The Jehovah’s Witnesses have noted that we are at the intersection of two citizenships, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of our earthly nation. They have concluded that the priority of being a member in the former precludes participation in the latter. They therefore abstain from many of the duties and privileges of earthly citizenship, including voting.
At this point in the election cycle, one has to envy them. They can’t avoid the media barrage any more than the rest of us. But they can rise above it. It isn’t their problem.
We are not so fortunate, because we know the earth, not just heaven, is the Lord’s. What happens here is God’s business just as much as what happens in heaven. Unique among earth dwellers, humans are expected by God to be the stewards, the managers, of that business. And no manager can run a business by refusing to participate in it. There is no hope of relief, as no other species seems able to take this on. It is our lot until the last day arrives. As Christians, we are uniquely aware of this stewarding responsibility and therefore have the burden of more insight than most on the purposes of the planet. So we, as Christians, cannot avoid politics, which is the vocation of operating the planet in an orderly fashion.
Having said that, the history of Christianity and certainly Christendom, as well as the Kingdom of Israel which preceded it, is mostly a series of sobering lessons in how to get it wrong. From the beginning until well into recorded history, God strongly advised against the establishment of a kingdom for the people of God. When the people’s clamor to have a king was overwhelming, it was regarded as a direct rejection of divine leadership by God, as succinctly described in 1 Kings 8. The people are told all the bad things which will happen if they have a king instead of simply trusting God’s leadership, a description of consequences fully relevant for today if updated for technological changes. They charged ahead in their folly anyway and bad politics began, continuing to this day. The centuries of Christendom had advantages for the institutional church. But the distortions of God’s will which are evident in such activities as the Crusades (whose bitter price we are still paying in the Middle East), the Inquisition, the nasty habit of English monarchs and others of burning at the stake those regarded as theologically incorrect, the domination and manipulation of the Church for the political and imperial goals of various rulers, the false assumption that God is on the side of my monarch and against yours, the genocides in the name of God, are many and ugly.
Christendom is now past. While many Christians regard it with nostalgia, I suspect God is relieved. Our stewardship remains, however, even if now in an almost reverse context where suggesting God’s universal rule and the need to run things according to his will is seen at best as naïve and beyond that a sign perhaps of wacko tendencies, unpatriotic disloyalty and discriminatory attitudes. That is how our contemporaries view us if we dare to interfere in the world outside the precincts of the church. But how do we see ourselves functioning in the political sphere? Just because Christendom is gone is no reason to think we will get it right. Some Christians, at least, seem pretty flawed in how they see their prophetic role in the political arena.
For that prophecy to be authentic as the voice of God, there are some basics that one can count on in both expressing that prophecy and in evaluating the prophecy of others.
The first axiom will not surprise the readership of this blog: the earth is the Lord’s. If it weren’t, we would be well advised to stay as far away as possible from the political arena, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it is the Lord’s and all our commentary must be based on that clear and overriding fact. Any policy which damages the earth and “the fullness thereof” is wrecking God’s property. Any policy which helps God’s earth, whether overtly confessional or not, is a good stewardship of God’s property.
The second axiom is consistent with God’s view reported in 1 Kings 8. It is expressed best in Psalm 146; “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save” (vs. 3) and again in Psalm 118, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man, it is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (vs. 8-9). Be careful of your expectations in the political sphere. The politician who promises salvation and utopia cannot deliver, but can be dangerous. In a fallen world, all political action is relative, not absolute, when measured against God’s will. Keep your eyes on trusting God. Accord the politician respect when he or she tries to do the same (and not simply when he or she says it), but never lose the divine perspective.
The third axiom is that a politician who hurts people, or proposes to, is hurting God, as Jesus describes in story form in Matthew 25:31-46. Those who do not help people are held accountable as if they were hostile or indifferent to Jesus himself. It is equally true for those who hold great power to help as it is for individuals who can only help a little. Those who are given much power and authority are expected to help in a much bigger way than those who have little. Thus, a vital Christian measurement of a politician is if, and if so how much, he or she will care for people and help them, and not hurt them.
Next week, we will tackle the tricky task of putting these axioms to the job at hand in examining how the Christian should handle the upcoming election in November. It’s a dirty job, but Christians, as mentioned, because of what should be our greater clarity about the purpose of life and society, have a burden here.