Statesmanship for the Christian
I wrote the following article last year, and it ran here soon before the 2008 election. I’m wondering if anyone has any comments on the differing philosophies of governance now, a year later.
Spiritual Statesmanship: Salt and Light for Corruption and Darkness
For the Christian who prefers safe, polite conversation, it’s tempting to avoid controversial subjects. “Never discuss politics or religion,” says the social dictum. But in an election year, we can hardly escape politics. In November, 2004, a relative brought up same-sex marriage at a family gathering. I didn’t argue my position – he already knew it – but instead I asked him a question. “What do they want that they do not already have? Homosexuals are legally free to practice their way of life, live together sharing finances, and establish wills and medical directives with their partners. No one is seeking to take those freedoms away. What, specifically, do they want?” He had no answer. Apparently he hadn’t thought of it that way before.
The issues come up in and out of election season. On another day, my daughter Sally came home from school talking about smoking. Her fourth grade class had decided that people shouldn’t be allowed to smoke in restaurants. I agreed with her that smoking is a bad habit. I don’t like smoke in restaurants either. “But,” I added, “think about this: Even though something ought not to be done, that doesn’t necessarily mean there should be a law against it.” Sally pondered that a bit and said, “Good point.” We went on to talk about how a restaurant owner can always make a rule against smoking in his restaurant if he chooses to, and customers who prefer a smoke-free environment can choose restaurants accordingly. This retains freedom for the business owner, freedom for the customers, and allows those freedoms to regulate the restaurant market. She understood that.
Shedding Light on Political Divisions
As Christians, we are called by Christ to love our neighbors, and that requires our engagement. Plato said that the price of apathy in public affairs is to be ruled by evil men. Edmund Burke, British statesman and supporter of the American Revolution, echoed Plato when he wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” According to these sages, retreat from the public square is, in effect, a surrender to corruption.
The challenge for the civic-minded believer is, how to participate in a positive way in this most secular of realms? I suggest we can and do as we serve as salt and light, to borrow one of Jesus’ metaphors. Consider light. We illuminate cloudy issues simply by understanding and being prepared to explain basic truths. Biblically astute believers have insight into eternal truths, and we should never that that wane, but we must also be educated about American government and its separation of powers; economics and the fundamental principle of supply and demand; and human nature and its propensity toward sin as displayed throughout history. With even a basic understanding of these and related realities, we can shed much-needed light on political impasses.
Different Principles Lead to Different Practices
To truly illuminate an impasse, we must think and speak beyond sound bite sloganeering. Though commentators usually talk in terms of the two major political parties, Republican and Democrat, it’s more helpful to consider their underlying philosophies of governance, conservatism and liberalism, because they emerge from vastly different ideas about the purpose of government. Conservatives affirm limited government, free markets, traditional Judeo-Christian values, and a strong national defense. Recognizing the human propensity toward evil, conservatism sees government as an agent of justice, protecting the citizenry from marauders, both internal and external. Citizens are expected to live responsibly and productively and are allowed freedom to enjoy and share the fruit of their labors as they choose.
Liberalism maintains that it is the duty of the State to alleviate social ills and guarantee that no one is in need. To liberals (sometimes called progressives), the purpose of government is to provide, both in terms of material needs and social services. Liberalism, operating on the premise that humans are basically good, views societal problems, not as a result of people making bad choices, but of poorly designed social structures. Both parties uphold the value of justice, but whereas conservatives apply justice by punishing evil, liberals often use the word as a synonym for ‘fairness’ or ‘equal outcomes.’ For example, ‘economic justice’ in liberal parlance means there is no large gap between a society’s rich and poor.
To be sure, government should provide some services, but a danger arises in that with this model, people can become more like dependant subjects than productive, responsible citizens. Examples can be found at home and abroad. Early in 2008, World magazine reported on the recent transfer of power in Russia. Sunday Adelaja, a pastor exiled from Kiev, Ukraine, told World that the biggest problem in Russia was not Putin’s lingering, Soviet-like oppression, but the ignorance of the people: “Most people say, ‘As long as we have food on the table, we don’t care. We just vote for the man who is giving us food.’” Adelaja rightly calls this “slave mentality,” and it severely hinders freedom. Worse, it invites exploitation by self-serving leaders.
Citizenship Requires Discernment
Which brings us to the importance of discernment. Christians, more than anyone else, can apply a biblical understanding of human nature to the political process. Starting from the revelation that mankind is fallen and prone to sin, it follows that a candidate’s offer to provide for potential subjects’ needs or wants could be a benevolent-sounding cover for serving his or her self-interest. An example from ancient history shows this is inherent to human nature, not a product of any government structure.
Israel’s first civil split occurred near the end of King Solomon’s reign when Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials, rebelled. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the rightful heir, retained authority over two tribes, while Jeroboam assumed kingship over the remaining ten. But Jeroboam foresaw a threat to his power base: the temple sat outside his territory. To solve this problem, Jeroboam made two golden calves and set them up within his borders, telling the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (I Kings 12:28) Aside from the vital detail that God had forbidden idol worship, it sounds like Jeroboam was compassionately easing a burden for them.
But the writer of I Kings tells us Jeroboam’s true motive. “Jeroboam thought to himself, ‘The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.’” (I Kings 12:26-27) So Jeroboam wasn’t, in fact, nearly as concerned for the people as he was for preserving his position (along with his skin). At that he succeeded, but the idolatry he instituted ultimately led to the destruction of the entire kingdom. Not all political leaders lie, but discerning citizens must observe shrewdly because some will, and the consequences can be disastrous.
The Call to Sacrificial Service
As we walk in the light, then, we will both actively and passively illuminate political shady spots. We are also called to serve and help those in need. Politically motivated leaders sometimes appeal to Jesus’ words about helping the poor in order to gain support for one of their programs, but Jesus wasn’t speaking to governments. His commands were spoken to individuals. (And, as an aside, it should be noted that the real test of a leader’s concern for the poor is what he does with his own money, not how he proposes to spend your tax dollars.)
Where light illumines and clarifies, salt preserves and enhances. Take Valerie and Kevin, committed Christian parents of three. When they saw their niece, Laurel, being seriously neglected by her parents, they didn’t call any social service organization. Instead they brought Laurel into their home. Originally, the move was to be for a few weeks, while Laurel’s parents made some personal changes. But what began as a temporary arrangement has extended into a multi-year assignment. Today, Laurel is in fifth grade, and Valerie and Kevin are prepared to keep her until she reaches adulthood if necessary.
Certainly, it is good to have services bridging gaps where necessary, but government will never eliminate society’s ills, and it’s certainly no savior. Moreover, reliance on government programs invites the insidious delusion that we’ve given of ourselves – by supporting a particular candidate or program – when we really haven’t. Jesus told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” We, his people, comprise his body on earth. Our calling is to speak his truth in love, serve our neighbors in need, and point the world to its real Savior. His name is controversial. Not exactly polite, safe conversation. But Jesus is the one who solved humanity’s biggest problem and promises to meet her deepest needs.