Politics, patience, and power…and theology

Politicians, we all know, are among the least respected people in our society. We assume the worst about them and nod our heads sagely as one or another of them is exposed as venal, or hypocritical, or merely ambitious.

Yet we need them, and we need Christians among them.

Politics is about multiple policies, procedures, publics–and therefore about patience. No wonder so many people who want to get things done, and get them done soon, and get them done in a straightforward way tend to despise and avoid political careers.

Christians, of all people, should therefore get involved.

Our theology equips us to expect, and not be shocked by, sin, stupidity, absurdity, and waste. We should take for granted that some people’s motives are bad, everyone’s motives are mixed, and political systems are corrupt, with all that money and power at stake.

Our theology should also, however, lead us to expect some success, some goodness, and some blessing. We who know how things eventually turn out, and who know that God intends to bless the world in the meanwhile, should be hopeful of at least some measure of shalom from government.

So, given our grasp of the light and the dark, the positive and the negative, the “mixed field of the world” and what it takes to get anything worthwhile accomplished in it, we should be unusually patient. And yet we usually aren’t.

We think of politics as being about power, and of course it is. And for many Christians, that’s the end of the matter. Power is bad, they think, so Christians shouldn’t wield it.

But for all its abuses, politics is about power wielded in order to help other people do what really counts: build families and homes, teach and research, heal and grow, paint and sculpt, buy and sell, and worship and serve. God himself uses power, and delegates it to us human beings in order to “have dominion” over the earth and “till it”–in short, to garden it, to make it better, to cultivate shalom.

So we mustn’t abandon power, but use it–including spiritual and moral power, to be sure–as best we can.

The American presidential campaign has begun its last year (!) and a Canadian election is on the horizon. Elections loom elsewhere as well, of course.

So Christians of all people should expect a field of candidates with none of whom they entirely agree. We should expect a field of candidates none of whom we might entirely respect. We should expect a field of candidates drawn from the real world, and not from a fantasyland where politicians resemble Cincinnatus, Mother Teresa, and Abraham Lincoln combined.

Since we won’t get everything we want in a candidate, or in a political party, or in a political platform, we will have to choose.

Aye, there’s the rub. For, since we can’t have it all our own way, we will have to choose which of our values matter most.

And that will be a theological question. And given the state of theological discourse in most churches and Christian families, I wonder how well poised we are to ask and answer it. What does matter most in God’s intentions for the world? What trade-offs are we prepared to make?

Or will we withdraw to the splendid isolation of our churches, seminaries, and other ivory towers, comfortably condemn all the politicians down there as so many despicable compromisers, and thereby accomplish precisely nothing on behalf of a single poor person, or foetus, or endangered species, or other victim?

0 Responses to “Politics, patience, and power…and theology”

  1. amelo14

    Very powerful post! Indeed there seems to me to be a tension between the dedication to the City of God and the Earthly City. The question would be whether such a stance is inherent to Christian discourse itself. Your spirited post is quite welcome indeed!

    Andrés

  2. Chris C.

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I really appreciate your post. Do you mind, in your future entries, showing us how Evangelical Christians can choose which of our values matter most?

    Chris

  3. james

    Thank you very much for writing this. It has been very much on my mind recently. Are we called to such a sticky arena?

    What spawned all of this for me was an Aaron Russo interview I recently saw, as Mr. Russo describes his relationship with Nick Rockefeller, and the elite plan to have the population implanted with, I’m assuming RFIDs. And then I look at the SPP agenda, and I fear that this country will be lost to something very dark.

    It leaves me wondering if this is truly the end, and if so, where do you draw the battle line? Is it when one is asked to accept an RFID implant, or is it sooner than that? Do you fight the SPP?

    Regards,
    JW

  4. Stan

    Your article is certainly relevant as Americans prepare for next year’s presidential election.

    My question, like Chris’s, is a practical one. Though the Church is diverse (“one body with many members”), we are also under the headship of one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism.

    So is there one set of practical principles that all believers can apply when attempting to discern where political platforms and “what values most to God” intersect? If so, what are those principles?

  5. John Stackhouse

    There’s a lot I’d like to say in response to Chris and Stan–and I will, in a book I’m hoping will appear in March or April on fundamental Christian ethics.

    Most basically, though, we need to seek to maximize shalom, and that means taking fully into account what is actually on offer from the political powers (rather than just what they might say in an election campaign), what we can realistically hope to press them to offer, and which combination of offers will then get the most done according to Kingdom values.

    Thus it is crucial that we have a sufficiently broad and clear understanding of Kingdom values that we can then assess what’s on offer. Should Christians care about the contemporary state of the fine arts, for example? Freedom of the press? Stability of markets and banks? Shrinking ice in the polar regions? Sexual habits of consenting adults?

    I fear that various Christian groups have theologies, and thus political agendas, that not only fail to speak clearly to all of the above issues (deliberately selected for their heterogeneity) but fail even to address some of them.

    So that’s what we should be asking of our pastors, professors, and other Christian leaders: Show us the global vision of God’s mission to the world and how we can play our parts in that.

  6. Alan

    Amen to all you’ve said above, John.

    Will you permit me one addition, though? “Government” is larger than the political executive, including as it does the public service. Policy development can and does occur just as often from the bottom-up as from the top-down, so Christians looking to make a difference in the way their society is governed should not overlook any opportunity. Electoral politics is an important avenue, but so are the public service and policy and advocacy work performed by NGOs.

    I’d like to hear more from you on this — it’s something of a preoccupation for me. 😉

  7. John Stackhouse

    Amen, Brother Alan, for reminding us of the key role played by civil servants.

    Indeed, the civil service is a place in which many Christians can and should serve, particularly because it can be (it isn’t always, but it can be) a place in which merit is recognized above “electability” and good ideas can be heard without worrying immediately about how well they’ll play in the next election.

    One has to have a servant’s heart to be in civil service, to be sure, especially to believe that helping others is worth doing even if one has to do it virtually anonymously. (My uncle was such a servant of the people of Ontario for many years, in key finance positions that hardly anyone else would know about, and I admire him for it.)

    So onward, Brother Alan (whom I know is working in such a worthy job), and all others who will help us in this difficult, vital intersection of creativity and compromise.

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