20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” A portion of Jesus prayer in John 17
For several years I have taught theology and leadership courses at International Leadership University in Burundi, Africa. Burundi is right next to Rwanda and is made up of the same Hutu and Tutsi tribes. The Rwandan Genocide was made infamous in America and Europe by the motion picture, Hotel Rwanda. The same thing was happening in Burundi at that time and in fact lasted much longer. It is estimated the in the mid 90s, close to 300,000 Burundians were killed in the violence that divided the country. The population at the time was about 7 million people. To give you a sense of the impact this had on the country, from a percentage of the population standpoint it is the same as if 16 million Americans were killed in just a few years of political and racial violence.
A few years ago I was teaching a class on leadership to 40 officers in the Burundian Army. They were several months away from a potentially divisive presidential election that could easily open old wounds and renew the bloodshed. I asked them to consider this question, To whom or what is their highest allegiance? Are they first a member of their tribe or of Burundi? Are they first a citizen of Burundi or a member of the Army? Are the first a follower of Christ or a follower of a political or tribal leader? This was a serious and difficult question for them. They knew that there was a high potential that they could be forced to make life and death decisions that depended on their answers.
When I see what is happening in the church in the current presidential election I have thought back many times to what I saw happening in Burundi. It was not only officers in the Army that I asked those questions, but also to more than 150 pastors who we trained in church planting. You see when the political clashes erupted into violence, the church was caught up in it. People who claimed to be followers of Christ, turned against their neighbors who were of the other tribe. In some cases, pastors turned against people in their own flocks. Countless numbers died because of that kind of tribalism that superseded unity in Christ.
Now before you dismiss this by saying, that’s Africa. This is America. Can’t happen in a “civilized, western, enlightened culture”. Let me remind you of Germany and Italy in the 1930’s. The atrocities of the Holocaust were born out of the cultures that gave us Mozart and Michelangelo. Human depravity is not limited by cultural boundaries. But let’s step back from the edge a bit. I don’t for a minute think America will erupt into a genocide over this presidential election. But what I do think can, and may already have happened, is that followers of Christ will abandon the oneness Jesus calls for in his prayer in favor of political tribalism in which we vilify people who support the other candidate.
I have already seen it from both sides of the aisle. People supporting one candidate question whether you can really be a Christian and support the other candidate. It doesn’t matter if it is the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green, or any other candidate. All sides seem to be raising who you vote for as one of the marks of being a true Christ follower. I have read the Bible from cover to cover numerous times. I have never found any verse, or group of verses, that even taken out of context and twisted, could possibly be used to justify who you vote for as a measure of your salvation.
What Jesus prays for is that all His followers would be united and one as He and the Father are united and one. What does that unity look like? Is it political, social, economic? No! It is a unity of love for one another, no matter what. That’s what Jesus is talking about at the end of the passage. Father, let the world see your love for them and me and our love for one another. That doesn’t mean agreeing on everything. That means honoring, serving, caring for, respecting one another, and even humbly admitting that the other person may have a point or two. That is what unity looks like. Jesus does not pray for uniformity in which we are all looking, talking, acting, and voting alike. He is praying that we love one another, even in the midst of our differences.
What concerns Jesus deeply in this prayer is that if His followers do not show that kind of love and unity then the world will never really believe us. If the world never believes us then it will never believe in Jesus and never believe that the Father sent Him into the world as the Savior. They will never believe that Jesus and the Father are one because we are not one. The very message of Jesus and the heart of the Gospel is at stake.
It’s not about who you vote for. That is actually of little concern to God by comparison. Yes you read that right. God has very little concern about who you vote for. If He did then Jesus would have made that the focus of His prayer. By the way He prayed this as He was only hours away from His death on a Cross so that should tell you something of the importance He placed on this. What Jesus prayed about was not who we vote for but how we behaved towards one another. That’s what He cares about. He cares that we are one in our love for one another, no matter what. We can discuss, disagree, argue, and do so passionately. But we must do so in the knowledge that at the core of it all followers of Christ share the indwelling of One Holy Spirit and are One in Christ. We also share being sinners saved by grace and not by works, political affiliation, how we vote, or our stance on immigration, taxes, or any other political issue.
Do you think this is the first time an election has been so heated and divisive? If your answer is yes then I know you slept during American History class. It may be the most divisive in our memory, but in the history of our country this is not unique. The election of 1860 ended up resulting in a Civil War and there was nothing Civil about the campaign leading up to that election. My point being, God is bigger than the election. Presidents come and go, every four or eight years. And the country keeps on. God is still sovereign. What He cares about is that in the midst of such vitriol and divisiveness, His people would be One, united in Christ, loving one another, loving God with all we have an all we are, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.