Neither Withdrawal nor Conquest: Planting Seeds for Redemption

I am dismayed that the stance many Christians take toward the societies in which they live is either “withdrawal” or “conquest.” I reject both of these options for a strategy that I call “planting seeds for redemptive change.”

Many Christians who advocate for withdrawal from society are motivated by intentions that should be applauded. Accurately observing the destructive effects on society of individual and collective sin, as well as the brokenness caused by systemic evil, they focus on the need for Christian communities to model a better way, to bear witness through their communal life of Christian values such as compassion, justice and peace. So far, so good. Possibly our non-Christian neighbors would “sit up and take more notice” if more of our Christian communities actually lived out these values rather than just giving them lip service.

But that good focus on communal modeling of Christian values is hardly an argument for withdrawal from society. Why can’t we have it both ways? I believe that at the same time that we aspire to model Christian values within our Christian communities, we should be agents for fostering these values within the societies in which we live.

Of course, that strategy raises the specter of “conquest.” According to this stance, Christians are called to bring their societies into conformity with Christian values. After all, the entirety of God’s Creation groans for redemption from the destructive effects of sin and evil (Romans 8:22), and God intends to “reconcile to himself all things” through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20). So, those advocating conquest argue that we Christians should do whatever needs to be done to bring in “the Kingdom of God.”

But the demanding biblical teaching is that the kingdom of God will not be brought to fruition by conquest, but by the counter-intuitive means of love. And the biblical teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God is that it is “the already, but not yet” (referred to by theologians as “realized eschatology”). What could that possibly mean?

First, it means that the realization of Kingdom values is not reserved for some future time. It was inaugurated by Jesus. But its full realization is in the future. What is to be done in the meantime? The response of Jesus is pointed to in one of his parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13: 31-32).

My agency on behalf of God’s redemptive purposes does not involve conquest. It involves my faithfully planting small seeds of redemption. And I plant without the illusion that my work will bring in the Kingdom of God in its fullness. Rather, I can at best create intimations of the full realization of kingdom values to come, much like a sunrise hints at the full noonday sunshine to come.  Although I can’t begin to imagine how it may be possible in our broken world, it is through the eyes of faith that I believe the day will come when human conflict, injustice, oppression, environmental pollution, ignorance and ugliness will be no more. God’s good intentions for Creation will be perfectly realized. In the meantime, I am called to faithfully plant seeds, one day at a time, toward the accomplishment of these worthy ends, entrusting the harvest to God.

One can readily see many ways to plant such redemptive seeds, such as the food pantry and glass recycling programs that my local church has established. But how about the rough and messy world of politics? How can one plant redemptive seeds in political discourse without deteriorating into a push for conquest? For my long response, I refer you to chapter 20 of my book Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking, where I address two questions: Should Religious People Do Politics? If So, With What Agenda?

My short response starts with the recognition that there is no such thing as “value-neutral” politics. Every legislative proposal is informed by value commitments No one leaves their values at the door of the legislative chamber. Some come to political discourse with values informed by the Christian faith. Others come with proposals informed by other religious faiths, or secular faiths. In the midst of such pluralism, a safe and welcoming space needs to be provided that enables all voices to be heard, expressed in terms that are understandable to all, followed by respectful conversation about the perceived strengths and weaknesses of each proposal as politicians seek to identify a common good that reflects our common humanity.

Hopefully, Christians involved in such political discourse will give evidence of the Christian virtues of humility, patience, and love, and will model that rare combination of commitment to their own Christian beliefs and openness to learning from others by empathetically seeking to understand differing points of view. By creating such a welcoming space, Christian politicians will provide a good opportunity for Christian perspectives to gain a fair hearing on a level playing field with all other perspectives. In the corridors of power, the power that Christian politicians may thereby be exercising can be thought of as the power of love, for creating welcoming spaces for those who disagree with you is a deep expression of loving them. That way of exercising power is surely a utopian ideal given our current political climate. But Christians in politics must aspire to that ideal.