Voting for Nero

Emperor Nero

I don’t envy American voters right now. As much as I covet the perks of citizenship, the responsibilities of having to choose a President in this years’ election feel a bit like a bad meal on the show Survivor: a choice between roasted scorpion and BBQ’d slug for dinner… awful, but a girl’s gotta eat.

That the presidency has been so closely tied to identifying as Christian in the past makes things that much more complex. Certainly, at this stage I’m not persuaded that any of the leading candidates for either party have anything close to an authentic faith (not that I think being a Christian is necessary for public office. Character and competence? Yes. Christ-follower? Not necessary. Church and state are separate, after all.)

My heart goes out to Christian voters who are grieving their choices. These are less-than-ideal options, and as someone who will live under the reign of one of these officials, I know that I will also experience the effects of their policies in a tangible way. I’m more than a little concerned about what the future may hold for me as an immigrant, and a tax payer, and as a parent of American citizens.

But I can’t help feeling, too, that while this election spells trouble for the America, maybe it will also be really good for American believers. This election no longer allows us to draw a line in the sand and say “my faith says I should vote this way”, because the issues are so complex. Our faith says we should vote (be an engaged citizen, do our civic duty), but exactly HOW to vote is far more nuanced.

I think (I hope! I pray!) that this political climate could have some really healthy spiritual consequences. I just finished reading Mark Labberton’s short-but-powerful book Called, in which he explores the crisis and calling of Christians in our world today. What does God want from us? Why is our faith often so ineffective? How do we figure out what our priorities are, or should be?

Labberton argues that part of the reason the church is in crisis is that, in America, we have positioned ourselves in the wrong place theologically: we live and teach and pray as if we are living in the Promised Land (A place of blessing! We’ve arrived! We have been faithful and rewarded, and if “my people would just humble themselves and pray” He will pour out His blessing!) Consequently, we expect this country to be one with Christian institutions, Christian laws, and Christian leaders: a whole gamut of Promised Land blessings. I’ve seen more than one article comparing Trump to King Saul, and while the similarities are fascinating, it is also fascinating that the position of President of the USA is being compared to the role of King of God’s Kingdom.

Labberton says (and I agree) that we’re not in the Promised Land. Not yet, anyway. A better way for us to situate ourselves theologically is to see ourselves as believers in exile: we are Daniel in Babylon – honoring God, and serving within a system that is not our own, and seeking to exert godly influence there. We are the exiles, seeking the peace of the city we are in – for we will be here a while yet before we finally make it home to the place He has prepared for us. So settle down: plant a vegetable garden, figure out how to be faithful to God in a land-not-yet-your-own, seek your neighbors’ welfare and trust that here and now is not the end of God’s story.

I found reading Called to be surprisingly comforting. The absence of a godly leader does not mean that God’s plan is thwarted: we are not Israel living under a King. We are Kingdom exiles living under a foreign ruler, and while believers may occupy positions of influence and power in that realm– the fate of God’s promises doesn’t depend on these institutions.

The words of the New Testament are all the more salient to believers in these days when it feels like governments are populated by people like the Emperor Nero was: self-serving politicians with significant mean streaks. Nero famously “fiddled while Rome fell”: his cruelty and indifference to people’s suffering so pointedly demonstrating the moral decrepitude which characterized his reign.

This years’ election lineup looks like a bunch of Nero’s (or Nera’s?) to me. The South African government looks much the same, and it is disheartening sometimes to think that behind them are a long, long line of Nero-wannabes waiting to take their place should the head honcho tumble.

But we know that God’s purposes never depended on godly leaders being at the helm. It was to people under a hostile and indifferent government that the apostles wrote their letters about citizenship: honor the leader. Obey the laws. Pay your taxes. Show love to your neighbor. Pray for peace that you may live a quiet life and get on with what God has called you to do.

For it’s not as if we need a new Messiah to come and fix the mess of a system we’re in. We have a perfect King, already installed on the throne, and one day His Kingdom will be revealed. But for now? We live in exile, and no matter who is in power – NO ONE is stopping us from doing the work we were called to do right now: loving God, loving our neighbor. This post is not saying “our hope is not in politics, so withdraw withdraw withdraw!” This post is saying “our hope is not in politics, so engage engage engage… in the Kingdom work right in front of you.” 

This is what I’m trying to remember as I read all the heartbroken and angry reactions on my social media feed. We are in exile, living in the times of Nero. But Jesus is still on his throne, and he says that Greatness is about service and love to the least of these:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your servant— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)

If nothing else, maybe this year’s elections will remind the church which leader we’re ultimately putting our confidence in. Come what may, my vote’s on Him.

8 thoughts on “Voting for Nero

  1. Very cogent analysis!

    My feeling is that the choice is really between a candidate who will provide a hospitable climate for faith, and one who would perpetuate the last eight years of behaviour that has bordered on outright persecution.

    The former candidate certainly has what seems to be a mean streak…but much of what he has said has been quoted out of context to vilify him. The latter lost any respect I may have had by claiming that no Americans were lost in Libya…I happened to know two of those who were killed in Benghazi, and my reaction on their dismissal was and is not charitable.

    Certainly no one who aspires to high office today is a Cincinnatus, but perhaps not a Nero, either. They may simply be driven individuals whose consideration for others is subsumed by ambition, and by ideals and goals that have, to some degree, consumed their souls.

    And there, but for the grace of God, go I.

  2. One of your best, Bronwyn. I have been thinking along those same lines, as I have been pondering questions like what I would do if Sharia law were enacted locally, and how tyrrany forces believers to determine what is culture, and what is Biblical mandate. It would be terribly unpleasant and WRONG to force me to wear a full burqa but it would not be sin for me to wear one, to comply. It would be sin, however, to bow the knee to Mohammed or any other man as if he were like God. There are unholy gods created by man (or more likely, by themselves!) so it is not enough to be “godly.” I think many narcissistic rulers/candidates/dictators act as if they are gods, much as Nero and the Caesars did – godly/idolatrous. No, it isn’t enough to be godly. Let us be, and look to, those who are Godly. I love the call you make to live as Daniels. Yes. We are indeed exiles in a country not our Homeland, and we must pray and work for its prosperity, just as you say. Perhaps my vision for that – stemming from reading Pilgrim’s Progress nearly 40 years ago – is why my moniker is “Pilgrim Lady.” I’m glad to walk this pilgrim pathway with you, Bronwyn. Thanks for such a good analysis.

  3. He is not perfect, but I believe Cruz is the only Godly one of the bunch. Trump is an adulterous thug. Hilary ought to be in prison and Berne is 74.

  4. Btw. At the time of the constitutions ratification, nine states had state religions. 1st amendment was designed to prevent the Feds from having conflict with the states, not to promote state sponsored atheism

  5. Thank you! I’m always seeking to understand our role in culture and I’m very interested to read Called. Loved the thought that we should situate ourselves theologically as believers in exile Like Daniel.

    But I admit, while I love the language/picture of that, I wrestle with it theologically. In fact one of the texts I’m referring to is in Daniel – Dan. 7:13-14. In it we see Christ approaching the Father after the ascension and being given all authority and dominion in the earth. 2000 years ago – not in some future millennial reign. For me this means that we’ve been restored dominion and influence along with the second Adam.

    Or Matthew 5 where it says that we’ll inherit the earth – In my mind I use to always assume that meant at some future eschatological moment, but that’s not in there, that’s just an assumption we make.

    I’m positive you didn’t mean for this to become an eschatology debate so I’ll stop 🙂 Thanks for writing I enjoy your thoughts – I especially enjoyed your recent article in Relevant! -read more at http://www.theconfessionalblog.com

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