Missionaries and Political Neutrality
A couple days ago, a missionary friend called me up and asked, “What do you think about all this stuff with the red shirts in Bangkok?” He was referring to the conflict between red-shirted protestors and the Thai government that has turned downtown Bangkok into a virtual battlefield. Since he is a good friend and fellow missionary, I gave him my full unedited opinion of the situation. However, that was a private conversation, not a public announcement. I tend to be cautious and try to maintain a position of neutrality when I talk with Thai neighbors and speak with people at church. Although I have some strong opinions, there are reasons why it is usually better not to voice them or to get involved in the political scene here. In general, missionaries are well advised to stay out of local politics in the countries where they are serving. Here’s three reasons why:
1) It’s Not My Country
I am in Thailand as a guest. I must receive permission to stay in the country and I do not have the right to vote. Thai political issues must be decided by the Thai themselves and it is not my business to tell them how to decide their own issues. Simply put, it is not my place to be telling the Thai how to run their country or who they should vote for.
2) Don't Know Enough
Thai politics is huge tangled ball of yarn that I am only beginning to sort out. The issues run deep and historical, cultural, and religious factors come into play. At this point my Thai language ability is good enough that, for the most part, I can track with the news on the TV or radio, but that doesn’t mean that I have an accurate grasp on what is really going on. I’ll pick up the Thai newspapers sometimes and read the stories but, unlike many English language papers, Thai papers often don’t give summary background information in the articles so I don’t always know who the article is talking about or what their importance is. It is kind of like coming into the middle of a long running soap opera and having to catch up on the story line as you go. I have been learning bits and pieces of Thai politics for several years now. I know enough to have some opinions and talk with close friends but not enough to make any learned proclamations as to what should be done.
3) Avoid Putting Words in God’s Mouth
If a pastor in his own country expresses a strong political opinion from the pulpit, it can easily be perceived by many as the official position of the church (whether it actually is or not). On most political issues, churches shouldn’t even have official opinions because it is not the job of the church to govern the country. That’s the government’s job and it is fully appropriate for individual Christian believers to be involved in politics, as they are citizens of the country as much as anyone else. While it is certainly appropriate for pastors to teach what the Bible says on moral issues (like prostitution, for example), it is inappropriate for him to offer his political opinion as God’s opinion when the Bible doesn’t say anything one way or another (such as many economic issues). Otherwise, he will be foolishly creating division and dissension where there need not be any.
Missionaries are in a similar situation. As ministers of the Gospel, we need to be sure that we are not presenting as Scripture more than Scripture really says. I fully believe that both pastors and missionaries should teach what the Bible teaches about the relationship of the Christian believer to the government (Romans 13, for example) and provide principles for political involvement. It is very appropriate for a pastor or missionary to help a believer think through the Scriptural principles and real world ramifications of their political involvement, especially if there is the possibility of physical harm or illegality involved. Some forms of law breaking may arguably be appropriate at certain times (peaceful civil disobedience during the civil rights movement, or having a sit-in at an abortion clinic come to mind). Other acts of law breaking (such as firing a rocket propelled grenade into your local government office) bear closer scrutiny and any Christian who is considering engaging in such acts should be challenged to justify his actions according to Scripture.
A full discourse on Christians and government is beyond the scope of this post, but let me conclude by saying that political neutrality doesn’t mean that missionaries don’t say anything about politics. Rather, it means that they publicly avoid taking sides for the sake of avoiding giving people the impression that God supports any particular party or candidate. For the missionary living abroad, it is helpful to avoid the perception that you are sticking your nose in other people’s business, where it doesn’t belong. To take sides in local political issues runs the risk of alienating people unnecessarily and compromising the message that you’ve come to bring. The missionary’s job is to bring the message of the Bible to people, help them understand what it says, and what it is that God requires of them. Maintaing political neutrality helps keep the main thing, the main thing. And the main thing is the Gospel.