ABILENE—Christians can be misunderstood as they offer faithful-yet-unconventional solutions to political problems, professor and author William Willimon told participants at the annual T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University.
The world may not always recognize Christians’ political solutions, acknowledged Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.
“Following Jesus Christ, we as Christians don’t do politics the way the world does politics,” Willimon said. “Politics for Christians is a struggle to respond to the world as God has responded to the world in Jesus Christ. To respond to threats to our well-being the way God responded. To take as our neighbor not those who have a certain passport, but those who Jesus Christ has loved. A struggle to keep our borders as large, expansive, as permeable, as the kingdom of God.”
Christians occupy an uncomfortable position at the political table, he added, noting they should not “too easily” and “too closely” align themselves with politics on the right or on the left.
“I think our faith is more demanding that that,” he said.
Citing Jesus’ arrival as a challenge to existing power structures, Willimon argued Christians should address the problems of their neighbors as a means of political activism.
But “it’s often difficult to follow Jesus into the corridors of power,” he said. “These places that can be so delusional about their own power and influence and their own goodness.”
When America was founded, freedom of religion was an underlying principle, he said. Religion in America is free as long as it remains personal and private and does not interfere with the sovereignty of the nation, he added, noting Christians become convinced they have something at stake in American politics, but it is a challenging perspective.
“Maybe we are among the first Americans to realize the price that we pay for what we call religious freedom,” he observed.
A politician recently made controversial comments about immigration and thought his pastor would address it at church, Willimon reported. Instead the preacher introduced an immigrant family to be baptized. The family said their church was the only place they felt welcomed and embraced in their new country.
“This is the most radical political statement that could be made,” Willimon said. “This is what we call politics. This is our response to the questions of immigration.”
God’s great big plan
The world may call such solutions ineffective and insignificant, but those words also were used by critics of Jesus, he said. “Your church and mine is God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. This is God’s great big plan.”
Jesus did not speak often of politics, and when he did, he took it lightly because he had a different concept of power, Willimon said.
Jesus refused Satan’s temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the world, he reminded the audience. So, part of the task of being Christian is not taking politics, secular society and government too seriously.
“It’s tough for us to talk politics, because primarily politics has become the functional equivalent of God,” he said, explaining people sometimes look to politicians instead of preachers for guidance.
The modern democratic state also is proving to be its own kind of challenge, he added.
He recalled a TV reporter interviewing a missionary in Lebanon during the 1980s, when the country was under attack. The missionary refused to leave, saying it was her calling to be there, even though the United States no longer could guarantee her safety.
“This woman apparently had two passports in her possession,” Willimon said. “She was a citizen of the United States, but she had also, apparently from her comments, held citizenship in another realm—the kingdom of God.”
Willimon was dean of the Duke Chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University 20 years. He returned to Duke Divinity after serving as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church 2004-2012.
He has written 60 books, as well as numerous articles. He is pastor at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. He was named one of the “12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World” by Baylor University.
The annual T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics are presented by Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary and Logsdon School of Theology. The lectures seek to honor the legacy of T.B. Maston, longtime professor of Christian ethics and pioneering Baptist ethicist, known for his writing and teaching in the areas of biblical ethics, race relations, family life, the Christian and vocation, church and state, and character formation.
Young Maston Scholars
During the lectures, Logsdon Seminary Dean Don Williford announced the 2016 Young Maston Scholars, undergraduate students at Texas Baptist Universities recognized for their interest in, engagement with and integration of Christian ethics.
The 2016 scholars—15 students from eight schools—are T.A. Alvarado and Debbie Gonzalez, Baptist University of the Americas; Xavier Adams and Madelyn Yarbrough, Baylor University; J. Porter Brewer and Austin Odom, East Texas Baptist University; Davidson Sutherland and Corbin Garner, Hardin-Simmons University; Michael Detana and Trent Richardson, Houston Baptist University; Kelsan Wolverton and Robert Martinez, Howard Payne University; Emma French and Jake Raabe, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor; and Jon Emmanuel Silva, Wayland Baptist University.