Sunday, May 20, 2007

Temptations for Politically Conscious Christians

Like many people, I used to believe that the transition from Old Testament to New Testament corresponded with a move from religion being a physical, political reality to being a private and invisible reality. For about three years now I have been critical of that view for I have come to realise that Christ's Lordship applies to every area of public and private life. As Carl F. H. Henry put it, "If while evangelizing we abandon the socio-political realm to its own devices, we shall fortify the misimpression that the public order falls wholly outside the command and will of God, that Christianity deals with private concerns only; and we shall conceal the fact that government exists by God's will as His servant for the sake of justice and order."

This shift in understanding has led me to write a number of articles trying to articulate the basis for a truly Biblical political theology (for example, see my article HERE on political Christianity in the early church). My job as a researcher for Christian Voice also reflects a strong political emphasis. However, recently I have come to be aware of some significant dangers to which politically conscious Christians seem prone.

Politically active Christians have the tendency to adopt the secular mindset which says that the world's problems can be fixed through politics. You know the mentality: just elect enough Christians, just pass enough Christian laws, etc., and then the problems of society will rectified. This really is a dangerous heresy since all totalitarian movements are also based on the idea of salvation through the state. The first principle of Christian political activism should be to attack this idea of the state, yet so many Christians collude to it.

The Biblical paradigm recognises that the church, not the ungodly political structures, is God's answer to the world (see my Bible Overview where I argue for this point). This is also the position of the reconstructionist movement (see this compilation of quotations), however they have been caricatured. Popular right-wing political activism, on the other hand, works on a different paradigm, with disastrous results. Because they see the state as God's instrument for transforming society, Christians who could be focusing their attention on building strong families and strong communities, with the consequence of building strong churches, neglect all this to campaign for watered-down legislation and compromised conservatism.

"The entire medieval and Protestant tradition," writes Doug Jones in Angels in the Architecture, "is anti-Statist, and that includes, as Augustine taught us, the view that the State is the least important institution among Church, State, and Family. Yet, the great irony of the Christian Right is that though their families are often messes and their churches splintering, they think they have the wisdom to wield the sword. In search of 'real change,' they charge out to conquer the institution that is most impotent in actually bringing it about. We haven't changed much from our ancient Israelite brothers. We want a king or a sword just like everybody else. We don't understand how God has structured the world, how real change occurs.... Why should we want to wield any political party club or rule any council at this stage of life? The State is a superficial, testy institution that is merely a shifting symptom of deeper realities. And so a reformation of the State should be like healing a sore throat. Nurture the rest of the body with good things first, and the throat will follow along in time."

Later on in the same book, Doug Wilson writes, "The rWestoration of the nations is not, in any important sense, a political process. Rather, the process is one of baptism and catechism. The means given for the conversion of the heathen were the waters of baptism and the words of instruction. When the lessons have been learned, there will of course be some political consequences. But they will be minimal for the simple reason that the state itself, in a nation that has come to repentance, will also be minimal....Our problems are spiritual, and the solutions are the Word and sacraments. The charge was not 'go ye, and elect right-of-center congresspersons.' Now certainly the gospel has an effect on all of culture, as it should. But results are not causes; apples are not roots." (Also listen to Doug Wilson's talk 'Cultural Change & Worship')

Sadly, most Christian campaigners have not read Angels in the Architecture, and hence they continue to mistake the result for the cause in the way described by the two Dougs. A practical result of this is that the gospel is compromised. Consider how so many Christian activists are content to simply have a place at the table, on a par with any other lobbyist for any other organization or special interest group. This is a functional denial of the fact that Jesus claims total authority over the whole system. Our goal should not be to have a place at the table but to have the whole system down on its knees before Jesus.

Equally worrying is the fact that Christian activists begin using the world's methods, such as 'louder is better.' Organizing protests that are larger than their opponents becomes more important than constructing rational and coherent arguments. More energy is devoted to huge letter writing campaigns than engaging in thoughtful public debates. We seek to amplify our message with quantity rather than quality because we notice that is how the homosexual and Muslim lobby get their voices heard. The corollary to this is that the world begins to perceive us as just another pressure group, unable to listen or engage thoughtfully with any other position.

The answer to these problems is not to react and say that Christians shouldn't be involved in politics at all. That would only perpetuate the Gnostic concept that religion is a personal and private affair, detached from the public world ("Jesus is the Lord of my heart but the devil is Lord of the world", etc). On the contrary, we must seek to evangelize politics just as we must seek to evangelize music, poetry, philosophy, economics, technology, sociology, sports, and so on. The key question is how? It is time we realized that, as Christians, we are involved in politics every time we gather to worship; we are involved in politics every time we read to our children; we are involved in politics every time we produce artifacts that reflect the standards of goodness, truth and beauty; we are involved in politics every time we put into practice what it means to live in the kingdom of God. The reason these things are political is because it will be through all these pedestrian Kingdom-of-God-acts that the world (and therefore politics) will eventually be transformed. Let's not put the horse before the cart.

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