“Jesus is Lord regardless of who becomes the next President.”
“Jesus is still on the throne.”
These and similar sentiments have come under fire in recent days.
This is understandable. Many people hear or read these statements as a kind of “Jesus juke” or dismissive response to fears people are voicing about either a Trump or Biden administration. I think Ayanna Zariya captured on Twitter why some are frustrated when their fears or concerns are immediately met with these statements.
People across the political spectrum of this election have fears about what will happen to them if one side gains too much political power. (If you only perceive dangers or threats from one side of the political aisle, I would encourage you to understand what people might fear about your side, whether you consider yourself conservative or liberal.) Meeting those fears with little more than trite phrases in our conversations can come across as dismissive or indifferent.
A sister in Christ on Facebook reminded me of this passage: “Singing songs to a troubled heart is like taking off clothing on a cold day or like pouring vinegar on soda.” (Prov. 25:20).
In contrast, Proverbs 15:23 says, “A person takes joy in giving an answer; and a timely word—how good that is!”
The subjectivity of a word’s “timeliness” is also highly subjective. Jesus is still on the throne” might be just the word one friend needs today but feels like “taking off clothing on a cold day” to another friend. (This is why the same message posted for the masses on social media can be received in very different ways.)
I understand this. At the same time, I’ve seen a concerning trend this election cycle when Christians remind their fellow brothers and sisters that “Jesus is still on the throne.” Many are rushing to attribute bad motives behind these words, such as attempts to maintain “power and “privilege” or silence those voicing concerns. This morning on Facebook I shared my friend Lisa Robinson Spencer’s response to this trend:
I’ve seen this very disheartening sentiment floating around the past few days that considers statements of Jesus being on the throne as some kind of weapon against people who feel harmed by the current administration. Have our lenses become so racialized that we can’t even accept this powerful but simple truth without racial animus? Listen, Jesus being on the throne means he is above ALL earthly concerns but also sees the anxiety in the hearts of his people. That goes as much for the ones concerned about loss of religious freedom as the ones concerned about racial injustice. People don’t look to Jesus because of their privilege but because they know that him being on the throne means his rulership and they need settled hearts in remembering that. I would think that would be especially true of those who feel marginalized whether real or imagined. Jesus is on the throne and that should bring comfort, not combat. But the fact that we can’t even accept this truth with[out] propagating it for a cultural agenda is very telling. It’s also giving one man too much space in our Christianity. Jesus is greater. Always.Lisa Robinson Spencer, Facebook
Lisa is not denying the possibility that someone might use this sentiment to dismiss others’ concerns, but she is also challenging the impulse to inject racial animosity and power dynamics into all of our conversations, including statements like “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is still on the throne.”
I worry about this hurried rush to impute ill motives, and it is particularly encouraged in antiracism literature and groups, which often emphasize the impact of someone’s words over and above the intent behind them. A read through Scripture places emphasis on both intent and impact. For example, Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” which would including considering the impact our words and actions might have on others. At the same time, passages throughout the Bible like this one declare the importance of intent to God when he judges people:
may you hear in heaven, your dwelling place,1 Kings 8:39, CSB
and may you forgive, act, and give to everyone
according to all their ways, since you know each heart,
for you alone know every human heart
I truly understand the frustration with Jesus jukes or ill-timed platitudes, especially during a polarizing presidential election. Part of my intent in sharing Lisa’s post was to remind people that, well, intent matters.
But is “Jesus is Lord” an untimely message for the American church during the 2020 presidential election (or ever)?
I asked this question almost immediately after I received pushback when I shared Lisa’s post on Facebook.
I have been slowly going through the Bible this year, and I began to reflect on my reading. Sentiments like “Jesus is Lord” or “God is on his throne” reverberate throughout its pages from Genesis to Revelation.
The idea that this sentiment is untimely–even though I recognize it can be wielded in insensitive ways–is an idea foreign to Scripture. There is no situation in which God’s people shrink back from reminding one another of the reality that God is on his throne. The Israelites were acquainted with the rule of both righteous and corrupt kings, yet the prophet Isaiah declared, “Lord our God, lords other than you have owned us, but we remember your name alone” (Is. 26:13).
Why do I think the church’s declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is not only a timely reminder but perhaps more timely now than ever before in my lifetime?
To help answer that question, I want to share with you part of an interview with Tom Holland, a historian who recently wrote a book called Dominion about Christianity’s influence in the West. Holland has neither confirmed or denied he is a Christian, although he readily affirms certain truths of Christianity and has been persuaded through his historical research that Christian theology has shaped his (and the West’s) convictions about the world more than he originally thought. In his interview, he expressed to Glen Scrivener (director of Speak Life, a ministry in England) that the church had disappointed him with its response during the pandemic:
I felt that over the course of this year the church has been a letdown. Um, I think that the experience of pandemic – it sets you to asking, you know, “Why is this happening?” It raises profound issues of theodicy…Tom Holland, Speak Life on YouTube
I felt that the response of the churches was a kind of… a pallid echo of public health announcements–and, of course, terribly important for vicars and bishops and so on to give public health announcements–but that’s what public health officials are for. I kind of feel that the church is there to give answers and to situate what’s happening in the context of [laughs] this kind of weird [stuff] that they’re teaching…
I’ve heard almost nothing about why this is happening–about, you know, what does the Bible say about plagues? There are an awful lot of plagues in the Bible, and there’s an awful lot of attempts by Christians to understand why plagues happen and what people should do in plagues, and this seems to me to be an incredibly valuable resource. I’d much rather hear a bishop talk about that than kind of tell me to wash my hands. I mean I know that washing hands is important, but I don’t want to hear it from people who [laughs] I would want to hear more from.
“Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is still on the throne” just is weird stuff to an increasingly secular society in the United States that discounts–even scoffs at–the possibility of the supernatural.
(This isn’t new. People thought Christians in the first century were cannibals because they were rumored to be drinking Christ’s blood and eating his flesh. Of course, they knew and we know they were just taking communion.)
Holland’s disappointment in the church was due to its lack of emphasis on the message that only the church as an institution can proclaim right now: “Jesus is Lord.”
Holland and others have looked to the Church for a prophetic word in 2020, but they were told instead to wash their hands–just like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government, the universities, and the sign on the local pub in England also told them to do.
At times in history and presently, the church has emphasized spiritual salvation to the neglect of physical needs and political oppression. James 2:16-17 says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, ‘Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,’ but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?”
The balance is difficult. However, in our attempts to avoid this error in 2020 when there are so many pressing issues to address and needs to meet, I wonder if we commit the opposite error.
Are we shrinking back from the weird truths of Christianity?
Are we telling people to wash their hands when they want or need to hear about King Jesus who also stoops low to wash their feet?
They will not hear about King Jesus from Joe Biden or Donald Trump except in attempts to boost support from the evangelical voting block. They will not hear about King Jesus from any institution except the Church, which is precisely why it is a timely and timeless message.
“Jesus is Lord” isn’t a political program for the United States in the 21st century (although it will provide a good, firm foundation). Paul Maxwell warned earlier today on Twitter against using it as a “copout” for political conversation.
“Jesus is still on his throne” also isn’t a “Jesus juke” for dismissing fears and concerns. It is precisely because “Jesus is Lord” that we don’t do that. The belief that Jesus is on his throne not only provides comfort (as my friend Lisa wrote) but orientation to what’s righteous, good, holy, and just.
These sentiments do remind us, however, of what is “truly real,” as Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions around 400 AD: “For that is truly real which remains immutable. It is good, then, for me to hold fast to God, for if I do not remain in him, neither shall I abide in myself; but he, remaining in himself, renews all things.”
With that, I want to close this blog with an excerpt from perhaps my favorite chapter ever written in a book about the pastor-theologian’s–and, by extension, the church’s–role in the world:
There are many true stories about what is going on in the world (and even more false stories), but the focus of the biblical story is on what God is doing in the world to renew the created order: ‘The Lord has risen indeed’ (Luke 24:34). Nothing looks quite the same in the afterglow of resurrection: God, human being, the plan of salvation, the cosmos itself–all need to be rethought.Kevin J. Vanhoozer in The Pastor as Public Theologian
The theologian’s [and church’s] task is to set forth in speech and act ‘sound doctrine’: the truth about the strange new world of the gospel. The theologian is a representative of this strange new postresurrection world, an emissary of the kingdom of God that is even now impinging on the old world in which many think they are still living…
Theology is the project of corresponding to what is in Christ in word and deed. To be or not to be in Christ: that is the only question for the disciple. In making explicit what is in Christ [i.e. statements like “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus is still on his throne”], Christian doctrine implicitly gives disciples their marching orders: correspond to what is. When disciples live into the reality of the resurrection–which is to say, the renewed created order–they participate in the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus Christ…
Theology cultivates wisdom to the extent that it directs disciples in their particular contexts to correspond to the renewed created order in Christ. Doctrine not only tells us what is and how things are; it also asks us to trust that this is how things are to the point of staking one’s life on it.
“Jesus is Lord” is so much more than a platitude.
It is a reality–a citizenship–with its own salvation story, transcendent riches, present and future hope, and marching orders.
Christians must continue to proclaim what is truly real, lest we only offer the good news of hand-washing like everyone else.