For some of us poor souls, the current season of America’s presidential primaries makes it hard to guard against becoming even more cynical about politics. One of those clever, anonymous writers in The Economist calls it “the primary effect,” aptly noting that candidates “must tack to the extremes in order to win the support of the committed enthusiasts who vote in primaries, only to shift back to the centre in the Presidential election.”
A net effect is that voter cynicism increases because, on the one hand, constituencies supporting the extremes don’t see their candidates elected, while, on the other hand, voters who thank God for that result are nevertheless dismayed at seeing the entire show now endlessly well-oiled by money (thanks to two recent US Supreme Court decisions). But let’s be honest. We all like a good show. And we’re getting one just now. The problem is that the US presidential primaries have become mainly a show.
So how does one guard against becoming an unhealthy cynic? – not a good platform for a Christian who wants to be a politically responsible citizen. Many years ago I found some help when I asked a question of Scripture: What does God think about politics and government? I asked with an open mind and without any preconceived conclusions in mind. Honestly, I had no idea what I might find. Here, in five maxims, is a brief summary of some surprising answers that emerged back then and more recently.
Maxim 1: God works through whatever political structures we devise.
When reading the Old Testament we see God politically active in nations. According to Genesis 20, for instance, when the land of southern Canaan was ruled by King Abimelech in the time of Abraham, God works through that Canaanite government to ensure implementation of a state policy to protect Abraham and his family when they settle there for a time. This policy gets hammered out at the high level what today we would call a cabinet meeting.
Another case in point is God’s political involvement in the Egyptian government. This is especially evident in Genesis 39-45, a long narrative describing an economic policy dreamed up, implemented, and administrated by the Hebrew slave Joseph, who has been installed by Pharaoh as a kind of prime minister. The policy has significant domestic and international applications.
Biblical narratives surrounding Persian and Babylonian kings, such as Ahasuerus, Cyrus, and Nebuchadnezzar, similarly illustrate God working his purposes out through the political actors of those pagan governments. Of course the same is true for ancient Israel, whether that people are a community of delivered slaves wandering the wild, or settling into Canaan under the rule of judges, or living under a fully systematized monarchy.
Maxim 2: There is no ideal form of government.
This follows from Maxim 1. In other words, the question “What is God’s ideal form of government?” never comes up in Scripture. When the idolatry of a nation reaches such a crisis that a prophet arrives with a word of judgment, the prophet never says: “If you guys would just get with it and set up God’s ideal for government, all would be well.”
You laugh. But, apparently, God is not fussed about some ideal form of government – at least not in this world. That question does not concern the Old Testament person. It first arose with ancient Greek philosophers. And today it plagues US politicians, to note but one example, who see America as an ideal democracy that ought to be exported around the world.
Maxim 3: God is concerned with the normative purpose of government: justice.
The normative purpose of a state is justice; or, more fully: a just exercise of power. So, just as one would want to ask: what are the norms of love for a family; what are the norms of education for a school; what are the norms of economics for my business; politicians must ask what are the norms of justice for the state?
Thinking this way is especially vital during times of crises. If the employees of a business are out on strike, the temptation may simply be to fire them and hire replacements. If a school is failing to educate, then let’s hire more teachers and get more technology into the classrooms. But such solutions will miss the mark if either crisis has arisen due to violating normative purpose and neither the school board nor the business owner is analyzing the crisis in those terms.
Likewise, if a nation is in crisis because the state has violated its normative purpose, and if the government is not advancing solutions in those terms, then throwing more money at the Eurozone debts, or adding more policies designed to keep the Arabs (or the Jews) out, or increasing the size of the US military, or exercising imperial designs meant to force former Soviet states into an Eurasian Union is not solution at all.
For this reason the prophets to Israel and Judah, speaking for what God considers to be the normative purpose of government – a just exercise of power by the state – kept condemning injustice. As a friend of mine likes to say, the prophets acted as kind of independent judges who pointed out injustices and called king and people to repentance. What a contrast to our American presidential candidates, whose answers for America’s deep problems include running the state as a business corporation and walling off the southern border.
Maxim 4: God cares about political actors themselves, not just their policies.
Another surprising discovery during my inductive study was to find God’s caring interest toward rulers who were Israel’s declared enemies. Note, for instance, the first half of the book of Daniel. In this long narrative, among other curiosities, Daniel the diplomat skillfully reaches out to the Babylonian kings he served (who ruled the Judean exiles) and there’s not a peep of protest from God about that. Also, God himself grants repentance to King Nebuchadnezzar, who then “glorifies the King of heaven because . . . all his ways are just” (Daniel 4:37).
We also have the astonishing healing of Naaman the leper, a strange incident described in 2 Kings 5, which Jesus himself affirms to make a point (Luke 4:27). Naaman is a decorated Aramean (Syrian) general, a man of war and of blood, and highly regarded by the King of Aram. So he is not merely appearing as a foreigner when he arrives with his retinue before the king of Israel and, soon afterward, the prophet Elisha. Namaan represents a menacing political power that was hostile to ancient Israel, and he may have participated in a recent war against Israel. Yet this “is the man,” writes Jacques Ellul, “to whom God will manifest his love” (The Politics of God and the Politics of Man). And what love! Naaman, a sworn enemy, gets a miracle from God. He is healed of his leprosy.
Maxim 5: God will bring about the political future he desires.
When all has been said and done, after God has put everything in its proper place and in its proper non-place, the future is God’s. Including the political future. Now we can read long passages, such as Isaiah 54 and 60 and the end of the book of Revelation, and think that we have been given many details about that future. But no. God holds his future close to his chest. Scripture gives us enough glittering generalities to tease us, not enough to draw detailed conclusions. “It is not for you to know,” Jesus told his disciples before his ascension. “But you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8). The task our Lord sets before us, then, is not to become all-knowing, end-time prophets. The task, which is the path, is one of witness. But witness to what?
There are, of course, many and diverse paths on which to be responsible witnesses for Christ, as the wide variety of Christian callings makes clear. At the heart of them all, I believe, must be our Christian witness as epistles of God’s shalom. For shalom is at the heart of the gospel and therefore central to whatever future we anticipate from our Lord and Redeemer. When it comes to our political witness, then, certainly as Christians our paths must follow that of Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace. Notice that the context here, in Isaiah 9:6-7, is that of “government,” of which it is said there will be no end to Sar Shalom’s “government and peace (shalom).” We, then, are to be epistles of that anticipated future of shalom in the here and now.
The problem, whether we are politicians or mere voters seeking to be responsible citizens, is that we sinful creatures too easily fall prey to analyzing a national crisis and offering a fix from a political wisdom that depends on the “basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossian 2:8). So it makes sense occasionally to hit pause and ask ourselves: what kind of future are we the witnesses of, politically?
Is it the political agenda of right wing or left wing ideologues? Do those outside the faith see us as patriots of an eschatology principled by national exceptionalism rather than by the kingdom of God on earth? Are we so heartily Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Conservative, Labour, or Liberal Democrat that we have become sectarian? How closely the paths of our political lives – in which we have obediences to God to perform – follow being witnesses to the future of shalom that God has in store, which, if the Book is to be believed, Jesus died to obtain, including for the healing of nations (Revelation 22:2)?
A close reading of the many shalom passages in the Bible will turn up many aspects of meaning. The one I want to note here is that of shalom as economic, social, and political well-being, or flourishing. Whether we are politicians or mere voters, let us as responsible Christians be living epistles of that kind of shalom, one based on Jesus Christ, Sar Shalom.
In his provocative book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, Richard Middleton, commenting on Romans 8:19-22, writes, “The inner logic of this holistic vision is that the creator . . . is working to salvage and restore the world (human and nonhuman) to the fullness of shalom and flourishing intended from the beginning. And redeemed human beings, renewed in God’s image, are to work toward and embody this vision in their daily lives” (p. 27).
The wonder of it all is that, while God gives us glimpses of the anticipated future in glittering generalities, he calls us to work out the details in the here and now, even in political life. It is a hugely challenging responsibility. Surely it must be part of our discipleship in this area to humbly and prayerfully, and with trusted others, steadily identify and exorcise from our witness whatever values, attitudes, influences, and voices conflict with the peaceable way of wisdom that comes from above (James 3:17).
Shalom for all of life is God’s promise for the anticipated at future. Political life does not get a miss. Does this seem strange to us today? If so, we are not alone. Upon hearing it preached by Jesus and seeing it demonstrated by him who is history’s goal, people “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their teachers.” Dumbfounded, they asked, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matthew 7:29; 13:54). Yes, where?
It is in finding the where and demonstrating it in political life that we guard against cynicism as witnesses on the path to the anticipated future.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Top image, KAZVorpal, permission via Flickr Creative Commons.
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