“We don’t get political,” a friend recently told me about his church. It’s a sentiment many church leaders would appreciate: the implication that the church focuses on the truly important, spiritual things, instead of getting caught up in the quagmire of political debate. Regardless of the many arguments that could be made about the necessarily political character of the church or the need for churches to engage cultural issues, there’s one uncomfortable fact that trumps them all: our worship is political.In these seasons of Advent and Christmas especially, history points to a church whose worship is particularly political.
Whether we intend for it to be or not, the songs we sing, the words we repeat, the prayers we pray, the rhythm and rituals of our corporate identity shape our political identity. The real question is not whether our churches are political, but whether we’re aware of it. Are we thoughtfully considering the ways that our worship together can counteract the political messages of the world, or does our worship leave our political preferences undisturbed? Are our loyalties and allegiances formed more strongly toward the global church, our risen King, and his coming kingdom or toward a political party, a nation, or a racial category? One way to approach these questions is to discover the church traditions that have come before us, often rich with political significance, and join with centuries of Christians across the world in practicing them.
And in these seasons of Advent and Christmas especially, history points to a church whose worship is particularly political.
Songs against Oppression
One of my favorite hymns, “O Holy Night,” for example, has explicit political implications: it connects the arrival of our Savior with these deeply political actions:
“Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
This is the version we’ve sung since 1847, when the original song was altered slightly by American writer John Sullivan Dwight in order to reflect abolitionist beliefs during the Civil War. What once focused merely on Christ’s view of humanity—“He sees a brother where there was only a slave”—the updated lyrics reflect a more active role of Christ’s work of redemption. Yet when we gather together during this season and sing this song, once used in the deeply political fight against slavery, the churches that “don’t get political” try to convince themselves that being apolitical is (and had always been) the proper orientation of the church. But nothing could be as perpetually relevant or beautiful than the radical and eschatological idea that Jesus came to end oppression. In his book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, Dr. Matthew Kaemingk asks, “What should we the church do in the emerging age of fear and reactionary politics? We should sing old hymns and wrestle with their subversive political implications.”
Perhaps we should even take a cue from abolitionist Christians and be unafraid of writing political hymns and sermons for our own era. It is easy to look back on past political issues and claim that they were merely “moral” or “theological,” but in the midst of the controversy, they were deeply political. Our theological convictions have political weight, and holy indignation is an appropriate response to chains that enslave and systems that oppress. By acknowledging the injustices of our own day, we can mourn the state of our fallen world and confess the ways we have been complicit in them. Awareness of what’s broken is the first step toward subverting it.
Songs against Political Apathy
The nature of Advent songs points us toward our unique position living in between two Advents, celebrating the incarnation and yet longing for the second coming. These include “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending,” all classic Advent hymns. There’s something important about Advent that is distinct from Christmas—instead of merely celebrating the first coming as a way of anticipating the second, Advent focuses our attention on the darkness and brokenness that make us desperate for the final redemption of all things. There’s even a sense in which Advent allows us to grieve our waiting, crying out to God and admitting that we often doubt he’s even coming at all.
In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge describes this tension beautifully. As the early church continued to wait for Jesus’ return, anxious and desperate in the midst of persecution, they began to wonder if he was really coming back at all. “And in its perplexity, the young church repeated a story to itself,” Rutledge says, then recounting a story told by Jesus in Mark 13. Jesus said, “It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping” (Mark 13:34–36).
The owner of the home is away, but “it is he who put the whole operation in motion, who gave shape and direction to its existence.” And then Rutledge reveals the full force of the story in light of Advent: “The expectation of his return is the moving force behind all the household activity, and yet often it seems that he will never come.”
There might be nothing more radical and politically important than the notion that we are both anticipating the coming kingdom of God and offering glimpses of it today. This posture of “waiting and hastening” (2 Peter 3:12) is a necessary stalwart against both political idolatry and political apathy. Instead of using the coming reign of Christ to justify political inaction, exploitation of the natural world, and indifference toward material suffering, Advent reminds us that we still have a job to do. While the master of the home is away, the expectation of his return motivates our participation in the redemption of the world. At the same time, the Advent reminder that we live between two advents keeps us from putting our hope and salvation in earthly political systems, for our true King is coming again and possesses the real power to make all things right.
Songs against Nationalism
There’s something else distinct about many Advent and Christmas songs—they are almost inescapably filled with references to the Jewish Messiah. Lines like “O come, o come Emmanuel, to free your captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here,” or “Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art” give voice to distinctly Jewish hopes. We shouldn’t be able to celebrate Advent or Christmas without the constant reminder that our Savior was the long-awaited Messiah for the Jewish people. Our identity as American Christians is peripheral to the biblical story—we are the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), not the main characters in the story. And while we should rejoice that God’s plan has always been to use Israel to bless the nations, this season should point us back to the reality that our faith connects us to a global communal identity, not merely our specific local churches.
Our cultural influences, personal preferences, and national identities are certainly not unimportant, but they are secondary to the global and historic faith we profess. In a political climate that often thrives on fear of anyone who doesn’t look, speak, or act like “we” do, singing songs that remind us of our Jewish, Middle-Eastern, refugee Savior is a political act. Participating in worship that forms our loyalties to the global and historic church has deeply political effects—from our thinking about foreign aid to our advocacy for refugees to our general awareness about injustices happening across the world. Evangelicals’ political failures are often linked to our myopic view of our faith: focusing exclusively on the economic, cultural, and traditional traits that have characterized our faith, instead of its global nature and cosmic scope. Broadening our view of God’s work in the world might begin by remembering that we ourselves are the product of a worldwide spreading of the faith from a nation, culture, and language nothing like our own.
The sentimentality and commercialism of Christmas can threaten to squash our observance of both Advent and Christmas, turning our corporate worship into nothing more than a reflection of the shallow celebration around us. But both seasons have a deeply counter-cultural and other-political nature that we should embrace. Instead of ignoring or minimizing the deeply political nature of our worship, we should acknowledge and embrace it, celebrating the way that our formative practices have the power to turn our community into a preview of the coming kingdom of God.