As I’ve been watching the coverage of the national conventions in the last two weeks, I’ve been thinking about how poor our expectations of citizenship are and how our political processes reinforce such poor expectations.
I also happen to have been reading around the Gospel of Matthew recently, and it has gotten my theological wheels turning about the nature of citizenship. In reading Matthew, I was reminded of how prominent political images figure in that Gospel. Matthew’s attention is locked on the coming Kingdom of Heaven, a radically new political reality inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is an eschatological reality, one that will fully unfold in the (very near) future. But it also lays claim on our lives together in the present. The Kingdom of Heaven calls us to a rigorous moral life according to which we dedicate ourselves in love and service to God and neighbor. We are to attend especially to the least, the lost, and the left out, for these folks will enjoy special political standing in that eschatological polity.
In my re-reading of Matthew, I also got to thinking about the connection between baptism and political office. In Matthew’s baptism scene, Jesus is anointed to the office of Messiah. God installs Jesus publicly to this office when God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). With that declaration, Jesus assumes the office of Messiah, the king of the Kingdom of Heaven. Of course, we find out that he’s quite a different Messiah than some traditions imagined. He leads not with heroic, conquering, marshal power, but through suffering at the hands of the Powers, and with sacrifice for others.
It take it that a lesson of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew is that his baptism is a pattern for understanding our own. Our baptism is similarly a kind of political appointment, but not one that comes as spoils or by way of quid pro quo. It is instead a commissioning to participate in God’s kingdom of radical love of neighbor, prisoner, widow, stranger, and enemy. Baptism, in other words, is appointment to political office, of a sort. As we navigate the current political season, we would do well to consider what that means as we think about the secular political offices we inhabit.
What other political offices? I understand that most of us are currently neither elected nor appointed to formal political office. But we all inhabit at least one secular political office, what I like to call the “office of ordinary citizen.” I think we make a grave error if we fail to consider what that office requires in light of our baptism, our commission to citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The problem is that our political culture often does not encourage a very robust exercise of the office of ordinary citizen. Consider the spectacle that is the presidential election process. I’m not saying that nothing good comes out of this process, or that we shouldn’t pay attention to it. Quite the contrary: it is part of our civic responsibility to pay attention to and critically interrogate these public arguments, such as they are.
But what is being asked of ordinary citizens in the election process? We are in essence being asked to make a considered choice with our vote. Nothing more, really, is required. In many ways, the kind of agency we exercise in political life is not unlike the kind of agency we exercise in the marketplace. We are choosers who need choices, just like shoppers in a supermarket. Only in political life, the choices are few. The conventions pitch possible choices to us voters. And for many months already, and for a few more, we will be saturated with ongoing appeals to our vote. These appeals are carefully packaged, vetted, and focus-grouped, so that, like the supermarket, we’re really being asked to choose between images rather than realities.
To be sure, voting is an important way in which citizens in a democratic polity exercise political agency. The trouble is that machinery of local, state, and nation politics asks little more from us than to be voters (and jurors, I suppose, on occasion). We are numbers in a tally, colors on a map. And most of us, we’re continually reminded, really don’t matter much in the final outcome.
When the office of ordinary citizenship is reduced to voting, we’re tempted to abdicate other critically important duties that come with that office – and that are required by our dual appointment to the office of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. That political stuff – that’s for Romney or Obama to do, we think. And then we get irritated when they fail to do all the things that we’re really supposed to do together.
Matthew will tell you that to be a good citizen of the Heavenly Kingdom, you need to do a lot more than simply vote. I think he would also want to say, were he able to weigh in on our secular political life today, that these baptismal obligations inform our exercise ordinary citizenship in the secular polity. No matter what the election spectacle would have us believe, voting isn’t enough. We need to actively feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, attend to the sick, and visit the prisoner. And we need to actively participate in movements that strive to undercut the conditions under which people go hungry, naked, unknown, unhealthy, and imprisoned.
There are lots of ways to exercise the office of ordinary citizen that fill out our multiple political responsibilities. We challenge ourselves to craft meaningful arguments about issues that matter in light of critical feedback from our peers by joining public debates in various media. We can have a voice in policy making by participating in broad-based community organizing and other local activist movements. We can respond directly to community needs by organizing or participating in projects that address local concerns. (In my home town, Winston-Salem, NC, for example, many citizens are energized by the problem of food scarcity, and are starting community gardens, backpack programs, and the like, to address it). Most importantly, get to know your neighbors. Understand who they are, what motivates them, and where your shared concerns and interests lie.
Vote for sure. But don’t let the election spectacle fool you into thinking that you’ve sufficiently done your part when you’ve voted. The Heavenly Kingdom demands more from us.
John Senior is the Director of the Art of Ministry and Assistant Professor of the Practice of Religion and Society at the Wake Forest University Divinity School. He is an Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).