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At no point in my memory has our civic political life been as chaotic as it seems to be now.
And at no point in my memory have our civic politics wormed their way into more aspects of life than they seem to be doing right now.
It isn’t just that we face a Covid-19 shaped healthcare crisis; its that responses to that crisis are taking on red- or blue-tinges.
It isn’t just that we watch news programs that favor our perspectives; its that we watch news shows that favor our “facts.”
It isn’t just that we disagree on the directions we think the country should go; it’s that we disagree on where it has been.
And it isn’t just that we have different opinions about how much energy to put into the goods that sustain our democratic systems (things like free and fair elections, equality before law, and a vibrant public square); its that we have different opinions about whether democratic systems are worth sustaining in the first place.
Complicating things still further, we have multiple, seemingly incommensurable, understandings about how to pursue our civic lives expressed within scripture.
Just within the epistles of the New Testament, things are messy: Are we to “be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1)?
Are we to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2)?
Or maybe we’re to recognize that the beast that “was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months” was “given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words [against God and] . . . to make war on the saints” (Revelation 13:5-6)?
So: is God in charge?
Is the political world just messy and the church needs to model a better way?
Or are our public lives being ruled by principalities and powers that would do us harm?
The theological traditions that have built from these scriptures and have guided the church aren’t much better, as is visible through even a cursory review of her history or a quick glance at the multiple ways that she has currently aligned herself (or resisted such alignment) with the state, many of which–maybe all of which–are deeply problematic.
And yet the one option that seems to be off the table for Christians is to ignore the state and the responsibilities of our civic engagements.
We have to talk about political matters, whether that talk sounds like a letter to the editor or prayer.
We have to pursue justice, whether such pursuit means marching in the streets in support of Black Lives Matter or looks like standing vigil at an execution.
We have to promote mercy, whether doing so means working in our church’s homeless ministry or calling our representatives to advocate for laws that help the orphans, widows, and sojourners in our midst.
We have to do these things because they are how we love our neighbors.
Because they help make our own lives more livable. Because God calls us to.
But how might we do these things when our politics are so chaotic and ubiquitous?
How might we do them when our guiding conversation partners are not of one mind?
How might we talk politics during turbulent times?
Perhaps some partial answers to such questions are visible in the very shape of those questions: Recognize that engaging political issues is unavoidable because they are everywhere–and really always have been.
We may not resolve all our concerns, but we don’t believe that resolving them all is something we have to (or can) do anyway: we are saved by faith.
Treat the multiplicity of voices shaping our conversations as a collection of varied resources for addressing problems that will need all the resources we can get our hands on and minds around.
We may not agree with everyone but we can still imagine a world in which we can live with them: we are empowered by hope.
Take up the practices of civic engagement because God is commanding and inviting us to do so as a way of expressing our commitments to God and neighbor: we are shaped for love. Faith, hope, and love: always good starting points when facing turbulence.
This September 25, we will have the chance to explore such matters as we learn from keynote speaker and noted ethicist Grace Yia-Hei Kao, think about best practices for the church in a range of workshops, and to talk with each other during the virtual “Talking Politics During Turbulent Times” conference at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Mark Douglas is a Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. His wide-ranging interests include ethics in neo-orthodox theologies, medical and business ethics, the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, and the role of religion in political philosophy. He is currently researching and writing at the intersection of environmental issues and conflict studies.