One of my many delusions growing up was that I was an athlete. I don’t mean just that I wanted to be good at sports. I mean that, when I entered high school at that awkward stage of self-construction and self-declaration, I wanted “athlete” to be the most important part of my identity. I wanted to be recognized and accepted by other athletes in my school, to sit at their table. I suppose there were worse things to aspire to and worse groups to belong to, but every group has its down side; and the worst side of the athletes in my school tended to emerge whenever one person, a kid I’ll call Sammy, walked past.
Today, Sammy would be referred to as a “special needs student.” He received individualized services and instruction because of his intellectual challenges and emotional impairments. But many of the athletes in my school used different, less-refined words to describe Sammy and his classmates, who were sometimes the victims of verbal and even physical abuse because they were relatively weak and helpless. Sammy in particular was entirely innocent and vulnerable, a child in a teenager’s body.
Like all of us, Sammy craved attention. And like me, he especially craved the acceptance of the athletes. Unfortunately, he would do anything for the biggest, toughest football players. And what they wanted him to do was to eat food out of trash cans, so that they could be grossed out together and have a good laugh at his expense. He obliged them every chance he got.
The first time I saw them do that to Sammy, I was nauseated, horrified. But I didn’t try to stop them. What could I do? I was a freshman. I didn’t want to get beaten up. And besides, I wanted to belong. So I convinced myself that the best way to help Sammy would be to earn a place at the athletes’ table, and then I’d be able to intervene without fear and maybe even change the group’s attitudes and actions. In the meantime, the abuse continued. I never joined in and I never laughed; I felt sorry for Sammy and told myself that I would never do anything to hurt him. What I didn’t understand at the time was that, by remaining silent, I was participating and I was hurting him. I was better at rationalizing than I was at basketball: “In order to make a difference, I have to belong,” I said to myself. So I did what I needed to do in order to partake of the power of the group, and that meant not challenging the abuses perpetrated by the group.
But the scriptures teach us to behave otherwise. For example, John the Baptist deliberately chose not to belong, rejecting the powerful, priestly status he was born to (Luke 1:5-17) and choosing instead to live in the wilderness, to challenge the abuses perpetrated by the powerful, and to champion the cause of the weak and the vulnerable (Luke 3:1-20). It’s interesting to note that John would rather go to the desert, to prison, and to his death speaking the prophetic truth than remain comfortable, and comfortably silent, within the abusive political and religious system of his day.
Like John, Paul and Barnabas also preserved their prophetic voices by rejecting earthly religious and political power. I’m thinking especially of the healing of the lame man in Lystra (Acts 14:8-18). As Luke describes it, the scene resembles nothing so much as a modern political convention, with Paul and Barnabas being hailed as all-powerful saviors. The enthusiastic crowd identified the two men at the top of the ticket as incarnations of Zeus and Hermes, thus conferring on them enormous political clout; had they played along, any command of theirs would have been obeyed instantly, at least for a season. Imagine the good they might have done. But the apostles refused the party’s nomination and seem not to have even considered that occupying such powerful positions might have opened doors for the exercise of more godly influence among their confused constituents.
Instead, at the mere suggestion that they might be heaven-sent, they tore their clothing, signifying both that the nomination was blasphemous and, in light of their poverty, that they would rather have nothing, not even the clothes on their backs, than be accorded such power. Then they rushed into the crowd, not to shake hands and kiss babies, but to stop the people from making sacrifices for them and to try to convince all those well-meaning but misguided people to reject the political and religious system they were trapped in.
Because of their forceful rejection of earthly power and influence and their determination not to blur the boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the religious and political systems of earth, Paul and Barnabas were able to continue to speak prophetically to both religious and political leaders in Jesus’ name, including even, in Paul’s case, the emperor. By risking their lives to reject earthly political power, they were following the example not only of John the Baptist but also of Jesus, himself, who fiercely protected and preserved his own prophetic calling and voice by refusing every offer of earthly authority.
For example, just before beginning his public ministry, Jesus faced the terrible temptation of worldwide, political sovereignty (Luke 4:5-7). Imagine what good the Son of God could have done had he accepted the enemy’s offer of authority over all the kingdoms of the world. He knew, however, as did the tempter, that any attempt to blend the Kingdom of God with the nations of the earth would have transformed his influence from prophetic wine into political water. Jesus rejected the offer in the strongest terms—and he would have to do so again and again, for his people firmly (but wrongly) believed that their Messiah would lead an earthly army and sit on a worldly throne.
As a case in point, consider that, after feeding the five thousand, Jesus had to escape from the multitude who “were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15). These well-fed people were feverish in their belief that their earthly nation was destined to be the Kingdom of God on earth and that earthly force could bring it about. They had certainly chosen the right King—it’s the Kingdom they got wrong, in terms of its boundaries, its timing, and its relationship to violence. They failed to understand that the Kingdom in question is not from this world (John 18:36), and that the King they were trying to force to use force was the Prince of Peace. As he explained to Pilate, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting” (John 18:36). The clear implication here is that the citizens of Christ’s kingdom do not use worldly force to oust enemies (Roman or otherwise) or to establish, preserve, and extend that kingdom. He who taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) also commanded us to put our swords away (Matthew 26:52). He who warned us that “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:25) also urged us, by both precept and example, to lay down earthly weapons, earthly power, earthly rights, and earthly lives and to know, not the things that make for violence, but the things that make for peace (Luke 19:41-42).
Like John the Baptist before him and like Paul and Barnabas after him, Jesus preferred death to wielding political power. And like so many true prophets before and after him, it was his refusal to “belong,” his rejection of the political warfare of the strong against the weak that incited the visible and invisible powers of earth to violence. Jesus preserved his prophetic ability to challenge and defeat those powers by speaking the truth in love and by suffering the earthly consequences (Colossians 2:15).
All of this makes me think about Sammy and about the ways in which my desire to belong among the powerful tricked me into self-preserving silence, coerced me into looking the other way, fooled me into believing the old lie that, in order to do some good, you have to accept some evil. The prophet Daniel never believed that lie, even as he and his three friends were forced to live and work within the governmental systems of ancient Babylon. Had I followed their example, I would have resisted; I would have spoken up, even if speaking up meant losing power, or worse. In spite of grave political and personal danger, they refused to be bullied into eating from the king’s idolatrous trash can (Daniel 1:8-13) or threatened into worshiping the golden statue erected at the ugly intersection of earthly force and religious devotion (Daniel 3:8-18). They risked their lives and preserved their prophetic voices, which continue to challenge and to warn the powers of earth even today.
Unlike Daniel and his friends, unlike John the Baptist, unlike Paul and Barnabas, and unlike the Lord Jesus, I chose personal advancement and security instead of prophetic courage. I learned later that this has been the Church’s problem since Constantine, when the Bride of Christ accepted a Christian emperor’s offer of a seat at the table of political power. Suddenly, the temptation to use all, available, earthly force overwhelmed the clear call to rely on weapons that are not of earth (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). By choosing to exercise political and military might in service of an earthly empire, and by choosing to accept in return that empire’s offer of earthly security, rights, and rewards, the Church silenced its own prophetic voice.
I am not arguing that Christians should not be involved in politics. Indeed, if we obey our prophetic calling and follow the example of all the prophets, we will have a profound, political impact, not by serving the interests of the politically powerful, but by challenging those with earthly power to remember that “the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals” (Dan. 4:25) and to care for the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger (see, for example, Isaiah 3:14-15; Amos 2:6-7; Micah 2:1-2; Malachi 3:5; Luke 3:10-13). However, if we seek to advance Christ’s Kingdom through the use of physical or political force, if we speak for earthly political entities and movements instead of speaking to them in Jesus’ name, and if we seek to protect ourselves at the expense of the poor and the weak, we will silence our prophetic influence.
I wish I could say that my failure to speak for Sammy has been my only failure in this regard. It has not. Until very recently, I thought it right to choose a side in the political wars and to use my voice and my vote to assail the abuses of the other side, while ignoring or, at least, downplaying the abuses perpetrated by the people I shared a table with—abuses sometimes perpetrated in Jesus’ name. I aim to do better. I know that I am only one and that my voice is small. But I want to use my voice as Jesus used his. So I refuse the world’s invitation to be silent and to look the other way when the weak are being bullied by the strong. I reject it in the name of the King, the Prince of Peace.