Note to My Readers: Due to the busyness of my summer schedule, in which I'm serving as a camp pastor on top of my normal duties, I'll be putting my ongoing Thursday and Friday series on hold until mid-August. All other days will continue to feature new content as usual, and the Thursday and Friday slots will offer devotional and theological reflections (heretofore unpublished) from my seminary years.

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)


Ben said...

I truly enjoyed reading your commentary on faith and politics! Your thoughts on single-issue voting helped me to finally decide which presidential candidate to mark on my absentee ballot. Thanks for reminding us that regardless of who wins and loses the election, the Church's mission and our calling to serve remain the same.

One question about your single-issue perspective however. What do you think about voting for a pro-choice, but otherwise well-qualified candidate for an office that has absolutely no relation to abortion policy (e.g., a local or state office such as auditor, insurance commissioner, etc.)? Would such a candidate's position on abortion be practically irrelevant, or would you still vote against him/her on principle? What if his/her opponent was pro-life yet grossly under-qualified or otherwise an undesirable candidate? Again, the assumption in my hypothetical is that the office in question cannot influence abortion policy for either side.

Matt Burden said...

Hi, Ben. Thanks for your encouraging comments.
As for your hypothetical situation, it's a good question, and one I hadn't considered. Here's my initial reaction: If a promising candidate also happens to be pro-choice, but will not be in a position to influence abortion policy, then I think one could conscientiously vote for that candidate. In the abortion issue, though the stakes are high, it is genuinely possible for someone to be sincerely ignorant of the morality issues in play; and if that's the case, then the fact that they're pro-choice probably won't have a detrimental impact on other moral decisions they make. However, I would want to do some research into their specific beliefs about abortion. If there is moral fudging on that issue, then the candidate's general moral sense might be properly called into question. However, in general, I wouldn't find anything objectionable in voting for the candidate under the conditions you give.
You do raise an interesting possibility that ought to be addressed, though. What if there's a position that will have the potential to dictate abortion policy, and a brilliantly qualified, pro-choice candidate is going up against a woefully unprepared pro-life candidate? Must we vote pro-life in that situation? I don't think so. I can't in conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate for an abortion-policy-making office, but that doesn't mean that we would have to vote pro-life if there's no good candidate on that side of the issue. In such a case, it might be better not to vote at all.

David Strunk said...

I think I'd give a little more overlap than you did regarding the use of the govt. Here's what I mean: I agree that the church should never sucede its mission, but part of the church's mission is to affect not just politics but how the govt. functions. I fundamentally believe that the govt. can restrain evil and bring about good, and too often the govt. is needed in some way shape or form, especially in the city.

The church needs to influence the govt. to establish just laws, eliminate unjust laws, and affect a myriad of issues where there is middle ground. This is the church's mission.

If Christians did not affect the way our govt. handles adoption, poverty, business revitilization, healthcare, etc., then I truly believe we'd be on the road to a more unjust society. The church cannot idolly sit by.

But I suppose I'm talking about an ethic that goes so far beyond voting, but actually means consistent and constant engagement with the govt. Under your scheme, you don't allow much room for even Christians themselves to be political officials.

I think the church has more of a role to play in bringing God's redemption into the public foray more than you admit. I'm just not sure how much more.

Matt Burden said...

Hi, Dave.
Thanks for your comments. Yours is a good American-Christian response to an Anabaptist political sentiment.

But I think you may have read more into my post than what I was actually saying. I never meant to imply (nor do I think I did) that government should not have a role in establishing justice or in fulfilling objectives that are overlapped with the mission of the church, such as caring for the poor and the elderly. Frankly, it's quite a fine thing that they do those things, and they should continue. My argument was that the fact that they do so should not be used as an incentive by Christians to ignore those things. The problem in much of American Christianity is that believers assume that it's not their problem to help the poor and the widowed, simply because the government takes care of that. So I wasn't trying to limit the sphere of government's actions; I was trying to encourage Christians to be active in the areas of overlap.

And secondly, I wanted to encourage believers not to blithely accept the quasi-messianic rhetoric about the power and potential of government for change. It's a simple proposition: society changes the most for good when hearts make a change toward true morality, and that sort of change will always be better effected by the Spirit of God working through the church than through the powers of government.

Neither of these arguments assume that government should not pursue ends that overlap with the mission of the church, nor that Christians shouldn't be politically involved.

Hopefully that restatement adds a little clarity to my original post. You do bring up a further point that I want to touch on, though. I would challenge you on the wording of your statement that it is "part of the mission of the church" to influence how government functions. Now clearly, from my previous posts, I agree with you that since we have the opportunity for action in our democratic system, Christians ought to be politically involved for the good of society. (I'm using "ought" loosely--I think that it's a laudable and commendable thing to be politically involved--in fact, I think that in our situation as citizens of a democracy, it is one of the foremost ways to "love our neighbor"--but I don't think it's sinful not to be thus involved in politics). Is it really "part of our mission" to influence the government? I'm not so sure. Jesus and the apostles don't ever seem to have had that thought in mind. At the very least, I would want to to tweak the wording. As it stands, it would be a hard case to make from the NT, and the OT data on politics does not always align with our situation simply because Israel was the land of the chosen people, and America is not. However, the OT does drive us to this affirmation: it is the duty of the church to act as a prophetic voice toward the government. But I would shy away from saying that it is our absolute duty to influence government, because "influence" can be understood to assume that our actions in pressuring government policy will be somewhat successful. But what if they're not? What if Christians are actively involved in the political sphere, and our majority-run democracy decides to go the other way entirely, against all the efforts we bring to bear? Has the church failed in its mission? I don't think so. So I would rephrase it this way: that it is part of the church's mission--included under the mandate to love our neighbor--to speak and act toward the end of positive change in government policy. This may have been what you meant; I just think we ought to be careful about the terms we use. It is the church's mission to be an active voice for change toward "the kingdoms of this world," but it is not necessarily our mission to actually bring about that governmental change, because, quite frankly, it's often out of our hands.

David Strunk said...

Your last statement is the sentiment I expressed. "Influence" was used somewhat loosely. I do take this to include prayer, lobbying, being a politician, or any other assorted activities. I don't assume it'll be successful, but I think we're disagreeing over degrees and not on kind. I probably lean more towards activism than you do, but I don't think you're overruling activism (the sort that Wilberforce pursued).