Tim Gaines and Shawna Songer-Gaines have just released a book: Kings and Presidents: Politics and the Kingdom of God. I generally am very wary of any conversation which seeks to tie Christianity to American politics, but I agreed to read some of it. I’m glad I did.
Today on the blog you get an exclusive excerpt from chapter 4, in which the authors discuss why it’s important to know where we are on God’s timeline in order to engage helpfully and hopefully in the political process. They describe us as living in the “valley” between the two mountain top times of creation and the new creation, and what that means for the rulers who stand on “little mountains” in these between-times. I thought it worthwhile reading (emphasis in bold is mine). I hope you do, too.
The church’s history in North America is peppered with attempts to usher in the kingdom of God through the effort of the people, through enacting certain legislation, or simply by advocating enough political reform that we can bring about what we pray for, that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t engage politically in such a way that reflects the coming kingdom of God. The point is that we must remember it is not our kingdom at all, but God’s. When God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, we must remember that it will be God’s day, not ours. As well-meaning as we may be, the day is not ours to claim. Our calling is to faithfully live out the reality of the coming kingdom in the midst of the present one, a reality made possible by virtue of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation.
If we are honest about what we see around us politically, especially in the church, it is people of the valley who often look to the mountains, see a ruler or a party or a platform, and then try to climb out of the valley to the top of that mountain. The temptation is strong because the rulers or political parties are so convinced that they have the right way of governing, that the day of fulfillment has arrived, and that they just need to beat their detractors back so we can all see how great their day will be. They are deeply convinced that their policies are so good that if their opponents would get out of the way, everything would be fantastic. That kind of certainty begins to attract the attention of valley people. The rhetoric from the mountaintop can be so loud, so brash, and so self-confident that we can sometimes be tempted to begin to climb out of the valley and align ourselves with life on the mountaintop.
The trouble with doing so is that life on the mountain is different. There are different stories told, and a different set of things are valued and seen as good. On the mountain, kings write the story of history, often by winning in a battle over a threatening opponent. On the mountain, a common comment you may hear would go something like: “We’d all be better off if we could just vote the (fill in the name of a political party here) out of office so our people could be in office. That’s when everything will get better.” The troubling idea here is that putting our party into office, whatever that party may be, is an attempt to bring God’s day about on our own. We should also add here that we’ve already seen what tends to happen in the history that kings on mountains are writing. Keep in mind that 2 Kings 3 paints a clear picture of warring kings going home no better off than they started.
In the valley—Yahweh’s valley, remember—the stories told are of God’s faithfulness to the meek and the humble and quiet ways that God brings about salvation. In the valley, history is not advanced simply by eliminating the enemy but by God’s faithfulness to the people who live there and who are formed by the stories of the valley. In the valley the comments that we share with one another point to the faithfulness of God, no matter who happens to be the majority party in office. People of the valley wait in hope for God’s day to arrive, but they know that when God’s day comes, it will be God’s doing and we will have all the more reason to rejoice. As people of the valley, we realize it is not the kings on the mountains who write our story; it is the faithfulness of Yahweh, a faithfulness that often comes to us in ways that don’t appear powerful on the surface.
Sometimes, when we fall to the temptation to think that our rulers, our policies, or even our own political parties can somehow establish ultimate peace and goodness (if everyone would just get on board and do it our way), we forget what day it is. We forget that today is not the day when ultimate authority has been established. Therefore, as people of the valley, we are called to remember what day it is. We remember that it is a day between the times when God’s authority is realized in its fullness. We remember that it is not yet the day when God will set all things right and will once again be fully recognized as the ultimate authority. But this also means that we realize it’s also not the day when any one particular political party, ruler, or platform is all in all. We recognize not only that human political rulers occupy their offices under the authority of the Creator but also that their platforms are not capable of ushering in the complete fullness of the New Jerusalem. People of the valley realize that they occupy a time between times, that no human ruler will be the one who can establish a true and lasting peace. It’s their perspective as people of the valley, formed by the stories of God’s faithfulness to the weak and cast-aside, that allows them to see this different political reality, and to realize that they do not need to climb the mountain but can remain in the valley.
But waiting isn’t the only thing people of the valley can do. A large part of what it means to be people of the valley is actually two-fold: We wait, but we also engage. We wait because we recognize that God is the ultimate authority, and that when kings, rulers, or other leaders make claims of ultimacy, they are mistaken. We wait because we have hope in what God is bringing. But remember, Christian hope is not wishful thinking. It’s living into the coming reality. It is living the reality of what’s still coming in the midst of what’s happening now. Therefore, hope calls us to engage. If hope really is living out a future reality in the midst of a present one, we can’t express hope if we aren’t engaging our present reality with the hope of God’s future. As people of the valley, we are people who do not withdraw from the present reality but engage it in hope with the enduring belief that what we are living out in the present age is not our attempt to bring God’s kingdom but to live in faithful accordance to the one who has been faithful to us in the valley.
We are not called to be whisked out of the world. We are called to engage as people of hope, precisely because we know what kind of future God is bringing, and we seek to live as people of that future even before it’s made fully present. This is why as pastors we encourage our people to engage in political life rather than dismiss it. But we do so with the encouragement that they vote as people of the valley, rather than as people attempting to climb to a particular mountaintop. We want our people to engage, to vote, to protest, to campaign, to invest, and to sacrifice but always and only for the sake of being a people attempting to live out the rhythms of the New Jerusalem in the here and now. In the world of kings, engagement serves to advance the prospects of one party or candidate, but in the world of the kingdom, the engagement of a valley people is always for the sake of allowing God’s future to break into the present. We want our people to engage, but with the knowledge that we seek God’s kingdom, rather than the kingdom of any given political figure or party. When people of the valley engage in the political life of their society, it is never to empower a king on a mountaintop but to say to the world, “Our God is faithful, and this is what it looks like when we live out that faithfulness.”