|The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)|
"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah
I have a special fondness the notion of the Kingdom of God in America.
First, and in a serious way, because it was (and is) the agenda of Jesus to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and since I am an American Christian, my first responsibility is to build it here.
But I also enjoy talking about the Kingdom of God because it makes everyone uncomfortable (including me).
The secular left gets nervous about a theocracy and a religious vision, and the religious left is uncomfortable with the King imagery (I share the discomfort with “King” and I agree that in many ways it would be better to get the King imagery out of it and speak about the Reign of God, but I still think that falls short of the original.).
The religious right wants religion to be personal rather than social, and they are nervous about the “politicization” of the Gospel, and the political right gets nervous about the Social Gospel and Social Justice.
That’s all good, because we are supposed to be uncomfortable with the Kingdom of God.
We should not look for ways to escape that discomfort. Jesus’ vision calls us into the future. We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and that must mean change. As soon as we are comfortable with the present, we remember again that we are called into the future. We are called to be a pilgrim people.
In a special way, Thanksgiving is central to understanding the Kingdom of God in America.
Robert Bellah was one of the greatest American Sociologists. He rose to national prominence when he wrote an essay on Civil Religion in America. (If you have never read the essay, you can get it on line by clicking here.)
Bellah explained how Americans had developed a religious sensibility which was rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, but also uniquely American. We began with a covenant and a mission. Slavery was our original sin. Lincoln was our central prophet. And though we had a high view of our calling in the world, we were clear that America always stood under the judgment of God.
Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in our American Civil Religion. It was first instituted by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, as a time of national Repentance and Thanksgiving. A national day of repentance would be a tough sell in today’s political climate.
As Christians, how do we relate to the uncivil tone of our political debate today?
It is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. It is particularly problematic today after a long season political campaigning in which the president-elect distinguished himself by shattering almost every norm of civilized discourse. One of his Republican challengers declared dramatically that “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.” But apparently you can.
We are in uncharted waters.
But as Christians, it is important that we keep perspective and that we focus on long term goals.
The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.
As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with Lincoln’s repentance and humility.
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.
A previous version of this blogpost was originally published on November 23, 2016.