Cup of Tea Party – or Cup of Water in Jesus’ Name?

I was listening to the news this morning on the radio and heard some snippets of Michelle Obama’s appearance yesterday in Olympia, WA, stumping for Patty Murray’s re-election to the Senate for another six years.  I thought about the Patty Murray ads I’ve watched over the past two months, as well as those from her opponent, and realized that in both the cases, the plea for my vote is based on one declaration: “I’m not as rotten as the other candidate.” The Elephants and Donkeys are paralyzed to the point of disgust, because those who go to Washington are supposedly the brightest and best–yet we’ve nearly nothing substantive to show for it other than spiraling debt, dramatic increases carbon emissions, foreclosures, and unemployment statistics.

It’s easy to see why there’s a desire to return to a simpler time.  Back in the day, our nation paid its way.  Personal responsibility, thrift, and a sort of Amish “barn raising” care for our neighbors, were values that have been nearly vaporized from our 21st century landscape. They’ve been displaced by entitlement mentalities, fiscal irresponsibility, marriage meltdowns, and an educational crisis that is, perhaps the greatest national security threat of all.  It’s a mess!  We raised our children reading Little House on the Prairie books by the woodstove in the mountains, and it’s a short hop from there to longing for the simplicity of a wholesome past, believing that if the government would just quit spending for us, and trying to control us, we’d rise out of the ashes of this current crises and be great.

Here’s what’s wrong with this picture:

1. The past wasn’t as good as Little House on the PrairieThere’s a lot to cherish about years gone by, especially the values of personal responsibility, but there’s a lot for which we need to repent as well.   Of course, we know this, but we forget.  We forget that in the era of small government and deregulation, people were free to own slaves and abuse them, free to force children to work, up to eighty hours a work.  Shall we mention our treatment of Chinese immigrants and the fact that they were declared ineligible for citizenship from 1870 until 1943?  The truth is that the blood of oppression is mixed in with the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of the past.  We’d do well to pay attention to both sides of that equation, seeking to revive the sense responsibility, and end the oppression.  How has oppression been addressed historically?

2. The oppressions of the past were held in check by government intervention and regulation.  The only reason slavery, child labor, or separate water fountains ended was because the government stepped in and mandated changes, moving us closer to the “liberty and justice” stuff we say we’re about.  It’s romantically naive to think that if the government would just leave us alone, the market forces would fix everything, for history has proven time and again that when left alone, people will build empires on the backs of others through forced labor and unjust practices.  Nobody is suggesting that governments gets it right all the time, or doesn’t have its own covert agendas.  Both parties have shown both their ineptitudes and their greed in past decades.  Still, a realistic view of history reveals that left to their own devices, company owners and market forces don’t lead to free access to a vote, or equal pay for equal work.   It was true in 1800, and it’s true today.

3.  The call for personal responsibility is needed, and this is a strength of the tea people.  They see the grave danger of our addiction to entitlements as a threat to our future, and they’re right.  Our government can’t keep handing out money to people.  Entitlements make up about 65% of our national budget.  It’s the elephant in the room (and donkey, if you will) that remains unaddressed there’s a name for a candidate who talks about cutting entitlements: unelectable.  So the Dems continue to talk about increasing taxes AND entitlements, while the Republicans talk about cutting taxes, but not entitlements.  No wonder, people are mad.  No wonder I don’t want to vote for either party.

In the end, though, the tea party’s edited version of history is trying to revive a time that never existed, at least not for women, slaves, millions of immigrants, and children who were forced to work.  Let’s not go back.

The answer?  It comes in the form of the simple realization that, however we vote, we won’t be ushering in the reign of Christ through government interventions, or even government shrinkage.  In fact, we won’t be ushering in the kingdom at all, not even through the church.  That’s why the early church cried, “Maranatha” which means “come quickly.” They knew that while they’re called to embody hope and truth, the visible presence of Christ’s reign would be a mere mustard seed, a drop in the ocean.  On the other hand, it’s a still a drop; it’s still a clinic in Uganda, it’s still a law to end child labor, it’s still vaccinations to end polio, it’s still laying hands on someone and praying with them,  it’s still simplifying my life so that I can live more generously,  it’s still a cup of water in Jesus name, it’s still spilling hope on the canvas of our broken world.  That’s all God asks of us, and living into that calling is mysteriously life giving and joyful, in spite of the darkness of our days.

I welcome your comments.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Ken

    Well said, Richard. The balance swings back and forth throughout history. I think your three points hit both extremes and and the center. #1 – our history has some very dark memories (if we’ll just remember) when freedom was perhaps too free. #2 – a government of liberty and justice can indeed bring positive reform (and sadly begin to run out-of-control as it is now). #3 – personal responsibility remains the center point. God calls us individually to repentance first and foremost. That is the ultimate in taking responsibility (Calvinist ideas notwithstanding). The great challenge and puzzle for Believers is how to find a personal balance point in this broken world between the extremes of “freedom” and “justice”. Are we called to rise up and attempt to move the nation (or the world) politically or one individual at a time? My current assessment of our own nation’s political atmosphere is that we have all become so addicted to getting something for which we haven’t worked or paid be it health care, a comfortable retirement, forest or farm subsidies, personal or corporate welfare, free school lunches, public transportation, education and on forever in an endless stream of unfunded entitlements, we will no longer except leaders that won’t buy our vote. I agree our personal efforts may be a mere drop in the ocean, but from God’s perspective they are honorable drops. Perhaps that is our calling, to add to the Kingdom a drop at a time. We know that the flood we work against will not be won by our efforts. But that doesn’t change the Calling. It is God’s victory to be won, not ours. So we must bow before our Creator and live as He has called. Do what you can with what you have. If the environment is your personal burden from God then live as if you mean it. Is it caring for the poor? Serving the sick? Making great wealth for God’s work in a business that is worthwhile? Seek the very best avenue to maximize the impact of your drop. Worry less about making the drops of everyone else do what you believe they should do. Perhaps if we all took an oath to guard ourselves from personal hypocrisy, we would be well on our way to becoming effective servants to better causes. Clean your own house and when you’re done help others to clean their own once you’ve earned an invitation to help them.

    A week from now the votes will be cast. And the big news will really be that from God’s perspective nothing will be different in the world as a whole. But what can be different for us as individuals? Everything.

  • Per

    I again love the thoughtful analysis, Richard. However, I take issue with the sentence: “The Elephants and Donkeys are paralyzed to the point of disgust, because those who go to Washington are supposedly the brightest and best–yet we’ve nearly nothing substantive to show for it other than spiraling debt, dramatic increases carbon emissions, foreclosures, and unemployment statistics.”

    It’s true our government officials are in the midst of gridlock. However, the point about there being “nothing substantive” is a throw away comment. Nothing substantive when? You describe the government’s role in pulling us out of slavery and better addressing women’s rights. So that’s pretty substantive. But for some reason, I don’t think you were referring to that time scale.

    More likely you were referring to the last 2-years since this is a mid-term election (or 6-years if specifically addressing Murray/Rossi). In either case, I still take issue with the comment that we have “nothing substantive” to show. Not to be an overt champion or show my personal political beliefs too much, but what was the last administration to accomplish so much in such a short time line than the current administration? I could strongly argue there hasn’t been a more productive administration in terms of accomplishing ‘substantive’ change despite what the media and political attack ads would say. You (the general ‘you’ and not specifically Richard) may not agree in full with these changes, but they’re still substantive.

    In the first 90 days, they passed ~$800 billion through ARRA to resuscitate the economy. Economists (not politicians) don’t argue whether it has prevented another great depression because it did. What they now argue about is whether it was big enough to stave off a double dip and get the economy moving more strongly.

    A major US manufacturing industry was on the verge of collapse, which would have resulted in MASSIVE layoffs and further tanking of the economy. No one liked it, but taking over GM and Chrysler was a huge decision. The auto manufacturere’s downfall was stupid leadership over the years and the growing burden of the union’s entitlements. They kept the industry afloat and worked to restructure the entitlements for the unions to be more sustainable. It’s been a public relations disaster, but just today Ford (albeit weren’t taken over but were still going through a similar transition and entitlement restructuring with the unions) announced record profits. The government is getting set to have GM and Chrysler go back to being publicly traded companies.

    We also have a new more-comprehensive health care system. Again, no one likes this system because it’s either viewed as a government mandate or because it doesn’t have a public option. For this reasons, it’s a lose-lose argument for any politician. The fact remains that tens of millions more people will be able to get health care coverage and patients have new rights they’re afforded. Politicians have been talking about this change for about 60 years. It’s been done in the first 2-years of this administration. (Changes will be necessary to improve it, but it’s a start)

    There’s been a ton more that’s been done (I won’t credit Obama for the pulling out of Iraq, that’s a Bush policy that’s been maintained). You don’t need to like the substantive changes that we have to show, but I don’t think there’s any way to deny that they’ve occurred.

  • Jim

    The negativity and denial of responsibility in today’s society is overwhelming at times. Being one week from our elections it does seem more negative than ever. To make matters worse, we read about our failing relations in Afghanistan. The intention to help was good. Our citizens are dying there. Yet President Karzai accuses us of being as bad as the Taliban. We seem incapable of respectful discourse, of understanding opposing points of view, and a willingness to compromise. Today, whether in government, politics, or business, it seems to be “my way or the highway.”

    I would submit that we do not want to return to the “good old days.” But there is a great desire for a return to innocence, faith, kindness, hope, understanding, education, and sympathy. Humanity has capacity for negativity (evil), but there is also a great capacity for goodness. We must have faith in the human capacity for goodness. Atticus said it best: “Remember, it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.”

  • Lee

    I want the entitlements. I want food for the hungry. I want good, freely available health care for all. I want children to have the best education we can muster, adults to have the opportunities to contribute to the world we live in. I want the elderly to be able to retire with dignity and the orphans to be cared for. I want those at the edge of poverty to be able to have shelter, clean water, heat, and light.

    And I absolutely want to pay for it. Raise my taxes. Continue delivering these vital services. Ten percent of the country have the resources I do, and many of them are my neighbors here in Greenlake. Meanwhile, mere blocks away from my stoop these entitlements – you call *them* an addiction? – are the difference between hunger and a meal, between the faintest glimmer of hope and hopelessness. Personal responsibility doesn’t mean simply looking after yourself and your own. It also means accepting your responsibility to the community around you.

    • Ken

      Sadly within your premise lies its failure. In this life and this present world we cannot have all those things, except perhaps for a short season (until the bill comes due). The very rule of “humanity” as the previous comment called it is doomed to failure as are all of humankind’s ventures no matter how seemingly noble they begin. “We” can’t fix the world we inhabit. We will never eliminate the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden. In this present 21st century there are more people in slavery than at any time in recorded history. How can that be? Simply put it is humanity at work.

      “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

      Constantly history reminds us that the law, i.e. rules and guidelines fall short. Yet somehow we modern folk believe that we are more enlightened than those before us and we can create rules and laws forcing justice in this world. I am completely amazed that so many in our nation are convinced that somehow in spite of thousands of years of experience to the contrary, “We the People” will be the ones to force mankind share the wealth. We the noble few will rise up and work hard for the overwhelming masses that will cease their labors and simply put their hands out once they realize they needn’t work anymore, because someone has ruled from government on high that those with more will pay the way to “free” health care, food, shelter, retirement and everything else our hearts desire. It is a myth on a global scale.

      I mentioned earlier that the hope lies within individuals because that is all that you can truly affect. There is no ability to force justice, even from God himself. If God forced justice upon us, who would live to see the next sunrise? No one. Repent of your “humanity” and fall at the feet of the One who can and ultimately will save the world. I pray more fervently than ever that we may retain our freedom in this nation to follow the God of our choosing. For most that will be the gods of this world. I pray many more will choose the one God who can save.

      • Lee

        I know full well that we cannot turn this world into God’s kingdom by our own actions.

        But do you truly believe we – the people of Christ – should not work to pass laws banning child labor?

      • Lee

        I know full well that we can’t turn this world into God’s kingdom by our own actions.

        But do you truly believe that we – the people of Christ – shouldn’t support passing laws that ban child labor?

      • Ken

        I do believe there might have been a couple of items beyond child labor laws mentioned in your comment.

  • Lee

    Claiming the idea that we cannot have perfect justice in the world implies we should not seek after it is a weak excuse for disengagement. We live in a representative democracy, and as flawed as it is our level of influence means no longer have the “luxury” of blaming the inequalities of the systems around us on others. We are all now a portion of Ceasar and Herod, David and Constantine. We freely judge those leaders for how they chose to exercise the influence God gave them in ruling their communities – how then can we stand back and say that using our ability to shape the community we find ourselves in is somehow an offense to the Gospel? We have a portion of the power to release the oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and to care for the sick in our communities.

    We’ll never end child labor or slavery this side of heaven. But the people of God won’t stop trying. We’ll never end hunger, or sickness, or crushing poverty, but the people of God won’t stop trying.

    Of course, this is all somewhat disingenuous, isn’t it? It’s not “justice” that you’re claiming we can’t attempt to bring to the world, but “economic justice” – the kind that brushes against man’s idea of what is fair, not God’s. We think that the resources we have our ours, and ours alone from the hard work we put in and the sweat of our brow. We deny both God’s provision and the ways we have benefited from the community around us. Even more paradoxically, we live in a society that sees someone with a trust fund as “valuable” and someone on food stamps as “worthless”. Is that how Jesus saw them?

    • raincitypastor

      I agree with most of what you’re saying Lee, with a some caveats:
      1. we need, collectively, to be willing to pay for what we offer – and this isn’t even on the table as a discussion by anyone (in the US – the French and British are getting it)
      2. Victimization and Irresponsibility are tough to untangle, and programs don’t do that as well as relationships. This is why the church needs to play a role, not only by voting, but by getting involved, and not just involved $$, but relationally.
      3. I worry that we’re trying to help people succeed in a system (the American dream) that’s unsustainable for dozens of reasons (read Deep Economy), and so feel that while help is needed, we desperately need a larger conversation in our country about what constitutes the good life.

    • Ken

      My primary point first and foremost is that any system of government at its very best will never accomplish more than a very, very brief moment of what God would intend for humanity. Further at that precise moment the human power that “made it happen” would snatch it from God’s glory and it would begin a rapid collapse into corruption. When the true church, the Body of Christ, is free to act in the world it has the best opportunity to accomplish what God intends. When it passes that torch to hope in any of man’s governments, freedom immediately begins to die as does some of our freedom to act for God. I know it sounds defeatist to say there is no hope of success but Scripture is clear about that reality. We will always be fighting a losing battle for global justice.

      So my point is do what you can as effectively as you can do it with the resources you have available. But check yourself if you find that a key resource is relying on a government program. There be dragons waiting to devour you.

  • Lee

    Claiming the idea that we cannot have perfect justice in the world implies we should not seek after it is a weak excuse for disengagement. We live in a representative democracy, and as flawed as it is our level of influence means no longer have the “luxury” of blaming the inequalities of the systems around us on others. We are all now a portion of Ceasar and Herod, David and Constantine. We freely judge those leaders for how they chose to exercise the influence God gave them in ruling their communities – how then can we stand back and say that using our ability to shape the community we find ourselves in is somehow an offense to the Gospel? We have a portion of the power to release the oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and to care for the sick in our communities.

    We’ll never end child labor or slavery this side of heaven. But the people of God won’t stop trying. We’ll never end hunger, or sickness, or crushing poverty, but the people of God won’t stop trying.

    Of course, this is all somewhat disingenuous, isn’t it? It’s not “justice” that you’re claiming we can’t attempt to bring to the world, but “economic justice” – the kind that brushes against man’s idea of what is fair, not God’s. We think that the resources we have our ours, and ours alone from the hard work we put in and the sweat of our brow. We deny both God’s provision and the ways we have benefited from the community around us. Even more paradoxically, we live in a society that sees someone with a trust fund as “valuable” and someone on food stamps as “worthless”. Is that how Jesus saw them?

    • Ken

      My primary point first and foremost is that any system of government at its very best will never accomplish more than a very, very brief moment of what God would intend for humanity. Further at that precise moment the human power that “made it happen” would snatch it from God’s glory and it would begin a rapid collapse into corruption. When the true church, the Body of Christ, is free to act in the world it has the best opportunity to accomplish what God intends. When it passes that torch to hope in any of man’s governments, freedom immediately begins to die as does some of our freedom to act for God. I know it sounds defeatist to say there is no hope of success but Scripture is clear about that reality. We will always be fighting a losing battle for global justice.

      So my point is do what you can as effectively as you can do it with the resources you have available. But check yourself if you find that a key resource is relying on a government program. There be dragons waiting to devour you.

  • Ken

    Sadly within your premise lies its failure. In this life and this present world we cannot have all those things, except perhaps for a short season (until the bill comes due). The very rule of “humanity” as the previous comment called it is doomed to failure as are all of humankind’s ventures no matter how seemingly noble they begin. “We” can’t fix the world we inhabit. We will never eliminate the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden. In this present 21st century there are more people in slavery than at any time in recorded history. How can that be? Simply put it is humanity at work.

    “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

    Constantly history reminds us that the law, i.e. rules and guidelines fall short. Yet somehow we modern folk believe that we are more enlightened than those before us and we can create rules and laws forcing justice in this world. I am completely amazed that so many in our nation are convinced that somehow in spite of thousands of years of experience to the contrary, “We the People” will be the ones to force mankind share the wealth. We the noble few will rise up and work hard for the overwhelming masses that will cease their labors and simply put their hands out once they realize they needn’t work anymore, because someone has ruled from government on high that those with more will pay the way to “free” health care, food, shelter, retirement and everything else our hearts desire. It is a myth on a global scale.

    I mentioned earlier that the hope lies within individuals because that is all that you can truly affect. There is no ability to force justice, even from God himself. If God forced justice upon us, who would live to see the next sunrise? No one. Repent of your “humanity” and fall at the feet of the One who can and ultimately will save the world. I pray more fervently than ever that we may retain our freedom in this nation to follow the God of our choosing. For most that will be the gods of this world. I pray many more will choose the one God who can save.

  • Lee

    I know full well that we can’t turn this world into God’s kingdom by our own actions.

    But do you truly believe that we – the people of Christ – shouldn’t support passing laws that ban child labor?


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