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Issues Facing Missions Today: 46. (Some) Values for American, Evangelical Voters

Issues Facing Missions Today: 46. (Some) Values for American, Evangelical Voters

Dear Evangelical Voters in Iowa:

You represent the rest of us Evangelicals in the news these days as the American nation watches how you will vote in the upcoming party elections for president of the United States.  We can appreciate your opposition to Democratic candidates, who advocate killing the unborn and oppose Biblical marriage in the name of freedom.  Yet support for one Republican candidate over another is also a difficult challenge for any Evangelical.  One leading candidate who claims to be a Christian seems rather obviously to be doing so only to win votes.  He certainly has little understanding of Christian values, even arguing the other night on the O’Reilly Factor that Christians teach ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  Some other candidates are more closely connected to the Church, and yet we should cringe when hearing some of their views.  Christians are not a voting block to be wooed and owned, but representatives of a different Kingdom altogether.  Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3.20).  Stand firm in your witness.

Perhaps some helpful clarification about values is given to us by Richard Bauckham’s recent book, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermeneutical Ventures.[1]  He examines two related sets of values in chapters 4 and 5: those of globalization and Western understandings of the value of freedom.  These only cover some of the issues, but they do engage key matters that arise in voting in a general election in a country such as America.  Values of globalization and Western freedom stand over against Christian values and yet, it seems, some of us Evangelicals are confused over what is really cultural and what is really Biblical.  Biblical, Christian teaching on God’s reign conflicts radically with understandings of global rule, and we should expect that elections regularly bring out these differences for us—voting for Christians should be difficult—very difficult—as we are entering a different context from that of the Church to cast that vote.  It is when there is no perceived conflict between Christian and cultural values, whether liberal or conservative, that interpreters of the faith go horribly astray.

While Bauckham does not enumerate the various values as here, the following points do cover the discussion in Bauckham’s two chapters.

The Values of Globalization versus Biblical Values

Bauckham notes that we are living in a day of globalization, but he explores what this entails not just in our day but also in earlier centuries as well.  One can appreciate certain similarities between empires of the past—from Nebuchadnezzar to the British Empire—and the various political and economic global powers in the present.  Whenever Americans vote, they not only have their local and national issues before them, but also the question of America’s global influence.  So, here are some ways to think Biblically about some of the values of globalization facing us today.  Values of globalism include the values of:

1.       A privileged nation.  If you find yourself thinking that you are part of a privileged nation, chosen by God more than some other nation, read: Genesis 1; Psalm 97.9; 47.8; 145.9; 96.13; and Psalm 98.4.
2.       A privileged race.  If you find yourself preferring one race over another, read the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 and Paul's comment in Acts 17.26.
3.       A privileged culture.  If you find yourself favouring one culture over another, read the diversity passages of Genesis 10.5, 20, 31-32; Daniel 7.13-14; and Revelation 5.9; 7.9; 10.11; 11.9; 13.7; 14.6; 17.15; and Acts 2.6.  God doesn’t favour one group over another.  He doesn’t want a homogenous humanity.
4.       The sanctity of diversity.  If you find yourself imagining that diversity is a cardinal virtue, on the other hand, think again.  Every page of Scripture calls for worship of the one, true God, and Christians understand that ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.18).  Bauckham notes that unity under God is not a matter of doing away with diversity of peoples, but it is equally not about equalizing all values and practices.
5.       Power and domination.  If you find yourself wanting to vote for someone touting a message of American power and domination on the world scene, read Daniel 4.
6.       Economic dominance.  If you find yourself hoping for economic dominance, read Ezekiel 26-28 about Tyre’s and Revelation 17-18 about Rome’s economic dominance.  The love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6.10), I might add, and Bauckham further notes that the unrestricted pursuit of wealth is a form of idolatry: economic growth is not the supreme good and needs to be checked by other values--not least concern for the poor.
7.       Strong leadership.  If you think the country needs a strong leader after a shockingly weak leader, remember that Jesus contrasted the world’s tyrants to Christian servants (Mark 10.42-44; Luke 22.25-26; Matthew 23.11) and that Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, took the role of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet (Jn. 13).  This is not to say that we need a weak leader for the country either.  It is to remind us that there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, and that all earthly leaders fail to one degree or another.  Don't put too much faith in any leader; rather, pray for your leaders that they might do good, not evil.
8.       Enforced righteousness.  This is a tough one—every law should have a moral basis, otherwise it is not worth being law in the first place (quite the opposite sentiment from those who have misguidedly suggested that ‘You cannot legislate morality’!).  That’s my point.  Bauckham, for his part, reminds us that Christian’s do not ‘conquer’ but ‘witness.’  Reread the book of Revelation in this light.  Jesus, is the faithful and true witness (3.14; 1.5).  In another of his books, Bauckham notes that Jesus conquers by a sword from his mouth—that is, by his Word.[2]  The military imagery in Revelation 19 is standard apocalyptic fare, but the point of the chapter is that Jesus’ victory is by the witness of his Word.  His followers overcome the ‘beast’ even in martyrdom, which is their own witness (15.2)—note that the Greek word for ‘witness’ is martyrion.  Christians are a blessing to the world and bring the message of salvation to the world through a mission of noncoercive witness.  We don't 'carpet bomb' our enemies; we bear witness to Jesus Christ.

Western Understanding of Freedom versus Christian Understanding

Americans breathe freedom like the air, as do other Western nations.  It is a cardinal virtue of the West.  It is also a Biblical virtue (although it has been grossly misunderstood in Liberation Theology).  When Americans vote, they consider matters to do with freedom, and it is therefore critical to realize that our culture’s understanding of freedom is quite different from a Biblical understanding of freedom.  In Chapter 5, ‘Freedom and Belonging,’ Bauckham contrasts Western notions of freedom with Christian values.  The Enlightenment value of freedom has come to understand freedom as:

1.       Freedom from all limits: libertinism is increasingly appealing to people as freedom is understood as a freedom from all limits--why should anyone restrain 'my freedom' as long as I am not hurting anyone?
2.       Maximal independence from others--and yet people continue to have deeply felt needs of belonging—hence a culture that won’t marry but has couples living together,, e.g.;
3.       Consumer choice: not only material pursuits are undertaken without restraint but also, shockingly, people increasingly pursue their own wanton choices in moral matters without restraint;
4.       Domination: the way to be free is thought to require us to dominate others, lest we lose our freedom.

In all four of these views of freedom Scripture offers a different perspective.  Biblical freedom, argues Bauckham (without enumerating these points),

1.       Does not exclude communal obligations;
2.       Encourages dependence;
3.       Encourages faithfulness;
4.       Encourages commitment to others;
5.       Meets the needs we have for belonging;
6.       Is a value, yes, but is only one among other values and is a value that can only be understood within a larger context of beliefs and values;
7.       Involves service (Bauckham doesn’t use this word here, but he does speak of Christian freedom being opposed to dominance);
8.       Enables others’ freedom;
9.       Is relational in that it is a freedom for, not a freedom from.

Admittedly, all this needs to be spelled out further, and Bauckham does help us to begin such a conversation among ourselves.  (And some of his other chapters in this book help us to discuss some other values as well.)


So, brothers and sisters in the faith, please represent us well, not only on obvious matters about abortion and sexuality, but also about global matters and concerns over freedom.  You have a great challenge to know how to vote for a particular person in a country that is not Christian.  But don’t let uninformed reporters confuse our Christian values with those of the culture—we have clear differences.  As a professor of mine used to say, ‘The first social task of the Church is to help the world know that it is not the Church.’  Stand tall.

All the best.

[1] Richard Bauckham’s recent book, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermeneutical Ventures (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2015).
[2] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993).