Sunday, November 02, 2008

Can Politics Save the World?

The answer, of course, is "No." But in a presidential election where hype is at an all-time high, driven by mantras of "hope" and "change we can believe in," it's worth re-stating the simple truth: politics can achieve a great deal of good, but politics has never been the answer to the world's problems, and it never will be.

I've outlined my position on voting in presidential elections in the posts below, and I have great hopes for the good that politics can achieve in the future of our country. But if our hope is only in politics, our hope is severely misplaced. Biblically speaking, the Christian hope for the world only marginally intersects with the regular course of political affairs. There is some overlap, but certainly not a total overlap. For instance, the church is called to seek justice, as is the state. But the church seeks justice not for itself, but for others, and it seeks it by way of love, while the state seeks justice by means of the sword, and first and foremost for its own citizens. And there are significant areas where the agendas of church and state do not point in the same direction. For example, capitalist nation-states see it as their duty to support an economy that flourishes in prosperity for its citizens, while the church flourishes by giving its prosperity away for the good of others. The state exists, in large part, for the safety and security of its people, while the church mobilizes its people into the unsafe, insecure areas of life where the mission of God is being carried out.

In short, then, the church and state have different aims, and even in those aims they do share, their methods are significantly different. But it's not enough to note that the two institutions are merely different. We need to press further and ask, "Which institution has more potential to change the world for good?" Certainly politics can (but historically, its track record hasn't been great on that mark), but the church is where the power for transforming society truly rests. Why? Simply because the transformation of society begins with people's hearts, and that is beyond the reach of politics.

The God-given mandate of politics--the power of the sword to do good--is usually defined in terms of ensuring peace and justice. And those ends, of course, are indispensable. There are some things that the state can do which the church can't, and as good citizens of a democratic state, we ought to uphold those purposes. However, my first exhortation for my fellow Christians is simply this: We ought not to cede too much of our mission to the state. We can't allow political action on issues that are also responsibilities of the church to give us an excuse for our complacency. To put it simply: the mere fact that the government in our society takes upon itself the task of looking after the poor and the elderly is not a good reason for the church to ignore its own mandate to care for the weakest members of society.

Politics can't save the world, but Jesus can and will. And the body of Christ--his living presence in this world--is the church. The church has more power--immeasurably more--to effect lasting change for good in the world than politics ever will.

Take the abortion issue. Though the political means of fighting abortion are valuable--and hopefully will prove effective--lasting change on this issue, in a democratic society like ours, will only come through a basic change in people's hearts. A self-centered, sex-crazed culture will never consent to do away with abortion. Even if anti-abortion legislation is effectively passed, it will always be in danger of being reversed as long as the majority of the culture is ambivalent about the morality of this issue. Only a culture being inwardly renewed through a revival of Christian faith and morality will be able to stand up and affirm lasting change. Politics can change laws, but not hearts; and it is hearts that need changing before some of the issues that face us, like abortion, can ever be fully addressed. (Note, however, that this is not an argument against anti-abortion legislation, since I argued strongly in my earlier posts for using politics to fight abortion. This is merely an observation that the root of the problem goes deeper than bad laws--it goes back to the hearts of the citizens who make the laws).

Perhaps it's good to consider not so much what Obama or McCain can do for the causes of peace, education, poverty, and social justice, but rather to consider what we, the church, can do. It is our responsibility to look after the poor, the widows, and the orphans. We cannot allow ourselves to slide into complacency on these issues with the excuse that it's the government's problem now. If we really want to effect lasting change toward a life-affirming culture, we need to model that life by caring for the poor, comforting the sick, and adopting parentless children. If we really want to move our nation toward peacemaking rather than violent international policing, then we need to model the sort of honest, loving, confrontational peacemaking that Jesus displayed. If we honestly want to see lasting change in this country, we ought to be spending a great deal more time on our knees.

Politics can't save the world. But God can, and God works through the church. Let's remember, when election day rolls around, that putting too much of our hope in politics can lead us into an idolatrous cult of misplaced hope. Politics can do great good, but our hope truly rests only in one place:

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." (Ps. 20:7)