n case you hadn’t heard, Trump won the nomination. Ted Cruz is out, and so is Kasich.
This unfortunate outcome has flung many of us into the Facebook fury of memes, into lamenting and theorizing about how this ever happened and who we must choose going forward (if anyone). “We ran too many candidates. We clogged the door with too many good draft picks while Trump snuck in through the window. Should we vote third party? Should we start a write-in campaign? Who do we pick? Where do we start?”
Most circles I run in believe that Hillary should be in prison and that Bernie isn’t competent enough to be a state senator, let alone president. And Trump? Let’s just say electing Trump would be a yuuuge mistake. The big question will still remain after all our posts have received their likes, and our feelings of despair (look no further than yesterday’s National Review headline) have reached their highest shriek: Who now? What next?
While the presidential election cycle is the height of political engagement for many Americans (dare I say most?), may I suggest that it ought to be otherwise? We have grown to focus almost exclusively on national politics, and that is not healthy for a self-governing people. A healthy political life requires that we engage first at the local level. We need a theology of the local.
A Theology of the Local
I have very little influence over Donald Trump — probably none at all. (I know that comes as a surprise, given that I have a Trump tie in my closet.) Trump doesn’t know I exist, and he probably never will. Why, then, are we American Evangelicals dismayed when we don’t get the “king” we want? Could I have ever swayed him to bend to my wishes? My worldview is diametrically opposed to that of multiple candidates, especially Trump. Were we really looking to him to take us to the Promised Land? Did we expect him to actually change his worldview because of our vote?
That is what the presidential race sells in many ways. The new president is our Messiah, and his promises will bring about heaven on earth . . . right? When I put it like that, it seems a bit ridiculous. But while I have no influence over Trump, I do have potential influence over my state officials. Take this from a guy who interned in the district office of a congressman: State senators and congressmen are “small time.” They aren’t “real congressman” or “real senators” (Angela’s boyfriend in The Office, anyone?). Yet in all reality, I could very likely get a hearing from them if I tried.
But let’s think even more local than that. We have mayors, councilmen, aldermen, school board members, and a whole menu of lower office holders that are very much within our local bubble of influence — yet the local suffers at the hands of the idle. National politics is no doubt important, and its relevance has only grown as the federal government has ballooned in size and power. Nevertheless, we mustn’t lose sight of the very real influence we have over our local political affairs — and for that, we need a renewed theology of the local.
The wisdom of God’s Word on this matter is profound. Luke’s account of the Great Commission found in Acts 1:8 gives us important insight into where we begin our political engagement:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, ESV)
In a way, Jesus is outlining our Christian priorities as they pertain to geography. We can apply those geographical categories as follows:
So, Josh, are you saying that political engagement begins in my hometown, where I’m physically living? Yes. But it actually gets more specific than that. It begins with your neighbor. We need look no further than Christ’s summary of the Law and the Prophets to see that your neighbor is of greater concern and importance to you now than the person who is king:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, ESV)
The person next door is the person you have the greatest political influence over. So today when you wake up, don’t go and throw your neighbor’s “Trump for President” sign in the trash. Begin a process of engagement. It may very well be that you are divided over a presidential pick, but you may also find that you both oppose the sex ed curriculum being proposed at the local public school that your kids attend. You may find that you both oppose abortion and can unite in a common cause by appealing to your relatively accessible state senators. The point is, political engagement begins where you are — in your neighborhood, community, city, and state.
It is to our detriment that we live in such a transient culture. Even as I write this, I contemplate how my current place in graduate school has choked my own political engagement with my local leaders. “I’m only here for a couple of years,” goes the logic, “so why bother? I’ll just develop my aptitudes and gifts right now and wait to eventually use them in the public arena.” But who does that sound like? It sounds not only like the escapist who says “I’m going to heaven, so why bother with this world,” but also like the unfaithful servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) that buried his talent until his master returned. Is this who we want to be?
While I don’t have influence over Donald Trump, it is freeing to understand that I do have influence over my local city councilperson. I don’t have to simply cast my vote for president, sit back, and hope for the best. I can get my hands dirty at home, dig in, and do what I can to influence the community I live in. This country is still largely conservative at the county level, and that makes local politics a great place for us to start. Additionally, engagement at the local level takes on a new urgency because of the encroachment of the national onto the local. The less we engage at the local level of politics, the more the federal government intrudes into the local sphere — and we can expect that to continue. It is our duty to be faithful citizens that push back against the growth of federal power that has intruded too far into our lives. We must also push back against a kind of “nominal” citizenship that engages in politics merely once every four years. The duties of citizenship are far and wide, as is the political process. If we are to be faithful citizens, we must begin engaging at multiple layers of government — city, state, and federal — and not just during election season.
Politics and the Gospel
Some may say that even local politics is hopeless, that we simply need to leave politics aside and focus solely on preaching the gospel. I appreciate that focus on the gospel, and I do place gospel proclamation as the top priority. But I cannot go so far as to neglect political engagement.
The reason for this is that we are always participating in a political system and can never reduce our activity simply to preaching. When I drive to school, I obey the traffic lights. Doing so is a basic necessity of living in a community. But whether I obey the traffic lights or not is an inherently political act. I am either conforming to the community’s standard of law or I am actively dissenting. I am, in a sense, voting with my actions.
Driving in Uganda, for example, is a nightmare. No one obeys the traffic laws! Yes, choosing to abide even within five miles of the speed limit is a form of obedience. Political participation is unavoidable. Likewise, to not participate in election cycles is still to have some impact on the race — an impact of absence rather than activity.
So to the person who says I should simply focus on preaching the gospel: How would that principle apply to abortion ministry, for example? If I am engaged in gospel outreach to women in crisis pregnancies (which, personally, I am) and only preach the gospel, am I actually being faithful to the gospel? Clearly not, for the gospel teaches me to act as well as to speak. And conversely, if I only offer those women help and no gospel message, I have equally failed to be faithful to the gospel — for the gospel requires faithfulness in word and in deed. Gospel proclamation is never sufficient for living the Christian life. God also calls us to obey His commands, His law. In this light, the Christian who wants to limit his or her function in politics to mere gospel proclamation is actually neglecting a major portion of the Christian life. The gospel changes us from the inside. The Spirit uses it to move us toward moral action, toward faithfulness in word and in deed. The gospel has tangible implications for all of life — and by necessity, that includes the political.
Being engaged politically will therefore require at least three things:
Imagination may be the last thing you would have expected to see on this list, yet here it is. We, Evangelical Christians, need to be more imaginative. There are more ways to be politically engaged than voting in the presidential race. “But I don’t even know who my local representatives are,” you say. “I don’t even know what their stance is on __________.” In that case, it would seem we have identified a good starting place. Who are your local reps? What do they believe? When is your next town hall meeting? Who are the stakeholders in your community? And to those rightfully concerned with evangelism: Where are the avenues for the gospel to move through? Where is God already at work? Applying your imagination here is key.
Faithfulness should resemble the motif of Christ and His apostles. Christ faithfully and patiently taught, re-taught, exemplified, and re-exemplified to His followers what it meant to be a disciple. The disciples consistently got things wrong about Christ. “Are you restoring the kingdom now? Should we call down fire?” But if there is one thing we can credit them with, it is that they remained faithful in following Jesus, particularly after the resurrection. We too should approach people where they are, at all levels of spiritual maturity, and we will even find that political engagement is much more tedious — and messy — than casting a ballot every four years. Faithfulness means getting dirty, laboring, toiling, and waiting for fruit. Faithfulness will always precede fruit, and the fruit may not come for a long time. We cannot presume to elect our fruit at the ballot box and then walk away thinking we have been faithful citizens.
Lastly, our love for neighbor should be rooted in a love for God and a desire to keep His commandments. I love my neighbor when I am willing to risk much to gain nothing. I love my neighbor when I reach out even in the midst of sharp disagreements. I love my neighbor when, time and time again, he forgets to put the shared trash cans out and leaves it for me to do — and yet I do it, and in so doing, my trash and his trash literally become our trash. I love my neighbor when I see his teenage daughter facing a crisis pregnancy and intentionally make an effort to love, protect, and sacrifice for her and her family and proclaim the gospel to them. My love for God should entail a delight in His law and His ways so that I have a standard to appeal to for moral action, both in my personal life and in political affairs.
So, Ted Cruz dropped out. And, you know, it’s a disappointment — Cruz was drastically better than Trump, Hillary, or Bernie. But politics is not everything. Cruz ain’t no Messiah. As we move toward the general election, and then into 2017, I would ask you to consider becoming politically active at multiple levels of government, starting in your local community. And whether in victory or in defeat, let your political life be a vessel of grace to others — a taste of the Kingdom of God.
 Vincent Bacote brought this to my attention at the recent CMI conference held at Covenant Theological Seminary.
 In contrast, we should note that some laws should not be consented to, namely those that violate God’s standards and force us to disobey the true King.
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