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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

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?


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