Pastor Greenbean, as most of you know, is apolitical. I equally throw barbs at the right and the left. In all seriousness, we have a problem in the United States; we are far too divided. Jesus said a house divided cannot stand. Recently a friend of mine, Dr. David Caddell, posted the following comments on his Facebook page. I asked for permission to re-blog his thoughts here. David is a professor of Sociology at Ouachita Baptist University. I met him when he was at Seattle Pacific University and lived nearby, and we have recently co-authored a book on Romans. This is a long blog–but worth the read.
As a few of my friends know (especially those of you with whom I am entering my third and fourth decade of friendship), I have always been uncomfortable with politics. In fact, I have always been uncomfortable with conflict of any kind. Maybe it’s because I did not want anyone to leave what seems to be my ever-shrinking circle of friends. Perhaps I am a coward, and I have found some good intellectual and spiritual ways to legitimate my cowardice. I hope I am being intellectually honest in my assessment of what is going on these days, but I certainly do make room for the possibility that I am the one who has gone off the deep end. I also hope that while, in our present circumstances candor can be dangerous, it can also be therapeutic.
Since we all speak from somewhere, I will say that I speak from the vantage point of a Christian and an academic. In the desire for intellectual honesty, I would say I tend to be a political moderate, which is often taken to mean I don’t feel strongly about anything. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. I place myself in the “moderate” camp because I don’t see a “pragmatist” camp anywhere. I find myself supporting ideas from a variety of sources, depending on the issue. I find myself in opposition to many ideas as well, but above all, I oppose “culture warring” and effectively doing nothing while people are suffering. In the U.S., we still have an unemployment problem, poverty still remains much higher than it should be, children are going unfed and undereducated, we still have many innocent people rotting in prison with no relief because the system is screwed up, our economy has been in shambles for almost ten years now, and our debt is out of control (after the last 12 years, no one can tell me that one party or the other has the answer to that one). Abroad, we are still at war, AIDS is still rampant in Africa, and 40,000 people a day die of malnutrition. As a result, I desperately want to hear ideas, not political pap (and stuff that rhymes with pap). What I do sense more than anything is that the outcome of this election (whatever that might be) is not likely to change any of these things.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the how the current election cycle has filled me to the brim with pessimism, as has every election cycle since I was old enough to become a reflective observer of current events. It’s not that I have rarely found someone that I could fully agree with, although that has certainly always been the case. My discomfort is more attributable to character of our national debate and the tribal nature of our politics, where a candidate (“liberal” or “conservative,” it doesn’t seem to matter in this regard) is worthy of uncritical support simply because they are “one of us,” even when we know nothing of their plans should they assume office.
While there has probably always been an element of this, I remember first becoming aware of this when I was twelve years old, and I saw many of the adults around me suggesting that they should vote for Jimmy Carter (a democrat) because he was “one of us.” The concomitant discomfort that now travels with this phenomenon began for me during the next election, when those very same people supported Ronald Reagan (a republican), because he was “one of us.”
I thought this had reached its zenith (I’m hoping) during the 2000 and 2004 elections, when George W. Bush was given a free pass on just about everything by those whose traditionalist persuasion he claimed. I saw him actually court the traditionalist vote by promising to work toward overturning Roe v Wade (one of the signature issues on their agenda), to maintain some form of fiscal discipline, and to resist the temptation of making the U.S. the world’s policeman by engaging in nation building. Yet, all these promises were abandoned. Specifically, he spent the country into oblivion (which has continued under the current administration), led the United States into war under false pretenses, and, did very little to effect the traditionalist agenda on abortion (in the 11 months from the time Samuel Alito was confirmed to the Court, President Bush had a sympathetic court, Republicans in charge of both houses of congress, and the White House. How many pieces of legislation were put forward in support of the traditionalist agenda? Zero.)
Why such strange support for candidates who claim to hold views and then abandon them? Because they are “one of us,” and that’s better than the other guy. This illustrates just how tribal our culture has become as a result of this “culture war” mentality we have adopted over the past 40 years or so. In the U.S., we like to think we do things better than other countries, but we seem to have devolved to become more like those we fight against. In this culture war, each side seems to prop up a spokesman for their side, and we tend to follow that ideological warlord regardless of what they do, simply because they are “one of us.” At the same time, we seem to have abandoned the idea that compromising with someone with whom we disagree is not anathema, and might actually benefit everyone.
What is the ultimate outcome of all this? Only God knows, I suppose. But I think it’s bad. In the short run, it’s terrible. We have totally trashed the assumption of healthy, vigorous debate (and compromise) that our republic is supposed to be predicated on. In fact, we seem to have defaulted to raw, naked power democracy where all we have to do is get enough votes and we can trample over the sensibilities, even the rights, of those who disagree with us. Does this mean the disagreements we are having over the issues bedeviling us at the moment mean nothing? Absolutely not. In fact, since direction determines destination, these issues are going to be determinative of our future and need to be settled. What I am saying is that they will never be adequately settled by staying on the current destructive path we are on at present.
So, what are those among the redeemed community to do?
On the issue of compromise, I would never suggest that this is equivalent to accommodating ones values, especially among those honestly trying to live a life of holiness. However, in “standing up for righteousness” in a free society (especially one founded on religious freedom), if I desire to codify those values into law, I don’t have to accommodate my values, but I should be able to justify them in ways that are accessible to people of all faiths (or none) rather than simply citing the scriptures or my own convictions. I see only trouble ahead if we continue the attempt to utilize the government to enforce a form a righteousness around which we have no national consensus. Do we really want government to stay out of our lives on the specific issues that we care about and then to act as everyone else’s nanny so they don’t engage in behavior we might find disagreeable?
Another few thoughts on the issue of standing up for righteousness in the public arena. First, we may be in need of a more biblical definition of “righteousness.” As a Christian, when I am reading the Bible, it is important for me to interpret/apply the scriptures through the lens of the teachings of Jesus. How does Jesus describe those who are righteous at the judgment? “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” . In that regard, I don’t see much effort by culture warriors on any side to legislate this kind of “righteousness.” Instead I see ungracious ad hominem attacks and bickering, unbecoming of anyone who presents themselves as standing up for righteousness. At the same time, I see no teachings in the Sermon on the Mount on when Christ’s lessons may be suspended in favor of the ungracious behavior often exhibited by those who claim to stand up for righteousness.
Again, I would never suggest that anyone should refrain from standing up for righteousness. I am suggesting that how we stand up for righteousness matters. I have talked to more than one candidate for local and congressional offices that told me that they wanted to be in power because they wanted to bring this country back to righteousness. I could not agree more with their motives (I too, want to see our nation turn back to the God who loves them), but I could not disagree more with their method. Jesus certainly stood up for righteousness and justice, but he never sought to accomplish this through political power. Jesus never taught believers to seek the redemption or righteousness of the world through political power. None of the Twelve or Paul ever suggested that any power other than that of the holy spirit would accomplish this. So, even if the culture warriors on various sides were to win their battle for “righteousness,” they won’t get what they seek because it is a spiritual impossibility. In fact, in any culture war, even if you win, you lose. You have driven away the very people we are called to reach. This is why a large proportion of our population (which 30 years ago viewed people like us as harmless fanatics) now view Christians as “dangerous.”
Besides being inconsistent with scripture, the approach to making progress along any sort of ideological agenda by electing Christians (or those who share our values) has already proven to be a failure over the past 40 years. Evangelical Christians thought they had hit the jackpot when both Reagan and George W. were elected. In fact, the evangelicals who supported them got very little in return for their efforts except the dubious distinction of having linked the gospel of Christ with one political party’s agenda.
Why hasn’t the approach of pursuing a “Christian” agenda for the United States through political power been successful? The sociology behind this is pretty simple. Individuals change in response to the expectations of the roles they occupy. The roles do not change in response to the will of individuals. This is why it has been demonstrated over and over that power corrupts. So, if you want someone who is going to remain concerned about the righteousness of their cause, it’s probably not a good idea to elect them as president. As a prophet, I have one constituency to be concerned with. As president, I am beholden to so many people who got me elected. You can bet that favors will be done to show gratitude. As Ed Dobson (former Associate Pastor to Jerry Falwell and executive of the Moral Majority) once said, “You can either be the prophet, or you can be king. But you can’t be both.”
Lastly, do we really believe in the sovereignty of God or not? I hear evangelicals shouting out quite often how the U.S. is doomed if one candidate or another gets elected. This always stirs me to ask a few questions. Is God sovereign or not? Do we really think than any of the temporal events about which we are so anxious have taken God by surprise? Must we really have “one of us” in political power for God to be in control of our destiny? Instead, it seems to me the Biblical theology we hold dear should allow us to “be anxious for nothing,” participate as good citizens, and leave the future of our country and ourselves to the Almighty.