Beth Butler is a rising junior at Baylor University where she studies great texts and philosophy through the University Scholars major. She was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course on “Visions of Christianity in Public Life: Retreat, Assimilation, or Transformation” taught by Dr. Kevin den Dulk.
As Jesus commissioned a first group of disciples to bear the gospel message of peace and reconciliation into the public square, he instructed them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16 NIV). In a moment of volatile civic discourse, political anger, and degradation of social institutions––all driven by factional strife––Jesus’ advice casts a vision for bewildered, weary Christians that are unsure of their responsibility to a fractured public life.
The evils of factionalism have plagued this country from its founding. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison reflects on the inevitability of factions in a pluralistic, democratic society while simultaneously lamenting the hostility and dissension that factions breed. He admits, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.” Early on, American society permitted factions in political life. Presently, the factious system has established itself as a defining feature of our political environment. The manifestations of these factions are unmistakable. From ideologically opposed news outlets and diatribe Twitter threads to hateful campaign rhetoric and political divisions among family members, factions have often amplified the basest impulses of human nature.
How are Christians to involve themselves in such a public square when we are told, “The acts of the flesh are obvious … hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions … I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21)? Can Christians engage in a political system that calls forth and rewards factiousness? Is retreat from the hostile public square the best witness to the peaceful, counter-cultural way of Jesus? Or should Christians adopt the tactics necessary to achieve the policy initiatives their faith inspires, even when the path to power requires moral compromise?
For Christians, productive engagement in public life looks like neither extreme. It is modeled after a crucified Christ rather than the classic rags-to-riches American success story. Here, Jesus’s imagery of sheep among wolves takes on heightened importance. The vision is not of the sheep somehow achieving a victory over the wolves despite their clear underdog status, nor is it of the sheep receding from all danger. Amid overpowering opposition, the exhortation to faithfulness rather than conquest remains, despite the political disutility of such a commitment. This instruction liberates Christians from the traditional metrics of success and enables followers of Jesus to engage public life with prudent realism and patient virtue to transform a troubled age with the love of God. The way of Jesus ushers in a paradigm shift from political triumph to love as the ultimate end.
With this framework, Christians can diligently participate in the formation of flourishing communities, despite the presence of factions. Christians should work earnestly as peacebuilders in their political systems, demonstrating fierce goodwill toward their critics, selfless solidarity with their neighbors, and relentless belief in the dignity and worth of everyone they encounter. Instead of fleeing a sphere where factiousness reaps rewards, Christians should demonstrate the merit of their commitment to faith, hope, and love. Through careful discernment, expert analysis, and rigorous thoughtfulness, let Christians improve the public discourse with the shrewdness of snakes. Rather than achieving their ends at all costs, Christians can behave faithfully and act honorably, with the innocence of doves, assured that their standing as restored children of God releases them from all concerns for legacy or the accumulation of power. In a political environment of fearmongering and anxious ambition, Christians have an invaluable opportunity to manifest the better way of Jesus.
The call is difficult, and the work is unglamorous. Nonetheless, too many members of our communities are harmed by the current political environment for the followers of Jesus to remain removed from the fray. The task is to follow Jesus to the place where the unheard, frustrated, and angry are. There, Christians must resist joining the factiousness that monetizes outrage and imprudence and ultimately stalls real progress or reform. Like sheep among wolves, let us faithfully implant ourselves amidst the trouble and serve to leaven our political square with the resolute joy and hope of the Lord.