When I was a child, I was raised in a very political community. (I was a homeschooler. Being political is par for the course.) Unsurprisingly, being surrounded by political zealots, I became political, a strong Republican with libertarian leanings.
Zealot as I was, my favourite chapel message during my freshmen year at Bible college was the one that reported that President George W. Bush had been elected to his second term. I recall announcing this to my RA, and when she heard why that message was my favourite, her face just fell.
More than ten years later, I’ve changed. I’m as political as ever, though my positions have shifted somewhat. But I also feel strongly that church and politics don’t mix.
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe faith should inform our politics. But when we believers come together on Sunday morning, we’re coming together to remember Jesus, not join a political rally.
On Sunday, my church talked about politics. I want to share what happened here not to shame my church (you’ll notice I never use its name, and only one or two of you who read the blog know which church I attend) but to meditate on how we believers are to live in an unbelieving culture.
The service started well. We celebrated Advent by lighting a candle and praying together for divine peace. We read the text, a few verses from Mark 1. The pastor, based on those verses, affirmed the reliability of Scripture.
But then (I cannot recall how) the sermon took a strongly political turn.
This Sunday, the second in Advent, was also the one immediately after the San Bernadino shooting. It was only a few weeks after the Paris attacks. Radical Islamic violence was at the front of our minds, so it must have been very easy for the pastor to get sidetracked (if the topic wasn’t already part of his sermon) into sharing his thoughts on Islam:
He explained that Islam was a cult of Christianity, created when Mohammed heard and rejected the Gospel (1). He asserted that it was a violent religion and voiced his frustration that people ignore Islam’s violent tendencies; he urged his listeners that even when people urge them to honor Islam, they pay that faith no honor. He implied that accepting Middle Eastern refugees willy-nilly was a bad idea.
He said more, I believe, but I cannot recall it. (Likely at some point, I stopped listening and focused on the dishcloth I was knitting.)
Whether the speaker’s political positions were correct is not a question I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is the fact that he commandeered Sunday morning time, during the Advent season, to address American politics and our ongoing cultural conflicts. These topics are important, but when we use Sunday morning to address them, we’re neglecting Jesus, who is of far greater importance.
Conservative political writer Rod Dreher has suggested that American Christians adopt what he calls the “Benedict Option”: not a withdrawal from the world altogether, but a withdrawal from the enormous effort we’ve poured into the culture wars, to rebuild our communities and retell the stories which are central to our identity: the stories about who Jesus is and who we are in Him.
During Advent, that story is one of extraordinary hope. Right at the darkest part of the year we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who invites us out of the darkness and into the light of God.
When Jesus was born, those who welcomed him were living in great darkness under the heel of the Roman Empire and of Herod the King; his coming brought them new light and hope. To those of us who celebrate His coming two thousand years later, he brings that same hope and light in the middle of the dark world in which we live.
There’s no denying that my pastor was right on one level at least. Radical Islamic violence has been in the news a lot right now, and it’s scary.
But the thing is, for us who follow Jesus, the story doesn’t end there. We have no business telling scary stories about the dark world around us, when we live in sight of the light of God. We need to be telling the whole story, that though we dwell in darkness we see in Jesus the Light of God.
This, and not radical Islamic violence, is the Christmas story, the one we need to remind ourselves of at this time of year. If we neglect this story, we risk losing the hope and joy God has called us to in Christ; we risk losing sight of our redemption in Christ.
This is why the Benedict Option is important; by turning from politics and the culture wars to the essential stories of our faith we remember our connection in Christ and are able to live authentically as Christians.
But more broadly, this is where our mind should be fixed this Christmas. Yes, the world is a dark and scary place these days. But honestly? It’s winter; what else did we expect? The thing we must remember is that Aslan is coming: and Advent is a perfect time to be telling ourselves that. When we tell ourselves anything else, we cheat ourselves of the joy of the season.
(1) Re. the origins of Islam, I’m assured by friends of mine who have actually studied Islam and lived among Muslims that Islam is not a cult of Christianity; it’s an outgrowth of the Middle Eastern pagan religions.