Being Church in a Politically Divided Age

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

We pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world. 
—The Book of Common Prayer, page 387

I notice this happening with more frequency than any time in my ordained ministry. I ask someone how I can pray, and the response is like this: “can you pray for our country? I am very worried.” The rancor and polarization in our nation’s public life is concerning for most Americans, and there are grave threats abroad. Many are anxious about the country’s capacity to hold together around another upcoming Presidential election.

In the early 60’s AD, the apostle Paul writes letters to his beloved protégée and former traveling companion Timothy. In the First Letter of Paul to Timothy we read the aged apostle exhorting his mentee: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions…” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Christians are called to pray for those who “govern and hold authority in the nations of the world,” whether kings, emperors, or elected officials.

It is not that Paul is some political partisan asking prayers for his favored leaders or causes. Hardly. Nor, on the other hand, is Paul somehow above it all, indifferent or aloof to the realities of civil government and political leadership. Paul often has quite negative dealings with Jewish kings, Roman governors, consuls, and politicians. What I think Paul invites us to consider from 1st Timothy goes to the very heart of our calling as a church, our reason for being: to be a distinctive witness of blessing in culture; to be a unique source of light in a world that seems to be getting darker. We pray for leaders, the government, and all people under their care because they are our mission field. And the best way to be blessing and light is to be who we are: to be the church who believes in a God who raised Jesus from the dead. And our collective membership in him as our highest allegiance and loyalty always precedes our prescriptions for the nation.

Eight years ago, social and political commentator Yuval Levin wrote The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. The very title of the book, Fractured America, certainly speaks the author’s concern for a country that is deeply polarized, not just politically but also around foundational assumptions. Levin’s concern is to identify creative means by which our culture can move forward if we are to flourish as a genuinely pluralistic and free society.

What I found so insightful in Levin’s analysis is how our society embodies two seemingly contradictory and extreme desires. These two have a premium value placed on individual liberty and autonomy on the one hand, and big government as the solution to our largest problems on the other. More than at any time, Levin suggests, our cultural moment is pressing at both ends of the spectrum at the same time! But what is lost is the middle. By middle, Levin does not mean moderate. He means the middle layers of social life between the individual and the state such as schools, neighborhoods, extended families, civic organizations, volunteer groups, and of course, congregations. Levin thesis is that if there is any hopeful vision for a renewal of our country, it will mean a recovery of a culture of solidarity with our neighbors. It will mean rediscovering the importance of belonging to something larger than the self but smaller than a state bureaucracy. And a healthy and faithful local congregation unequivocally united to Christ in spite of diversity can be a powerful agent of such renewal.

It is as easy for Christians as it is for politicians to decry our situation and blame others. It is easy to yell that the plane is going down in flames, and its other people’s fault. And it’s easy to get entangled in the voices on various news and social media that encourage us to hate other communities of fellow citizens whose views differ from us. As Levin writes, “Prophesying total meltdown is not the way to draw people’s attention to [our] failure to flourish.”

I agree. And I would add the way to draw people’s attention to a vision of flourishing is to participate in it within a flourishing local and loving community of which The Church of St. John the Divine can be a bright, shining witness. We are God’s embassy in a specific place and time for a time just such as this. What a privilege. And what a moment to pray not only for our nation and political leaders, but for ourselves that the Holy Spirit would help us grow more and more into our mission of Changing Lives for God in Christ. That call always begins with us. And it is a call we commit to as one body in Christ Jesus.

I pray that these remaining and likely challenging months ahead in 2024 bring forth the very best Christian witness within us.

Weekly Wisdom

Those who do not make an effort to read their times in a disciplined way read them all the same, but with narrow and parochial prejudice. —Oliver O’Donovan in The Desire of the Nations

One Good Recommendation

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream by Yuval Levin (Basic Books, 2020)

This is another book by Yuval Levin that I recommend. Levin, cited above in my essay, is a keen social observer who has written before about our cultural and political divisions. In A Time to Build, Levin takes as his starting premise what should sound like a very biblical view: humans are born prone to go awry and therefore require strong mediating institutions like churches, schools, families, and other voluntary organizations to form us well and anchor flourishing societies. This is helpful and encouraging book.

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