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April 5, 2010

There are plenty of people who have written about Christianity and politics. I won’t pretend to do something new here, but I will take a less common road. Rather than lay out specific political issues and tackle Christian responses to them I intend to aim at the methods of politics. Is political action itself Christian?

I ask this question because I assume you’ve read my article “Two Questions”, in which I assert, amongst other things, that politics and Jesus act in very different ways to fix the problems of the world. Does this, then, make politics a tainted enterprise, too foul for Christians to touch? That’s certainly the opinion of a number of people my age, who sometimes style themselves Christian anarchists, but I’m not so sure.

Politics allows us, at least in the countries where I assume our readers are, to influence society in ways that other tools do not. If we want to see a society that protects the rights of other people then political action is the most effective course. Murder, for instance, is not an issue to be tackled at the individual level (neither, to name two of the great Methodist social issues, are slavery or prison reform). Political systems, for all their ineffectiveness, have lowered murder rates in civilized countries to far below that of unpoliced areas of the world.

This, however, begins to bring us to our first problem. It’s pretty clear that being murdered has a deleterious effect on a person. It’s less clear that preventing murder through threat of legal action does the would-be murderer any good. After all, God’s concern, and therefore ours, is with the heart of a person. Is the person who decides not to shoot someone else because he fears prison any better than the person who tries to shoot someone else but misses? And are either of them better than the person who shoots, hits, and kills? The difference between these scenarios seems to be entirely in the quality of life enjoyed by the victim. The would-be perpetrator is as foul a monster when he hits as when, scared, he refuses to shoot.

What really needs to be legislated is heart transformation, but this is impossible. The transformation of hearts really does need to be addressed on an individual level, and all the laws in the world won’t make someone a good person. A defanged cobra is not any more friendly than one that can still inject a dose of lethal venom.

Politics, as a system of tools, would then seem to have both good points and places where it is useless. It will never replace redemption, but we would rather that the unredeemed don’t harm us while we work on that. It’s certainly not the fault of a tool if it doesn’t work for some things. We don’t denounce hammers because they don’t level poured concrete, and we shouldn’t denounce politics for its failure to do some important tasks either. But what we should be careful to do is always remember that politics is a tool. The temptation to elevate certain political stances or activities into the focus of sanctification is worrisome, and worse than useless.

In fact, this is where politics can become truly dangerous. As we focus in on this issue of who people really are we must always ask who we are when we use particular tools. And politics is not a benign tool. Politics, to put it bluntly, fosters hate, and hate is often best fostered by lies. The best electorate is one that hates your opponent. People who think everyone on the ballot is pretty reasonable might not turn out to make their relatively unimportant choices known. People who think one political party or the other eats live babies are, on the other hand, completely dependable.

From the standpoint of a person trying to get votes neither critical thinking nor compassion are good character traits when applied to his or her opponent. Frothing-at-the-mouth hatred for one side and rose-colored glasses for the other are much more useful. But for the Christian critical thinking can hardly be called anything but good, and compassion is a central virtue. We would wish to be both just and compassionate. The sort of person a politic pundit is trying to manufacture is exactly the sort of person we should all be striving to avoid becoming.

What do we do with that, then? There are, of course, practical things to do, like not listen to the most egregious liars on the political landscape, and question the motives of pundits who scream and shout. But in general terms there a single simple rule: how do you feel about your political opponents? Is it anything like the way Jesus feels about them?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Erich permalink
    April 6, 2010 7:57 am

    Since I lean toward answering “no” to the question of whether Christians should be involved in politics, I’m left to ponder what the world would look like if all those in positions of power were non-Christians? I think that’s a question that scares a lot of Christians, and that’s quite understandable. The voluntary laying down of one’s power is at the heart of the Gospel, but to take even a first small step in that direction requires such an enormous amount of trust that God loves us and will provide for us.

    • Eric permalink
      April 6, 2010 5:04 pm

      I think this also asks another important question: is there a difference between participating, as in holding opinions, expressing opinions, and voting on those opinions, and actually running things?

      I suspect that I can’t really address that without writing another essay. Thanks for creating the first commenter-contributed topic for my essay idea list.

  2. Erich permalink
    April 9, 2010 2:38 pm

    Thank you, Eric. Honestly, I find questions like these sometimes nagging, and very much look forward to hearing (reading) more of your thoughts. I believe open discourse is usually helpful as we struggle toward answers to difficult questions.


  1. Politics: Part II « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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