Kaitlyn Schiess and whole-person politics (with… | God's World News

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Kelsey Reed • 05/22/2024
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Kelsey Reed
Hello, welcome to Concurrently, the News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. At Concurrently, we approach the news through a discipleship perspective. We tackle the challenging topics in culture and current events as learners and fellow laborers with parents, educators, and mentors of kids and teens.

We consider the whole person, promoting growth in knowledge, attitudes, and action in the world. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.

Jonathan Boes

We welcome you to the conversation. In fact, we’d love to hear from you. Please send in your questions or comments by way of voice recording or email to newscoach@wng.org.

So, it’s another presidential election year here in the United States. We know all the things that come with an election year. There’s the heightened rhetoric, the high emotions, and with Biden and Trump facing off once again, I think a lot of us are bracing for the coming flood of election coverage and controversies. But election season isn’t just about what happens in our nation. It’s also about what happens in our hearts. Author Kaitlyn Schiess has written some amazing work about this intersection of spiritual formation and politics. And so today, we are excited to have her here on the podcast with us to help us explore what this upcoming election season might mean for discipleship at home and in the classroom. So, Kaitlyn, welcome to Concurrently.

Kaitlyn Schiess
Thank you for having me.

Kaitlyn Schiess is an author, speaker, and perpetual theology student. She has a ThM in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and is currently a doctoral student in theology at Duke Divinity School. Her writing can be found in Christianity Today, The New York Times, Christ and Pop Culture, Relevant, and Sojourner, as well as in her two books, The Ballot and the Bible and The Liturgy of Politics. Kaitlyn is a co-host and senior editor of the Holy Post Podcast and the host of Curiously, Kaitlin, which just launched about eight weeks ago. We’re really excited for the DNA overlap between God’s WORLD News and what you’re doing with this podcast: answering questions from young learners. So excited to check that out—I want to put that on your screen, listener. So again, we’re so thankful to have you with us today.

Thanks, Kelsey.

You’ve written so much about this connection between politics and religion, spirituality, spiritual formation. What first got you thinking along these lines, along these topics?

So I finished up college right as the 2016 election was getting started. And so, I was at a Christian school and there were, you know, really vivid and sometimes really difficult conversations on campus about Christianity and politics in particular. I was a history major, so I was also learning a lot about the history of American Christianity and American politics, and honestly thought, “I’m leaving that whole world behind when I go to seminary.” Like, “That’s an interesting academic exercise, but I’m going to go to seminary and study the Bible and learn how to minister to people.” The 2016 election was still happening my first semester of seminary, so it was still a really vibrant conversation amongst my fellow seminary students. I didn’t really have a plan at the time, vocationally, for what I was going to do with my theological education, but most of my peers did. Many of them were going to go pastor churches, and they were really distraught about what their role as a pastor should be, how they should think about politics theologically, and especially in that election, I think. Many of them were interning at churches or were already working at churches, and they were watching politics really disrupt those communities. They were watching both great division in those communities and also watching congregants that they believed were faithful people get really swallowed up in politics. They were watching it really corrupt their souls; it really was harming them on a spiritual level. They were wondering what to do. I felt like, “Okay, I have some background in thinking about this. I feel like I have a pretty good temperament for it.” I realized early on, I enjoy having political conversations more than the average person does; and so, I thought, “Okay, I think this is what I’m going to do.” And then I decided to apply to PhD programs because I thought I need more resources for this. I want to keep thinking deeply about this and especially thinking deeply about how Christians have responded to politics in different places around the world and throughout time. There are great resources for us is one of the first things I learned. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We don’t have to come up with some amazing, new, brilliant plan to fix this. We actually have resources in our history, and I wanted to spend more time studying them. So now, I’m just a perpetual student continuing to study them.

Well, we like to talk about being professional learners here at Concurrently. And I am a big fan of the phrase “lifelong learning.” I think the more that we press into that idea, the more that we’re really living out the Christian mandate. We have so much to learn about who the Lord is. Of course, we have a bunch to learn about how His creatures work—as we navigate this world together and that navigating and negotiating of interests, that’s politics, right? I’d love for you to actually give us a little bit of what you use as your definition for politics before we go into another question.

I appreciate that, Kelsey, because it is, when people hear the word politics, there are certain images and feelings that probably come to mind for them. You probably think of voting, or you think of elected officials, maybe you think of the State of the Union address, or you think of judges, or maybe you think of protests, or kind of political action at that level. And all of that is politics, but when I use the word politics, I want us to expand our definition and the kind of images that come to mind for us. Even just the word “politics” comes from the Greek word polis that just means “city” or “community.” And so, when I say politics, I mean “anything that we do to build a common life together.” That includes all of these things, voting and protesting and elected officials. But it also includes bringing a casserole to your next-door neighbor, and it involves showing up at a local community center, and it involves your church and the way your church engages in your community. So, I think the benefit of expanding that definition is not only to say, “Hey, politics is not just isolated to these things,” but I think it also helps us realize, “Okay, if I want the things that I think God cares about, that are described in scripture, to be represented in my political life, I’m not just limited to this one way of expressing those concerns.” I express some of my concerns when I vote, but we all know you don’t get to express everything. There [are] limited options on a ballot. We don’t have total choice of anything we want to say or do. So, we express some things when we vote; we express some things when we write a letter to an elected official. We express some things when we volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center, or we bring a casserole to a next-door neighbor, or we do things that build our common life together and seek for it to look the way God describes in scripture as human community’s best function. And we have a bunch of different ways of getting to do that, which also means people that are not just the age where they can vote and get to be involved in politics. This is about everything that we are all doing to contribute to our larger communities. And so we can be creative about what that means. It includes all these other technically political things, but it includes lots of other stuff too.

I love that that redeems politics and also brings it back into something tethered to our ordinary life and our lives and community. Because so often when we divorce politics from “my next-door neighbor,” it can almost be gamified and it can become an exercise that is very inhuman. But, speaking of the human, something you talk about a lot in The Liturgy of Politics is the formative power of politics and this idea of spiritual formation. And spiritual formation is definitely something we’ve talked about on Concurrently. But I’d love to just hear what you mean, what you bring to that phrase, when you talk about spiritual formation in your discussion of this topic.

It brings me back to what I said earlier about a lot of my peers preparing to pastor churches and [wondering], “Should I engage in politics at all? I think maybe that’s just not in my job description. Leave that to someone else!” But what we were confronted with, particularly [for] these students that were just starting to think about ministry, was realizing, “Oh, I can’t really opt out of this because I’m watching the way politics shapes the people in my community.” I often, when I’m talking to pastors who are understandably cautious about engaging politics in their church—for good reasons—I say, “Well, if we aren’t discipling people on how to live healthy political lives, there are lots of other people who are happy to do it for us. And it won’t be towards healthy political lives. It’ll be towards idolatry in some form or another.” There’s a variety of directions that idolatry can go, but it will be idolatrous. And it won’t shape people into the kind of people who can engage on things that really deeply matter, while still respecting other people as made in the image of God, treating them well, it won’t give them the kind of right perspective on politics, which is: Christ is coming back to make all things new. We get to participate in that making of all things new, but we don’t have the weight of the world on our shoulders to fix everything so we can engage with some freedom and creativity. There are all of these important theological resources the church has for thinking about our political life, but we are hearing all of these other messages. We’re being formed in all of these other ways. Just by existing in a political world, by the media we consume, by social media, by the internet, by showing up and voting, by interacting with people. I mean, even just if all of your political participation is you show up and vote, usually there’s people outside with flyers and there’s conversations you’ll get into. All of that—all the way up to someone who’s very politically involved, who shows up to rallies or goes to protests or calls their elected official—all of those things. are shaping us, not just in the emotions of that work. If you show up at a rally, you can feel what it is to feel like a whole community of people are experiencing an emotion together. Even football games or concerts give you this feeling. The person who’s putting this whole thing on, who’s orchestrating it, wants us to feel certain things. The music helps us feel that. The words they use help us feel that. So there [are] emotions we’re being shaped in, in our political participation, which is why every campaign ad, especially nowadays, is pretty dark and scary. They’re counting on the fact that your emotions can be manipulated to get you to do something, and fear is a very powerful emotion. And then there [are] stories that we’re being shaped in. So those campaign ads, they are not just giving you facts. We tend to think we’re just rational creatures, putting information in our brains, and then we pop out the right answer in the voting booth. Absolutely not. We’re learning stories about the world, about what’s ultimately wrong with the world, about what will fix it, about the role we get to play in it, about what a good human life looks like, what a good community looks like. And I think the challenging thing for many of us to reckon with is that the way we are formed in politics—those emotions, those stories—they don’t stay in a political box. They’re not just isolated to shaping how we vote. They shape everything. They shape how we treat our neighbors. They shape our theology. They shape our relationship to God and our community. And that’s why it both really matters for pastors, and I think for parents and teachers of kids, to say this isn’t just about, “Hey, let’s make sure we have some good ideas about politics so that when we go into the voting booth, we have those good ideas.” No, it’s politics is shaping us in the stories and the emotions. And if we’re not addressing those things, if we’re not having counter stories, if we’re not having other emotions formed in us, it will shape us negatively in ways that affect our whole lives, not just our politics.

I think that’s a great segue to asking about how, when we don’t check some of that rhetoric or symbolism or those narratives at the door of our hearts as grown-ups, how that absolutely trickles into the way that we then form our families. So, our formation, of course—parent, teacher—we know that our formation directly affects our children, and they imprint on the way that we are formed. The question is: How can we maybe check the way that those elements of rhetoric seek to form us, and what do we look for as our political formation really is affecting our families, our classroom? How have you seen it affecting families, the way that grownups engage? And what are some other thoughts that you have in that area?

I love—only in the last couple of years have I started doing more directly with kids, especially some older kids, high school students—but I love that sometimes the teachers or the parents I talk to will be like, “I don’t know if they’re really thinking much about politics yet.” And then I’ll just ask them questions. And it’s like, “Oh no, they totally are.” They’re picking up so many ideas from their parents, from their friends, from school, from social media. And I think the focus should often be for us this emotion and storytelling question of, “How are they learning to feel about the world, and what stories about the world are they consuming?”

Just recently, I was with a group of high school students at a Christian school, and I was struggling to figure out how to connect some of these ideas about politics to their lives. And so, I started out—it was a real gamble—I said, “Okay, why don’t a few of you tell me your favorite movie? Tell me about your favorite movie.” And I was kind of gambling on the idea, like hoping that the movies that they talked about would fit one of these stories that I think is really powerful in our political lives. And it totally did. Every single movie they talked about was some version of a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of story of like an underdog story, like someone who’s the skinny kid and is bullied in school, works out over the summer and becomes the quarterback of the football team. Or this person who’s nerdy and has no friends, they invent some amazing invention and become a millionaire. And it was helpful to go, “Okay, wow, look at these stories that we love. We find something about these stories exciting and attractive. And they’re a story about the world that says, ‘If you work hard and you’re a good person, you will get this kind of life.’ It’s a prosperity gospel story, actually. Whether it’s God promising these things, or the free market, or the universe, or whoever, it’s an idea that if you work hard and you’re a good person, you deserve a good, healthy, wealthy life.”

And it was really helpful to realize we are all being formed by these stories about what a common life that’s a good common life looks like. And so I think for people who are parents and teachers, part of it is first checking those emotions and stories for yourself. Being able to, as you consume different forms of media, ask good questions of yourself. I like to ask questions like: “What is this making me love, or fear, or hate? Who does this media present as my neighbor? And who does this present as someone to be feared or looked on with condescension? What kind of good life is presented here? What makes a good life?” Then, just checking in on how you feel when you’ve consumed media—especially, in my own life what it typically is, “Oh, I scrolled Instagram for an hour. What emotional need was I trying to get met by that? And did it work? No. What feelings did I have at the end of it?” All of this could sound like it’s not about politics. This is all about how we shape a common life together. And especially as you said, in an election year where a lot of the media we consume will be about politics, either about how to vote for this one important election, how to vote for other elections down the ballot, what issues to care about, all of this will be wrapped up in the media that we consume. So it’s partially a question for adults of, “Am I cognizant of these stories? Do I know how to ask the right questions to discern these stories and how they make me feel?” Because some of it’s not just rational. I mean, there are studies that have shown that if you’re shown a really scary thing on TV, even if you cognitively know that you’re not in danger, your body responds with the kinds of chemicals that say you are physically in danger. So being able to recognize how your emotions are being manipulated and the stories that are being given to you. Then helping kids in your life be able to discern them too. I mean, I have a very strong memory when I was pretty young of going and watching a movie with my parents. And I was so embarrassed at the time that they did this, but we got back in the car afterwards and they asked me and my sister, “What things about that did you notice; what stories did you hear?” And there were particular messages in that movie they were concerned about. But what I remember is that they asked us “What did you hear in this? How did this make you feel?” And it helped us begin to notice those things in a way that sometimes, if you’re just scrolling, if you’re just consuming, you don’t notice. And then all of a sudden, you’re way into it and you have believed a story and felt an emotion that is not forming you into a healthy person who can engage in your community well.

I love that you’re expanding that idea of being cognizant of the stories that media is telling us. We often think of that in the news and news literacy. I think a lot of us have been trained to look for bias and things like that, but especially these areas like entertainment or when you’re just scrolling on X or Instagram, those stories can start to seep into you without even noticing it. And you talk about some of these false stories or false gospels in the liturgy of politics. I believe you called out specifically four false gospels, “The Prosperity Gospel, The Patriotic Gospel, The Security Gospel, and The Gospel of White Supremacy.” And so I was wondering, as we’re facing a new election season already, it’s almost been four years since The Liturgy of Politics came out: Have you noticed any of these false gospels growing more pernicious or do any of them call for particular caution in this realm of educating kids and teens?

One would be what I already just said which is the prosperity gospel. I do think that it’s so formative and I think actually the fact that we think we know what it is makes it harder because you hear prosperity gospel, and you think, “Oh yeah, this guy who says that if I send him money, then I’ll have health, wealth, and prosperity.” Or we have a certain idea of the prosperity gospel that we can isolate and say, “That’s not me. I’m not those people.” But it’s true everywhere. This is the American ideal: You work hard and you’ll have a good life. The other one that actually is kind of implicit in the book, but I don’t name as a specific gospel, but I’ve become increasingly convinced in the years since it came out is really important, is what I’ve started calling “The Gospel of Individual Expression.” And there are versions of this on the right and the left. And sometimes, when I’m speaking at churches, I’ll start describing it in very vague terms, and I’ll watch people nod along, and I’ll think, “Oh, you think I’m talking about those other people. And really, I’m talking about you.” But it’s this idea that what’s most important in life, what makes a “good life,” is expressing myself, unburdened from the demands of other people—whether that’s moral traditions that have been handed down, “Let’s unburden ourselves from that.” Or it’s just the needs of my neighbors, “I shouldn’t have to care about anyone else but me. I want to get rid of that.” And it’s true in just our society at large, you can find this in a lot of movies and TV shows as well. The “ultimate good” in my life is being unburdened from my family, from my neighborhood, from tradition. But it’s especially pernicious, I think, in politics, because we have accepted this idea that our engagement in politics is a form of individual expression. When I vote, I’m not making an intervention in a complicated process that I didn’t choose with complicated people that I like some things about them and I don’t like others. No, I tend to think, “This is a statement of my identity and my community, of who I am and who I belong to.” If that’s what politics is, there’s no room for compromise. There’s no room for listening to people who disagree with me. There’s no room for saying, “Hey, this election for this office, I’m voting for this party because of this reason. But in a different area, different part of the ballot, different year, I vote a different way because this is what feels really important right now. Or this person is different, even though they’re in the same party.” There’s no room for any of that because it’s a completely unvarnished expression of myself, and that’s what worries me. I mean, I was just telling someone this morning, a good illustration of this is if you see protesters and you don’t see where they’re protesting, or you don’t see what they’re responding to, but you see signs that say, “My body, my choice!” you really can’t tell if that’s on the right or the left. It really could be about so many different things. But the idea underneath all of that—and maybe the thing they’re protesting could be a good thing; this is what’s so hard about these stories, like the policy that it’s attached to could be the right policy to support or the right policy to oppose—but the story underneath it, that “I’m an isolated individual that shouldn’t have to deal with the demands of anyone else,” is not a Christian story. And so, for us to be able to identify that in politics, across the spectrum, from people that we say, “I really like some things you say or I want to support you or I want to agree with you on this policy, but I have to be able to articulate for me, for my children, for my community that the story you’re using to sell yourself as a politician or this policy you want us to support is not a story that is good, and I don’t want to believe it just for this policy because it’ll affect the rest of my life too.”

I’m thankful for the way that you’ve already told us that the route that you took to politics went through your love of scripture and ministry. And the narrative of scripture really flies in the face of those false gospels. My mom and I were speaking this morning about just how necessary it is for us to continue to do the work of biblical literacy in our discipleship efforts with our children. And what happens when we explore that richest of narratives is that it really supplies that corrective, obviously to each of those gospels, but perhaps the most pernicious one that you’ve mentioned today, that individualism. What a rich work of literature in terms of the representation of a group of people who really did not look at the world through those individualistic frames! It was a much more corporate type of culture. And so there’s a way that even that’s shown through the literature, not just a telling. And so, what a beautiful thing to immerse ourselves in. So, I’m thankful that a part of the richness that you bring to this conversation is immersion in this lovely work that was given to us, the Lord’s word. And your newest book this year is called The Ballot and the Bible, and it’s about the way that scripture has been used and abused within American politics. And I want to ask, how do you bring this to the discipleship level? How would you encourage those who are striving for biblical literacy in the home as it helps to shape our understanding of this world? What do we do in order to have an appropriate handling of scripture in our conversations on politics and everything else with our children?

I think most of us have learned a certain way of engaging with scripture in general, but especially when it comes to politics, which is, I mean, even just in general, we’ve kind of been taught that one of the ways we engage scripture is just like a daily dose. And I love morning quiet time. I spend time in scripture every day, but sometimes what we can learn is basically, “I need my vitamin. I’ll read a few verses and then I’ll go on with my day.” And the same is true with politics. We have this tendency to say, “Okay, I will come to the text with my political questions. So, I want to know if I should support this policy or oppose this policy. I’ll go to the concordance in the back and I’ll just find all the verses that deal with this issue. And then I’ll read all of them and then that’ll tell me what to do.” And it goes back to: We still have this idea that we are primarily thinking creatures that just take in information as the philosopher James K. Smith says, “brains on a stick.” We just take in information and then we pop it back out with answers. And that’s not true. It’s not true of our lives and it’s not true of how we read scripture. And I think that model is going to lead us in some not great directions. We’re going to end up really both using scripture as a tool for politics we already believed, and we’re going to miss some of what you were just saying of this transformative story that surprises us and confuses us. There are times we think we know what’s going on and then there’s a turn and we’re just totally taken off guard, and we won’t get that if we’re just looking up isolated verses to support whatever policy we’re interested in thinking about. What I’ll often tell individuals and pastors is: The first thing is we read the Bible. We read it more often. We read it in longer chunks. It was transformative for me in seminary when I was forced to read in longer chunks, because it would be like, okay, you’ve got to read Leviticus by tomorrow. Well, I’ve never actually in my life sat down and just read a book of the Bible like it’s a book, you just sit down and read many books, right? I’ve been taught you do it in little chunks and you pray before and after. And I do think for our political life, this should be a really important formative practice for us to say: We read scripture in longer chunks. We read it the way that we read other stories. We’re looking for who are the important characters and what does the message at this end point seem to be? And, and we’re reading it in community with other people. I love reading scripture with kids. A huge chunk of my life is just teaching the Bible to kids in my church every Sunday and the curriculum we use and the way that we teach the Bible always ends with questions. So I ask questions, they ask questions, and they ask things that surprise me and confuse me and I’m like, “Oh my goodness, I haven’t read that story that way before.” And so it’s helpful both to say we’re reading big chunks, we’re asking questions together with people who will ask different questions than I would ask. And then we’re going to start out with the assumption, every single time we open the text, that this will say something both to me spiritually, individually, and to our common life together. We’re not splitting it up and saying, okay, this passage speaks to my inner spiritual life, but this other passage about how Israel functions economically, that’s obviously about politics. But this other part, that’s just about me spiritually. No, it all says something about both my spiritual life and our common life together because, like you said Kelsey, the whole book assumes a communal life. It doesn’t assume this is for an individual written to an individual. So, I think that’s a really important part of it is to both model asking questions, and model assuming that this will say something that’s to more than just me. And it gets tricky. You then get into all of these questions of: There are these instructions for how Israel will function, and how they will build a common life together, does that have a one-to-one correspondence to how my modern nation functions Not quite, but it says something about how a common life should be built.

And then, especially for churches and families, there’s this incredible opportunity to say, “On one level, I’m assuming this passage will say something that should shape how I vote or how I call an elected official or how I show up to a city council meeting. But even if there’s not an option on the ballot for me to vote for this thing I’ve learned in scripture, there’s always a way for me to live that out in my community. And if politics is more than just my vote, there [are] opportunities for me to live this out. For example, there was a whole bunch of conversation recently about the Jubilee, this practice in the Old Testament of, at a regular period of 50 years, all of the debts being forgiven and the land going back to the people who’d had it before. And there was a whole conversation about student loan forgiveness of: Does the Jubilee require student loan forgiveness? That’s an interesting question that we could talk about. But what I kept thinking was, “Okay, I want to vote with this idea in mind that in scripture, God knows human communities have a tendency to hoard wealth in certain places and to not care for the vulnerable. And so, we need regular mechanisms—it might be this one, it might be, in our nation, a different mechanism—but we need mechanisms for restoring some balance to that community. I don’t always get to vote with that in mind. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I can vote for people that believe that’s true. Sometimes I can vote for people that will push for policies that help do that. Sometimes I can’t. But what does it look like for me, who lives in a community with great poverty but also great wealth, to use the resources I have been given in a way that exhibits this practice, this idea that actually, human communities go wrong in these kinds of ways, and people need to do something to stop them from being really exploitative of especially vulnerable, impoverished people. I can’t fix everything politically, but I can respond communally to this truth that I have learned in scripture. So I think that’s a big part of it too, is practicing, “If this isn’t always just exclusively about my inner spiritual life, that should shape policies. That should shape how I vote and how I engage politically. It also should shape how I treat my neighbor, how I show up in my community.” And that’s something, especially with kids. I was just talking this morning with someone who works for a crisis pregnancy center and was distraught over some of the people in her children’s community, their classmates at school, some of the people in their youth group: Do they care about some of the things that she thinks Christians really need to care about politically? And well, on some level, it seems like, they’re not voting. They can’t, you know, what does that matter to her? It was, “Are we just oriented towards our community with these kinds of values, with this understanding of what God desires for human communities?” Because that can shape big national stuff, and it can trickle all the way down to shaping the interactions I have with my literal next-door neighbors who are Muslim immigrants, and we disagree on really important things about the world. But how have I been shaped by scripture, not just in my inner spiritual life, but in the way that I interact with them and in the way that we interact in our larger community together?

We could have potentially had all the same seminary professors. I just really appreciate the repetition of these understandings that are drawn more and more out in that theological education right now that is seeking to equip. It’s not meant to just be in those ivory towers, those inflated heads on sticks. It is intended to go deep down into our hearts, hearts saturated by this most beautiful of records that was given to us that we might know God, His character, His nature, His work done on our behalf, our need for it, the way that that works out, not merely in our own individual need, but into all of the lives across the entire globe, our most local community first, our neighbors, but all the way out to the ends of the Earth. That this is the scope that is given to us as those who are in Christ. And so, for you to orient that as, “This is the political life of the believer,”—that’s very, very helpful to our understanding. And so just thankful for the way that you say the scripture is relevant to our understanding. It shapes us. It was not originally written to us as the first audience for it. But it is still very much for us and gives us those categories we need for healthy, responsible, beautiful, Christ-like living in this world. So I’m just thankful for that richness.

Well, and I love that you’re calling us to a form of political engagement that requires us to wrestle. It can be very easy to do that thing you were mentioning: You go to the concordance, you find the verses that you believe apply, and then you can just check off something in a voting booth, and “I’ve had my political engagement.” Rooting ourselves in the story of scripture and how it really wants to shape our hearts, that requires us to wrestle, which makes us grow. And it also requires us to really know our neighbors. It drives us to get out of ourselves and to view both community and our interaction with scripture as something more than just a consumeristic process, more than just a checking the box or treating it as a sort of shopping list, so to speak. So, since it is now a new election season and we’re entering this season with all this heightened rhetoric, the scary political ads, all these stories you’ve been talking about, what would you identify as some of the spiritual formation risks (if that’s an okay term to use) that American families might be facing in an election season?

Other than what we’ve already talked about, I think one concern I have, especially for Christians who have become more recently aware of this problem, of the fact that politics malforms us in many ways. My concern would be that we would hunker down, that we would just say, “Let’s disengage from our communities. We don’t need to vote. We don’t need to show up for city council meetings, but we also maybe need to isolate from our neighbors. They put a yard sign out that says some stuff we disagree with. So maybe we don’t engage so much with them. The kids don’t play outside as much.” I understand the impulse to hunker down. And actually, it’s one of the places that I think we miss often in scripture, both what we’ve already talked about, this, like, orientation of the people of God outwards towards their communities. I always like to say, this is the first conversation God has with Abraham. The beginning of the people of God is, “I will bless you; I will make you a nation. And you will be a blessing to the nations.” It’s always this outward orientation. But then you also have, I think we miss one of the passages in scripture that I get asked about a ton. Because it’s our favorite political passage: Romans 13, which starts, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” Everyone loves to pull that out. We love to pull it out when we like what’s happening politically. And we don’t pull it out when we don’t like what’s happening politically. But what I think we miss in that passage—because it is turned into just like a cherry-picked bomb that we can throw at people when we want to disagree with them politically—is that actually, I think what Paul is doing there is addressing this kind of impulse, this new people of God that are not defined anymore by a nation, by an ethnicity, who are trying to figure out who they are. And how do they relate then to these government authorities that they’re under if they’re not going to be a nation anymore that’s ruled by themselves? If they’re going to live under all these other authorities, how do we relate to them? And probably (we’re not exactly sure how much persecution was happening at the time Paul wrote Romans) but probably scared, probably concerned, either that they will be facing the idolatry of their neighbors, and they’ll be tempted towards it, or that they will face persecution. They will literally be harmed by people in their communities. So they have every reason to want to look inward to just, like, hunker down. “Let’s keep ourselves. Okay, let’s pool our resources together. Let’s meet in this house, and let’s not really care about what’s happening outside.” And the instructions Paul gives them—someone who has had very negative experiences with the government; this is someone who is imprisoned for sharing the gospel. He’s not rosy about all human government, but he does say to them “No, actually, you are oriented outwards. You engage with the larger political community that you are a part of.” The instructions that he gives there, partially, that are so confusing are, “Do good and you will be rewarded.” And we’re like, “Paul, you were not rewarded for doing good. That’s crazy.” A lot of scholars think he’s using technical language there to say, “Hey, in a community in which we have this practice where wealthy people give on behalf of the larger community and they’re praised for it.” We act like this is an ancient practice. We have this too: Someone gives a check, a giant check on a stage. They’re getting praise for giving a bunch of money to something or they get a building named after them. He’s saying: Do that. Not just for yourselves inwardly, but do it for the larger community outside of yourself. The end of that passage in Romans is, “For those that deserve honor, give honor, respect, respect.” Basically: Engage in this larger political community that you’re a part of, even though it’s scary. Even though it does risk something for you. There are temptations towards idolatry. There are possibilities people will misunderstand you and mistreat you. This is why in the chapter before, in Romans 12, he’s talking about not seeking revenge, but leaving wrath up to God. He knows people will misunderstand and mistreat them, and doesn’t say, “Hunker down, pool your resources.” But, “Seek the good of your community outside of yourself.” And I think that’s a word that a lot of Christians today in general, but I’m imagining especially people who are worried about their kids: It’s very reasonable for you to be worried about how politics malforms you and malforms your children. And I think the call for the people of God is to say, “We are oriented outwards. We’re not hunkering down and isolating ourselves. But we have resources for offering another story, for forming other emotions. We’re not just helpless towards all of this. We have an incredible story in the gospel that we can immerse ourselves in through scripture. We have regular practices and habits. In The Liturgy of Politics, I talk about communion and baptism. We have spiritual disciplines that can help us be the kind of people who can engage in this well without losing our souls along the way. But I don’t think either of the two options we’ve often been presented are the right one, which is either hunker down and ignore politics or go in really confident—think, “We’re going to change the world and it won’t affect us at all.” It will, but we have resources for making sure that it doesn’t harm our souls.

You took the wind from my sails with this next question. But I’m just going to highlight that you definitely spoke to both sides of the coin. You talked about the dangers, but you also said, even amidst the very real dangers of malformation are the opportunities. There are things that we have the privilege of doing to shape our families towards this outward movement of the gospel into our nation, into the ends of the Earth. This is an opportunity rather than something that should send us scurrying into our holes. We have the power of the Spirit in us. And so, I do want to give you the opportunity if there’s anything else you’d like to add to this question of how can families use election season to continue positive formation and even missional expression?

You know, we spend a lot of time worrying about the media and the national political dysfunction, and that’s understandable. But if we are going to hold this tension of, “We engage, but we do it in this other way,” one of the ways I think we do that, especially in families, is we do show up to something very local politically, whether it’s a meeting, whether it’s volunteering in a community center. Giving your kids an embodied experience, that politics is about people. And we care about politics because we care about people, not because we care about, like Jonathan said, just like gaming the system or getting some abstract benefit or showing people we’re the right kind of people who vote the right kind of way. No, we care about politics because we care about people made in God’s image. And there are ways that our national political involvement, the way we talk about candidates, the way that we talk about the messages we’re hearing, that’s all about people too. But it’s pretty abstract at that big national level. So, let’s root our political engagement in—you know, in my community I love. I walk across the street to a church to vote. And I often run into on election day, the people that will be on the ballot, some of them are standing outside, and I can talk to them. That’s a very normal part of political engagement that is very local. There are meetings in my city for people who will be on the ballot in very local offices, to show up and talk about what they care about. Those are appropriate places for kids, actually. I mean, often when I go, there’s people from my church and I have a toddler in my arms that’s not even mine, you know? But for us to say, like, if this is the vision of politics that kids grow up with, that’s very different. It can still go really wrong. We can still learn all these wrong messages. But it’s very different to have politics be focused on my actual community and these actual people than it is for most of their exposure to politics to be angry, abstract, disconnected from people. I think those feed each other. If we’re in our communities, if we’re learning about local politics, that gives us some language then for when they come home from school and they’re like, “So and so said this about this big national issue; so and so said this other thing,” and you’re like, “Hey, remember when we showed up at that crisis pregnancy center?”

That’s what really matters here are these people we’ve interacted with. Or this abstract issue that you watched an ad about, “Hey, remember, there’s someone in our church that actually is really involved in that. You remember so and so?” It grounds it in a way that I think can be really healthy to help us have this balance of we’re not so invested in politics that we lose our sense of identity in Christ, but also, we’re involved in politics because we love our neighbors.

Thanks, Kaitlyn. That’s so encouraging. So appreciate you being able to be here on the podcast today, and just this knowledge you bring of the theological side of these questions, and also your passion for teaching kids. Again, that Curiously, Kaitlyn podcast, answering theological questions from kids, that’s such a great thing. And I also have a daughter who’s similar in age to Kelsey’s daughter, and I’m excited to engage in that podcast with her. So, before we wrap up. Kaitlyn, how can people find you?

I’m so far still on social media, on Instagram and X. We’ll see how long that lasts.

I relate to that sentiment.

You can also go to KaitlynSchiess.com and I actually have on there information about lots of things, but also have some prayers and spiritual practices for an election season that are free pdf downloads. If you’re looking for something to kind of have a different approach to politics this year, that’s, I think, a good place to start.

That’s fantastic.

And we’ll make sure all of that is in the show notes so that you can find her easily. We’re so thankful for the richness of this conversation, the encouragement it’s brought to us, and I hope for our listeners. To bring a final word of encouragement for today, the passage I’ve chosen as our anchor is Philippians 2:1-5:

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus...”

He has given us the mind, the model, and even the might of Christ at work in our lives to love and to serve. And He has equipped you for the work.


Show Notes

It’s a presidential election year in the United States. What discipleship pitfalls might election season bring–and what opportunities does it present? We’re joined by author Kaitlyn Schiess to explore whole-person politics.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study. Sign up for the News Coach Newsletter at gwnews.com/newsletters.

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

Further Resources:

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

Today’s episode is sponsored by Sam Allberry’s God’s Go-Togethers.

Author Sam Allberry has a new book for kids called God’s Go-Togethers. This colorful book features siblings Lila and Ethan as they visit the beach and discover that God not only made the sand and sea to go together, but He made men and women to go together, too. God’s Go-Togethers offers a thoughtful look at the biblical design for people and provides a helpful foundation for explaining why God made men and women as a special pair to complement each other in marriage and beyond. Learn more at GodsGoTogethers.com.

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