Politics, Christians, and our democracy.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 July
POLITICS 'pɑl.ə.tɪks plural noun. Activities associated with the achievement of power, position, and status. Especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to gain it; often considered to be divisive or devious.
[Politic 'pɑl.ə.tɪk adjective, political pə'lɪd.ə.kəl adjective, politician pɑl.ə'tɪ.ʃən noun, politico pə'lɪd.ɪ.koʊ noun.]

God’s kingdom is entirely about surrendering our power, authority, will, even our identity, to God.

We kinda have to do this. Humans, y’see, are selfish to our core. Total depravity, theologians call it: Everything we do, even everything good we do, has a self-centered ulterior motive. Makes us feel good about ourselves. Makes us feel self-justified. Yeah, some good deeds might feel self-sacrificial and miserable, but somewhere in our psyche is some “greater principle” which feels really good to make great sacrifices for. We’re just that carnal. It’s why God needs to save us, ’cause we’ll never be good enough to save ourselves. And why the Holy Spirit needs to give our consciences a total overhaul.

In contrast politics is about wielding power. And for politically-minded folks, it’s also about gaining more. Sometimes for noble reasons: To do good deeds. More often, for not-so-noble reasons: To keep it out of the hands of others, lest they do something we dislike with it. Not that we’re necessarily doing anything with it, including anything good. Note the United States Congress: Too often it’s all about doing nothing, for many a politician figures nothing is better than anything.

So yeah, there are antithetical ideas at play whenever we talk about God’s kingdom and politics. One’s about surrender, because we can’t be trusted with power. The other’s not; it’s about gaining or taking or stealing power, because we imagine we’re the right-minded exceptions who can be trusted with power—and the others can’t. The opposition party surely can’t.

How do Christians juggle these ideas? Same way we’ve always justified our possession of power. Same as we’ve always justified not surrendering all our power to God. In brief: “I’m gonna do good things with it! The power’s not gonna corrupt me. My heart is pure.”

In other words, we lie to ourselves. And our fellow Christians. And God.

Humans need governance.

The problem with surrender, in our fallen world, is not everyone’s gonna surrender to God. Loads of humans reject him. Loads of Christians don’t really wanna surrender either. And aren’t even sure we need to.

See, a popular Christianist myth claims because we have the Holy Spirit in us, we’ve been cured of sin. No, not totally, not yet. But in our core—in “the throne room of our heart,” as Bill Bright once put it—we’re now gonna do the Christlike thing instead of the selfish thing. Fruit’s gonna grow on its own. It’s why so many Christians have embraced libertarianism: They really don’t believe we need governance any longer. Certainly not by humans. (Often not even by God.)

If this claptrap were actually true—if Christians were entirely sanctified, with all our self-centered behavior wiped out—you do realize we oughta see far better-behaved Christians than we do. And not just ’cause we’re hypocritically trying to fool one another. But obviously we see just the opposite.

  • Fruitless Christians, desperately pretending to be fruity.
  • Dysfunctional churches, desperately trying to make everyone conform.
  • Legalism instead of grace.

And of course the pagans aren’t fooled by any of our playacting.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison wrote. Federalist 51 Seems Madison incorrectly believed angels are always good. But otherwise he’s absolutely right: If people didn’t sin, there’d be nothing to govern. And once Jesus returns, bringing his kingdom with him, we Christians will be transformed 1Co 15.52-53 into perfected humans who won’t need the sort of governance we’re used to. At that time, Jesus won’t have to hand down rules, crush rebellions, put down uprisings, nor order his followers around. Citizens under Christ will know what we oughta do, and do it. We’ll live in harmony with our neighbors, without requiring a law for every little thing, nor judges to settle every little dispute. Then we won’t need government. Love will reign.

But we’re so not there yet. Not even close. So what do we do in the meanwhile?

Well, God’s idea was to give us his kingdom on earth. How it worked was he handed down his commands, his Law, to Moses. It provided the basis for governing the Hebrew descendants of Israel ben Isaac. Thing is, God implemented it in a way most leaders and governments would never think to do: He made it voluntary. If the nation wanted the LORD to remain their God and bless them, they’d follow him. If they didn’t, he wouldn’t.

The reason we have the book of Judges is to demonstrate what happened, time and again, once the nation chose not to follow: The cycle of sin and repentance kept repeating, over and over and over. You’d think Christian libertarians would read this book and realize they need governance, but their blinders work mighty well. Other Christians look at all the chaos of the Old Testament and presume, “It’s because the Law never worked.” No, it did work—when people followed it. It’s just they never bothered to follow it. Not for long. They didn’t trust God enough to make a serious effort. Still don’t.

What about taking away the voluntary nature of the Law, and requiring people to follow it? (You know, legalism.) Well, we’ve tried that too. Tends to turn evil. Seems without grace, and the other fruit of the Spirit, we tend to nullify God’s good works. Depraved humans only do ’em for personal gain, and our ulterior motives take the place of their proper motives. They won’t work properly without God’s love, patience, kindness, and grace—nor without people who have those characteristics, implementing them.

Which kinda makes it impossible for anything but a monolithic culture—one with only one religion, one cultural background, one ethnicity, or anything else which makes everybody think the same—to implement God’s kingdom. Only works among Christians when we’re all following God. Only worked among the Hebrews when they were all following God. And white supremacists think the solution to all our problems is to drive out everybody who doesn’t think like them, look like them, worship like them; anybody different. Once again, removing the voluntary nature of the kingdom. (And definitely the love, patience, kindness, and grace.)

So can our culture implement the Law? Only if the culture becomes uniformly Christian. Which the United States is not. Never has been. Yeah, there were many times we were predominantly Christian (or at least the white people were). But we’ve always consisted of multiple denominations, and these groups have always struggled to get along. And when our churches aren’t working together, we definitely aren’t gonna implement any kingdom of God.

True, America’s original colonies were founded by Christians. But the English colonies were founded at a time of cultural civil war between Puritans and traditionalists. There were Roman Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, and separatists who each founded their own colonies. And they didn’t even stay what their founders intended: Massachusetts was founded by separatists and Puritans, but by the time of the revolution, it had gone Unitarian. (And now has a large Catholic population.) Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers, quickly filled up with Anabaptists, and the Quaker leadership had to seriously compromise their pacifism before they’d endorse independence. America’s religious differences have always been around—and are why we needed a First Amendment, keeping the Congress from favoring any one religion over the others.

So till Jesus implements his kingdom himself, the best system we’ve invented for a pluralistic society is our current system of limited democracy:

  • Make a constitution, spelling out how the government’s to work, and limiting how far it can go.
  • Include a list of human rights. Make ’em really hard to abolish, and make it so we’re absolutely forbidden to violate them.
  • Let all the responsible-enough people in society vote. (But educate everybody so they’re not idiots. Well, so most of ’em aren’t idiots. There are always a few. Like the folks who complain, “Why are we paying so much to educate everybody?”)
  • Poll the voters regularly. So long that they don’t violate the rights, go with what the majority wants.

Sounds fair, right?

Yet Christians keep trying to implement the Old Testament’s Law piecemeal. Get Congress to pass laws which reflect the Ten Commandments and “Judeo-Christian values.” Get popular culture, or at least popular Christian culture, to shun those who won’t conform to the way they interpret the bible. Even though they often adopt systems which God meant to abolish (like slavery in the 1700s, and patriarchy nowadays), and presume they were all his idea. Mostly ’cause they never bothered to study the biblical context and realize they were wrong. ’Cause they don’t believe they are wrong. ’Cause they imagine they’ve been cured of sin.

We’re all wrong. It’s why human government is so difficult.

A nation of kings.

About two centuries after the Exodus, a Greek tribe from Crete moved into the southern coastland of Canaan. The Hebrews called ’em פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים/pelištím, “migrants,” a word our bibles translate Philistines. (The word’s also used for other people-groups in Genesis, but those migrants were Amorite, not Greek. Today the word is translated Palestinian.) Unlike the Hebrews, who were still in the Bronze Age, the Greeks had reached the Iron Age: Their iron weapons were way better. So not only did they hold their Canaanite territory; they expanded it.

The Hebrews wanted ’em gone. And grew tired of listening to the LORD’s prophets, who pointed out the whole reason God let the Philistines dominate was ’cause the Hebrews ignored his Law. The Hebrews figured the real problem was secular: Philistines had kings, and they didn’t. So they demanded a king of their judge, Samuel ben Elqana. The LORD’s response:

1 Samuel 8.7-9 KWL
7 The LORD told Samuel, “Hear the people’s voice? All they tell you?
It’s because they’ve not rejected you; they rejected me from reigning over them.
8 All the works they’ve done, from the day I brought them from Egypt to this day:
They abandoned me. They served other gods. They’re doing it to you too.
9 Now hear their voice. But when you do, warn, warn them.
Tell them the nature of a king’s judgment, which’ll reign over them.”

Which Samuel did:

1 Samuel 8.11-18 KWL
11 Samuel said, “This is a king’s thinking, when he reigns over you: He takes your sons.
He sets them in his chariots, on his horses, and as runners before his chariots.
12 He sets up chiefs over armies and chiefs over companies.
Some are to plow his plowing and reap his reaping.
Others are to make his war-weapons and chariot-weapons.
13 He takes your daughters to make perfume, cook, and bake.
14 Your fields, vineyards, olives: He gives the good stuff to his slaves.
15 He tithes your seed and vineyards, and gives it to his eunuchs and slaves.
16 He takes your slaves, maids, the good young men, the donkeys, and makes them do his work.
17 He tithes your flocks. You’re as good as slaves to him.
18 On that day, you’ll cry out from the presence of your king whom you chose for yourselves.
On that day, the LORD won’t answer you.”

In Thomas Paine’s 1776 revolutionary tract Common Sense, he used Samuel’s warning to point out the evils of having a king, and why the Americans ought to heed this warning and reject their own king.

But Paine missed the fact these aren’t just the evils of living under a monarchy. They’re the necessary evils of every government. Doesn’t matter whether we’ve put power in the hands of a single tyrant, or a house of representatives. When people are given power, they always, always use it to their own gain, figuring it’s part of the perquisites of their job.

King David ben Jesse was probably the best king ancient Israel ever had. The scriptures regularly point to how he followed God, and use him as the basis of comparison for every king since. Jesus is partly called the Son of David because Messiah was expected to be at least as righteous as David. Yet David did every last thing Samuel warned about. Plus he stole one of his officers’ wives and had that officer killed. 2Sa 11 (Maybe you heard that story.) ’Cause even the best kings suck.

What’s the alternative? No government at all? Absolutely not; read Judges again if you don’t believe me. Government is a necessary evil.

Powerful leaders, like a king or dictator, like even a constitutionally limited president, are regularly awful leaders. No king but Jesus is any good. No ordinary human can be trusted with unlimited power. That’s why we Americans insist our Constitution is supreme, that our rulers must have limited power and (for the most part) limited offices. What we’re trying to do, when it comes to politics and government, is minimize the evil. We must never forget when it comes to government, we’re juggling knives, or taming hungry lions. It’s dangerous. We need to be very, very careful about how much power we hand anyone. And obviously we can’t just hand it to anyone; democracies have fallen more than once because power was handed to the wrong man.

Our trouble, as Christians and voters, is we’ve not been careful about power. We often pursue it just the same as any greedy, self-centered, unregenerate sinner. And we’re perfectly happy to hand people more of it, ’cause they promise they’ll do all the more for us with it. Just like the Hebrews, we’re happy to trade our judges for kings, and ignore the real issues which are wearing away at our nation: Our own sins.

In nation where the people have rights, we are its queens and kings. We reign. As Christians the way we reign rightly is to surrender our authority to God: What does he want? Does he want us to invest our time, resources, and worries into the kingdoms of this world, or in his kingdom? Well duh; his kingdom. So what does that look like? Pouring money into politicians, getting out a vote, and trying to change the laws to suit “God” better? Or doing rightly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God?

Do we put our efforts into making America “great again”?—whatever that means; I’m sure you have some idea, and I bet it looks quite different than the politicians who push the phrase. Or into lifting up the name of Christ Jesus, being his hands and feet in our communities, loving the strangers and the needy, and laying the real groundwork for the kingdom he’ll set up?

How much should we invest in any system our Lord is gonna overthrow?