Purple People: Unity in the Divisive Age of Red and Blue


After reflecting on the role of the church in secular society, a student of mine proposed a new website that would refuse to be drawn into the two political camps that dominate in our democracysometimes identified by the colors red and blue. He wanted to call it “purple politics,” and though the site wouldn’t say anything about being overtly Christian, it would discuss issues and policy from a Christian perspective. It would direct people to various news sources, so that voters would be better informed about a spectrum of views. He quite rightly recognized what many evangelical Christians are rediscovering: we need to pursue justice and peace, but we cannot be too closely linked to the secular organizations or their politics without losing something of our soul. Evangelicals have been used by the right, as (Republican) David Kuo’s recent book on his sojourn in the White House so poignantly reveals; we have been ignored or mocked by the left, as (Democrat) Jim Wallis has observed.1

On one level, the church can disengage, bow out of the democratic process and secular government, claiming (quite rightly) that the world’s ways are not our ways and that earthly powers are subject to corruption. This is not our home; we are always exiles, awaiting the return of our true King. Such an approach has a strong and long history in my adopted denominational tradition, the Mennonites, but finds echoes in many other traditions. Alone, however, this emphasis remains unsatisfactory to many, including many Anabaptists. God provides secular systems like government for the ordering of our common life so that humanity might flourish (as is the emphasis of my denomination by birth, the Catholic Church).

In order to be faithful to her King and to her neighbors, the church must acknowledge both of these truths: First, secular politics is corrupt, corrupting, and penultimate; our primary loyalty is to kingdom of God and therefore we should never be surprised by the evil done by governments or by the powerful. This first truth is the one that sets us free to embrace the second: We are commanded to serve this world because we know it will one day reflect the fullness of God’s reign. Such service includes careful discernment of policies and legislation that profoundly affect the quality of peoples’ lives; by doing so, we obey God’s call to “seek the welfare [shalom] of the city” (Jer. 29:7).


Once this stance toward the secular realm is established, we can move to a second set of guidelines for becoming “purple people”: the body of Christ as the model for politics as unusual, i.e., politics as the humble pursuit of God’s wisdom.

“It is hard to imagine a more important role for the church than that of thoughtful, prayerful, and reflective engagement”

Given our current secular political climate, it is hard to imagine a more important role for the church than that of thoughtful, prayerful, and reflective engagement on policies in a way that underscores our interdependence. Paul spends a great deal of time in the New Testament discussing unity and practicing discernment, even as (or perhaps because) his ministry was marked by the deeply divisive and emotional negotiation of the inclusion of Gentile believers. I think we evangelicals are loathe to discuss unity too much, because we think that it implies a retreat or withdrawal from our convictions, resulting in a milquetoast Christianity characterized by compromise. But Paul doesn’t think so; while accused of many things, he’s seldom characterized as wishy-washy. We hear echoes of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in his first letter to the Corinthians.

In it, Paul lays out the basis of our interdependence in his description of the body in chapter 12 as an organic whole, arguing that the most vulnerable and weak are not only equals but worthy of “greater honor.” Amazingly, he claims, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:7). The extremity of his inclusion gives us pausesurely he doesn’t mean each person, for we all know people in church whom we are hard-pressed to acknowledge as having a positive contribution. Yet for Paul, as for Christ, our willingness to recognize our need for one another points to the One who called us together. He goes further in 1 Corinthians 14, discussing how to keep order and listen to the Spirit so that radical inclusivity doesn’t promote chaos or ineffectiveness.

But how can we be “one,” when we clearly disagree about matters close to our hearts and of tremendous moral consequence?

Here is an example of the seriousness of the problem: I am a member of a peace tradition that interprets the cross as prohibiting violence as a means of pursuing justice. Nonviolent resistance to evil is at the center of my faith in Jesusa non-negotiable for me and for my community of faith. How, then, can I possibly teach at Fuller, which does not share, as a whole, my convictions about this? We disagree about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we argue about the role of military chaplains. Pacifists remain in the minority.

Nevertheless, at its best, Fuller offers a microcosm of Paul’s wisdom of our need to listen humbly to one another despite our differences and to work across them for the common good. Despite my convictions, I must listen to the doubts of brothers and sisters about the wisdom of my pacifism. I have a dear friend here who is a military chaplain; by his friendship and his ministry, he checks my temptation to caricature and reminds me to pray for those with whom I disagree. He alsoalong with my students, colleagues, and readings of other Christian ethicistsreminds me that I am capable of being wrong. Likewise, I trust my presence influences others toward a more humble holding of their beliefs.

If we practice discernment tempered by an acknowledgment of our need for one another, we should never sit smugly in an intellectual and theological bubble. This is why Paul speaks in Corinthians about the role of the Spirit in discerning wisdom within the body: rather than relying on unchanging rules for righteous living, we must rely on the Spirit who dwells among us in our present age and guides us in our participation with Christ for the healing of the world.


How do these discussionsa view of worldly politics on one hand and the practice of Christian politics on the otheraffect us in pragmatic ways in election season? Being purple people in a red/blue world prevents us from being distracted from our core identity. We might attach ourselves to the red or blue as a matter of strategy (one might argue that their party embodies more compassionate or wise policies as we understand them), but we cannot be fooled into thinking that the agenda of the Democratic or Republican party is somehow God’s. That is, bluntly, idolatry. We will always find ourselves at odds with persons within a party over something or other. For example, although I have marched beside so-called liberals against the recent wars, some of their views of abortion I find simplistic, foolish, or violent. This is an opportunity for evangelism and engagement, but it’s also tempting to be less than truthful about my faith and its implications because I want acceptance or power.

What about Paul’s radical body politics2, the willingness to listen to one another with respectful, expectant openness? Here is another example: In the circles in which I move, “big business” or “corporations” can become shorthand for evil capitalism run amokthe enemy. Yet I have had discussions with executives who struggle with their Christian commitments amidst the pursuit of biotechnical innovation. They develop drugs and therapies that help keep many of us aliveand able to protest corporate greed.

These Christian friends (with their gifts for business, money, technology, etc.) must willingly link their lives with my other friends (with their gifts of critical reflection, idealism, experience with the poor, etc.). How can we do so? By pursuing rather ordinary Christian politicssharing our lives in small groups, pursuing missions here and abroad, singing God’s praises, studying Scripture, praying for one another in times of joy and distress, eating together, arguing over legislation, and doing the myriad things we Christians are meant to do. Boundaries between “us” and “them” thus blur, or perhaps they merely re-form as we recognize that our shared calling makes us family, and other affiliations are relativized by our bond in Christ. We become “new creation” that is unexpectedly imaginativemoving beyond party politics to possibilities that come from the hard labor of communal problem-solving.3

Secular politics and body politics always overlap for us. We seek the good of the city by discerning what policies encourage human flourishing. Simultaneously, we say to a world increasingly bereft of humility and mutual understanding that there is an alternative way of life and an everlasting reign, glimpsed through a community guided by the Spirit of the Living God. Our witness is not primarily about being “right” or persuading others about how they should vote. Rather, as we pursue wisdom through the vulnerable process of communal discernment, argue over the best ways to seek shalom, and labor together in mission, we recall that we are ever-dependent on God, who alone is truly wise. By working out our salvation together, we testify to the truth of deeper politics, that of the kingdom of heaven.

If this seems unworkable or impossibly idealistic, recall the era of the Civil War, when differences were more divisive than the red/blue divide of today. Lincoln instinctively understood Paul’s teaching that unity is only possible if we take differences seriously enough to discuss and argue them. He also recognized that he needed the best of those who disagreed withand even disrespectedhim, both to check his own views and to sharpen them. So, contrary to most persons’ (and churches’) sensibilities, Lincoln included in his cabinet men who ran against him for the presidency. In addition, his administration contained men of varying views on slavery. Lincoln’s White House was a jumble of personalities and perspectives. Like an extraordinary coach, he unexpectedly nurtured a “team of rivals” who worked for an interest greater than their own rather substantial egos.

Similarly, as we tackle issues in our own dayeconomic inequity, sexuality, violence, sustainable development, or health carewe must risk working with those with whom we disagree, be it in secular organizations or in cell groups at church. Much rivalry today is for the thrill of shrill confrontation, and it is easy work. We must instead imitate Lincoln who imitated Paul, recognizing that we need to toil alongside those who were or are our adversaries. He risked his effectiveness and place in history by inexorably linking his presidency to unlikely co-laborers. And although they occasionally balked, Lincoln’s rivals accepted his challenge.

In Christ, we are bound one to another, even to those whose views diverge from our own. Unlike others who might pursue secular politics as an end in itself or as a way of assuring their significance, we are already assured of our destiny because God has secured it by Christ’s work; complete shalom will one day come. Such knowledge frees us to address difficult issues in the present with humility, trusting that by God’s grace, good will come of our desire to be faithful to God and to neighbor. In a red and blue world, we testify to the freedom of the gospel by our character, practicing the politics of humble discernment and of shared mission. Even out of our rivalries, Christ can create both a church and a society that embody more closely the coming kingdom of God.

1. David Kuo’s book is Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (Basic Books, 2006), and Jim Wallis’s book is God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Harper, 2005).
2. See John Howard Yoder’s text, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before a Watching World (Herald Press, 1992), for a careful theological argument for what I am advocating.
3. See 2 Cor. 5:17. Richard Hays maintains that translations often obscure that the emphasis is not on individuals, but on new creation more broadly, as in a new community, a new people, or even a new world because of Christ.
+ This essay first appeared in Fuller Seminary’s Theology News & Notes, Spring 2008 — Vol. 55, No. 2