CHURCH AND STATE and the STATE of the CHURCH
In this short work, Dr. Kang-Yup Na provides thoughts on the state of the US election with ecclesial insights.
Kang-Yup Na is an associate professor of religion at Westminster College (New Wilmington, Pa.). An ordained minister and the son of first-generation Christian parents, he was baptized 13 June 1965 in South Korea, moved to Tennessee just before turning ten, and since then has lived, studied, taught, and served churches in various places in New Jersey, Korea, Atlanta, Germany, and New York City.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in Engage (October 2016), a publication of The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.
From more than four dozen political parties and with over 1,200 candidates who have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for president, it comes down once again to two people trying to persuade their fellow citizens to vote for them to preside over these United States of America.* We face the music of our republican constitutional heritage by electing our leader from among us every four years. And every four years, we seem to perform this civic dance of ours with increasing fatalism, with more and more citizens voting against candidates as much as for them, knowing that the de facto two-party system enjoys a kind of political perichoresis that will place either a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Such is the quadrennial fate of our nation, at least into the foreseeable future.
As we have been watching and participating in this inevitable song and dance—pace the Amish and other blissful non-participants—we have seen an unusual election year with microbial obtrusions exacerbating the usual cynicism about politics that has been magnified in the past four years by our fear of foreign interference. And all the perennial rhetoric from our candidates about Washington’s “business as usual” should cause Christian citizens to pause and view their civic realities through Christian lenses to reflect theologically in and for churches that seek to discern God’s will. For Christians, the civic duty to vote must be accompanied by the prayerful duty to discern providence. Yet among Christians, just as among Americans in general, there are deep divisions in the house. Divisions among churchgoers are so grave that partisan zeal for political victory obscures the praxis of Jesus’ commandment for his followers to love one another. If mutual love is the sign of authentic discipleship, as stated in John 13.34–35, how can anyone know that American Christians are in fact disciples of Jesus? Such is the state of the church.
Yet the churches have not become houses of division(s) only in the wake of Renaissance humanism or secularism of the last few centuries. The church, like Israel, has always known discord and division; bitter conflict is in its biblical and historical DNA. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Jacob . . . these siblings and their rivalries propel the foundational stories of human society and make the dysfunctional families on the Jerry Springer show seem humdrum. And these are in just Genesis alone. Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion against Moses is no surprise (Numbers 12), as also the tribal jealousies during the time of the settlement in Canaan and through the kingship of Saul to the tragic division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms. Even the return from the Babylonian Exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a symbol of Israelite unity, was not without a painful banishment of foreign wives and their children of Israelite fathers (Ezra 10). The New Testament is no better, with Judas among the twelve disciples, the apostles in contentious disputes about what to do with Gentile believers (e.g., Acts 15, Galatians 2) and divisive factions in Gentile churches (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1). If anything, the Bible is true to real life; it provides both a corrective to those who sigh nostalgically about the good old days of the Bible and a comfort to those who recognize that they are basically in the same (flawed) boat as the Israelites and the early churches.
Subsequent (hi)stories of churches are rife with theological, doctrinal, and political discord involving bishops behaving badly as well as popes and kings whose goal seems to have been to obscure the love of God in Christ. The Realtheologie that we learn about from church history books—e.g., Constantine, doctrinal battles leaving a trail of heresies, excommunications, schisms, the Inquisition, religious wars in Europe—not only disappoint optimistic Christians but also provide the evangelical atheists their apologetic ammunition. History’s Machiavellian concessions to Realpolitik appear to find uneasy parallels also in matters ecclesiological. It is no wonder that many Christians feel embarrassed, sigh with regret, and even apologize with shame for historical guilt and ongoing failures (e.g., Columbus’s “discovery” of America, the transatlantic slave trade, the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal).
All this realism and history notwithstanding, we should still like to think that the evolution of our species has improved our lot. Certainly the technological marvels in the past century have been mind-blowing. The Olympics reminds us of how human beings have indeed lived up to its hendiatris motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Latin for faster, higher, stronger). We can travel thousands of miles in a few hours; we have pierced through our atmospheric limits and landed on the moon; we live longer than all generations before us. We know more about the universe than ever before, can access information faster, make better machines, have better healthcare, . . . the list is long and impressive. In every dimension of human existence we can catalog improvement and progress through the millennia. Or so it seems.
The only thing—arguably the most important thing—that has not seen improvement is our moral condition and the ethical choices we make. Our history of continual advancement has been on a path of constant and persistent moral disappointment. The last century, the most technologically progressive century, saw the world’s most devastating weapons, violence, revolutions, and wars that took more human life than ever before; according to estimates, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao alone were responsible for the killing of over a hundred million people. Material progress and moral depravity have been constant companions in human history; the Ten Commandments are more than ever necessary for the maintenance of civil society, let alone religious piety. No matter how much we progress into the hope-filled future, pace political candidates and their rhetoric, history tells us there are Idi Amins and Miloševićes yet to be born. True to actual human history, the Christian doctrine of (original) sin is not so much a dogmatic imposition on human liberty as it is an attempt to articulate a genuine lived-experience in the light of historical data.
Before every election, we hear promises of would-be messiahs who want to and know how to save our nation from its current state. This year is no different; our ears are full of apocalyptic alarms. Faced with the two parties, as in every election, many silently want to echo Mercutio’s dying words in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as he curses both the Montagues and Capulets: “A plague o’ both your houses!” Yet we know that division and sibling rivalry are the default human condition from the very first family in Genesis. We also know that it is into this flawed humanity that God spoke grace and within it that God elected Israel. If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that God works providentially with actual human history and broken human beings. If we think any candidate or president will rescue us from what ails the universe, then a review of history or a simple glance at Augustine’s City of God might suggest a more sobering wisdom. At the least, we might learn humility.
* “National Political Parties,” Vote Smart, accessed October 7, 2020, https://votesmart.org/political-parties#.X35R1dhh1pS. “Candidates for President,” Federal Election Commission, accessed October 7, 2020, https://www.fec.gov/data/candidates/?election_year=2020&office=P.