Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

How to Find a Way Out of Our Present Political Obsessions

A few years ago, I was locked overnight in an Indian cell. Every time I travel back to Nepal and India, as I did two weeks ago, I remember that night. They seized my passport and did not return it until I was released and put on the first plane back to the States. Even then, it wasn’t until I landed in San Francisco that I could take full possession of my documents.

My citizenship as an American, however, is not what got me into trouble. It was another citizenship, one that transcends all others of the earthly sort. Given my relationship with Christ, I am a citizen of heaven, and this unnerves some immigration officers. It does not imply I have dual citizenship. If I am properly discerning God’s word here, my present status in this world is more correctly Resident Alien. I am an expatriate on this earth. Heaven is where my true passport is registered. I am a member of the universal church, a colony of citizens in a faraway land whose loyalties remain with our home country.

It’s this reality that I think most Christians, especially those presently obsessed with earthly politics, are missing. If there is ever a time to get to get our identity right, it is now. Only then will we be able to get our engagement in culture right. A voice I have found helpful in this process is James KA Smith. He has devoted a fair amount of his writing to the subject of public theology, and I have just finished his Awaiting the King. It’s not an easy read, but it is well worth the investment of time.

Smith is not arguing, given our true citizenship, that we should become disengaged and uninvolved in the politics of our day. This would be making the opposite mistake. We are citizens of heaven called to live alongside citizens of this world. We are to work for justice, promote human flourishment, show grace, and release love. We must pray for our present leadership and pursue future statesmen who have the credibility of character and competence. Let me say it again—character and competence. No compromise!

Given who we are in Christ, however, we should maintain a kind of “holy ambivalence” regarding our relationship to politics, as well as every other aspect of culture. Smith defines this as a healthy distance rooted in our future hope. But what does this mean? Let me suggest four things—each one an urgent call:

First, we need to hold, more deeply than ever, the claim that Jesus is Lord of this world. Not Caesar. Not Rome. Not Russia nor China nor America. God alone reigns, and he exercises juridical authority, particularly on behalf of the vulnerable. Unlike the rule of man, his reign is committed to our flourishing—not our tyranny.

This conviction counters every “ocracy” (as noted in my last post)—autocracies, meritocracies, plutocracies, democracies, as well as an emerging authoritarian technocracy. This last one may be the most dangerous rule of man. It is an ideology that is growing stronger, more self-righteous, and more delusional. It appeals to reason and progress, but under it is treating privacy as an archaic concept and viewing AI as our best hope. The aim is a day when machine intelligence will surpass our own (see Adrienne LaFrance, “The Despots of Silicon Valley,” The Atlantic, March 2024).

The only ocracy that offers real hope is a theocracy led by the one true God. All others will soon pass away. Theocracy is the wave of the future—not the way of the past. The days of human-centered leadership are numbered. This reality helps us to recenter our hope in God and place our ultimate submission under him, something desperately needed in a decentered and rebellious world.

Second, our mission as Heaven Citizens is to represent God and carry out his assignments as revealed in his word—to make him known, advance his kingdom, and reconcile humanity to God through Christ. This transcends every other endeavor we give ourselves to. Receiving his briefing each morning far surpasses the attention we give to op-ed pieces and political pundits.

Third, citizens of heaven must give themselves to worship, allowing God to transform their lives and send them out to renew society. Worship, as Smith puts it, “is less the rites of an enclave—more a training ground for sent people.” We are summoned and launched as prophets who declare that the kingdom of God is both here and still to come, its visible signs being righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17). Worship gatherings that devolve into political rallies are misguided, heretical, contrary, and an embarrassment to worship’s true purpose.

Fourth, we as citizens of another realm must be ever on the alert to the pull of earthly politics. The church is an alternative politic, but it can become like the others, caught up in the same shameful rhetoric, the same lust for power, and the same fixation on personalities. We can be drawn into believing our salvation is found in a platform or a presidential candidate.

What seems evident is that many evangelicals have allowed both parties and politicians to become their idols. It’s a subtle temptation. As Smith warns, “we can be lulled into paying homage to rival kings.” We can begin to reduce heaven to earth and replace God’s rule with man’s rule. We can overlook the danger and dive into the political sphere, not realizing that we have become as swimmers diving into the ocean, pulled under for they underestimated the strength of the currents that swirl in that sphere.

Every day I find myself living in these tensions: in the world but not of the world; engaging in the present and waiting for the future. Waiting is central to our political posture, writes Smith. It is not to be confused with timidity or resignation that concedes to the rule of the world it has everything to do with where we place our greatest hope.

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