05 October 2012

of politicians and the people of god

Following the first presidential debate of the 2012 election, it appears that more Americans are engaged in the discussion than ever before.  The numbers show that more than 67 million viewers were watching this past Wednesday night.  This would, most naturally, infer that the number of Christians who are keeping watch over the country's politics is also up.  But, with all of the interest, I am still finding some drive-by comments from Christians who have clearly become cynical about (American) politics.

Does the gospel message make us ambivalent toward politics and government?  Perhaps the natural pendulum swing from the excesses of the religious right movement took evangelicals to the assumption that politics will do whatever politics will do, and there is no good being a part of it at all - at least, for the true disciple.  In a sense, this approach has a reading in Scripture, with what rises and falls compared to the forever-standing word of the Lord (cf. Isaiah 40:8, which also speaks of princes being brought to naught).  But does the biblical perspective of rising and falling kingdoms provide for disciples of Jesus to dismiss their role in a society which gives sovereignty to the people?

We should first ask if Jesus himself was ambivalent to the politics of his day.  One passage that comes to the fore is Luke 13:32, where Jesus is told that Herod is out to kill him.  His famous reply is to go and "tell that fox," which cannot be limited to a theological perspective of how Jesus regards those who are plotting to kill him.  Certainly, he does not regard the Jewish leadership as foxes, but instead references the cunning and sinister character of Herod, which was widely known during that day and age.  This follows on the discussion of Pilate's massacre of the Galileans, where Jesus again demonstrates a working knowledge and willingness to openly discuss the current events of the day, when it played a part of explaining the kingdom of God.  Notice that Jesus uses the Galilean massacre to point toward the fact that his kingdom comes not by brute force but by changed hearts.

When speaking about Herod and public preaching, we can hardly ignore the work of John the Baptist, who was beheaded as a direct link to his open criticism of the tyrant's life.  He directly challenged the fact that Herod (Luke 3:19-20) was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with his brother's wife, and "all the other evil things he had done."  Compare such bold criticism in a closed political system with the fact that many in the church were condemned for criticizing the blatant immorality of an American president during the 1990s.

Jesus demonstrated that he was not interested in political power, for he knew that the changes he was implementing were far and above politics.  His way was too radical for any sort of office or government, for he knew it was his to change hearts.  However, he never gave us a sense that this change would come without connection to the realities of our world.  There is no indication in the gospel that the power of God's kingdom does not have a direct impact on this world.  In other words, kingdoms may rise and kingdoms may fall, but they do so as part of God's world ... and we as believers are summoned to work the good of our society, even honoring the emperor (1 Peter 2:17).

Does culture then dictate the faith?  This question naturally rises out of the conclusion we have drawn, for it might appear on a casual reading that we are to make the gospel not a universal hope but simply a presentation of lofty principles of faith, hope and love.  I believe this is why so many Christians thought something major had been achieved in the 2008 presidential election.  We accepted stylized words and lofty precepts that never contained substance, and we allowed our ears to be tickled by the fast-track achievement of what sounded like gospel to our undisciplined hearts.  Now much of that is falling away, leaving some disenchanted, some cynical, and most awakened to the work of the gospel, which is more than just making Jesus president and becoming ignorant of any other political talk.

Culture is a powerful influence, even upon the church.  But our principles of faith and doctrine are not shaped by the ebb and flow of the world around us.  We stand firm on the truth of the gospel, and true believers will not allow it to be conformed to the world.  And yet it seems that culture does control how that truth is lived out.  This is not new, for all of God's prophets, leaders, disciples and spokespersons have been faced with introducing gospel into the present context of the world.  Paul adapted his message of kingdom based upon his audience, Jesus did the same.  Every preacher and teacher of the gospel today is similarly charged to meet people where they are with the gospel message.

If the gospel can be adequately preached, presented, and even implemented through our engagement with politics and government, is is not advantageous for the church to do so?  This means that there is no room for the cynical remarks that passively dismiss the arena to which more than 67 million of our fellow countrymen are looking to discover a path forward.  One brazen comment which I saw about the debates was simply, "A recap: two men spoke and nothing changed."  That is as shallow a thought-process as those who would casually dismiss Titanic as, "All I needed to know is that the boat sank."  Right, because that movie is one of the highest-grossing films because everyone's hearts were filled by metal going underwater.

Those who are so intentionally calloused and dismissive of this presidential election might not have the love of their fellow citizens at heart after all.  In order for the gospel to make a difference, it must be introduced into the context of people who need its message.  Calloused attitudes that the kingdom cannot make an intellectual difference in the political arena of ideas is detrimental to the true message of faith, hope and love which come through the gospel.

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