While out bicycling this afternoon I saw a yard sign—the same size and format as a campaign sign for a political candidate—that said “Trust in the Lord.” So . . . was it a political sign or a religious sign?
Clearly it’s a political sign, or a counter to political signs. Signs of this size, mounted on this kind of wire bracket, in this kind of location, in the fall of an election year, are typically political: they urge you to vote for a candidate. This sign is clearly, deliberately in the genre of the political-campaign sign. But what it suggests is along the lines of Psalm 146: Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man [meaning: in a human being], in whom there is no help.
What does it mean? I don’t know what it means to the person who posted. it.
It could mean: Don’t bother with politics. Just trust in the Lord, and don’t vote for anyone. That’s OK, I guess? I have no interest here in critiquing radical separatists (Amish or whatever) who withdraw and have nothing to do with politics; but it would not be my own position. I don’t see my Christian faith as requiring or even allowing me to drop out, to refuse the responsibilities of a citizen. So if this is this sign means: don’t think about politics, don’t bother with politics—then I don’t like it.
But it could mean something else: Go ahead and vote, but keep it all in perspective. No matter who you vote for, that person is not ultimately reliable. That person will eventually fail, because even if they are a person of integrity, they are mortal. Their is only so much they can do, and they will only be around for a limited time. So sure, vote for the best candidate—but your ultimate reliance must be on the Lord. If that is what the sign means, I like it.
(By the way, I have no patience at all—zero—for Christians who want to vote, and even express political opinions publicly, but then when challenged duck out of conversation with other believers about their political choices, using pious language as a dodge. I have seen it often, and it pisses me off every time. I didn’t get a degree in pastoral ministry and a PhD in theology without picking up a bit of a knack for recognizing when religious language is being perverted into self-serving BS. I admire and aspire to genuine piety; but this species of piety-for-show is an ugly form of cowardice that pretends to claim the spiritual high ground while actually scurrying back into a hole in the ground.)
There is a parallel between this sign’s “Trust in the Lord” and the “Jesus is Lord” confession of the earliest Christians. Was that a political statement? Or was it a statement of religious faith?
Turns out not to be such an easy question. Of course it is a statement of faith, above and beyond any political meaning. For Jews scattered around the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and thus living life mostly in the Greek language rather than in Hebrew or Aramaic, this confession says that Jesus is Kyrios. And Kyrios is also the Greek word used in translations of the Hebrew scriptures to represent the divine Name given to Moses at the burning bush. To those ears, to say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus is somehow identified with the bearer of that sacred Name. This is quite an astounding claim. But there is every good reason to believe that the earliest Jesus followers, including the ones who wrote the books of our New Testament, believed exactly that.
But then again, scholars these days constantly remind us that Kyrios (in Greek) or Dominus (in Latin) was a common appellation or claim of the Roman emperors: Caesar is Lord. In that context, the early Christians are saying: Nope, Jesus is Lord. Jesus, not the Roman emperor, is the master of my destiny.
So the confession “Jesus is Lord” is and always has been both religious and political. This is all good to remember. (Strict separation of faith and politics is in my view neither desirable nor possible, and whoever urges it is probably up to no good.)
So what? Two points:
(1) If Jesus is my Lord and Savior, then no one else is. Certainly no human is, so certainly not any politician or ruler. When I follow Jesus in saying to God “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17), I renounce saying that same thing to anyone else. God alone is the truthful one. I must say, with Paul (Romans 3:4), “Let God be true, and every human a liar.” Conversely, if I ever find myself thinking, with regard to any human ruler, that their every word is somehow to be believed always, and every contradiction of that ruler is to be rejected out of hand, then I will know that I have put a human being in God’s place and have thus become an idolater and adulterer. There are degrees. It is my job as a responsible citizen to pay attention to the degrees of mendacity and every other vice in all rulers and candidates for positions of authority, and I just reject candidates who are especially mendacious and affirm candidates who seem committed to truthfulness. But only Jesus is ultimately “faithful and true” as the book of Revelation tells us repeatedly.
(2) It is my responsibility, as a follower of Jesus and simultaneously a citizen of a democracy, to bring my Jesus-following values with me wherever I go. Does that mean I should try to make the government Christian? No and yes. I should not try to get the government to endorse, empower, or give special privileges to Christianity over against other faiths (or no faith). But I should—I must, unless I want to forsake Jesus and follow some other lord when I enter the voting both or take part in political conversations—let biblical values guide my political speech and actions, including my votes. I must support not leaders and laws that claim to be Christian or promise to favor Christian institutions and people over others, but rather leaders and laws that embody and uphold ethical values taught by Christianity, which are mostly principles that are also taught by other religions and by ethical people who are not religious. Those values include all kinds of things. The Bible is a big and demanding book. Anyone who picks one thing out and tries to get you to ignore the rest is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. We are responsible to the whole counsel of God. We need to seek wisdom for knowing what aspects of it to apply in any particular moment.
This is my quick take on what it means to “trust in the Lord” in the sphere of politics, in an election year. To trust in the Lord means both to rely on God and also to be faithful to God.
Relying on God means, among other things, that even if the worst person in the world grasps and holds the office of president, I will not despair—it will not be the end of the world for me—because God is ultimately in control.
Being faithful to God means, among other things, that I must strive to keep (or get) the worst person in the world out of that office, because I am obligated, to the contrary, to support a candidate who comes as close as possible (which will still never be close enough!) to upholding goodness, truth, justice, and mercy.