Political homelessness: Charting a path to a better countryWritten by Subby Szterszky
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These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
Political homelessness has become a buzzy term on social media. Growing numbers of people from across the political spectrum are going online to announce they’ve become politically homeless. These declarations aren’t typically made with pride or defiance, but rather with a sense of dejection and loss. Having become disillusioned with the inflexible tribalism of their own camp and unable to embrace the tenets of another, these individuals have found themselves adrift, ideologically speaking.
The phenomenon appears among Christians as well as non-Christians, often triggered by toxic experiences of polarization within families, churches, communities or society in general. But for followers of Jesus, this sense of political alienation need not end in despair. Seen through the lens of Scripture and history past and present, it can remind us that we’re strangers and exiles here on earth and help us refocus our desire for a better country.
Politics in the Ancient World
The categories in which modern westerners frame politics – liberalism and conservatism, capitalism and socialism, nationalism and internationalism, democracy and the right to vote – are by no means universal or self-evident in most societies past or present. They would’ve been utterly alien to the Ancient World in which the Bible was written.
In the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world, virtually all societies were ruled by an absolute monarch whose authority came from the gods, or who was considered a god himself (or on rare occasion, herself). While they may have had advisors and counsellors, their word and will was final. There were courts and laws, but common people had few if any legal rights in the modern sense. Power and status were rooted in land ownership and military might. The idea of the general populace choosing their elected leaders would’ve been completely foreign.
During New Testament times, the Roman Empire was entering the era of its greatest power and it ruled the Mediterranean world with an iron fist. In Judea, there were five socio-political factions – Herodians, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots – whose platforms ranged from collaborating with Rome to seeking its overthrow by any means. Two of Jesus’ disciples – Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot – were at the polar ends of that spectrum. After they encountered Jesus, there’s no evidence that they couldn’t get along or that they remained loyal to their extremist camps. The apostles urged believers to obey authorities and pay taxes as good citizens. But beyond that, church engagement in political activity is virtually absent from the New Testament.
When good things become idols
Like our modern Western political categories, our concepts of human rights and personal freedoms, and of the equality and dignity of all individuals are by no means self-evident or universal. They’re not shared by most cultures, past or present, and would’ve been considered laughable in the Ancient World in which the Scriptures were written.
All these ideas were forged in the matrix of a Judeo-Christian world view, based on the conviction that all people are created in the image of a good and just God. Over the centuries, these core beliefs led to the abolition of chattel slavery, the establishment of women’s and children’s rights, social reforms protecting workers and the poor, and the right for all citizens to choose their government that would be accountable to them, rather than the other way around.
Fallen human nature being what it is, we tend to turn expressions of God’s goodness into idols. Rather than recognizing that our democratic societies, with our rights and freedoms, are providential outliers in human history, we’ve come to take them for granted. Instead of worshipping the God who gave us these marvelous benefits, we worship the benefits themselves. As a culture and as individuals, we become obsessed with preserving our positions at all costs and we retreat into tribes that share those positions. Taken to an extreme, the feeling can become, "Anyone or anything that threatens our tribe must be silenced or destroyed."
A game of horseshoes
When considering political extremism, it has been argued that the political spectrum might be best viewed as a horseshoe rather than as a straight line. The extremists on the left and right are at the two ends of the horseshoe, closer to one another than to any moderate position in between. In fact, they’re identical in their methods and motivations, even as they champion diametrically opposed positions. Both believe they’re infallibly right and their opponents irredeemably wrong. Both are willing to impose their views on everyone else, by any means necessary.
This doesn’t get everyone else along the horseshoe off the hook, however. All of us tend to view those to our left or our right with suspicion and to consider our own views settled and unassailable. Our ideological clan becomes our security and our identity, from which we’re unwilling to deviate.
The Scriptures repeatedly warn God’s people to stay on the path he’s chosen for them and not wander off to the left or right. This is a metaphor for the walk of faith, not a reference to political camps that didn’t exist until the 18th century. Nevertheless, it speaks to the current climate of angry polarizing attitudes in the church and in society.
As the late theologian Tim Keller often argued, followers of Jesus are called away from the polar extremes to follow a third way. This is neither indecision nor compromise. Rather it is thoughtful, prayerful, Spirit-led pursuit of God, whose ways and thoughts are beyond what we can imagine. Keller’s classic example is the Gospel itself, which supersedes our natural instincts toward legalism on one hand and license on the other.
A remarkable scriptural illustration of this principle of the third way can be found in the account of Joshua, as he was about to begin the conquest of Canaan:
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
A tale of two cities
By the end of the 4th century, the Christian faith had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire. No longer a persecuted sect, Christianity rose to cultural and political dominance throughout the Greco-Roman world. Across the Empire, Christians began to see themselves as citizens of a Christian nation which would inevitably triumph over its enemies and usher in the Eternal Kingdom.
Then the so-called “barbarians” came – invaders from Northern Europe and Central Asia who would bring Rome to its knees and shatter the Empire within a few generations. This prompted the great North African theologian Augustine to write his most extensive work, The City of God. Augustine argued from Scripture that Rome, no matter how Christianized, was only a city of man, an earthly city belonging to our present passing age. He contrasted this with the City of God, the New Jerusalem, which is the true eternal home of everyone who trusts in Jesus.
Augustine’s argument rings truer than ever today. Like Rome, the cities and countries of our Western World are not Christian nations, and they never truly were, regardless of the cultural dominance Christianity may have once enjoyed in our societies. Like Augustine, Christians who find themselves politically homeless have begun to recognize that they’re strangers and exiles here, living in Babylon and not in Jerusalem.
This realization is a good thing. Rather than striving to reclaim and defend cultural and political influence here and now, such believers are free to set their hopes and affections on a better, heavenly country and a city with eternal foundations whose designer and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10,16). Their hearts can resonate more fully with the words of the apostle Paul: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21).
The two greatest commandments
Jesus told his followers that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Loving God with our mind affects how we approach culture and politics, and how we understand our world, past and present. As we study the history of ideas, we recognize the rights and freedoms we enjoy were born out of a biblical world view and are gifts of God to us. Rather than taking these gifts for granted or turning them into idols, we’re driven to grateful worship of God for his providential goodness.
Loving God with our mind also draws us away from uncritical dogmatic acceptance of our tribe’s position on every point. It frees us to engage thoughtfully and critically with every idea, whether they come from our own camp or from others. In Paul’s language, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). From this perspective, we’re able to see that no political or ideological system is perfect or has a monopoly on the truth.
This brings us to the second greatest commandment, according to Jesus, which is to love our neighbour as ourselves. Loving others doesn’t necessarily entail agreeing with everything they say and do, despite that prevailing cultural definition. What it does entail is treating everyone with respect and engaging their ideas thoughtfully and with grace, even if we vehemently disagree. As followers of Jesus, we’re not called to angry insistence on our position, but to speak the truth in love, and to be willing to accept correction of our thinking, even if it comes from outside our tribe. We’re empowered to do this because our identity isn’t rooted in our ideology or in the opinion of others, but in Christ.
Loving others as ourselves also includes exercising our civic duties, being good citizens and neighbours, using the freedoms and privileges God has given us for the benefit of our community and our world. It frees us to walk a biblically balanced path, neither abandoning political involvement nor idolizing it.
God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to his people in Babylon: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” He followed that up with a promise: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:7,11).
Whatever city or country we live in, we’re strangers and exiles here if we follow Jesus. Rather than fighting for political power or cultural clout, we’re free to seek the good of our earthly home while keeping our eyes and hearts on our heavenly home, empowered by our Lord’s promise to give us a hope and a future with him.
For those who feel politically homeless, this can offer great comfort and encouragement. Who knows but that God is preparing them, as he did Moses, to lead others to a better country where God has prepared a city for them and will be with them forever.
Sources and further reading
Amy Julia Becker, “For those of us who feel politically homeless,” author’s blog, February 15, 2022.
Chelsea Langston Bombino and Katie Thompson, “Hope for the politically homeless,” The Banner, September 14, 2020.
Olivia Elder, “Sincerely, a politically homeless Christian,” Gordon Review, May 10, 2022.
Matt Forde, Politically Homeless, Quercus Publishing, 2022.
David French, “The spiritual blessing of political homelessness,” The Dispatch, October 18, 2020.
John Ivison, “Do we need a new party for the politically ‘homeless’?” National Post, February 11, 2022.
Leah MarieAnn Klett, “Scott Sauls on embodying Christ’s gentleness in culture; why Christians should feel politically ‘homeless’,” Christian Post, September 17, 2020.
Aaron Schafer, The Politically Homeless Christian: How to Conquer Political Idolatry, Reject Polarization, and Recommit to God’s Greatest Two Commandments, Foundation Publishing House, 2020.
Sarah Styf, “The politically homeless Christian,” Red Letter Christians, February 4, 2020.
Tish Harrison Warren, “Black, Christian and transcending the political binary,” New York Times, October 28, 2022.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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