The Good of Politics
by Bruce Riley Ashford
(as found in Letters to an American Christian)

 
Christian,

I'm happy to hear from you again. I wasn't sure if you'd respond to my last letter at all, but you fired back quickly and thoughtfully. You made a number of good points and raised some fine questions, but the one thing that stood out the most to me is your question about whether or not a Christian should "waste his time" with politics. Your question reminds me of the great philosopher, Plato, who once quipped, "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." It also reminds me of Ronald Reagan, perhaps not so great a philosopher, but just as witty. Reagan once said, "Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first." [1]

Plato and the Gipper are not alone. Many people view politics as a disreputable activity, undertaken by people they do not respect, fighting over policies they do not understand. And there is good evidence that something has gone badly wrong in the realm of politics. Even a person who possesses only the dimmest spark of critical reflectiveness can recognize that the political realm is plagued with all sorts of problems and problematic people.

But I think it is a big mistake to conclude that politics is inherently evil or a waste of time. In fact, Christians have good reasons to participate in government and politics. After all, the purpose of government, as I see it, is to do justice to the diversity of individuals and communities under its purview. The purpose of politics is to influence or oversee government policy. The purpose of political engagement is to persuade our fellow citizens and elected representatives toward the best view of justice and toward the best policies. Of course the Bible has something to say about these things!

Considering what the Bible has to say about politics can be tricky, especially if you're looking for specific verses. Those verses exist, but the better way to understand what the Bible teaches about politics is to trace its overarching story line. The Bible is not primarily a collection of religious truths or ethical principles but is rather a story best understood in four "acts" -- creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Believe it or not, each of these acts relates in one way or another to politics, so I'll take a few minutes to tell the story.

The Bible's opening act is creation. The Bible's first sentence declares, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). It teaches us that God created matter from nothing, shaped that matter into the world as we now see it, and then -- with a final flourish -- created human beings in his "image" and "likeness" (Gen. 1:26). So human beings are the crown jewel of creation, at once unified with the rest of creation but also distinct from that creation.

Interestingly, God follows up immediately by giving the first couple, Adam and Eve, tasks that are social, cultural, and (if you'll forgive the mundane word) managerial. God instructs them to "be fruitful" and "multiply," a social task that involves making families and, by implication, societies (Gen. 1:28). He calls them to till the earth, a cultural task that involves bringing out the hidden potentials of God's creation. Finally, he tells them to "subdue it," a managerial task that involves acting in the world on God's behalf.

Now, before going on, I need to stop for a moment to talk about the cultural task. When God instructed the first couple to till the soil, he wasn't merely saying, "Hey, you guys should be farmers," though the farming metaphor is intentional and apt. He was saying something deeper and more profound. He was telling them to interact with the good world he had created, to make something out of what God had made, to bring out the world's hidden potentials. In other words, he was telling them to make culture. Farmers cultivate (same root word as culture) the physical earth to draw out plants; humans cultivate the created world to draw out its latent possibilities. We may not all be farmers, but we are all culture farmers.

One significant realm of culture is politics, and I think God intended human life to be characterized by government and politics all along. After all, he is the one who told human beings to make families and grow the human race, and any time large groups of humans live together, there is the need for government of some type. Now in those early days before there was any sin in the world, the government wouldn't have needed to have police officers, judges, or armies. Instead, government would have involved the ordering of human life. Somebody would need to decide which side of the road to drive on, which day to hold the Fall Festival, and so forth.

So, Christian, how does the creation act relate to your question? Here's how Chris Pappalardo and I put it in our book, One Nation Under God:

Although we might be tempted to view politics as something not worth our time or beyond the pale of God's power, we need to remind ourselves that God created the type of world in which a collective ordering of society is necessary, and he remains sovereign over this world. He is sovereign over politics and, to the extent that we find ourselves involved in public life, we should consciously allow him to be sovereign over our involvement. [2]

The Bible's second act is the fall, and I find it fascinating. At the end of creation, the Bible depicts God's world as being characterized by love, order, peace, and justice. The first couple had a healthy and life-giving relationship with God, each other, and the world around them. God's intention was for humanity to live forever in this ideal state.

They wouldn't.

Sadly, the first couple chose a different path. You can read how it went down in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve turned against God and tried to enthrone themselves as king and queen of the world rather than being satisfied to manage the world under God's kingship. When they turned against God, everything began to unravel. Instead of an unbroken experience of love, order, peace, and justice, they would now also experience hatred, disorder, violence, and injustice. Instead of healthy and life-giving relationships, they would now experience brokenness and dysfunction in their relationships with God, each other, and the world around them. The result? Well, take a look at the world around you. Not a pretty picture, is it?

In fact, it's tempting to look at the evil in this world and conclude that this world is inherently bad. But the creation-fall narrative prevents you from making that kind of conclusion. Think of it this way: after the fall, the world remained structurally good but became directionally corrupt. [3]

Let me explain. When I say the world remained structurally good, I mean that the world was still structured the way God intended; human beings still had opportunity to be in right relationship to God, each other, and the world; they still had the privilege of fulfilling their social, cultural, and political callings; they still could participate in cultural activities such as art, agriculture, and politics.

Yet, even though the world remained structurally good, it became directionally bad. Human efforts were no longer directed toward God and toward the good God intended. Instead, human efforts were directed toward wrong and selfish ends, and those selfish ends corrupted their relationships and their cultural efforts.

So it should be no surprise that the realm of politics is twisted and corrupt. All of life is. We should not be shocked when people govern the world in ways that are unjust, unwise, or unloving. We should expect that citizens and their elected officials will be tempted to use power to serve themselves at the neglect of others. The problem is not that politics is an inherently bad realm of culture or that politicians are especially bad people (not always, anyway). No, the problem is that politics is like every other realm; it is populated by people who are constantly tempted to direct their efforts toward wrong and selfish ends.

Yet, thankfully, the Bible's story does not end with humanity's fall into corruption. The next act is redemption. Humanity descended quickly into sin and rebellion, but even more quickly God provided a way out of the mess. Immediately after Adam and Eve sinned, God promised to send a Savior who would undo the curse of sin (Gen. 3:15). In fact, the majority of the Bible tells the fascinating series of developments that led to the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Here's how Chris and I put it in One Nation under God:

What was a promise to Adam and Eve is a historical fact for us. God did come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, proving how far he would come to recover his own. And Jesus did preach of a new kingdom, one in which God's peace, love, and flourishing would be restored. He did die on a cross as the sacrificial substitute for sinful humanity. He did step out of the grave three days later, forever settling the question of whether he would prevail. [4]

Christian, one of the things I liked most about your letter is the way you expressed gratitude for Jesus and the way he saved you from your sin and its consequences. But I want to challenge you to go a little bit further. Not only did he save you from something; he also saved you for something. He saved you for a newer and better life, a way of living directed toward God and the good he intends rather than toward selfish and bad ends. This new way of living will affect your whole life in its personal, social, cultural, and political dimensions. If you understand it in the right way, the redemption Jesus brings will never let you completely abandon politics.

The final act of the Bible, consummation, is really just an extension of the third act. The Bible promises that Jesus will return one day to complete what he started when he rose from the dead. Christian hope is our belief that Jesus will return one day to establish himself as King and will rule over a one-world government characterized by justice, peace, order, and love (Rev. 21–22). It is, in the words of John Milton, "paradise regained."

So, Christian, I hope I've been able to open your eyes to the enduring (albeit complicated) good of politics. It was created by God as a good and inescapable dimension of human life. Although human sin inevitably twists and corrupts human political efforts, we as Christians should allow our Christian faith to help untwist what has been twisted and bring healing to the corruption. Now the real question is how to untwist what has been twisted and how to bring healing to political corruption. That's the trick.

You mentioned that you will be taking six midterm exams this week. (My best recommendation is to set up an intravenous drip of Pike Place, OK?) If you make it out of this week alive, let me know, and we can continue the conversation.

Yours,

Bruce


Notes
1. In polite company the phrase "oldest profession" has often been used as an indirect way of referring to prostitution. BACK
2. Bruce Riley Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 7–8. BACK
3. The terms structural and directional are terms contemporary theologians use to describe the tension between good and evil in the various spheres of life. See Al Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 87–114. BACK
4. Ashford and Pappalardo, One Nation Under God, 11. BACK
 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

(LIKE THE HEADS OF SOME POLITICIANS, THIS AREA IS EMPTY)