Christian Nonparticipation in State Politics
I’ve been having a lot of interesting discussions with several friends lately, regarding the relationship between the Church and the State. I’ve often either been criticised or questioned (in a friendly way) about how I happen to view this dynamic, and I suppose this is because I’ve been seen as “idealistic” or else impractical about many of my perceptions regarding how the Christian is best to respond to politics. In a sense, it doesn’t logically follow that one would remove themselves entirely from politics, because politics is a component of everyday life – it permeates how we view our interactions with people, how we respond to our economy and the means of exchange we utilise, how we feel about issues such as third world debt and climate change, our feelings regarding war and peace, so on and so forth. Since politics is an expression of how we respond to each other, the question becomes not are we political, but how are we political?
Now I’ve talked a lot on this blog in the past about how I feel Christians are not called to participate in State authority, but I am constantly explicating a reasoning as to why this is so, and I’m sure that the reasons I’ve gone through in the past are not particularly convincing. Not because I’m necessarily out to “convince” others, but I imagine that if this view held some sort of truth to it, then one would expect it to have at least some kind of valid support, however debatable it might be.
One of the major difficulties with forging an appropriate Christian response to the State is that there are actually many ways to engage with it, ranging from entering the ballot and casting our vote, all the way up to the seat of Premier. Even if one distances themselves from the direct processes of governmental election, then there are still other ways to engage with government, such as through protest, campaigning, and lobbying (which, as some of you know, I happen to personally be involved in). Given the complexity and diversity of these various forms of engagement, how on earth is the Christian to know whether something is right or wrong, or at the very least helpful or unhelpful?
I feel it’s important to say from the outset that I will most likely be asking myself these questions and forging these opinions until the day I die and God shows me the right way; for now, I, like anyone else, know in part and prophesy in part, and so I can only stand confident in my own perspectives and hope that others might gain something positive from them as much as I gain something positive from the perspectives of others. It is my sincere prayer that we balance the confidence to express our individual convictions with the humility we need to view each other as both student and teacher. May God enlighten us all equally in the ways we are right and the ways we are wrong.
Having said all that, I would like to make a personal exploration of how I view my own response to State politics.
I was having a discussion about this very subject earlier with my friend Carl, and while we disagree on the issue in some prominent respects, our agreement is found in that we both see the State as a “necessary evil.” Ultimately, there is no getting away from this, that the world requires governmental authority as a means to instill order in society and to keep the status quo set by means of law and control. In fact, the entire thrust of Romans 13 is that God uses the authorities precisely for this, and that because of this we are called to “submit” to them. I discuss this topic in more detail in this post, so I need not go into detail here, but what I will say is that there is certainly a Biblical precedent for the governing authorities to be as they are, and that to overthrow them would either be disastrous for humanity or else would leave a vacuum for some other power to fill.
In light of passages like Romans 13, the argument often comes that surely it is good, then, for Christians to engage in governmental processes and they are able to serve both God and man in this way? I could certainly understand this position, but I must disagree with it for the following reasons:
1.) Any Christian who enters a position of direct political authority will ultimately have to make a compromise in their personal ethics. For example, the leaders of any particular country must necessarily be prepared to resort to military intervention if need be. This will happen either if the situation calls for it, or else the citizens of this country demand such intervention. While this is obviously hypothetical, I can certainly imagine the kind of outcry that would result if a national leader said that he was going to divert all military funding into constructive purposes, or if s/he were called to a situation of having to engage the military and instead opted not to resort to such action. As the institution of government currently stands, it necessarily relies on violence to maintain its structures, and Christians have been called to lay down our swords, to love our enemies, and bless those who curse us. I submit it would be very difficult if not impossible for a person in political authority to hold to this ethic, at least the higher up in ranks they travelled.
2.) The problem of violence itself is but one component within the larger dynamic of national citizenship. A person who enters a position of authority isn’t just plagued by the problem of violence, for even if a government acted in a completely nonviolent manner, they would need to consider that their allegiance becomes owed to the nation forming the parameters over which that institution operates. The reason this is problematic for the Christian is that we have our citizenship in Heaven alone, and the love to which we are called compels us to extend love to all humanity in a way that national borders cannot contain. As it is written in Galatians 3:26-29, all the socio-economic barriers which usually stand in our way are effectively removed when we are found to be in Christ Jesus. Salvation is a social event which brings humanity into unity with one another, leaving behind the old illusions of political division, whether they be racial, economic, gender-based, or anything else. In plain and simple terms, how can someone serve two masters?
3.) The concept of hierarchy is one which the world needs, but which Christians reject in favour of humility and cooperation. While it is true that not everyone who seeks to enter political office is doing so because they crave power (and indeed, I acknowledge wholeheartedly that many do seek such positions out of sincerity, integrity, and a genuine heart to serve), they are necessarily forming part of a structure based on the foundation of certain individuals exercising forceful dominion over others. Now some might say “What is wrong with that? We can’t let society run amok!” And I completely agree. The point I’m making is that Christians are called to a different way of operating. In Mark 10:35-45, Jesus rebukes the disciples James and John for seeking positions of power. He informs them that they are seeking the wrong things, illustrating how the rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them” and explaining to the disciples that this was not going to be the case with them. Rather, for the followers of Christ, true greatness is found in being the slave of all people, and being willing to act in love toward everyone regardless of position and national identity. The power relationship inherent in systems of government automatically mean that the Christian will have to compromise on this ethic, devoting their service to one particular nation and holding dominion over others, when in fact they are called to serve all nations and to hold no power other than that of the Holy Spirit who drives us to offer ourselves in love.
This of course is a summation, and the above is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather the most pertinent examples of why I feel Christians are not called to be part of governmental authority. To use words I spoke to another very good friend of mine the other day, it is as if we say to the State:
“You rely on military force, but we espouse peace. You say that we should serve our country, but we are citizens of Heaven and view every nation as our home. You maintain order by bullets, law courts, and prisons, but we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and seek their redemption, not their destruction. You horde wealth and power for yourselves and commend those who do the same, yet we have sold everything we have to live among each other and serve all humanity.”
If all of that happens, and more aside, why is there anymore need for the State as far as a follower of Christ is concerned? I see that the Church is meant to offer a way of life alternative to the world’s ways of working, where the focus is very much on power, material wealth, consumerism, nationalism, and the ends justifying the means. Our function on earth is to be agents of transformation for the power of God to work in the world and eventually restore it, which I don’t perceive can be done (or at least, would come highly difficult) via authoritarian means.
Now, there are other problems involved here. Some might argue that we require government in order to make changes that the individual could never otherwise make on their own. Others might agree with some or most of the arguments I’ve posited above, but might, say, opt to vote as a concession to the way things currently are. Now as I stated earlier, I really don’t want to approach this from a standpoint of condemnation, because I can perfectly understand those arguments myself. When we want certain matters of justice changed, it seems almost a foregone conclusion to turn to those in power for our desires, and voting is but one of the ways in which this is done. Likewise, I could certainly understand how sincere Christians feel compelled to seek change through involving themselves in the partisan process. Again, the problem is, are we focusing on the correct matters? A foregone conclusion our dependency on government might be, but could it possibly be an illusion that fools us into thinking we hold no real influence of our own? Desperation can certainly get the better of us, but I would submit that there has come a compromise on the Christian when s/he feels that a change is better made by participating in the process of law and legislation, without asking the questions about how those changes could be made by the love, gifts, and empowerment accorded to us by God. In spite of the State’s failings, how can we be acting both as individuals and as a Church to repair the damage of empire? It seems to me that if the members of the worldwide Church committed themselves to asking these questions and enacting them in whatever way we can, instead of relying on ballot papers and politicians, then many of our desires might come to pass, and even if they did not then our actions and convictions would still act as a witness to the governing authorities (Martin Luther King Jr. as a case in point, who held no political power but whose leadership and voice appealed to the conscience of the nation). A large part of the problem, I think, is that we have become so cynical about human nature (and about ourselves) that we see no other alternative than to involve ourselves in the State.
Now how do I reconcile all this by the fact that I am involved in campaigning? I have often been criticised by my friends from both sides for this apparent contradiction, from my fellow campaigners about the subversive inclinations of my faith, and from other subversives about how I am “legitimising” the State by appealing to it. Again, I see that two-kingdom theory comes into play well for this one. I can certainly see there would be a perceived contradiction here, but I do not view it as that simply because I’m not directly involved in the governmental process. I do not seek any power, but at the same time those powers are in existence, and I have faith that God can use them for certain functions the world requires, at least until Christ returns and there is no longer any need for them. Much like we are commanded to pray for those in leadership positions (1 Timothy 2), I see there being a definite need to call the authorities to attention regarding various injustices (such as the ones they might be perpetuating themselves!), otherwise they would never be held to accountability. Not everyone would agree with me on this point, but I see it as a balance between being uncompromising in my convictions while also approaching the world with a sense of realism.
In spite of all this, I know many Christians who are members of political parties or who feel a compulsion to vote, and I do not condemn this, I only speak of how I personally see the problematic nature of such actions. While I see that it becomes progressively harder to enact our Christian morality from the ballot booth to 10 Downing Street (or the White House), there is still a sense in which one may feel faithful to their calling. As with anything else, however, all things are permissible… but which things are helpful?