A Mixed Field
Jesus once described the world as a field full of both grain and weeds (Matt. 13:37–43). So what should we expect in this weedy world?
We should expect sin. We should expect some politicians to accept graft, and some executives to sell out their companies and shareholders and customers for personal gain. We should expect drunk driving and drug pushing and cartels and sexual assault and stock manipulation and terrorism and a hundred other evils.
Beyond outright sin, we should expect waste. It should not shock us that governments and armies and corporations and schools waste money. It should not shock us that institutions waste people's time and waste people's talents and waste the earth's resources. Indeed, beyond sin and waste, we should expect stupidity and absurdity, vanity and promiscuity. And we should also expect a certain amount of confusion in which it is not always clear what is weed and what is grain.
Furthermore, we must reckon not only with what is bad out there, but also with what is bad in here: in our individual selves and in our most sacred institutions, whether families, churches, or other Christian organizations.
Reckoning means "acting accordingly," thus structuring and conducting our lives so as to restrain the evil within us and the evil without us as best we can, and responding properly when those restraints give way, as they so often do. Such reckoning also means that we do not wait until our motives have resolved into perfect purity before we attempt to do God's work, since few of us consider ourselves "entirely sanctified" as of yet. Furthermore, such reckoning means that we not only are not shocked by impure motives in others, but also that we presume impure motives in others. Doing so, we yet will decide sometimes to support them, cooperate with them, and praise them for their successes, since we do not demand of them an unrealistic purity.
We will always wish it were otherwise, and we will demand legality at least and high principle at best. But we will not merely wring our hands and despair of politics until a truly good political option appears. For we would then have to wait for Jesus' return and remain useless politically in the meanwhile (except perhaps in the limited role of chiding everyone else for failing to be as good as he is). We will expect our leaders—in state, commerce, the professions, and also the church—to be tempted by power, money, and fame. So we will construct the healthiest possible hierarchies, which will both help them resist temptation and protect the rest of us from their expected failures to do so.
All of these negative expectations, however, arise not out of despair, which enervates and immobilizes, but out of both clear-eyed empirical analysis and our own theology, which illuminate and motivate. For our theology, which contains a robust doctrine of sin, includes also robust doctrines of both providence and redemption. God set up institutions to bless us, despite their corruption, and he continues to work through them. God also rules history and aids those who press for greater shalom in those institutions. God is not discouraged by the evil evident in ourselves and our world. He is sad about it, angry at it, and grieved by it, but not discouraged. He works away at it, knowing that his labor is certain to produce fruit. And he has called us to do the same as human beings and as Christians.
Wise Christian Politics Is Complicated
In the light of this reality, we can now see that there are three kinds of people who undertake political action. The ideologue has it easiest. He simply asks himself, in any situation on any issue, what's ultimately right. Then he does everything he can to realize that ideal.
That's the way many Christians have engaged in political action, whether on the Left, Right, or whatever. If we believe that abortion is wrong, then we work to outlaw it. If we think that gay marriage is consonant with Christian values, then we should make it legal. Graphic movies, globalization, immigration, climate change—whatever it is we believe is right on any issue, we simply seek to universalize by whatever means are available.
The pragmatist also starts with the question of what's ultimately right. But then she carefully appraises the situation and works for what she deems currently possible. If abortion is wrong, but the best she can do is get a ban on partial-birth abortions, she works for that. If gay marriage is wrong, but the best she can do is see "civil unions" instituted instead, then that's what she aims for.
The pluralist asks what's ultimately right and what's currently possible. But he interposes a third, admittedly odd question between those two: What is penultimately (second to last/second-best) right? Might it be God's will that what is ultimately right not prevail immediately?
The pluralist Christian might have strong views about x. He is also pragmatic enough to know that a total ban on alternatives to his views of x is unlikely in his society. But he is also willing to consider the possibility that in God's providence, it is better for there to be more than one view of x allowed in society. He might see that, yes, ultimately God's will is to get rid of this or that, but penultimately it serves God's purposes for society to allow this or that to remain.
Let's consider an easy example. It is ultimately better that all speech be accurate, eloquent, and edifying. But most of us Christians think it's best for our societies to allow for considerable freedom in speech. For some good things to happen, we concede, some not-so-good things and even some bad things must be allowed to remain.
Thus, wise Christian politics has a difficult three-fold task: to determine what is ultimately right, to determine what is penultimately best, and to work for what is politically possible.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Wise Christian Politics
Christianity Today has an excellent article by John G. Stackhouse Jr. titled: A Variety of Evangelical Politics. The point of the article is to review some books that reveal how diverse evangelicals are when it comes to political thought and action. What I found really helpful was the last part of the article, a section which I have copy/pasted here. Here Stackhouse outlines three typical approaches Christians take to political involvement - the third way best describes what I have been trying to figure out. It was helpful to me, it may be helpful to you. Read the pasted section below, and then read the whole article at CT.