Redeeming “politics”

These days, “politics” is a bit of a dirty word, or at least a divisive one. Gone are the days of the fabled Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were opposing candidates for the same Senate seat; Douglas, the Democrat, was the incumbent, and Lincoln his Republican challenger. The two men met in town-hall fashion for a series of public conversations on substantive issues like slavery. The tone was civil and the content filled with thoughtful comments on ethics and philosophy. The conversations were even paused politely to allow everyone to go home for dinner before returning in the evening.

This was, of course, in the days before cable news and social media. Political debates now, if and when they happen, are often less a matter of reasoned conversation than a war of scripted sound bites. That’s not to say that the candidates don’t actually have reasoned positions on matters of policy. But patient and detailed reasoning doesn’t play as well as passion on camera. It doesn’t blow up social media or drive people to the polls. Instead, candidates often try to motivate their base by stoking their anger, resentment, and fear.

It gives politics a bad name. But does it have to be this way? Even in the church?

The word “politics” hearkens back to the Greek word polis, the city-state, an idea which may be foreign to us now. I live in Southern California, which some consider at the eastern end of the “Greater Los Angeles Area.” Imagine, then, a time before the Los Angeles basin became as developed and populated as it is now, before counties, before the establishment of the state of California. Imagine Los Angeles as the densely populated hub of its own sovereign state, which included more sparsely populated surrounding areas. Geographically, that would be something like the ancient city-state, and you’d have to travel some distance through undeveloped areas to get to the next one.

“Politics” has to do with how the affairs of these city-states were to be conducted, by whom, and with what values. Aristotle wrote a treatise about it, and he is considered by many to be the father of political science.

Fine. But what, you may ask, does this have to do with Philippians?

Having just said of himself, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21, NRSVUE), he turns around and encourages the Philippians to think and behave similarly:

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel and in no way frightened by those opposing you. (Phil 1:27-28a)

“Live your life.” It’s a simple enough phrase in English, made up of three common words. But in Paul’s Greek, it’s only one word, that he uses only once in all of his letters: politeuomai (I cite the word here only so you can see its tie to polis and politics). It suggests not merely “living your life” but living as a good citizen of the state. He could have used other words to talk about conduct or behavior; why this one?

The final words of the passage above give us a clue. The Philippians were under some kind of external pressure. Paul doesn’t say what it is. And why should he? He’s writing to the people going through the trouble, not trying to describe it to someone else. But in all likelihood, he’s referring to some form of persecution the Philippians are suffering from their non-Christian neighbors.

Philippi, after all, was a Roman colony in which emperor worship was de rigueur. In America, the National Anthem is sung at the beginning of public sporting events; imagine singing the praises of the President instead, and you get something of the idea. Then imagine the pressure that would be put on people who refuse to sing. This may have been what the Philippians were facing.

Paul, of course doesn’t tell the Philippians to give in to the pressure. Nor does he advise them to take to the streets in protest or take up arms. Rather, he tells them to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” to live not merely as citizens of the Roman Empire but of the kingdom of God, in which Christ will one day return as king.

Consider what this means in Paul’s case. His imprisonment was merely the latest episode in a long story of mistreatment by Jews and Gentiles alike. Reading between the lines of his letter, it seems even the Roman Christians wanted to take him down a notch. But Paul didn’t rant and rave about the unfairness and injustice of it all. He didn’t take to social media with incendiary rhetoric. Instead, he took every opportunity, in every relationship, to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. He didn’t wrestle with or lash out the soldiers who guarded him. He evangelized them, until the entire Praetorian Guard was talking about this strange but captivating little man.

The trouble with much contemporary political discourse is that it is intentionally polarizing, with little nuance and lots of name-calling. It plays to our distaste for ambiguity and our tendency to fall into “us versus them” thinking. Even in the church, people may only listen to others long enough to figure out which side they’re on, then respond as if this was all they needed to know.

This may be “politics” as we know it. But it’s neither living as a citizen of the kingdom, nor embodying the grace and hope of the gospel of Christ.

We can do better.

Can’t we?