It breaks my heart today to see how often politics shapes our faith, rather than faith shaping our politics. Over the years the church in America has become so biblically illiterate that we are often being more influenced by cultural and political trends than we are by the Word of God.
As a result when we do come to church or read Scripture, we come with our minds already made up. We interpret the Bible through our own ideological lenses, picking and choosing what we want to believe and leaving the rest. This is dangerous, not only spiritually but politically as well.
When faith is reduced to being a subset of politics, it is often used as a political wedge to divide rather than unite us. Or, on the converse, when a particular faith seeks to overtake politics, both are worse off. God’s kingdom is much bigger than one political party or country and can never be fully reflected in a government institution alone.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in “Strength to Love,” “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” What our country desperately needs – and our faith demands – is a people who are not withdrawn from the government but are engaged in faithful ways.
We not only need people pushing from the outside, but also serving on the inside to help government fulfill its purpose of restraining evil, promoting justice and working for the common good.
We need more people like Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who learned to faithfully work in the government without selling out in the process.
What made their example so powerful is that they learned how to be good news in a culture that was completely foreign to their own. They were Israelites in exile in Babylon, far from home.
Yet rather than standing on the sidelines and bemoaning their lot in life, they decided to seek the welfare of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Rather than standing in judgment toward the Babylonians for their significant belief differences they learned to adopt much of the local culture while still holding fast to their core beliefs.
They honored their government leaders, and worked hard to help make the country a better place for all to live in, but also maintained the integrity of their faith. They knew when to risk their lives and when to walk away from power.
When asked to worship a golden statue of the king, they refused even under threat of death. They trusted God and were delivered safe and alive from the fiery furnace.
When another king decreed that prayers only be directed to him, Daniel defied this order, trusted God, and was delivered safe and alive from the lions’ den.
They made a difference not because they had a grand vision to transform society, but because they were committed to doing the small things that made a difference in the long run.
Working in the government can be tough. Washington, D.C. seems to specialize in attracting highly talented, motivated and educated people, only to have them burn out a few years later. The lack of a true community in the city is what pushes many over the edge.
The good news is that there is a group of people, young and old, from different ethnicities that are learning to follow the example of Daniel. Rather than standing on the sidelines and blaming politics they are renewing their commitment to faithfully engage with government, whether that means pushing from the outside or helping build up from the inside.
The Rev. Aaron Graham is the lead pastor of the District Church in Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School.