You don’t have to be a political pundit to predict a few things about Tuesday’s presidential election. Once the dust settles and we have a new president, some people will experience emotions that will range from relief to elation. Others will feel angry, disenfranchised, and perhaps even heartbroken. Facebook and Twitter will be buzzing with celebration, gloating, lament, and rage. Friends will pop the champagne cork and toast the beginning of a new era. Friends will also wound one another and say things they will later regret.
While all of the energy right now is around Tuesday, Wednesday is just as important, though for a different reason. On Tuesday we vote, but on Wednesday we will have to come to grips with the results of an exceedingly divisive, sometimes downright nasty, election. We will have to face the future we have helped to create. We will have to find a way to live together. How we react in the face of either victory or defeat will show a great deal about our character.
For Christians, it will also show a great deal about how we understand ourselves, and about the depth of our convictions.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, come Wednesday Jesus will still be Lord. This means that, regardless of the election results, the work of the Church will continue. Regardless of who wins, we are still called to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ and to make disciples of all nations. We are still called to teach people to obey all that Christ has commanded and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are still called into the work of justice, to be peacemakers, and to go to the least and the lost. Some things may change on Wednesday, but the calling of the Church will not.
There is government and there is God, and these are never one and the same. Reflective Christians have always had an ambivalent relationship with the governments under which they lived, even in so-called “Christian” empires and nations. 1 Peter instructs believers to “honor the emperor” (2:17), but if one reads the whole letter it becomes clear that this admonition was a concession to the difficult circumstances in which the early Christians lived. There was a great chasm between the values represented by the Roman emperor and those represented by the followers of Jesus. Not least among these was that Christians worshipped only one God, and not the gods of the Roman pantheon. This made Christians suspect because the traditional Roman gods were thought to uphold the wellbeing of the empire. If one did not honor the gods, one was naturally suspected of disloyalty to Rome.
Life for these early Christians was very uncomfortable at times, and it could be dangerous. They might be ridiculed. They might be subject to interrogation by local officials, and such interrogations could even result in an ultimatum: recant, or face severe punishment. Some did recant, but others knew that they served One greater than any emperor or empire. Christ had given them new life and a new family of faith, not just for today or tomorrow, but for all eternity. They were living in a new reality, one unknown to their city magistrates, the governor of their province, or the emperor himself. They were “aliens and exiles” in the political and social world into which they were born. But in Christ, they were much more than that. In Christ they were “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9).
So, yes, 1 Peter instructs, honor the emperor. We have to get by in this broken world as best we can. We are beholden to entrenched systems of government and politics. We worry about how the decisions of those who wield power will come to bear on our everyday lives, and we face pressure to conform to the religious, philosophical, and ethical values of the ambient culture. There’s no sense in making life any harder than it needs to be, so honor the emperor—as a mortal man who happens to wield tremendous political power.
Just don’t forget who you are. Remember your identity in Christ. While the emperor and his subordinates may have the power to dole out punishment, and even to punish by death, only God has the power to give life. No government that has ever existed has been able to raise the dead. But two thousand years ago, when it seemed all was lost, that was exactly what God did. Christ is alive, and he reigns over all creation.
The United States is not the Roman Empire. The lives of Christians in the United States are vastly different than those of Christians in the Roman world. There is, however, something we can learn from these forebears in the faith: our government is not our God. Don’t forget this on Wednesday. Don’t be too elated if your candidate wins, and don’t be too despondent if your candidate loses. Christians have one Lord, and he doesn’t need to run for office.