TOWARD A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF POLITICS
by John K. Stoner
Christians and politics–a puzzle, to be sure.
Like the eagle on their dollar bill, which holds olive branches in one set of talons and arrows in the other, Americans, and American Christians in particular, are of two minds in their thought about politics. That is, Americans believe that their democracy has achieved far more cultural transformation than it actually has, but simultaneously, they believe that due to the drag of sin, true cultural transformation is impossible. What we need is a political attitude which transcends this contradiction.
Here is the problem. Americans ask you to look, on the one hand, at what their experiment in democracy has done: it has ended King George’s British tyranny over the Colonies, produced the Declaration of Independence, written the world’s greatest document of governance, the Constitution, freed the slaves, fed the world, made space for God and religion, melted the pot, developed the West, invented the light bulb, given women the vote, birthed Henry Ford, produced the car, gone to the moon, built the mall, televised the NFL, won two world wars, isolated Castro, and woven the world wide web. All of this is affirmed periodically by going to the polls and voting. Democracy works, isn’t it wonderful!?
But next they describe all of the elements of culture which are fixed in stone and can never be changed: Indians are lazy, war is inevitable, education costs too much, more prisons are needed, public transportation doesn’t work, the car is sacred, old growth forests must be cut, homosexuals must be isolated, rain forests are an outdated luxury, acid rain can’t be helped, blacks are lazy, arms sales strengthen the economy, land mines create jobs, nuclear weapons keep us free, global warming is a myth, advertising fills a need, fetuses are good, immigrants are bad, and poverty can’t be helped. Humans are born in sin, and culture is trapped where it is.
Sin, Americans believe, guarantees the permanence of cultural depravity. The triumphs of democracy, on the other hand, are proven and perpetuated by right and practice of voting. In this view, voting is the ultimate political involvement, the elixir of society’s ills, the perfect tribute to democracy’s success in the past and the guarantor of its achievements in the future. To vote, and only to vote, is to be a responsible member of society. The meaning of politics, and the essence of political action is reduced, for all practical purposes, to the single act of voting.
But politics is vastly more than voting. Politics is the challenge of achieving human community. The root word is “polis,” or city, which is the essential symbol of human community. Of course narrower definitions are possible, such as the art or science of winning and holding control over a government, or activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices. A moderate definition would be “the art or science of governing.” This may be useful, if we think of governing as guiding the process of achieving human community.
As the challenge of achieving human community, politics deserves the attention and energies of Peace Church and all Christian people, because God, by all indications, has an interest in the development of human community. There will, of course, be people who make a specialty of governing, and that should not be surprising. However, it is not to be expected that those specialists should be left alone to, by themselves, define the meaning or content of governance. Every person has an interest in defining the shape of the human community, and narrow definitions of governing should not be permitted to obscure the fundamental goal of serving the needs of humanity as a whole.
For Christians it is worth remembering that the central message of Christ Jesus, whose name we bear, was that the kingdom of God has appeared in the midst of human affairs. I shall proceed to argue, in fact, that this kingdom memory must be decisive for our political thought. Christians are bound to ask what Jesus Christ can teach them about politics, or else maintain a discreet silence about BOTH Jesus AND politics. This is an argument, I fear, which will not find easy acceptance with my readers, whose indulgence for some moments I nevertheless beg. If this seems like strange politics, I respond that any discussion which includes Jesus is, by definition, strange in a way, and anyone who brings up Jesus has brought up a voice which is, in profound ways, quite alien. This really can’t be avoided. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingship come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That crosses over some planets, and if we pray the prayer we are committed to making the leap. (Or we could, of course, abandon the prayer….)
Kingdom denotes reign, or governance. The message of Jesus was that God is present and taking charge. The will of God is being done on earth as it is in heaven. This is thoroughly political, and only centuries of compromise with earthly kingdoms, growing out of a fear to challenge kings as directly as Jesus challenged them, has made it seem otherwise to most Christians.