08 November 2022

Politics, Christians, and our democracy.

POLITICS 'pɑl.ə.tɪks plural noun. Activities associated with gaining or holding power; frequently seen as divisive and devious.
2. Activites associated with governing a country, land, or organization; or dealing with relations between one such organization and another.
3. Beliefs and principles regarding the gaining or holding of power.
4. The academic study of government and the state.
[Politic 'pɑl.ə.tɪk adjective or verb, 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. 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; mainly to help others. More often, for not-so-noble reasons: To keep it out of the hands of other people, 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—’cause 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 humans 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. 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.

In our fallen world, not everyone’s gonna surrender to God. Loads of humans reject him. Loads of Christians don’t really wanna surrender either.

And these Christians aren’t even sure we need to. A popular Christianist myth claims because we have the Holy Spirit in us, we’ve been cured of sin. No, not entirely; not yet. But in “the throne room of our heart,” as Bill Bright once put it, the Spirit changed us so we now unconsciously, spontaneously, do the Christlike thing instead of the selfish thing. It’s why so many Christians have embraced libertarian beliefs: We don’t need to be governed any longer, because we have the mind of Christ now!

If this claptrap were actually true, you do realize Christians oughta act like Christ way more often than we see. But we don’t. They’re the same jerks they’ve always been. Just as fleshly. Just as sinful—but better at hiding it. No better at grace… but annoyingly, far better at legalism.

And of course pagans see we aren’t any better than they, and aren’t fooled at all by our playacting.

James Madison believed, incorrectly, angels are always good—and wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Federalist 51 He’s absolutely right about this, though: If people didn’t sin, there’d be nothing to govern. On New Earth, when Jesus’s kingdom is finally what it was always meant to be, we Christians will be transformed 1Co 15.52-53 into perfected humans who won’t need governance. Jesus won’t have to hand down rules, crush rebellions, put down uprisings, nor order his followers around. We’ll 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. 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 makes 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. Which kept repeating, over and over and over. You’d think Christian libertarians would read this book and realize they likewise 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; it’s just the Israelis never seriously followed it. 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 forcing people to follow it? (You know, legalism.) Well that’s been tried too. Usually turns evil. Without grace, and the other fruit of the Spirit, we 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. So that’s why Christian nationalists are trying create just that. They wanna drive out all the non-Christians (and the many, many white supremacists among them wanna drive out all the non-whites, or at least keep them out of power) under the misbegotten belief they can then force the Law upon everyone, and create God’s perfect kingdom now. Just like the Nazis in the 1930s and their plans for a Tausendjähriges Reich (usually translated “thousand year reich,” but properly it’s “millennial kingdom”) —and you remember how they turned out.

But once again, they’re rejecting the voluntary nature of Jesus’s 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, and never has been. Nationalists insist otherwise, and yes there were many times we were predominantly Christian. But we’ve always consisted of multiple denominations, and these groups have always struggled to get along. Usually they fought.

The English colonies were founded in America at a time of cultural civil war between Roman Catholics, Puritans, and traditionalists. Likewise new denominations, like Quakers and Baptists. Some of these colonies didn’t even stay what their founders intended: Massachusetts was founded by separaitists and Puritans, but by the time of the Revolution it’d gone Unitarian. Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers, yet loads of Anabaptists moved in, and the Quakers are to this day outnumbered by them (and the Quaker leadership had to seriously compromise their pacifism before they’d endorse independence). America’s religious differences have always been around. They’re why we need a First Amendment, prohibiting 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. (“Limited” because we have a constitution, and we’re not allowed to violate it.)

  • Make a constitution, spelling out how the government’s to work, and limiting just how far it can go.
  • Include an explicit list of human rights. Make ’em really hard to abolish. 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 constitution, go with what the majority wants.
  • Just in case the voters do violate the constitution, have the courts referee.

Sounds fair, right?

And yet even with our system of limited democracy, nationalist Christians keep trying to implement the Old Testament’s Law piecemeal. Get Congress to pass laws which reflect the Ten Commandments and their interpretations of “Judeo-Christian values.” Get popular culture, or at least popular Christian culture, to shun those who won’t conform to the way they interpret bible. Even though they often adopt systems which God meant to abolish (like slavery in the 1700s, and patriarchy nowadays), and presume these abominations were all God’s idea. Mostly ’cause they never bothered to study the textual and historical 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 these 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 ruling judge, Samuel ben Elqana. The LORD’s response:

1 Samuel 8.7-9 ESV
7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Which Samuel did:

1 Samuel 8.11-18 ESV
11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

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 Americans oughta 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 was absolutely bananas for the LORD, 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 cuckolded and murdered one of his most loyal officers. 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. It’s why we Americans insist our Constitution is supreme, and 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 collapsed more than once because power was granted 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 undermine our country: Our own sins.

In any land 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? Mc 6.8

Do we put our efforts into making America “great again”?—whatever that means; usually something more racist and patriarchal. Or into lifting up the name of Christ Jesus, being his hands and feet in our communities, loving 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 inevitably gonna overthrow?