The Spiritual Landscape
When Government Becomes God
I went to seminary in the '70s, which meant that much of the established conversation about the Christian faith and the purpose of the church revolved around categories that were born of our discovery that sin has a social dimension. We rediscovered the prophets, we talked about prophetic preaching, and we explored the sense in which the message of Jesus was political in character.
On one level, much of that conversation was helpful. It alerted us to the ways in which our own western individualism had co-opted the Christian message. It recovered a dimension of Christian responsibility that we had all but ignored (or evaded). And it offered the prospect of an embodied spirituality that embraced the whole of life.
Balance, however, is not an easy thing to maintain, and what began as the recovery of a holistic approach to theology became, in some places, a conversation that was all but completely about politics. That situation has not changed much. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that the conversations that were once part and parcel of seminary communities have finally sifted into the church's consciousness. As a result, in both progressive and conservative communities there are places in which a variety of political orthodoxies (left and right) are all that really matters.
This much, I have already said here in other columns.
The other problem, of course, is that when a political ideology becomes a religious conviction then government becomes God, and we project upon government the solution of every problem. We cease to weigh the difference between the already and not yet of God's reign. We lose track of the difference between what we can change and what we can only combat, between what we would like to have and what we need. Social programs, battle plans, and legislative agendas masquerade as deliverance and redemption. And we talk as if the Kingdom will come with each new political initiative.
Like the children of Israel in their desert wandering, we demand to know what our leaders will do to cure what ails us. We insist that they take fear and uncertainty away. We cease thinking critically about the role we play in shaping the world around us. And we demand that food be delivered to our doorstep and then we begin critiquing the menu.
Enter the news of recent days: Detroit's unsurprising announcement that it is bankrupt, the news that New Yorkers await the election of a new messiah-mayor, and the specter of yet another administration bent on remaking the global landscape. In each case people are treating government as if it is God, and the fragile, bankrupt, incompetent, and over-extended condition of God's surrogate is evident.
That should be no surprise and it is as much our fault as it is that of our leaders. Like the Israelites, we want someone else to fix our problems and insure the safety of our future. Until we own our own moral responsibility for those challenges and begin to address them as individuals we can expect the modern Moses to falter under the demands no human being or human institution can address. Let's hope that we discover new moral strength and character before that truth becomes inescapably and painfully evident.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/