The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

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).

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

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.

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“AMERICA SHALL BE SAVED”

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