Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Is it OK for Christians to protest against their political leaders?

march on washington

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Yes, of course, silly person.  Just don’t break things.

I’ll go a bit further. It is the Christian’s duty in civic affairs to hold powers to account when they see injustice done. There is more than one way of doing that, of course, and participating in or organizing massive protests is one of those ways.

Christians should never say to someone like that, “If you don’t like it, move to Denmark,” or “He’s your president and you owe him your allegiance.”

It is not a trite Sunday school lesson to say that Christians owe their deep allegiance to God, not to whoever is in office. And when we see injustice being done—the systemic mistreatment of others supported by the regime—Christians have a duty before God to speak up somehow.

And one thing that most certainly should never be said is that protesting against our political leaders is simply a form of protesting against God.

Aligning any political regime with the divine realm is called “civil religion.”  Though common in American politics, biblically speaking, civil religion is bad. Way bad.

This isn’t the Middle Ages, where God puts kings on the throne and they rule by divine right. God is not superintending our election process. God did not put Trump in the White House any more than God put Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, or Reagan in the White House. We did. And Christians have had the obligation to hold to account all of them, those we voted for and those we didn’t.

Remember that the first Christians had all sorts of opportunities to align their movement with political power, but they rejected that option each and every time.

It starts with Jesus.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus not only critiques Roman oppression but takes off the table Jewish political countermeasures. The “kingdom” Jesus is about is the kingdom of God (aka the kingdom of heaven), which is neither something “up there” nor an attempt to “make Israel great again” but a transformation of God’s people to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (5:13-16).

Jesus’s kingdom is not “of this world” as he famously tells Pilate in John 18:36; “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Jesus’s kingdom is here and now (not up in heaven at some future time) but neither is it to be aligned with any political entity. To be honest, I am miffed that so many Christians don’t seem to see that (paging Franklin Graham).

The “kingdom” Christians are about is one where we pray to God as Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Christian’s number one political priority is to be instruments of manifesting God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven,” and that is a full-time job that requires much wisdom and that not only transcends parties and politics but is a call to critique them.

In my opinion, nowhere do Christians have a more visible and obvious responsibility to be salt and light, to embody the will of God, than when other humans are disenfranchised, treated unjustly, or unfairly—which is to say, treated less than fully human.

I could go on, and I think I will.

Take the Apostle Paul. In his context, following Jesus meant de facto not giving his unquestioned and full allegiance to Rome. Calling Jesus “Messiah” (Greek: “Christ”) was to call him the true and anointed king (which is one of the things that made the Romans so nervous about him). Calling Jesus “Lord,” as Paul does about every other sentence, is to say in effect that Caesar, the regime, is not.

Following Jesus involves a counter-political commitment—namely to declare full allegiance to Jesus as the true king, even if the regime you are living under (as Paul’s Rome was) provides you with stability, safety, and peace. More so if people suffer or are disenfranchised by it.

Paul, along with other earlier followers of Jesus, had a complicated relationship with the Roman Empire. Paul was a citizen of Rome, as we read in Acts 22:25, but he also wrote that the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20)—which, again, doesn’t mean pie-in-the sky-escapism, but that the Christian’s true and deep identity is first and foremost with that “kingdom” Jesus talked on and on about: the earthly manifestation of the will of God and the critique of power.

Christians today are no less called to be instruments of that reign while we too live in that complex relationship with earthly political entities, those nations that Isaiah reminds us are to God but a drop in a bucket and dust on a scale (Isaiah 40:15).

And then there’s the wild and whacky book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. As complicated as this book’s imagery is, the bottom line is clear enough for people who study such things: It’s all about the ultimate failure of power politics and that the true resistance to such is allegiance to King Jesus, who is depicted not as a Samson-like slayer but as himself the slain lamb of God sitting on the throne.

Let that irony sink in. True “power” is manifest symbolically in a slain lamb who defeats the enemy by the sword. Yes, violent imagery dominates this book, but that is because we are reading ancient apocalyptic literature which fed off of the rhetoric of violence and combat. Just note that the “sword” Jesus fights with comes out of his mouth (Revelation 2:16, 19:15). No one should read this book as a manifesto to justify endless cycles of political dominance through violence in the name of God (as does “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

Christians by definition have dual citizenship.

We are humans living here and now under systems of government, but we are also living in and trying to embody here and now our deeper “heavenly” citizenship. Navigating that dual citizenship is tricky, and Christians will not always agree on exactly when and how it should be done. But I take it as non-negotiable that the Christian’s first allegiance is to God and God’s kingdom. Doing so is why we are “saved” in the first place—not to escape this world but to help transform it.

So, is it OK to protest against our political leaders? Such a thing need not even be asked.

Just don’t break anything—except the idolatrous practice of civil religion.

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