November 11, 2008
John Ortberg's Lessons from the Election
The seven deadly sins of evangelicals in politics.
by John Ortberg
My son has a bumper sticker on his car that reads: "I poke badgers with spoons." Its significance is not self-evident to everybody who reads it, so let me tell you the story.
It comes from a British stand-up named Eddie Izzard. Eddie grew up in the church, and heard early on about the doctrine of original sin, but was a little fuzzy on the concept. He assumed that it meant that priests get tired of hearing the same old boring confessions time after time - greed, lust, gluttony, and lying to the tax man. Eddie thought the priests wanted to hear some truly original sins.
So he came up with something he figured no one had ever confessed before: "I poke badgers with spoons." My wife thought it was so funny that she had it printed on a bumper sticker and placed it on my son's car. Oddly enough, he sometimes fails to appreciate that his parents are two of the funniest people in the world. But he wanted the car. So he gets the sticker that goes with it.
Debates have raged for centuries now over the phrase "original sin," which of course doesn't actually show up in the Bible. Augustine argued that there is a fundamental flaw, a bentness, that gets passed on to every human being before they are even born. (He believed it was intrinsic to the sex act, which may be part of why he never had a little Augustine, Jr.--at least not legitimately.) The classic counter-argument was raised by Pelagius, who claimed that each human being was a blank slate, a morally neutral free agent who had a clean shot at maintaining perfect innocence. Pelagius clearly never had children.
The church came down, with a few caveats, on the side of Augustine and not Pelagius. But Eddie Izzard gets a shout out now and then. The Vatican recently published a list of sins (such as environmental transgressions) which, if not completely original, at least give an updated twist to the old seven deadlies.
Which brings me to the election...
I am a political junkie. During a presidential campaign, I will often buy a couple of newspapers a day just to keep up. But it strikes me that presidential campaigns can often bring out the worst as well as the best in us.So I want to propose the "Seven Deadly Sins of Evangelicals and Politics." You may have a few of your own to add. But the spirit of such lists in the past was not to add to our store of information but to contrition. So feel free to confess while you read.
Messianism. The sin of believing that a merely human person or system can usher in the eschaton. This is often tipped off by phrases like: "The most important election of our lifetime" (which one wasn't?); or "God's man for the hour."
Selective Scripturization. The sin of using Scripture to reinforce whatever attitude toward the president you feel like holding, while shellacking it with a thin spiritual veneer. If the candidate you like holds office, you consistently point people toward Romans 13: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established." If your candidate lost, you consistently point people to Acts 4:10 where Peter and John say to the Sanhedrin: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God." It's just lucky for us the Bible is such a big book.
Easy Believism. This is the sin of believing the worst about a candidate you disagree with, because when you want them to lose you actually want to believe bad things about them. "Love is patient, love is kind," Paul said. "Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth." But in Paul's day nobody ran for Caesar. There was no talk radio.
Episodism. The sin of being engaged in civic life only on a random basis. The real issues never go away, but we're tempted to give them our attention only when the news about them is controversial, or simplistic, or emotionally charged. Sustained attention to vital but unsexy issues is not our strong suit.
Alarmism. A friend of mine used to work for an organization that claimed both Christian identity and a particular political orientation. They actually liked it when a president was elected of the opposite persuasion, because it meant they could raise a lot more money. It is in their financial interests to convince their constituents that the president is less sane than Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Alarmists on both sides of the spectrum make it sound like we're electing a Bogeyman-in-Chief every four years. I sometimes think we should move the election up a few days to October 31.
One Issue-ism. Justifying our intolerance of complexity and nuance by collapsing a decision into a simplistic and superficial framework.
Pride. I couldn't think of a snappy title for this one. But politics, after all, is largely about power. And power goes to the core of our issues of control and narcissism and need to be right and tendency to divide the human race into "us" vs. "them."
What might happen if the world were to see those of us who claim to be the church vote, and speak, and campaign, and respond to the results in a humble and repentant spirit?