Half Politics and Whole People: A Call to Repentance and Reform
Joshua D. Reichard, PhD, EdS, CCS
President and CEO, Omega Graduate School, American Centre for Religion/Society Studies (ACRSS)
“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” — James 1:4
In my previous essay, “Political Homelessness and People of Faith”, I shared a personal story framed around the births of my two daughters. The implication of my article suggested many people of faith are politically “homeless”, sojourners in a broken system. America’s 2020 Election is coming to a close and our polarization has not eased, it has intensified. Many of us feel more homeless and alienated than we were before November 3!
However, homelessness should not imply aimlessness. Alienation does not imply a lack of conviction. I hinted at such positions calling for Christians to transcend, rather than conform to, American politics. Instead, I’m afraid we have settled on being half-minded and half-hearted people.
In this essay, I intend to appeal to a deeper conviction. I am calling for Christians to repent of our political allegiances and complicity in polarization. In my previous essay, I condemned political enthusiasm, especially, as idolatry. We must repent of the golden calves have made for ourselves. Repentance for our political allegiances is only the first step: we must not wander aimlessly in the wilderness but have conviction about who we are and where we are going. We must not be double-minded, we must not be directionless, we must not be lukewarm (James 1:8; Revelation 3:16). We must strive to be whole people in a polarized world. I’m not calling for centrism or moderation. I’m calling for deep conviction that cuts through untenable extremes.
Half Politics Make Half People
There has been no time in recent history where our politics have been more divided, save the turbulence of the 1960s. In 1970, the Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood authored an insightful cultural critique entitled, The New Man for Our Time. I intend to use Trueblood’s text as a guide for my argument, as his insight rings truer today than ever. In fact, I will use several lengthy excerpts, as Trueblood says it better than I could paraphrase, with one exception: I prefer the more inclusive terms “people” and “person”.
Trueblood observed: “the Christian witness is fractured today because of the emergence of opposing parties” (p. 17), by which he does not just mean political parties, but religious factions. Trueblood was concerned about growing polarization between the “pietist” and “activist” divisions in the Christian community. Pietists are focused on a personal relationship with Christ and activists are focused on outward service. Incidentally, Jesus responded to the Pharisees, who pressed him to prioritize the “Greatest Commandment”, by stating not one, but two answers: loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:36-40). Jesus confounded demands to box in God’s law. Trueblood called this the “double priority” of the Christian faith.
Artificial divisions can be as clearly seen in our political allegiances: Republican and Democrat, Libertarian and Green. Prioritization of individual liberties versus the common good, representative government versus majority rule, free marketism versus regulated economies, etc. Incidentally, the framers of the constitution recognized the merit of both: America is a democratic republic with carefully designed checks and balances between not only branches of government but between the merits of a republic and a democracy. The more polarized our two parties become, the more we are driven to false choices between two distorted visions of a “half politic”. Politics become a wedge keeping us from becoming all we can be as a collective nation and and as individual human persons.
Equating political allegiance to Christian virtue has been an egregious error of the Christian community and it is no more egregiously on display than in the 2020 election. White Evangelical Christians especially, but all politically-polarized Christians as well, have settled for being half-people with a half-politic. It seems Christians do not realize, politics is not governance. Politics is about winning elections. Our naivete of the incredulity of the entire political operation and the devilishness of ruthless politicking makes us settle for simple arguments. We submit our hearts and minds to manipulation to the point of willfully believing lies. Instead of accepting the possibility we might be wrong, we spiral deeper into more and more absurd conspiracy theories driven by paranoia and fear. It is dehumanizing.
Christians seem to love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 around every election season. Do we not realize the passage is not calling for pagan hordes to humble themselves and pray but for God’s people to do so? It is us who carry the complicity of sinfulness! We built the golden calf not the Egyptians or Philistines! We must repent of our politically polarized idolatry. From my reading, a political “win” is not God’s promised reward for our humility and repentance. God simply promises to hear from heaven and heal our land.
Let’s Judge Ourselves!
Interestingly, an aphorism Christians like to fling at one another, and non-Christians like to fling at Christians, is “judge not”. Trueblood notes the folly of this misinterpretation of Jesus’ words. Judgment is necessary, but we must recognize our judgements are always “potential boomerangs” (p. 27). Trueblood observed, “that Christ judged the Pharisees is obvious” (p. 27). Judgement of sinners is reserved for God alone, but judgment of religious hypocrites is part and parcel of Jesus’ ministry. Trueblood observes,
The essence of Christ’s ministry is not that he forbade [judgment], but that He made clear what its implications are. The crucial words, therefore, are to the effect that every judgment involves a self-judgement. “For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged” (Matthew 7:2). Every activist who criticizes the pietist for presenting less than the whole gospel should examine [their] own stance and vice versa (p. 27).
Yes, I am calling for Christians to engage in self-judgment. Are we afraid to look in the mirror because we’re afraid of the half-person we might see there? We all have logs in our eyes and removing them so we can see clearly to remove the specks from the eyes of our brothers and sisters can be painful (Matthew 7:5). But self-judgment enables us to see one another much more clearly!
In our journey to wholeness, we can welcome hearing from opposing views, especially within the Christian community, and allow the process of self-correction to unfold. White Evangelicals, listen to your Black and Latino Christian brothers and sisters! Urban Christian activists, listen to the angst of your rural Christian fellows! I’m not calling for a Kumbaya moment or a false sense of unity – I’m calling for mutual transformation and correction that comes through the boomerang effect of self-judgement. That effect applies even to the positions I’m taking in this essay.
We must repent of our half-mindedness. We must repent our half-heartedness. Much of the ugliness I’ve seen in political banter throughout this election results in total refusal to hear counter arguments at best and cold indifference to needs and pain of others at worst. We must repent of our stubborn unwillingness to engage in critical self-judgment. Repentance can follow the painful, but essential, process of judgment.
New People for Our Time
What follows repentance? Healing and wholeness. We must become “New People for Our Time”, broken free from the bondage of half-politics. “New People for Our Time” are whole people who refuse to be half-people. We must strive to be whole-minded instead of half-minded, whole-hearted instead of half-hearted. Trueblood points to Paul Tillich, who defined this “new person” as one who “refuses to settle… who is not overimpressed by the particular idols of [their] particular age” (p. 28). Trueblood continues:
The new [person] for our time is the whole [person] who consciously rejects the temptation to limit [themselves] to one part of a totality, when such limitation is not required (p. 32).
Trueblood called for wholeness in a very broken and very fractured world:
But where is the inspiration for wholeness found? It is certainly not found in our current political operations, and seldom is it found in science. The truth is that is most likely to be found in the Christian faith. Though it is sorrowfully true that some of the worst fragmentation is currently demonstrated in the Christian community itself, the Christian faith possesses resources for transcendence of one-sidedness. By the miracle of the preservation of the Gospels, Christians have a marvelous antidote to divisiveness of every kind (pp. 32-33).
A friend and colleague of mine, Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) theologian, Barry L. Callen, wrote a book called Caught Between Truths, suggesting the deepest of Christian truths are paradoxical and by nature in healthy tension with themselves. Christian truth is not black and white — but it is not a muddy shade of grey. It is living, active, fraught with paradox, antinomy, and tension. The living and active nature of Christian truth makes it impossible to bottle up, pin down, or worst of all, ally to a political party. Christian truth must not succumb to one-sidedness. When it does, it ceases to be “sharper than any double-edged sword” and instead becomes nothing more than a blunt hatchet (Hebrews 4:12).
Overused as it may be, Trueblood points to the word “and” as “one of the greatest of all Christian terms” (p. 29). Trueblood’s intellectual honesty is honorable:
The revolutionary and truly contemporary message is that choice is not always required, the pressures of the age notwithstanding. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that we must choose between being liberals and being conservatives, inasmuch as every sound person is something of both. Everyone who is intellectually and spiritually alive is liberal, in the sense that [they] are open to truth from any quarter, welcoming any evidence without the bondage of prejudgment. Similarly, each person who thinks with any care is a conservative, partly because [they] are unwilling to waste whatever has proved itself in the long experience of history, and partly because [they] know that the most recent emphasis is not automatically the most wise. It is conceivable that at any particular juncture in history, it may be right and good to emphasize one side of the liberal-conservative totality, because immediate needs demand such emphasis, but no really wise [person] will ever settle permanently for either one alone. The thinking involved in the use of “and” is far more profound than that involved in the employment of “either-or” (p. 30).
I will go as far as to say anyone who oversimplifies political parties into “good” and “evil” categories does not understand the ruthless nature of American (or any) politics. The laws and policies which emerge from political candidates once they are in a position to govern are never as simple as they might seem; perhaps that’s why politicians have such a hard time keeping promises! When the political dust settles, the work of governing is far messier and more complex than mere politicking presents.
More than 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Plato himself was concerned about the limits of democracy and the devolution of democratic ideals into political buffoonery. Plato recognized the distinction between politicking and governing and his concern was that democracies would eventually devolve into putting people into power who are the best at winning elections (politicking) at the expense of those who are best at governing. In like manner, Alexander Hamilton was concerned that “the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a [person] to the presidency”. Politics are nasty business, focused only on winning at all costs, and are always a choice between two evils. Politics are about acquiring power and ultimately control of wealth. In America, our lack of publicly funded and shorter-term elections based on meaningful policy proposals make sensible deliberation between legitimate choices all the more impossible. As the political parties become more radically polarized, legitimate choices become less and less possible and instead become more and more ridiculous and divisive.
Trueblood suggests we need a healthy counterbalance of genuine ideas and ideals,
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the major tragedy of the new separatism emerges because each party is deprived of something that it needs, and something that the opposite party has to offer (p. 33).
With that said, we must be careful not to presume political parties can somehow produce New People for Our Time. They cannot. Am I suggesting all people of faith become registered Independents? Imagine what that would do to change the world! Realistically, I am simply asking, as I did in my last essay, for Christians to approach the political process with more humility, contrition, brokenness, and sobriety. That would at least be a start.
Ultimately, Trueblood called for Christianity itself to be the factor that cuts through political and religious polarization. This is not a vain call for “the nation to come together” or the empty platitudes of a call for national unity. Trueblood proposed, and I am echoing, a call for Christians to realize the power of their faith to transcend the easy defaults of polarization in our culture and in our churches. If we repent of our complicity in the polarization, we can reclaim the power to affirm the virtues and call out nonsense on all sides. We may be politically “homeless” but we are not voiceless.
Finding Our Voices as Whole People
At Omega Graduate School, we prepare Christian social researchers who can change the world. I have spent a good deal of time in my own professional practice trying to conceptualize what it means to do the work of sociology Christianly. More importantly, I am concerned about how we can reclaim the credibility of a Christian voice in the public square. Trueblood is helpful to this end. He suggests our ability to be New People for Our Time requires three, not two, poles:
The three necessary elements of any genuine Christianity are, first, the experience of inner vitality that comes by the life of prayer, second, the experience of outer action in which the Christian carries on a healing ministry, both to individuals and to social institutions, and third, the experience of careful thinking by which the credibility of the entire operation may supported. Religions tend to die when any one of the three is omitted for an extended period of time (p. 34).
As part of our PhD in Social Research at Omega Graduate School, we teach a foundational class called “Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis” which reflects Trueblood’s first two elements of a genuine Christianity. We also teach a “Faith-Learning Integration for Interdisciplinary Research” class which reflects Trueblood’s third element of a genuine Christianity. What I pray we can do better, for the sake of all Christians in society, is teach “half people” how to do be “whole people” by breaking the shackles of blind political partisanship.
OGS Chancellor Dr. David Anderson, promotes “gracism” as a practice by which we can see and appreciate and honor our differences. He recently called on Christians to recognize God’s color is not red or blue but purple, the color of royalty. The gospel, plain and simple, is “Jesus is Lord!” and if He is, then Caesar, any Caesar, is not (Acts 10:34-43). The powerful transcendence of the Christian good news must be wholistic rather than reductionistic.
We must be able to “pray, serve, and think”, as Trueblood notes, but as long as we are bound to the slavery of polarization and division, we can do none of them effectively. If we demonize “the other side”, we cannot authentically pray for, or deeply empathize with (as Bonhoeffer defined it), our fellow human beings. Our intercession is loveless. If we see social reform as a matter of power and control, we cannot effectively serve those who need us most. Our service is suspicious. If we pledge blind allegiance to dubious political narratives, we cannot really think critically about how the place of our faith in the public square. Our intellectual integrity is incredulous.
If the Christian view of the world is not true, and if people discover that it is not true, it will not endure. If it cannot meet the most searching intellectual inquiry, prayer will cease because it will be rightly seen as a form of self-hypnosis, and Christian social action will, accordingly, lose its central motivation (p. 35).
We must repent of our half-mindedness and half-heartedness. We must refuse to engage in political polarization. We must go deeper instead of going left or right. We must reject the temptation of political enthusiasm. We must demonstrate a Christianity to the world that is prayerful, just, and intellectually honest. By my estimation, that’s not lacking conviction; it’s deeper conviction.
We must become New People for Our Time: whole people in the face of polarizations aiming to make us half people. I, for one, refuse to be a half person. I refuse to be half-minded and half-hearted. I refuse to sell my soul to a political party or candidate. I refuse to capitulate to partisan extremes when we have a faith with the power to transcend them all. I am not whole yet, but I am persevering to become mature and complete so I lack nothing (James 1:4). Will you join me?
Only by striving to become whole people can we change ourselves — and change the world.
Joshua D. Reichard, DPhil, PhD, EdS, CCS
President and CEO, Certified Clinical Sociologist
Omega Graduate School
American Centre for Religion/Society Studies (ACRSS)
500 Oxford Drive, Dayton, TN 37321 USA