This is a question I’ve received more times than I can count, especially since I recently decided to run for ASUC Senate at UC Berkeley.
“Shouldn’t Christians pursue more ‘important’ aspirations, like missions, prayer, or family?”
“Isn’t politics too corrupt and dark for Christians to engage in?”
“Aren’t you afraid of being sucked into the world’s values and compromising your purity?”
“Jesus didn’t bother with politics; he focused on his ministry and spiritual teachings.”
“How do you expect to reconcile your faith in a ‘secular’ arena like politics?”
All these, and many more, are thought-provoking questions that I’ve long grappled with, talked about, and prayed over. Even back in middle school, I often received surprised expressions and well-meaning criticisms warning “a honest, Christian girl” like me not to dabble in such “secular professions.” But where exactly does this “sacred vs. secular” divide originate from?
I. A Look At Plato’s Dualism
If you recall anything from reading Plato’s Republic in high school, you may recall his his theory of Forms, which essentially taught that non-physical “forms” (abstract parallels of material objects) embody the most authentic reality. Physical pursuits and possessions embody a lesser reality, since these have no lasting value. Later Christians — including Saint Justin Martyr and Augustine — incorporated Plato’s philosophy of dualism into Christianity. Life, they taught, could be compared to a circle, divided into two halves. The upper half represents the “sacred” realm, and includes activities like prayer, studying theology, evangelizing, singing hymns, and so forth. The lower half represents the “secular” realm, and includes all other activities that are not directly religious in nature, such as studying, cooking, working at a law firm, weeding a garden, and so forth. (For further reading, see Assumptions that Affect Our Lives by Dr. Christian Overman.)
Over the centuries, Plato’s dualistic framework has subconsciously seeped into church mindsets and theology. Please don’t misunderstand me — I absolutely believe that “sacred” pursuits and extremely necessary and worthwhile for every believer, regardless of profession. I also believe and fully support my brothers and sisters who are called to be Christian ministers, missionaries, or even monks/nuns. Because of the church’s dualistic mindset, however, have we inherently categorized certain activities and professions as “holier” than others? Have we limited the church’s full support of Christians in “secular” fields, diminishing their calling as ambassadors in “secular” spheres of society? In our personal lives, have we compartmentalized our lives into “sacred” and “secular” activities?
II. A New Way of Thinking
Rather than adhering to Plato’s dualism, let me propose a new framework. Dr. Bill Bjoraker, Associate Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies at William Carey University, writes that the Hebrew word avodah means both “work” and “worship.” Rather than demeaning certain professions and activities, can we purposefully “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31)? When my dad spends time in prayer preparing for his next Bible study, he is both working and worshipping God. When my mother cooks her famous lamb curry, she is both working and worshipping God. When I eat my mother’s delicious lamb curry while typing out this blog post, I am working and worshipping God too. (In case you’re wondering, that lamb curry was amazing #goodtobehome).
Personally, breaking down the false dichotomy between “sacred” and “secular” has given me tremendous freedom to pursue my God-given talents and aspirations. As Hudson Taylor once quipped, “Christ is either Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all.” Rather than fearing and shying away from “secular” fields like politics, I recognize that I am to work and worship God in whatever career He calls me to. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus didn’t pray, “Your kingdom come; your will be done; in the church as it is in Heaven.” On the contrary, Jesus prayed for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10, italics mine). As believers, we are not called to closet ourselves in the church, but to shine as lights on a hill and to flavor this earth as salt.
III. Walking the Talk
Practically speaking, what does it mean to walk the talk as a Christian seeking to glorify God in every area of life? Whether I’m actively serving in politics, managing a business, or raising a family, I realize that times will come when I am faced with difficult decisions. Over the past year, I’ve often looked to the story of Daniel for inspiration and wisdom. Daniel was a young Jew of noble heritage who was captured by King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces and trained to serve the Babylonian empire. Throughout his captivity, Daniel not only rose in the ranks because of his keen character and favor with Babylonian officials, but also openly maintained his Jewish identity and values amidst the cultural pressure. He identified both as a Jewish follower of Yahweh and a respected Babylonian official, while keeping his priorities and loyalties straight. Because Daniel’s story is so relevant to my own, I’ve gleaned 4 C’s from his story that, by the grace of God, I’ve committed to this year and beyond.
First, Daniel understood the covenant between the Jews and Yahweh. Even when his life was threatened, he refused to bow down to the gods of the Babylonian empire or to King Darius of Persia. His trust in God was not in vain, though, as proven by his miraculous rescue from the lions’ den. In today’s world, less people are forced to bow down to literal idols. However, as a full time student with two majors and an involved leader in multiple clubs and organizations on campus, I am constantly juggling a plateful of responsibilities while trying to prioritize personal health and relationships. As a millennial living in a plugged-in generation, I continually face a multitude of distractions that demand my instant attention. First and foremost, though, as a child of God redeemed and bought with the blood of Christ, I live in a covenant relationship with my Heavenly Father.
How many times have we compromised my allegiance to the one true King by bowing down to the idols of academics, career success, or popularity? “Putting God first” often sounds like a trite teaching, but living this out takes intentionality and much needed grace from God. Too many times, I find myself preoccupied with the trivial things of this world — how many people will vote for me in ASUC elections, what I need to revise in my R1B paper, or what I’m going to cook for my next meal. Moreover, in the world of politics, I’m often tempted to fret about how others perceive me or how the media will report on my platforms.
Thinking about these worries is not wrong in itself, but my heart is saddened to recognize how readily my heart bows down to the stress and pressures of this world, forgetting that I have a good Father who reigns over all and holds my future in His hands. I often remind myself of the reasons why I chose to run for ASUC Senate in first place — to use my platform to serve the Christian community and the larger student body at Cal, and to exemplify, from a position of influence and authority, what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves in this time of tension and bitterness. Before we can fulfill the second greatest commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, however, we need to seek first the greatest commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strength (Matthew 22:37). Christianity is a beautiful covenant relationship between God and his people, where each side whispers “I do” — I do love you more than anything else this world can offer me.
The Bible records two periods when Daniel voluntarily refrained from certain foods. In Daniel 1, Daniel and his friends asked to be placed on a diet of vegetables and water, in stark contrast to the king’s food and wine that was given to the youths in the king’s palace. Because wine and many types of meat were allowed in the Jewish diet, Bible commentators speculate that Daniel was not just trying to adhere to a kosher diet. Rather, his voluntary separation symbolized a commitment to something greater. As the ESV Study Bible commentary states, “With this restricted diet they continually reminded themselves, in this time of testing, that they were the people of God in a foreign land and that they were dependent for their food, indeed for their very lives, upon God, their Creator, not King Nebuchadnezzar.” Similarly, Daniel 10 records another period when Daniel mourned over a vision he received, fasting delicacies, meat, wine, and body ointments. For that specific fast, Daniel recognized the urgency of the hour by sealing his time of prayer with outward mourning for what was to happen.
Both these stories have set a precedent for variations of what is commonly called the Daniel Fast. Beyond the physical appearance of fasting, however, Daniel’s lifestyle was an outward manifestation of an inner consecration. His voluntary abstinence from the permissible pleasures of this world was his way of saying yes to a higher calling during his unique position in history. At UC Berkeley and any college environment, blending in with the crowd and going along with mainstream culture often seems like the easiest route. By choosing to say yes to purity in thought, word, and deed, we are choosing to say no to temptations that abound — sex, drugs, alcohol overindulgence, or even seemingly inconsequential hints of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Abiding by biblical principles often feels archaic by modern standards, as is living a lifestyle that prioritizes time spent at the feet of Jesus. Christ, however, challenges us into deeper consecration, one that seems countercultural and wasteful, just as Mary’s alabaster jar was an abhorrent waste to others around Jesus. Consecration is not just saying no to the wide path that leads to destruction; consecration is saying yes to the free gift of freedom, joy, and eternal love that Christ bought on the cross.
Daniel’s commitment to consecration was not made alone, however. Daniel 1:11 mentions three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who also consecrated themselves while training in the king’s courts. These friends were, along with Daniel, given new names (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) after the Babylonian gods, presumably to compromise their Jewish identity, especially since all their Hebrew names were linked with Jehovah. Interestingly, these friends are mentioned again in Daniel 2, where Daniel asks his friends to pray for the revelation and interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Later, Daniel 3 records that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a blazing furnace for refusing to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, but were miraculously saved even though the flames consumed the soldiers who threw them into the furnace.
During his time in exile, Daniel surrounded himself with godly men of character who lived the same lifestyles and held the same values. These companions sought the Lord with him during his times of need and stood together during literal trials by fire. Without his community, Daniel possibly would not have faithfully lived out his covenant or consecration to the Lord. In fact, Daniel’s community was a foreshadow of the later church community. Jesus surrounded himself with twelve loyal (albeit imperfect) disciples; the apostle Paul mentions several travel companions, including Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, and Timothy; the early church regularly met together to break bread.
For me, I’ve been extremely blessed to be surrounded by the vibrant Christian community at Cal. Brothers and sisters in my Berkeley community and mentors back home at River of Life have kept me accountable time and time again, and I wouldn’t be here without them. Although my roommates all attend a different church, they’ve walked with me through some of my most difficult seasons and rejoiced with me in some of my greatest victories. I’m thankful for my campaign managers who pray for me when I lack the strength to pray for myself, not to mention my amazing family, including my parents whom I call every single day. Right after I officially launched my campaign, I wrote a short document detailing my core beliefs and moral resolutions, and asked mentors and friends to hold me accountable to these values. I also communicate regularly with specific disciplers who pour into me and provide much-needed wisdom. Like Daniel, I want to be known as a woman of steadfastness and character, surrounded by a faithful community that I can run with on this earth.
Most importantly, Daniel exemplified courage and an unwavering trust in the Lord. Reading his dream interpretations and prophecies to King Nebuchadnazzar, King Belshazzar, and others, I am amazed that Daniel’s head wasn’t chopped off, especially when he spoke unfavorable words of truth. As demonstrated by his leadership skills and positions of authority under multiple rulers, Daniel showed that he wasn’t afraid to engage with his culture in truth and in love. He wasn’t afraid to disagree, even if that meant unpopularity and the lion’s den. As former British Prime Minister and renowned Christian Winston Churchill once remarked, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
During freshman year, I felt quite intimidated and overwhelmed by the academic rigor and new environment at Berkeley. I was most comfortable studying for midterms in my dorm or attending prayer meetings at church. Come sophomore year, however, new responsibilities forced me to leave my shell. I’ve learned that being a Christian does not necessitate cowering in a corner; being a Christian does necessitate courage to proudly communicate, “I am a Christian,” even if you feel different from others. It’s okay to attend socials and choose not to drink, or to drink moderately. It’s okay to opt out of watching certain movies or engaging in suggestive behaviors. It’s okay to be in the world, but not of the world. As a matter of fact, Jesus prayed to the Father, “I am not asking that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). We can be courageous soldiers for the Kingdom, because our heavenly Father and his legions of angels are on our side.
IV. So…why politics?
Whether or not I pursue politics in the long-term future only God knows, but, for now, I’m choosing to run for ASUC Senate because:
I believe that it’s time for Christians to break down the “sacred” vs. “secular” mindset.
I believe that it’s time for Christians “work” and “worship” in every sphere of society, including government.
I believe that Berkeley and beyond deserves Christian leaders who prioritize a covenant relationship with God above all else.
I believe that Berkeley and beyond deserves Christian leaders who embody consecration without compromise.
I believe that Berkeley and beyond deserves Christian leaders who are surrounded by loving, truthful community that will strengthen them and hold them accountable to their convictions.
I believe that Berkeley and beyond deserves Christian leaders who speak and act in courage, unafraid to engage with this world and yet still be different.
So help me God.
*Written by Isabella Chow, a contributing author