Like it or not, politics plays a key role in society

In his witty book The Devil’s Dictionary, the late nineteenth social critic and satirist Ambrose Bierce defined politics thusly: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” He being dead yet speaketh. Certainly, politics in America today would be similarly defined by many people.

I thought about Bierce’s definition recently, after a long conversation with someone who wanted nothing to do with politics. His final words on the subject, said with great conviction, were, “I don’t believe in politics.” End of conversation.

Not long afterward I ran into someone on the other end of the spectrum, who told me, “I’m running for political office.” That reminded me of Noah Webster’s definition. The language reformer famous for compiling a comprehensive dictionary, and a near-contemporary of Bierce, defined politics this way:

“The science and art of government; the science dealing with the organization and regulation of a state, in both its internal and external affairs. The theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties; hence political affairs, principles, convictions, opinions, sympathies.”

Seen that way, certainly politics has an essential role to play in the proper functioning of a city, country, state, or nation.

And yet we hear widespread disillusion of politics in sound bites across the land. “We need to fire this President and hire a new one.” “Government needs to be run like a business.” “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” “They just want your money.” “Government is the problem.”

James Skillen, the president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice (Washington, DC), and a leading political theologian of our time, has a lot of sympathy for people who are mad as a hornet at politics and want nothing to do with it. But he goes beyond sympathy to solutions. Skillen calls for us to rethink how we understand politics and government. This we can do, he says, if we take time to reflect on important, and often ignored, questions, such as what is government for and how should its responsibilities be properly exercised? And what responsibilities are we as citizens to have in political life?

Answers to such questions aid in discovering what government should be. If we don’t know what government should be, how will we be responsible citizens? How will we know what our politicians should be doing? This is true of all other areas of life as well. If we don’t know what families or businesses or schools are for, how will we know how to run them for the good of society? How would we know what parents or managers or educators should be doing?

As parents, managers, or educators, we don’t begin from scratch. From childhood we are situated in a cultural context and have absorbed, or been taught, ideas, values, and principles about parenting, managing, and teaching in that context. If we had lived in ancient Greece or feudal Europe we would have had quite a different view of these areas. In whatever age we are talking about, including in America today, we cannot avoid asking how should we responsibly engage in these areas?

human eyeOf political life, Skillen writes that one of our big problems is that we tend to think more in terms of what government can do, rather than what it should be. And he has thought long and hard about what government should be. His answer in The Good of Politics, his most recent book, is to understand politics and government as “political community.” And he goes further, offering a vision for developing “just political communities,” whether they are local, statewide, or national.

In a just political community, he writes, echoing Webster, not Bierce, “Those who would aspire to become governing officials should be trained in the art of governance, the art of public service, the art of statecraft. As in other spheres of life, officers of government should be servant leaders, that is, public servants. And the politics of such a political community must be organized around the participation and representation of citizens who bear a responsibility for the common good.”

It’s a good vision, worthy of developing and acting on, whether we are fed up with politics or running for office or somewhere on the spectrum between the two poles. Anyone who cares about the good of this country should take Webster and Skillen up on it.

Charles Strohmer writes about politics, religion, international relations, and diplomacy. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

This editorial originally published in The Mountain Press (Sunday, February 18, 2018).

Images: U.S. Capitol/AP Photo John Elswick. Human eye, via Creative Commons, (Cesar R).

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

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Reconstructing American Political Community

Creative Commons imageAmong the three main points of my previous post, my first since Donald Trump was elected, I argued that there will be no flourishing political community in America if we do not humbly seek God, praying to become “vessels of civility, grace, and hope – to everyone.” That very general statement needs some particulars, and the little phrase “to everyone” is a key.

As Timothy Sherratt (Gordon College) has said, America is a diverse society, and in it we struggle to give that diversity political expression: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Progressive, and Green – to name just several. The problem is, we’ve stupidly turned our diversity into a house divided. We Christians contribute to this problem whenever we take our political cues from the world, so a big question we face is: how do we as Christians flex our political muscles in a way that – at this current time of discord and division – is biblically just.

This is a question that Sherratt takes seriously in very helpful, recent article in Capital Commentary. Arguing for what he calls re-constructive politics, Sherratt calls us to diversity conversations whose virtues are rooted in the fruit of the Spirit, which, he argues, “are correlates of the character of true power” as understood at Calvary. “Their utility for remaking relationship, both political and personal,” he writes, “is what commends them in the present circumstances.”

With that as a backdrop, Sharratt offers a biblical vision of the nature and purpose of politics in our diversity. I urge you to read this important article. It may surprise you.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image via Creative Commons permission.

A personal note from Charles: My sincere thanks to those of you who follow this blog, and to other readers, who helped my previous post become very widely shared, read, and discussed.

God, the Bible, and American Politics

Donald Trump & White HouseFor 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.

the better angels of our natureMaxim 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.

the earth from spaceMaxim 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.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.


SunsetThe evangelist Reinhard Bonnke recently ran a full-page, color advert in Christianity Today. He’s going to be preaching the gospel at a large stadium in Houston, and a headline for the ad read “America Shall Be Saved.” More gospel preaching across our land? I, for one, welcome this counter to the winds of unjust change that blow in. But I had to ask: Can “America” be saved? Advertising can be deceptive, promising what it cannot fulfill. An advert for the gospel should not do that. But this advert is misleading. Here’s why.

Years ago, when my wife and I were hosting a well-traveled British evangelist and his European wife in our home, Alan (not his real name) and I stepped outside into the warm air, where we wandered the yard and caught each other up on our doings. I heard about his evangelistic work in Africa and the modest success he was having there getting people saved. He heard about the “worldview and wisdom” teaching and writing I was doing those years. Eventually, as can happen with old friends on a lazy sunny day, we got to solving the world problems, and the conversation turned beefy for both of us.

I had been complaining about injustice and corruption in politics and went off on a rant about some law or other Congress had passed. “Not much anyone can do about it now,” I said. Sensing his moment, Alan had the answer: “I’d love to preach the gospel in Washington, DC. Just think how cool it would be to get all those guys saved.”

“But that wouldn’t solve the political problems,” I said. “Leaving aside the fact that we can’t save anyone, sure, what a miracle if suddenly they all got saved tomorrow! But let’s think about this for a minute. Let’s say that one Friday evening you held an evangelistic event for a full session of Congress, had an altar call, and everyone there now had their fire insurance. My question is: What do these pols do on Monday?”

“They go back to work.”

“Right. And what do they go back to work with? Pretend you had been preaching to all the teachers and principals of an entire school district or to all the journalists and editors that work for a corporate news network. They all got saved. Next day they would return to work in the same school system or the same broadcasting organization as the day before. What would have changed in either system?”

Here’s the dilemma. In our thought experiment, the pols themselves would have been changed deeply morally as individuals but the political system itself would have remained largely untouched. Sure, most likely some moral transformations in some of the characters would have resulted in some immediate changes. The Speaker of the House might have repented of adultery. A Senator might have resigned after confessing he stole campaign funds. A legislator might have stepped down because he suddenly felt a call to the poor.

But personal individual moral transformations, crucial as they are, do not remove corruption or injustice from the existing system that is its seedbed. So the pols in Congress would simply return to work with the same old system – the good, bad, and ugly of it – that was previously in place. What else is there? God forbid the government should come to a halt and force us to rethink it! No. No. A thousands time No. Just throw more money at it. Keep it going.

Congress in sessionIn an article he wrote many years before I was thinking about this issue, Jim Skillen nailed it: “Just laws and good public policies will not automatically flow from a renewal of individual ethical concern, and public justice will not automatically take care of itself if we simply concentrate hard enough on our families and schools and churches.”

Gospel-shaped moral transformations of individuals must lead to degrees of moral recovery not only of our homes, schools, and news rooms but of all aspects of society. If not, godly obedience is found wanting and the winds of corruption and injustice will blow into every quarter with increasing strength. In other words, a gospel-shaped wisdom will only influence society “by way of dedicated, purposeful action fit for each arena” – including law and politics.

“A republic,” Skillen concludes, “cannot be reformed apart from action by citizens prepared to serve their civic neighbors through laws and policies that do justice to all. Political renewal requires political action. Legal reform requires wise juridical acts and judgments. No shortcuts are available. Nothing human automatically cares of itself.”

Those saved school teachers and journalists and pols would have to move on from individual moral change to the long hard work of going back to the Book, and finding other wise resources as well, for helping to make the systems less corrupt and more just for all. But especially back to the Book.

Scripture, of course, doesn’t carry encyclopedic knowledge for answering every question that will come up. Not even close. But as a professor friend of mine likes to say: “Scripture may impinge on whatever is being tackled, so the right way to begin any investigation is to start by seeing what God might have to say about it.”

Will America itself be saved? Not just its people? Not by what takes place in Houston. Get everyone saved night after night there, and the song remains the same: “What happens the next day when?”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer