The HopeLESSness of Politics

Political discussions are seemingly more and more pointless as everyone seems to have such a strong feeling and we have become nearly inept at engaging in any civil discourse at all.  Regardless, I feel inspired to type out some political reflections this morning – perhaps to appease the sadist within.  Here goes nothing.  

First of all, it should be noted that I am not affiliated with a party.  Several times this past week I have been labeled as a liberal and as a Democrat.  This is a false assumption.  I have never aligned myself with a party.  While I respect Christians who do, I have strong feelings of why I think that is not helpful to the promotion of the Gospel.  I have never affiliated myself with a party, I have never joined a party,  I have never given money to a political party.  I am not a single party voter (when I do vote).  I do, however, engage in political discussions. I enjoy them.  I think they are important.  I think they are naturally connected to matters of faith – as I have stated on many occasions – I believe faith is innately political . . .  just not partisan.  My discourse on politics is my discourse on faith – those who try to separate those two have created, in my opinion, a false dichotomy. 

It is true that I am regularly more critical of conservatives than liberals.  This is not because I find liberals any more closely aligned with the purposes of God in the world.  It is the fact, rather, that I find myself in a thoroughly conservative context that makes me especially critical of conservatives.  (By thoroughly I mean white, middle/upper class, suburban, quasi-evangelical – that’s pretty thorough!) This is my context.  I would  liken it to the same way I am more critical of the Cleveland Indians’ front office decisions or Ohio State’s offensive play-calling.  I don’t care about these matters for teams that aren’t my “team.”  If I was in a more liberal-leaning setting, I would undoubtedly find myself more critical of that ideology. 

Contrarily, most articles I read and share on social media are almost exclusively from other Christians.  I don’t get caught up in the political machines through media outlets, but instead search for pastors, Christian leaders, and theologians who chime in on these important matters.  There are certainly these folks who fall across the political spectrum, but I work hard to find those who are working hard to speak of their faith first, from outside the lines the system has drawn. 

The Christian faith is undoubtedly political.  Many Christians would agree with this statement and thus justify their political involvement in the system at hand (“It’s the system that we have – it’s not perfect, but the perfect system doesn’t exist – so we pick the less ‘bad’ option” goes the argument).  This is the mirage of democracy.  I watched a Stanley Hauerwas clip last week where he compared the American election to the ancient Roman circus.  It’s something that the state encourages to distract the people from actively challenging the state.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a time in my life when this seems to be more the case.  This huge emphasis in “getting out the vote” makes it sound like it’s the most important thing you can do.  The jury is still out for me on whether or not I’ll vote this year – to be sure (if I decline, it will be a thoughtful choice and not a nod to apathy or laziness).  However, voting is the least I can do to impact society (Soooo, I guess NOT voting is the least you can do, but my point is that we must keep the “power of our ballot” in perspective – even here in Ohio)! 

My decade long stint in full-time ministry has led me to make the following observation: The single most dangerous idol in the American church is nationalism.  Most Christians are inundated with it to the point that they don’t even realize it.  For many, the difference between Gospel and Americana is blurred.  These are strong statements, but it is regularly affirmed to me in my personal experience as well as in broader observation.  Christians should have an easier time relating to Christians from other countries because of their faith – not a more difficult time because of our political allegiances.  Trying to untangle patriotism and faith when it comes to political engagement is like trying to get the gum off of your shoes with your fingers.  I’m convinced that patriotism can have a place in the Christian faith . . . I’m equally convinced that I have yet to see this kind of patriotism on display anywhere. 

With these observations made, here is my two cents on some of the more pressing issues that we’ll hear about during tonight’s debate (and, if you live in Ohio, on the television and radio for the next two weeks):

Economy: This is front and center this year, and this is, perhaps, helping show our true colors.  Essentially, Romney is running on the platform that he wants to be the CEO of America.  While the ticket certainly has opinions about foreign policy, morality, and the likes, Romney is running as a CEO.  He regularly says, “I’ve turned big companies around in the past, I know how to create jobs, etc.; I will get this big company turned around.”  Obama continues to try and twist poor economic numbers to illustrate that his government-led stimulus has stopped a bad situation from becoming horrible and that taking some more time and some additional government stimulus will continue to turn things around.  Let me be clear about what I think in this regard: You cannot make any biblically justified argument that either of these proposals are more “biblical” than the other.  As soon as you want to rally the troops around the Ten Commandments and the “right” of personal property and the emphasis on hard work in the New Testament, you are met with the overt social welfare that was built in to Israel and the most radical social program I have seen anywhere: Jubilee – where every 50 years a complete economic redistribution happened.  It was a guarantee that no one would become too rich, and no one would become too poor.  Why this isn’t brought up more in economic discussions by Christians is an absolute tragedy.  Nowhere does the Bible sanction any economic system.  Let’s be clear.  It is fine for us to have biblically-informed opinions about what resonates more with the biblical story, but we have to be honest in our assessment.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate an appropriate tax system.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that it is a sin to tax the rich disproportionately to the poor.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that it’s right either.  The Bible speaks loudly about the challenges wealth provides to the Christian. However, nowhere does it indicate that it is a sin to be rich. Some of the most prominent figures in the Bible were rich (Abraham, David, Zaccheus . . . interestingly . . . not too many in the New Testament). 

What concerns me more than the specifics of the economic perspectives of Christians is their rhetoric.  You can have your opinions that taxes are too high or that the government is too big or whatever it might be, but it is easy to shift the conversation to being rooted in selfishness “I worked for this . . . ” “This is my money . . . ”  I’m all for personal possessions and hard work and all of that but when we focus on it, it can often sound like that’s what we’re really fighting for. 

I regularly acknowledge that I’ve never had a class in economics.  I think the whole discussion is fascinating and I regularly try to educate myself further.  A friend once asked me why minister’s don’t take economics classes which I’ve thought a lot about.  I think I’ve come to the conclusions: few people would be all that excited to see the Bible’s teaching on economics.  Dave Ramsey is probably one of the best known Christian financial gurus and I appreciate the many people he’s helped relieve their debt – he’s changed more lives than I ever will.  And yet, I will forever be critical of his economic theology.  Theologically – it’s shoddy.  He uses proof texts cherry picked from all throughout Scripture to best maneuver through capitalism as a Christian and completely avoids the more socially-accountable texts.   It’s hard for ministers to talk about the economics of the Bible because few of us have come to terms with living out the teachings.  We’ve punted the discussion to economists and let them argue this or argue that – but the discussion of economics rarely stimulates serious Bible study – if it did it would scare the hell out of us, not convince us that one of these two has the economic answers.  We’re part of an economic system that works because it has always had a bottom class to oppress: whether it was slaves in the beginning, or sweat shop workers in the midst of Industrialization, or now Third World sweat shops that are overseas so we don’t have to worry about working conditions.  Maybe our struggles are coming now because our system is running out of bottom rung folks to support the rest of us.  And all of this, doesn’t even take into consideration how thoroughly individualistic capitalism is – again, a completely anti-biblical notion.  

Foreign Policy: I am strongly convinced of a non-violent message throughout the New Testament.  That violence can be redemptive is a myth that continues to carry the sway of many Christians.  “We have to have the largest military so that we can keep peace in our world.”  That is an oxymoron that continues to show itself illogical.  Our military already possesses enough weapons to blow the world up ten times over (more like a hundred times over).  God chooses the smallest nation in the Middle East to be his chosen people, he gives his Son over to die at the hands of the government, he regularly honors the youngest, the least, the weakest . . . and yet we regularly insist that the way the world works is by building bigger, more, and more . . .I can’t think of a prevailing wind of thought that is harder to justify with Scripture. 

Social Programs: The Bible provides little insight into whether or not the government is there to provide social programming.   You may have strong opinions one way or another, but please do not say that the Bible teaches the government was or wasn’t created for this and thus a purpose.  Clearly it is part of the created order and exists for providing order – but all that is included in that “order” is never laid out.  When a government houses and feeds its poorest residents, we can applaud this effort, though we must constantly inquire as to why those poor are poor and what systems keep them there.  The idea that if taxes are cut, private sector and non-for-profit agencies will suddenly be inundated with funding seems naive.  We live in one of the most affluent areas of our city (and indeed the state), and yet the social programing in this area is nearly non-existent – instead, these neighbors work hard to keep social service OUT of their neighborhood.  These folks’ taxes aren’t that high 🙂 

Morality: Here I throw the hot topics of abortion/same sex marriage/death penalty and other matters of life.  While the Democratic party has made their pro-choice stance a platform matter, we should be careful to demonize them as baby-killers and other inflammatory titles.  I have yet to see anyone wishing for a higher abortion rate.  Why can’t we begin here? There are real differences here, but I become so frustrated that the emphasis on abortion so dwarfs consideration of war, torture, and the death penalty. Our country incarcerates far more criminals than any other nation in the world (including China and India despite their huge populations), and yet, among Christians, morality continues to be defined by two issues.  Why a statement like this is linked to partisan beliefs shows how we allow the system to articulate reality.  It’s a broken record, but to me this is a clear indication of how Christians have been used by the political system.  We allow the system to articulate reality – when we should be doing this. 

There is so much more that I can say . . . and we all could say . . . and we all do say . . . caught up in our discussions of these really important matters.  I am as guilty as anyone wanting to prove my point and make my case, and I am reminding myself more and more, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.  That’s where my greatest disappointment is with Christians.  I know that by and large, most of them truly believe that in the end it won’t matter, and that we serve a power higher than all parties and politics.  However, this is often not the message that is broadcast the loudest.  When  we get sucked into conversations about the format of debates, various sound bytes and media appearances, the public “image” of the candidates, and all the other stuff that the political talk shows so often stir up – we’ve lost our way.  We’ve allowed ourselves to get sucked into the circus.  And perhaps, by publishing this post that took me an hour to pound out on the keypad . . . I’m sitting in the front row.