On Tuesday I voted in Illinois’ primary. No, I’m not going to tell you who I voted for, but a few weeks ago I wrote an article arguing that Christian leaders—and particularly pastors—need to talk more about politics rather than less. So that is what I intend to do. Some of you pushed back saying the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men should remain separate. Others said the ugliness of modern politics would only drag the church down into the mud.
Some of the discomfort with my call, I think, came from a misunderstanding about what I meant by “politics.” In last week’s article, I tried to differentiate being political from being partisan. Partisanship is about political parties, candidates, and the scrum of campaigns. This is the ugly, mudslinging stuff many of you find unfit for the church or its leaders. I agree. Church leaders ought to rise above mere partisanship. We serve the kingdom of God, not the GOP or DNC.
Politics, unlike partisanship, is an essential aspect of life in community. The word comes from the Greek polis meaning “city” and polites meaning “citizen.” Politics is simply how we organize our communities and what we agree to do together—from building a school to raising an army. My call to “talk more about politics” is a call to engage the communal and social implications of the gospel rather than retreat into a hyper-individualized and private faith with no vision for the common good or the public square. When we ignore the corporate dimensions to Christianity it severely warps the outworking of our faith; we become compartmentalized Christians who may view Sunday morning as sacred but fail to integrate Christ into our work on Monday or our vote on Tuesday.
An individual, compartmentalized faith has limited how we see our civic responsibility. Over the last forty years, many of us have been taught that Christian faith intersects a few particular social issues—usually abortion and marriage. Our faith has much to say about reproductive and sexual ethics, but what many of us lack is a larger, more comprehensive vision for how our faith can engage a broader scope of issues. When we enter the voting booth we ought to carry more than a ballot and a single-issue advocacy mindset. We ought to carry the cross.
With Good Friday just days from now, it’s helpful to recall the story of Simon of Cyrene. He was a bystander in the crowd that Friday watching as the Romans paraded three criminals through the streets of Jerusalem. Simon caught the attention of the soldiers. We don’t know why. (Some speculate that it was because Simon was African, adding a racial dimension to the story.) The Romans grabbed Simon and ordered him to carry the cross of Jesus who was too weak from his scourging to carry it alone.
Don’t assume the soldiers were showing pity for Jesus. They had a duty to crucify him, and they wanted to finish that responsibility as quickly as possible. They didn’t order Simon to carry the cross to alleviate Jesus’ suffering but to expedite it. The Romans acted out of self-interest. In fact, it was the political self-interest of Pilate, the Roman governor, that led to Jesus’ execution in the first place. Throughout the story, the Romans were seeking to protect or expand their own power. They cared nothing for the suffering or humanity of others. Even as Jesus hung dying on the cross, the soldiers took his remaining garments for themselves. The Romans epitomize the politics of self.
In them we see ourselves. We see a metaphor for the individualized, self-focused faith all too common in American Christianity. It is a faith that permits us to enter a voting booth focused primarily on my interests, my rights, my wellbeing, and my liberties. It is heard in the rhetoric of safety, protecting our churches and our families, and in the rhetoric of fear, condemning those Mexican immigrants and those Muslim neighbors. The politics of self only erects crosses it never carries them.
In Simon, however, we see something else. He found himself under the heavy beam of the cross lifting a burden that was not his. We should not label him a compassionate hero, however. The gospel writers say Simon was “pressed” into service. The word is a technical one referring to the imperial law requiring anyone to carry a Roman soldier’s gear up to one mile if ordered. Simon could not have legally refused to carry Jesus’ cross. He was obligated to do it. This fact is also what makes Simon such a compelling figure in the story. He’s an ordinary bloke, like us, who would have preferred to not get involved in the religious/political controversy that was Jesus’ execution. No doubt Simon had his own tasks to accomplish that day, his own problems, his own struggles. He didn’t need or want to carry someone else’s burden—especially when that burden was a cross and that person was a condemned criminal.
And we mustn’t forget the humiliation this would have caused Simon. Today we see the cross as a symbol of love or faith, but in the first century the cross was absolutely scandalous. Crucifixion was reserved for the most deplorable criminals. In the hierarchy of Roman culture, there was nothing lower than a crucified person, and to the Jews the cross held an even more offensive meaning. There is a verse from the Old Testament that says anyone hung upon a tree is cursed by God, utterly rejected and without value (Deuteronomy 21:23). By carrying Jesus’ cross, by merely touching it, Simon’s righteousness would have been questioned by his community.
Simon was compelled by Roman law to sacrifice his good reputation and self interest to carry another’s burden. Similarly, we are compelled not by human law but by the law of love to seek the welfare of others rather than our own. The Apostle Paul tells us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). And rather than worrying about protecting our rights and reputations, we should not be ashamed to associate with the lowly (Romans 12:16). These are the politics of the cross; a politics that seeks the good of others including the weak, the marginalized, and the lowly.
To carry the cross into the voting booth means choosing to carry the burdens of our neighbors and our fellow citizens. We don’t cast our ballot merely thinking about what is best for ourselves, our party, or even our church. Instead we vote for what is in the best interest of others. It means being willing to sacrifice our comforts and rights for the common good and especially the good of those who have no voice. Yes, this will have implications for issues like abortion or marriage, but the politics of the cross reaches far beyond just these two issues as important as they are. It also means carrying the burdens of the poor and the elderly, the immigrant and the criminal, the single parent and the soldier, the unemployed and the uneducated. Given our country’s power and influence over the globe, it also means carrying the burdens of those affected by drones and drugs—symbols of American foreign policy and foreign aid.
As you consider your vote this election season, ask yourself whether your politics looks more like Pilate or Simon? Has your political vision been shaped more by those who use crosses or those who carry them? As the people of Christ, we are not called to a politics of self but to a politics of the cross; to cast a self-sacrificial vote in the interest of others and to affirm leaders who do the same.