Tuesday, November 2, 2010

God's Politics (full version)

There was a time in my life that I was an ardent reader of Sojourners Magazine, a publication of the Sojourners community based in Washington, D.C.  Their ideas and experience in doing Christian community and ministry were very illuminating to me, and influenced me greatly in my own passion for solidarity with the outcasts and marginalized of society.  From around 1985 to 1992, I could hardly wait until the next edition of this cutting edge magazine came out.

This all began to change in 1991 when I was talking with a friend of mine who was a member of the Bruderhof Community, an "all-things-in-common" Anabaptist communion that emphasizes biblical justice.  When I referred to a recent Sojourners article, naively assuming he of all people would be conversant with this magazine and the community behind it, he shocked me with his retort, "I don't read Sojourners."  "What?  Why don't you read Sojourners?"  I stammered.  "Because they are guided by their ideology, not the Bible," he calmly stated.

I couldn't believe it.  But the damage was done to my unquestioning acceptance of Sojourners being radically biblical in their opinions and positions.  I began to read the magazine with both eyes open, and, lo and behold, it became clear to me that the Sojourners ideology trumped the Bible almost every time they came into conflict.   Still, I kept attempting to rationalize this tendency (after all, no one likes admitting that they were so wrong with so much passion).  But finally, the truth became too obvious even for me when this community and their writers claimed that Christians could not be sure what the Scriptures taught concerning homosexuality.  This from the same people who could categorically declare with absolute certainty a biblical mandate for the United States unilaterally disarming itself and capitalism being intrinsically evil.  Along with this hubris, the Sojourners pointed their fingers at evangelical Christians and accused them of being the accommodating accomplices of a dominant culture led by shallow right wing leaders like Reagan and Bush.

Why do I recount this intellectual shift in my perspectives?  Because as we all engage today in that great American privilege of voting, we do so amidst a cacophony of voices that are accusatory and condemning of those who disagree.  Sure, this is not the case with every person involved in the American political process, but clearly there is little humility or grace exhibited in the political conversation in our nation this day.  With great discredit to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, many in the Christian community are vociferously making their ideology supreme over their theology.  Those on the ideological "Right" accuse those on the "Left" of everything from being uncaring to conspiring maliciously to destroy the United States.  And there are the incredible attacks those on the "Left" make on the "Right."  From vicious ad hominem ridicule (as in the case of Sarah Palin) to attacking conservatives as the "enemy," as our own President Obama did when speaking to a Latino group recently.

Now, I'm not trying to be cute here.  I am politically conservative, and I believe in the superiority of capitalism over socialism, and of a free society over a managed society.  However, I am also quite aware that I have brothers and sisters in Christ who sympathize and support "left-of-center " political causes and candidates.  As I read the Bible, being the simple Kansas farm boy that I am, it seems pretty clear that my relationship as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ is far above and far more permanent than anything in the political realm.   God wants my theology always to trump my ideology!  The Apostle Paul drives this truth home in his letter to the Romans (who, appropriate to this discussion, were very much like us Americans in so many ways).
  •  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. ...You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:  “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’”  Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. ...For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.  (Romans 14:8, 10-13, 17-18)
Plus, again as I read the Bible, I am to support and pray for my political leaders regardless of their ideology, politics, and even their personal beliefs.  In fact, not only am I to pray for my leaders in my society, but I am to view them with the eyes of God:  as humans for whom Christ died and who God loves regardless of their faults and shortcomings.  So, I am not to view my leaders, my fellow citizens, and my fellow Christians through political lenses, but through the lens of the Cross, which makes us all fellow sinners in need of a non-partisan Saviour!

Over and over again, the Scriptures warn us all to not regard one another according to governance or politics.  "Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save," says the Psalmist in 146:3.  Yet we are to pray, seek, and desire the best for our governing leaders.  "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities," the Apostle Paul declares in Romans 13:1.  Of course, God opposes any leader (such as is the case in North Korea and Myanmar) who would usurp the place of God in the affairs of human life, as evidenced in God's actions against prideful rulers from Genesis to Revelation.  This is stated so well in the Barmen Declaration (written during the time of Nazi Germany): "We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church's vocation as well."

Still, there is apparently a rightful place for government in God's view, and this view does not seem to prefer one kind of government over another.  God relates to people who live under a loose confederation, as in the book of Judges; who live under limited monarchy, as under the kings of Israel and Judah; who live under despotic tyrants, as in the book of Daniel; and who live in law-based empires, as the early Christians did in the Roman Empire.  The only mention of a preference by God is when the Israelites decided to choose a king for themselves, and God preferred that they not have any king but God.  Yet, God permitted and even sanctioned the growing monarchial institutions of Israel.

It seems God works with whatever political systems are in play in any society of people.  All economic and governmental systems tend toward corruption, since human sinfulness is inherent in all systems no matter how well planned or how well intended.  This does not mean that God is (or that we should be) totally neutral about politics and governing institutions.  Clearly, occultic racist Nazism and soulless Marxism are to be deplored and fought against, while democratic and egalitarian practices in governing are to be rightly preferred.  The more a political system works against the significance and dignity of humans as made in the image of God, the more it is to be opposed.  The more a system affirms these basic realities of humans, the more we should embrace it.  This is a biblical view that Christians of all cultures, politics, and countries can affirm together.

Yet, sinfulness in our hearts is always at work to undermine the most noble of political arrangements, even our own cherished American experiment.   Lassiez faire capitalism in theory provides the greatest promise of creating and sharing wealth in fair and just manners.  Yet, left unchecked, lasseiz faire capitalism gives rise to the domination of heartless monopolies that corral wealth for a few and deny opportunity for the many.   Socialism sounds like it would be the ideal way to prevent the pitfalls of free market capitalism, but this apparent solution is plagued with a tendency to become a "Big Brother" government that denies the dignity of the individual and the value of human ingenuity.

So what I am trying to say is that Christians more than any other people need to approach one another in humility and love regardless of differing political opinions and preferences for governing structures.  Capitalism and democracy are not the kingdom of God, just as socialism and monarchies are not.  Two of my wife's and my best friends are citizens of a country that esteems socialism as the best of all political systems.  One of these friends is absolutely horrified by most Americans (which includes me) disdain for socialism.  She is mystified by our emphasis on individualism and free market economics, believing it to be fraught with dangers.  Yet, she and her husband and my wife and I are able to regard each other in love and grace because our allegiance is not ultimately to a country or a political philosophy.  Both shall perish with our deaths, but the "righteousness, peace, and joy of the Holy Spirit" are eternal realities we share here and now!  

I will vote today for those candidates that I believe will help the most in keeping the United States a nation of free men and women who can enjoy economic opportunity with the least government interference.  Yet, the Christian writer who impresses me as one of the most insightful followers of Jesus Christ I know of is Jacque Ellul, who while espousing an "anarchist approach," was a very passionate and active French socialist.   Clearly, there are things in my life that are far more important than who I vote for and what kind of government I want.   Quite literally, thank God for that.  What a bleak existence it would be if my highest aspirations and most meaningful actions were merely political.

As we exercise our rights today and vote for what we believe are the best candidates for our society and government, I pray that those of us who count ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ will remember who we really are, Who really makes our lives worthwhile, and what kingdom we are really committed to.  In so doing, we will be able to see our political adversaries first and foremost as persons who we love and pray for because of Christ and his sacrifice for us all.  Hopefully, we can pray with love for those we vote against, and pray with humility for those we vote with.   Let the world see something that transcends the fury and ferociousness of human-centered politics.  Let the world see a God-centered people, and in wonder see again the work of God described in Acts 4:32, "All the believers were one in heart and mind."


Jerry Yarian said...

While I agree with most of what you wrote, I still think there are issues that by their nature demand some divisiveness, even among those who claim to be Christians. We cannot gloss over abortion, or marriage, or the nature of the family. Unity must be include righteousness!

Zagreb Will said...

Thank you for your comment. I'm not meaning to suggest we ignore or compromise on issues like abortion or the gay lifestyle. These are areas that go far beyond politics, and are really in the province of theology. Yes, they are expressed in ideological views, but these are matters where we do know the mind of the Creator through the Scriptures.

But (and this is a really big ole BUT), Christians are to express their opposition to matters like these in constructive and loving ways! Our theology (knowledge of God and God's will) does not call for us to be belligerent and hateful, but to minister in love to those we disagree with. Instead of condemning the one who has an abortion, we need to offer solace and healing. To the one who is affirming and/or practicing the homosexual lifestyle, we need to invite, befriend, and serve in ways that express Christ's invitation to a process of transformation through following Him.