May 6, 2008
John Ortberg on Religion AND Politics
Why the human race needs an administration of another kind.
Anybody but me notice that this is an election year? I have loved politics since I was a kid; one of my first and favorite books was a little Cold War classic called Being an American Can Be Fun.
But it's an odd thing. The church - where we're supposed to be fearless; where we're supposed to challenge people on sin, and be prophetic, and face martyrdom - the church is also the place where we're told, "Don't talk about politics!" Or at least we're told that in the kind of churches where I grew up. Other traditions are different. In the African-American church, for instance, for decades church was the one place where politics could be safely talked about; leaving a legacy that is reverberating pretty loudly this year.
Here's the problem: politics is an important sphere of human activity, and as such God is keenly interested in it. It was the Dutch theologian and politician (why don't we have more of those?) Abraham Kuyper who famously said, "There is not one inch of creation about which Jesus Christ does not say: ?This is mine!'"
However, as soon as human beings (including church leaders) start assuming they are in a position to pronounce God's political leanings, things get a little dicey.
In Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which remains the high water mark in presidential theological reflection, he notes that "Both (the North and the South) read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." So maybe a way to place politics in its proper context is with a little thought experiment.
Imagine that we elected all the right people to all the right offices. President, Congress, governors, right down to the school board, city council members, and dog catcher (which, by the way, does anyone still get to vote for?) Let's imagine that all of these ideal office holders instituted all the right policies. Every piece of legislation - from zoning laws, to tax codes, to immigration policy, to crime bills - is just exactly the way you know it ought to be.
Would that usher in perfection?
Would the hearts of the parents be turned toward their children?
Would all marriages be models of faithful love?
Would greed and pride be legislated out of existence?
Would assistant pastors find senior pastors to be models of harmony and delight?
Would human beings now at last be able to master our impulses around sexuality, and anger, and narcissism?
Would you finally become the woman or man you know you ought to be?
In the words of theologian Macaulay Culkin: "I don't think so." Because no human system has the ability to change the human heart. Not even democracy, or capitalism, or post-modern-emergent-ancient-future-missionalism. T.S. Elliot summed up our quandary brilliantly: "We want a system of order so perfect that we do not have to be good."
Systems are important but they're also complicated. Historian Mark Noll notes that evangelicals often fail to add value in politics because we like simplicity: good vs. evil; right vs. wrong. Political and economic arrangements are full of complexity and nuance. Well-intended legislation may lead to poor results. When we condition people to think that every bill is a battle between the forces of righteousness versus the minions of darkness, we do not serve the process well. But we specialize in polarizing. No parachurch organization with a political agenda ever sent out a fund-raising letter noting that an upcoming bill was "likely to do 40 percent more good than harm."
We ought to be engaged in the political process. We ought to vote, be educated, be involved. We should do it in a way that is civil and respectful and redemptive. (I saw a cartoon recently where a guy showed up at the pearly gates to hear St. Peter say: "You were a believer, yes. But you skipped the not-being-a-jerk-about-it part.") But we should also remember that the church is not called to be one more political interest group.
The human race needs an administration of another kind. There is one possibility. Someone needs to be in a position to say: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News." Scholars like N.T. Wright remind us that these words were politically loaded. They deliberately echo or parody the claims of Rome - that Caesar was Savior, that his kingdom was Good News.
The Gospel of the early church was, among other things, a deliberate in-your-face to the empire. Pretty cheeky when you think that the church had a few thousand ragged cohorts and the Empire ruled sixty-five million hearts. It was pretty clear which horse to bet on. But here we are, two thousand years later, and we give our children names like Peter, Paul, and Mary; and we call our dogs Caesar and Nero.
These gospel words of the early church were deliberately politically loaded. But they were not to be co-opted. They are to stand above every human party and candidate and political platform. The church historically has not done well when it gets too closely associated with empires. The gospel words must transcend higher to go deeper.
My daughter got a CD for me recently from an old Broadway show called Camelot.
Richard Burton is singing at the end ad the dream of Camelot is about to perish in a great battle. He sings/speaks in a tone of unbearable wistfulness:
?Don't let it be forgot,
That once there was a spot,
For one brief shining moment?'
I wondered why that was so evocative. Until I remembered - there is a longing. But it is not really about Camelot, or King Arthur, or Shangri-la, or Constantine, or whoever your favorite candidate is. It's for a carpenter-turned-rabbi, who once ran for Messiah, and got crucified.