The sober truth is that at this season in American life, when our non-evangelical neighbors hear the word evangelical, they think of politics before they think of the gospel. Perhaps that confusion is an inevitable result of evangelicals' reengagement with electoral politics over the last few decades. But it does raise the question of whether our gospel is being reduced to politics—or whether our politics is being infused with the gospel. Jordan Hylden, a student at Duke Divinity School and former junior fellow at the influential magazine First Things, offers this response to our big question for 2008: "Is our gospel too small?"

John of Patmos saw a vision of the "New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God," but until that time came, he didn't seem to hold out much hope for the cities of this world. In fact, he was much more likely to compare the Rome of his day to Babylon, or maybe a scarlet beast. The author of Hebrews had a similar perspective on politics, if a bit less apocalyptic. "For here we do not have an enduring city," he tells us. We followers of Christ will always be "aliens and strangers on earth … longing for a better country, a heavenly one," where "God has prepared a city for us" far surpassing the Babylons of this world. Until then, he counseled, we hope for what we "do not see."

Of course that is all true, but it's not the whole story, either. The prophet Jeremiah knew a thing or two about what politics looks like in Babylon. His people were conquered by Babylon's armies and sent there into long exile. But even in Babylon itself, Jeremiah counseled his flock to "seek the welfare of the city" of their conquerors and to "pray to the Lord on its behalf." Daniel and his companions took a page out of Jeremiah's book during their stay in Babylon, working dutifully as civil servants in the king's own court. And no less than the apostle Paul told the church in Rome to "be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God." The Roman rulers, Paul thought—the very same rulers that John of Patmos compared to scarlet bloodthirsty beasts—were actually, despite all, "God's servants to do you good."

If that sounds like a paradox, it's because it is. Christians have always been caught in the tension between the city of God and the city of man, and negotiating the claims of the two in this already-but-not-yet world of ours has never been easy. But difficult as it may be, no less an authority than Jesus told us that we have to try: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's." Some Christians argue that the gospel is too large if it gets involved in politics, while others (such as liberation theologians) argue that the gospel is too small if it is not first and foremost political. But thinking rightly about gospel politics means not letting either side of the biblical paradox go.

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Putting God First

In trying to come to terms with our paradoxical responsibility, theologian Stanley Hauerwas's dictum can be helpful: "The first responsibility of the church is to be the church." That sounds right, but what does it mean? He explains: "The church doesn't have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic." Hauerwas reminds us that before we go off trying to come up with whom Jesus would vote for, we first have to understand what the church is. And when we think about that, we start to realize that the church has a politics (from the Greek polis, or body of citizens) of its own—that is, a way of living together as the body of Christ that shows the world a "more excellent way."

In the already-but-not-yet paradox between Christ's resurrection and his second coming, the church is the "already"—the peculiar place in the world that has started to look like the New Jerusalem. Of course, the church is far from perfect, but when the church really does begin to live in the light of Christ's forgiveness, it's not too much to say that the church is a reflection of the peace and love of the triune God—even a bit of heaven on earth.

What exactly does that look like? For one thing, the church lives by forgiveness, not retribution. And because of God's forgiving grace, the church is a place of reconciliation and peace—not peace as the world gives, but the true and lasting peace among people who have confessed their sins to God and each other, know that they are forgiven by God, and forgive each other as Christ has forgiven them.

Behind it all, of course, is God's love—we love each other because God first loved us. Out of love, we Christians tend the sick, visit the lonely, care for the poor, look out for the weak and the oppressed, and remember the forgotten. In a world that all too often assumes that success can come only at the expense of others, Christians show that there is plenty of God's abundant life for everybody. In a world full of dog-eat-dog competition for wealth, status, and power, Christians live instead by generosity, friendship, and self-giving service. Instead of defining ourselves by race, gender, nationality, or class, Christians know that we are all one in Christ. Instead of seeking lasting peace and safety through violence and war, Christians know that true peace can only come from God. And instead of placing our hope in the progress of humanity, or despairing that justice will ever be done, Christians find their hope in the crucified and risen Christ, who defeated the powers of sin once for all and rose again to new and abundant life everlasting.

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We often forget that this way of Christ-shaped life is politics—the new way of living together made possible by the Cross. Politics isn't just what happens in Washington, whom we vote for, or what the cable news and newspaper pundits endlessly chatter about. That's politics too, but the first and most authentic politics is the everyday gospel politics of the church.

When we forget that, our gospel becomes too small. It means that we have ceded the word politics to the world, and have started to live as though the world's way of life together is the only way. We spend all of our time in the city of man, and forget that our first citizenship is in the church, the first fruits of the city of God. When that happens, we should not be surprised when we lose sight of the New Jerusalem and start looking like the world around us, trapped in the habits, ideas, and allegiances of Babylon.

Trapped in Babylon

Evangelicals have ended up in exactly that trap more often than we would like to admit. A brief glance at the media coverage of evangelicals reveals precious little awareness that we are considered anything more than one more special-interest group in the welter of American politics. Unfortunately, this is true on both sides of the aisle. If leaders like Jerry Falwell were once viewed by many Americans as no more than Republicans with funny God accents, it's also true that "progressive" evangelicals like Tony Campolo are today viewed just as surely as Democrats with a Jesus habit. The crux of the problem can be seen in the ease with which political commentators refer to an evangelical Right and Left—suggesting that people on both sides are, at the end of the day, just Republicans and Democrats who happen to be evangelical Christians, too. Even if this is a mistaken caricature, the fact that this mistake can be made suggests that on all sides, we have become trapped in the patterns of thinking and partisanship of Babylon.

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What, for instance, should make the protection of unborn life and the promotion of stable families necessarily "conservative" issues? Shouldn't all Christians have an interest in saving unborn lives and in strengthening marriage in a country where nearly four out of ten children are born out of wedlock? And what, to take another example, should make environmental stewardship and the plight of migrant farm workers the sole preserve of the Left? Don't all Christians have an obligation to care for the earth and for the alien and the stranger in our midst? Yet only rarely does one hear a pro-life call from the Left, and any mention of fair-trade food tends to earn automatic derision and skepticism from the Right. Before we are Christians, it would seem, many of us remain Americans.

It's a serious problem, for mainline Protestants just as surely as for evangelicals, and one for which I fault myself as much as I do anyone else. But the solution is more elusive than simply concocting a potpourri of positions from both sides. The solution to being too Republican is not to be a little more Democratic; nor is the reverse true.

Hauerwas really did say it best: "The first responsibility of the church is to be the church." It's only when we learn to live first and truly as the body of Christ that our politics can be a witness to the city of man; it's only when we set our eyes on the New Jerusalem that our life in Babylon can shine like a "city on a hill."

The paradox of it can't be let go—if for the sake of political witness or "relevance" we immerse ourselves in the politics of the world, we will wind up having nothing to say that the world has not already heard. But if our witness truly does flow out of the gospel politics of the church, we will begin to find that our words have surprising freshness and power—because finally, they will be telling the city of man about what it most needs to hear, which is the peace of the city of God.

The Church's Paradoxical Politics

Of course, the paradox works both ways. Some Christians, taking to heart the need to live out the politics of the church, conclude that Christians should not participate in the politics of the world. Shane Claiborne, in his thought-provoking new book Jesus for President, is perhaps the most popular of recent evangelicals to make this sort of argument. Christians like him have legitimate concerns: Should Christians fight in wars if only God can bring lasting peace? Should Christians vote if we know that our nation's polity only works because it's backed by the coercive force of the state? Worst of all, does secular political involvement amount to putting our trust in Caesar rather than in Christ?

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It's a strong argument, made even more so by the fact that for many Christians, it's precisely the sort of wake-up call that is desperately needed. Far from simply advocating withdrawal from the world, Claiborne and others like him provide a valuable witness, showing that it is genuinely possible to live now in light of the gospel. Their witness, like those of monastic communities throughout the church's history, is in an important sense the lifeblood of the church.

But while it's absolutely correct that the church's gospel politics needs to come first, we should remember that the church nevertheless is the "already" in what is mostly still a "not yet" world. Paul argued that although the new age opened up by Christ's resurrection does indeed take priority over the old age, it's not quite right to say that the old age is simply over and done with. Paul thought that secular governments are used by God to govern the world, and that they can be a force for good, even in their coercive roles. Theologians such as Augustine, Luther, and Bonhoeffer took up Paul's line of thought, reasoning that because God providentially works through governments, jobs, and families, Christians can and should participate in them.

It's no compromise to believe that Christians are called to act like Christians in the many places in the world that are not the church—in our jobs, schools, communities, and governments. Involvement in secular institutions is no substitute for the gospel, of course. But it would be a small gospel indeed that could have no effect on the way they are run. As William Wilberforce showed, such involvement can make a real difference in the world and can itself be a witness to the gospel. Wilberforce would argue that it's by no means less than Christian to "seek the good" of the Babylons where we live by participating in secular politics, as did Daniel and the rest of the exiled Israelites.

The trick is never forgetting where we come from, where our true homeland lies, and which Sovereign we ultimately serve. The second-century Letter to Diognetus described the Christian life in the world this way: "They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. … They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven."

It's not a bad way to put it. "In this world we have no abiding city," as Scripture tells us—but so long as we are here, our call is to work and pray that our Father's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven." That's gospel politics.

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