed their advice. Who wants to be thought an extremist? Besides, it’s far easier to disengage from politics altogether, to assume an attitude of politics-is-nothing. But I also suspect King felt a certain indignation at their advice, and was maybe even tempted to follow the lead of another young black leader, Malcolm X, and pursue an aggressive strategy where politics-is-everything. 

But as he sat there in the Birmingham jail and penned his famous letter, he came to the conclusion that being an extremist wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, he confesses to finding “a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.” 

Listen to his explanation from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: 

“Was not Jesus an extremist for love — ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you’? Was not Amos an extremist for justice — ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’? Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ — ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus’? Was not Martin Luther an extremist — ‘Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God’? … 

“So the question is not whether,” wrote King, “we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be? Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?” (297-98). 

It’s a good question. It’s one we should all want to answer. Especially in today’s churned-up and divisive political climate. 

Which will you be? An extremist for hate or an extremists for love? 

Which will we be as a church? What kind of extremists will we be? 

Will we be extremists for hate, or fear, or anger, or resentment? 

Will we be like James and John, Jesus’ two disciples, who seek status and power so that we can Lord it over others?  

Or will we look to the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many? And will we follow in his footsteps, the footsteps of our crucified king, and instead be extremists for love?

Todd Wilson is senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park. This is based on a series of lectures he is delivering at the church during the weeks leading up to the election.

Join the discussion on social media!