How Christians Value Politics

The world is a den of murderers, subject to the Devil. If we desire to live on earth, we must be content to be guests in it, and to lie in an inn where the host is a rascal, whose house has over the door this sign or shield, ‘For Murder and Lies.’
-Martin Luther

It’s good for Christians to keep politics in an eternal perspective. By that, I mean we need to recognize that we live in a fallen world that will be destroyed in fire and created anew entirely apart from our politics. Our parties, our nations, our ideologies, and our causes will neither spare it from the fire nor immanentize the new creation. Satan is the prince of this world and our politics do no prevent us from living as guests in his treacherous inn. Nevertheless, he has already been defeated by Christ alone in a victory without politics that will be unveiled to everyone on a Last Day known only to the Father.

These things are useful to keep in mind because they temper our political zeal by reminding us where the cosmic buck really stops. As I’ve written before, placing the world on our own shoulders tempts us to desperation. When, for example, people take it upon themselves to end all suffering in the world because they think there’s no benevolent sovereign power, they will pay any price to make it happen. After all, we have to do somethinganything–if we are to have any chance of peace. The past century and it’s 9-digit body counts are a monument to the progressive political ideologies which would make any sacrifice for utopia.

They are also useful reminders that Christians need to keep the Two Kingdoms straight–not relying on the State to redeem souls or the Church to execute temporal justice. Though Christians have political responsibilities, the Church itself does not. What’s more, while there is a seemingly ever-growing necessity to condemn various political actions and advocacy under God’s Law, we must never confuse our politics with the Gospel. Whatever good political works the Gospel may lead us into, they are consequences of salvation rather than prerequisites.

But there is an important distinction to be made between keeping politics in perspective and trivializing them–an alternative that can be seen in tweets like this: [HT: Nathan Rinne]

It’s an example of a very common sentiment among contemporary Christians.  Statements like these are likely intended to provide perspective to political ideals, but in actuality, they provide nothing more than confusion.  The idea is flawed in several key ways:

First, it reduces service to neighbor to mere interest and entertainment, as though there were no greater relevance.

The implication here seems to be that people get caught up in politics as a kind of pastime or amusement; and because it’s here in Babylon, they aren’t engaging with anything more significant. The problem is that this isn’t God’s perspective on earthly politics. On the contrary, the left-hand kingdom is established by God for the sake of our well-being in this world. As Paul makes clear in Roman’s 13, the governing authorities are God’s servants for our benefit whose responsibilities include commending right-doers and punishing evil-doers.

This means that the people who fill these offices are tasked by God with important work in service to their neighbors. In the United States, a substantial measure of that authority is given to ordinary citizens, for our governing bodies were founded with ideals of self-government in mind. So when we engage in politics–even as voters and citizens engaging in political discourse–we are acting as servants of God for the good of our neighbors. If even God doesn’t dismiss Babylonian government as merely interesting and entertaining, why should we think it pious for us to do so?

To be sure, politics aren’t the only way of helping our neighbors. More than that, they’re not even the best way of helping our neighbors. A mother caring for her child or a man raking his elderly neighbor’s leaves is more fundamental to human happiness than any amount of blathering by talking heads. Nevertheless, all of our political officials, institutions, and conversations are ordained to be means by which we help live among one another peaceably. Since God has given us this work, we ought to embrace it rather than hold ourselves aloof from it in our false piety.

Second, it ignores vocation by setting all earthly allegiances against our ultimate allegiance to Christ.

As we’ve already considered, governing authorities–including citizens and voters in the United States–are servants of God. We have been appointed to care for a specific set of neighbors: American citizens. As such, we ought to have earthly allegiances to our nation and, for her sake, also to those organizations that truly hold her best interests at heart. And just like we ought to concern ourselves more with our own children and families than with others’, we should also concern ourselves more with our own nation and her politics than others. After all, God has called us to those tasks specifically by putting us where we are. We choose neither our parents nor the nation into which we are born–both are gifts of God.

Of course our highest allegiance must always be to Christ who brings us to our true homes. Nevertheless, we have lesser allegiances to our nations and consequent concerns for her well-being precisely because we have allegiance to Christ first.

Finally, it creates a dichotomy between “redemptive” and “not-redemptive” which is not terribly useful.

It’s true that politics are not redemptive–certainly not in the sense that Christ’s atoning death is. But that’s an argument that proves far too much. As one who believes in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I necessarily confess that absolutely nothing else is redemptive in that sense. God becoming man, dying on a cross for the sins of mankind, and drawing us into faith towards God is utterly unique. When something is matchless and incomparable to such a sublime extent, it’s not particularly meaningful to ding anything other than idols for not matching it or comparing favorably with it.

But in the end, it becomes worse than merely useless, because when taken to its logical conclusion, it effectively leads to nihilism with respect to this life. Caring for your children isn’t redemptive in that sense.  Feeding the hungry isn’t redemptive in that sense.  Writing a novel or painting a mural isn’t redemptive in that sense.  And no, politics isn’t redemptive in that sense.  Nothing you or anyone else does in their life is. If everything that isn’t redemptive in that sense is no more relevant than an entertaining curiosity while you’re stuck here in Babylon, then the sum total of all of our lives on Earth is irrelevant.

And yes, there is a reason that I keep saying “redemptive in that sense.” Ironically, this kind of nihilism blinds people to a different sense in which such simple and everyday work is redemptive. In 1 Timothy 2, when Paul explains why women aren’t called to the pastoral office, he instead points women to their unique early calling of motherhood. In doing so, he describes it in a remarkable way: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” While Paul certainly isn’t saying women are saved by childbearing, neither is he afraid to speak of an earthly vocation as being related to one’s salvation in a turn of phrase that would make many Christians today aghast.

But then, Christ does something similar when he talks about the final judgement in Matthew 25. When he welcomes believers into his kingdom, he will say “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The righteous will be surprised at this, for even they didn’t realize that their simple acts of kindness to God’s people had such significance. Neither will the cursed realize the significance of their inaction.

Neither Jesus nor Paul are teaching that we are going to be saved by our good deeds on the Last Day. We are, however, going to be saved through them–they are inevitable stops along the way. These are the paths through which God leads us into eternal life–or, at times, through which He drags us kicking and screaming. God produces meaningful works in those whose faith saves them. Among those meaningful works are things like politics in which he calls us to serve the nation into which we were born. These works don’t redeem us, but they are fruit of that redemption which cannot help but to grow on the vine. If God’s work inevitable produces in this way, then who are we to cast shade on it all as merely interesting and entertaining?

It’s true enough that we shouldn’t place too much significance on politics or any other work. But what that means is that we are not to remove them from the place that God has given them. In their attempts to be piously above it all, many Christians do precisely this, using Christ as their excuse. But the Christian life isn’t a life in which we’re above it all–it’s a life in which God Himself brings us through it all.

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