Sometimes we can best understand the role of faith in politics by listening to the way people of faith responded to crises in their day. Nearly 1,600 years ago, in the year 410 AD, the city of Rome was invaded by an army of 40,000 led by a general named Alaric. The attack on Rome sent a shockwave through the world that was much greater than the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many Christians believed that the fall of Rome signaled the end of the world, or at least the end of Christendom, since Christianity was the established religion in Rome.
The great St. Augustine responded to this equation of the fortunes of Rome with the fortunes of God’s kingdom by writing his immensely important philosophy of history called The City of God. In it, he distinguished between Rome, which he called “the city of man,” and the heavenly kingdom, which Augustine called “the city of God. The city of man, he said, was enamored with its own strength; the city of God is enamored with God and says, “I love you, my Lord, because you are my strength.”
Now, the person of faith is a resident of both cities. We live in time, but we belong to eternity. We are deeply engaged in this world, doing all we can to love our neighbor and work for justice while we acknowledge that we don’t ultimately belong to this world. According to Augustine, people of faith hold dual citizenships; we are resident aliens, or in the words of Jim Wallis’ magazine, we are sojourners.
It is precisely the dual citizenship of people of faith that both the secular left and the religious right deny. And in one of the strangest ironies in contemporary politics, the secular left and the religious right end up in precisely the same place. The secular left denies that there is a city of God to which they are morally accountable. There is only the city of man – utterly autonomous, self-confident, answerable only to itself. The religious right equates the city of God with the city of man. America is God’s chosen nation, our perspectives are God’s perspectives, our fights are God’s fights. So in its triumphalist self-confidence, “because God is always on our side,” the religious right also ends up unaccountable to God.
How can we, as people of faith, carve out a space that rejects both the secular left and its ideological twin, the religious right; one that recognizes our dual citizenship? How can we create a society that sees itself as morally accountable to God and God’s kingdom?
We can start by asking President Lincoln’s great question: Not “Is God on our side?”, but “Are we on God’s side?”
Let me suggest three simple guiding principles to assist us in determining if our political choices are on the side of the city of God.
First, how does this political choice play out for the marginalized? The Hebrew Bible reminds us over and over again to remember the widow, the orphan, and the alien; to remember the widow, the orphan, and the alien – the most dependent, the most vulnerable, the ones living closest to the edge.
Today we would say that the most dependent, and the most vulnerable, certainly include the immigrant, the uninsured, and the hungry, the unborn in the womb and their mothers, the residents in the Darfur and the victims of AIDS around the globe. When we stand before the God of history, he will not ask us about our GPA or our incomes, or what political party we supported. The God of history will ask us what we did for the least of his brethren. As Jesus said, “As you did for the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me.”
So, how does this political choice play out for the marginalized? That’s the first principle in deciding if we are on God’s side.
Second, how does this political choice support global peace? The Hebrew Bible speaks of a day when we will beat our swords into plowshares. Jesus, the Messiah, is called the Prince of Peace. The first thing Jesus said following his resurrection was “Peace be with you!” The Eucharist Christians share is called, in Roman Catholic tradition, the “Peace.” The church is always called to be a peace movement. That is why Augustine, who originated the just-war tradition, said that Christians ought to be the most reluctant to go to war – and that when we do, we always go with tears.
As I’ve said to the church I pastor, how did it come to be that we evangelicals have become the chief advocates of war of any demographic in the country? We Christians ought to be the hardest to convince; we ought to require the highest burden of proof; we ought to demand the most evidence before we support any military action. The church is always a peace movement.
Third, and finally, in deciding if we are on the side of God, we must always ask, “Do we see ourselves as answerable to God?” God forbid that we should project evil onto the other – onto the Arab, or the Persian, or the North Korean – still less onto the secular left or the religious right. As Solzhenitsyn said as he was lying on a rotting bed of straw in a Soviet Gulag,
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
Only if we as individuals and as a nation retain the capacity to be self-critical, to see evil in ourselves, to see ourselves as ultimately answerable and morally accountable to the city of God and to the God of that city, can we have any hope that we, as people of faith, are on the side of God.
Rich Nathan is the pastor of the Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio. He delivered these remarks to the audience at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium before the broadcast of last week’s presidential candidates forum on faith, values, and poverty.