Governments operating in fear clamp down on defenseless people — those without political power. Hit hard are folks lacking social safety nets, those branded “border-crossing aliens,” and anti-government protestors. The powerful punch back, using harsh law and order measures.
Ancient Rome used a similar tactic against Christians who confessed: “Jesus, the Christ, is my Lord and Savior.” These followers of Jesus were persecuted for spreading social justice and speaking publicly about Christ saving them.
The Roman emperor tolerated private faith but not its public expression.
Thomas Jefferson opted for keeping faith under wraps, too. He didn’t want it used as a cudgel, coercing listeners. When a correspondent asked Jefferson to write a book about religious convictions, he rejected this request. “I not only write nothing on religion,” he retorted, “but rarely permit myself to speak on it, and never but in reasonable company.”
When Christians addressed Christ as “Lord,” they contradicted the Roman emperor and Jefferson. These believers regarded faith as personal but not private. It begged to be shared. The Romans already had a lord, their emperor. Christians asked for trouble because their Lord Jesus influenced political beliefs offensive to Romans.
In the Torah, Jews used the title “Lord” for Creator God, shaper of history. He influenced every aspect of life, including politics.
“I believe in getting into hot water. It keeps you clean!” quipped G.K. Chesterton, the Roman Catholic defender of faith. Both the Romans and the British under King George III despised Christians whose well-scrubbed personal faith cleansed public life.
After the Revolutionary War, Presbyterians practiced faith in which their Lord Jesus influenced all aspects of life. They ranked Christ’s ascension into heaven as one of four key dates on the Christian calendar, in addition to Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. These latter three festivals of faith give meaning to Christ as “Savior.” He was born on Christmas, identified with our suffering on Good Friday and triumphed over death on Easter Day.
Christ’s ascension mandates his political influence. In business, we use language which reflects biblical images of Christ’s ascendency over life and influence in it. A boss notices a hard-working manager. He’s promoted, rising to the top. He ascends to higher levels of responsibility, as the boss’ “right hand man.”
Using similar metaphors, the Apostle Paul declares Christ’s universal power. God’s pervasive influence in life, claims Paul, shows “in Christ when God raised him from the dead and made Christ sit at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:20).
Confirming Christ’s pervasive influence, professors at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and president John Witherspoon — the only clergy to sign The Declaration of Independence — inspired students to enter politics and press for social justice. Witherspoon’s students included future President James Madison, Vice President Aaron Burr Jr., 60 members of Congress and three Supreme Court justices.
Motivated by Christ’s influence in life, Presbyterians fought King George III to preserve personal liberties and to establish a just community for the common good. Christians who confessed Jesus as Lord pressed for personal freedoms and a just, fair society for the underdogs, the poor and those marginalized.
“A Citizen,” declared patriot Samuel Adams, “owes everything to the Commonwealth.” “Every man (person) in a republic,” agreed Jefferson’s friend Benjamin Rush, “is public property. His time and talents — his youth, his manhood, his old age, nay more, life — all belong to his country.” “No man is a true republican,” wrote a Pennsylvania patriot in 1776, “who will not give up his single voice to that of the public.” Patriots marched their faith into the public square.
We’ve drifted from using inner faith to form a more just society. The tea party ignores this two-pronged colonial emphasis on preserving personal liberty and a just society. Tea partiers treat fairness as a devious way toward wealth distribution. They brand government bent on justice as socialist.
Restoring the colonial vision, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) preserved liberty and promoted a just society. Son of a Dutch Reformed minister, he received a theological doctorate before briefly doing parish ministry. Then Kuyper entered politics, serving as prime minister in the Netherlands.
In 1898, Princeton Theological Seminary invited Kuyper to give the prestigious Stone Lectures. He pictured life as a cherry pie cut into wedges. These slices we call family, business, art, church, education and the state. Kuyper said the government runs like cherry juice through life’s other slices. Moreover, government makes available “wedges of pie” to those denied a piece, by protecting the poor and safeguarding their rights.
Kuyper respected politics as a high calling of his lord. He declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine.’’’
Like colonial patriots and Abraham Kuyper, use personal faith for political good.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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