The Idol of Politics (Guest Contribution, Robert Anthony Martin)

Here is a guest contribution from a good friend in the blogosphere, Robert Anthony Martin. He is from the Mennonite tradition and brings some much needed perspective in this article. We do not always disagree about American politics (and in fact there are some big gaps between us in this regard), but we are both generous to each other as I think is evidenced by this post.  And where we agree is much more important: the politics of the Kingdom of God!  We would love to hear your thoughts on this!
I’m guilty of a form of idolatry. It is really rather insidious. It has a guise of being in keeping with the Kingdom but it ends up taking away my time that I should be doing following Christ into the world. I listen to a whole different set of priests. I read a different set of scripture. There are even temples and altars where, if I wanted to, I could go worship. Through this idolatry, I claim that I can change the world for the better, that if I just figure out the right way to think, the right people to follow, the right ways to act, then the world will be redeemed. I spend hours at this, literally at times.

I don’t think I’m the only one. Thousands and millions of people in our country follow this idol. It consumes them. It causes marital strife. It breaks up the fellowship of believers. It causes divisions and factions, both within the church and without. Hateful things are said in the name of this idol because, just like with any religion, there are different ways of viewing the same thing and sometimes things are up to interpretation.

This idol is actually global. There are people all over the world consumed by this form of worship. Depending upon what nation you live in, there are different ways in which it is practiced. But, essentially, it all comes down to the same thing.

What idol am I talking about? One word: politics.

Think about it. How many times have you been lambasted for voting a particular way, or listening to a particular commentator, or reading a particular online blog, or any number of things? How many times have you been criticized at not being a “good person” or, for that matter even, a “good Christian” just because you support a particular party, platform, or candidate? This idol knows know political party. Democrat Christians yell at Republican Christians and vice-versa. Progressives attack Conservatives. Left and Right. Blue and Red. We have become obsessed in our churches with aligning ourselves with a particular expression of politics to the point where politics is preached from the pulpit, it’s published in our church newsletters, it’s documented in our church publications, and it’s spoken about in the fellowship time on Sunday morning. And, again, no side is guiltless. I would not even say one particular side is any better or worse than another.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe that we have a responsibility to speak the gospel into our culture and that includes to speak the gospel to the people in our government. But when it becomes an all consuming passion of “I’m right, you’re wrong”, then it becomes an idol. We start categorizing each other by party. We start looking for ways of defending our position through Scripture and other teachings. It becomes a goal to prove that OUR way of looking at politics is somehow more Christian than another. We write letters to newspapers and Congressmen/women to try and convince them that OUR way is somehow more Christian than THEIR way and so on.

And the result? We look like a bunch of whining, argumentative, bigoted (both sides), unforgiving, petty, malicious, vicious, nasty people who will shoot down, knock down, run over, blast, insult, slander, and libel anyone who does not agree with us. And yes, Mennonites do this to. And Methodist. And Baptists. And Catholics. Need I go on?

Meanwhile, people go unfed. People go without sufficient clothing for the winter. People go without homes. People can’t afford to pay medical bills. People sit and cry in the dark because there is no one there to show them any semblance of love. People live in fear of their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, and wives. People live in the darkness of the depression because, to them, there is no hope. And we see this and we do our politics, claiming somehow that politics will solve these problems. We have plenty of food, LOTS of clothes, extra money to go on vacations, to movies, out to eat, etc. We spend our time watching football, baseball, soccor, playing video games. And we do our politics because that will fix it all. Guess what? It won’t. And it hasn’t yet, neither here in the US or anywhere else in the world. And that goes for right, left, conservative, liberal, etc. One group says more government will fix these problems. One group says less government will fix these problems. One says more laws to regulate things. One says less laws. One says more enforcement of laws. One says less enforcement. Well, they are all wrong because there is only ONE who can fix it all.

Remember, this blog is not about politics and there’s a reason for that. We are not supposed to be about politics. We are supposed to be “boots on the ground” people. The politics of Jesus time did not allow for people to do the work of the Kingdom. Nor did the politics of Paul. Or the politics of anyone in the first century or so of the church. In fact, the politics of the world didn’t really become a factor in allowing the Kingdom to move until Constantine and then, instead of the politics assisting in the Kingdom, the politics took over the Kingdom. Then we just got a NEW set of politics that either you followed the specific church of Constantine or you were not in “the Kingdom”. So, for over 2000 years, politics has been more a hindrance and enemy of the church than a helper.

And here we are, still trying to do things using the world’s system of politics, laws, government, etc, to try and shoe-horn the Kingdom into the world.

So, I’m calling it what it is. It is an idol. We have put up an idol of the world system of government, politics, etc, that somehow that human system is going to usher in the new Kingdom. To make our government equivalent to the Kingdom is to repeat the mistakes of centuries past where human government, under the guise of being “The Kingdom”, due to the corrupting nature of power and the propensity for humans in power to give in to that corruption, perform atrocities like the Crusades, slavery in the US south, the Inquisition, the oppression of the Native American nations both in North and South America (go watch the move “The Mission” sometime to see how church and politics did “kingdom” work), and countless other oppressive, selfish, and evil practices, all done in the name of Christ and the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is already here, among us. It is in our grasp. We hold it in our hearts because the Spirit that comes from God molds us into it. We are the Kingdom. The world can be influenced by us and we can have a voice in the “politics”… but what should rule our lives is not the desire to make over the world systems in Kingdom image, but to live like citizens of the Kingdom no matter what world system we find ourselves in. All the martyrs of the past knew this in their hearts. They lived in the Kingdom no matter what the politics. Some died in the Kingdom because of the politics. Some died in the Kingdom because the politics professed to BE the Kingdom and killed them for it. The Kingdom is here. We should live like it. Move ahead. Be the Kingdom.

And how will the Kingdom fix it all? Because lives change. Hearts change. People get redeemed and they look around and they see what God sees and how they are supposed to act and live and be and move. Changed lives see hungry people and buy them a hamburger. Changed lives see a man with no shoes, begging for money in the city and buy him a pair of shoes. Changed lives see the homeless and offer them the extra room in their house. Changed lives see the people struggling to make ends meet while the bills pile up and they quietly pay off the bills and remove that stress. Changed lives climb into the darkness with the lonely and scared and depressed and sit with them in the dark, holding them and giving them the comfort that comes from presence and love. Changed lives speak into the violence and fear in the family, showing love to those who need love and intervening where necessary, even giving up their own safety.

And how do lives change? By the Spirit. And how do we get the Spirit? Through Jesus. And how does that happen? People speak, people give witness, people are out there showing what Jesus can do by their actions. All those changed lives doing things? That’s Jesus. When the changed lives do things, people see Jesus, people want to know about this Jesus that gave them hope. And the people with the changed lives share Jesus.

All the kingdoms of this world will pass away, even the “mighty” USA, but God’s Kingdom will continue. I prefer to try and live for the permanent Kingdom rather than the temporary. And for those of you who will criticize that I’m calling for quietism be assured that I will still have my Kingdom views influence what I do in the world of politics, but no more will politics become equal to the Kingdom. Instead, I strive for the goal, I press on, I desire the greater gifts of love, faith and hope. I allow my life to change and, as it changes, I get up, get out, and do what changed lives do. Go, into all the world, and make disciples.

The idol of politics is no more.

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  • Thanks, Kurt, for putting this up. I really appreciated your intro to it as well because that speaks volumes about the post itself.

    God bless!

  • I think this is a great post and I couldn’t agree more.
    In my younger days, I used to be very politically active, but there came a point when I just realized the fruitlessness of it all. All the arguing on both sides bred a division that was never meant to be, especially amongst Christians. I am tired of the yelling and ad hominem attacks, the rhetoric and the bias.

    We have a responsibility and a duty to something even higher then political affiliations. In fact, our deepest allegiances ought to be to the Kingdom of God, and not the nations we live in.

    Thanks you for being a voice about this; we all need to be reminded that politicians will not save our country and heal our land. It is our job to take the good news to the poor and look after widows and orphans; we work hand in hand with God to bring His Kingdom.

  • pressgang

    Interesting being from the UK, where your religion and politics have near enough nothing to do with each other – though our Church of England is ‘political’ in other ways. But the way you vote doesn’t tend to be impacted by your religious belief as much as your location or class. It can be strange for us to try and get our heads round how its different there – if a politician talks about their faith in detail while running for office here they’d have no chance, they’d be thought a nutter. Over there there’s no problem. One thing I will never understand is how Jesus followers, who are meant to have a social conscience and interested in serving and helping the poor, and meant to pursue peace, support a right-wing party which mainly benefits the rich and whose leader goes to war in Iraq. They largely support a party which opposed giving free or cheap healthcare for 32 million who don’t have it. All absolutely baffling to me and most Christians over here.

    In terms of the post totally agree – our allegiance ultimately isn’t to any political party – its to Jesus and Him alone. God is bigger than any nation, any politician or any party and we need to remember that, and pray for our leaders, whether we agree with them or not.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation from our friends across the pond.

      I would suggest that the right wing Christians are, instead of voting against healthcare, are voting for a more financially and economically responsible means to the same end. At least, that’s my view. I agree that we need to consider the people who are sick, ill, etc, and cannot afford to pay for the care and that those of us who have the means need to consider what we can do to take care of that. What I disagree with is the means by which it was legislated to happen and, for that matter, the institution (the US Government) put in charge of the oversight. While an ideal government probably could take care of it, ours is far from ideal and is too easily swayed by the politics of money and campaign contributions. A sad fact, really, and it happens both ways.

      In the meantime, I do my part to make sure that those who I come across who have needs that I am in position to fill I take the opportunity as what it is: a chance for the generous love of God, poured out on me, to overflow into their lives.

  • Josh Wise

    Wow. That may be one of the best essays on the whole religion/politics discussion I’ve heard in quite a while. I agree with you all the way. I have a question though, I’ve been wrestling with this myself and I don’t really have an answer to it. Eventually at some point politics enters our discussion. We can’t really avoid it forever. Shane Clairborne wrote that you can teach a man to fish, but you also have to start asking who poisoned the pond in the first place. I probably butchered that quote, but you get the idea. You can only pull so many people out of a river before you start to wonder who’s pushing them in further upstream. Politics will eventually enter the discussion. I guess my question is how do we allow politics to enter the conversation without letting it become an idol? Is it possible to view the political machine in a way where its purely a tool, and we understand that in the end this tool will not save us? Is it possible to do this? I really don’t know. Any thoughts?

    • To be honest, Josh, that is one of the reasons why I wrote this essay. I found myself marrying politics and faith so closely that I was having a hard time separating the two into the proper realms of Kingdom and less-than-Kingdom. I humbly confess that, when it comes to political application, I, too, succumbed to that idol.

      I think the key is maintaining a proper focus, first of all. We need to be constantly focusing on the goal of the “here but not yet” Kingdom and striving to live that way, not just in the purely cerebral and internal parts of our lives, but in the real flesh-and-blood parts. When we come across something that cries out for the love of God to overflow into the situation, we should not hesitated to generously give of the gifts we have been given, emulating the ultimate gift giver, our God in heaven. This addresses the issue of the personal aspect of this faith walk.

      But the second key, and this speaks towards the communal relationship, is to remember that we are called to love one another in the Christian fellowship. And one part of that love is to remember that we are brothers and sisters, a family, working towards the same goal. 1 Corinthians uses the phrase “love always trusts”. We may not agree on the specifics, but, out of love for each other, we should trust that we at least are aiming towards that same goal. The same generous spirit of love that allows us to pour out blessings on the needy around us should also move to pour out a generous blessing of love, faith, hope, and trust on our brothers and sisters, even when we disagree. God blessed us, even when we were still his enemies. We are not enemies of each other, how much more should we bless each other then?

      Short answer: yes, it’s possible, with one caveat. And that is we need to keep in mind the spirit of grace, love and mercy that is at the heart and soul of the gospel, not just in our dealings with the world around us, but ESPECIALLY in the church. For, after all, “they will know we are Christians by our love” to paraphrase the epistles of John. If we are fighting amongst ourselves, will they even know we are Christians?

  • I too am from the UK and it does appear that there is right wing bible belt running through the US where the Christians are generally fundamentalist, hate liberals, believe that The US is a Christian nation and are paranoid about anyone taking away their God given freedom. This is made worse by the fact the George Bush used his influence among the right wing church to win a second term while the rest of the world watched with incredulity. I don’t apologize for the way I’ve phrased this because this is how it looks. I’m sure this is a charicature and even where its true its easy for us (in the UK) to judge because the culture is alien to us.

    I find it interesting that while the Anglican church is our state church, like pressgang says there is virtually no crossover between religion and politics over here and I can affirm that promoting your faith does not win votes here; quite the reverse. Conversely, the US constitution separates church from state yet the US dollar has ‘in God we trust’ inscribed on it. I read about this only yesterday how just over fifty years ago there was a strong push to bring God into the constitution though the founding fathers were adamant that religious tolerance would be hindered by it.

    I would suggest that this article would probably not have been written by a non American and I find it hard to identify politics (per se) as an idol. I don’t really see a problem with firmly pursuing right or left wing politics if that is what drives you to bring about change so long as you have noble motives. I see 2 idols in American politics. One is the very thing you are promoting and that is the kingdom.

    Whenever Christians have tried to establish God’s kingdom on earth the results are generally dire. Just think of the evil things that Zwingli did to innocent Anababtists and how the Lutherans, having discovered ‘Scripture alone’ joined in the persecution. This brings me to the second idol being the ‘Word’. Watch the American tele-evangelists as they lift the Word above God himself. They even use phrases like ‘God cannot go against his word’ as if they can trap him by his own words. They go on and on about the Word and The Kingdom but they don’t really know what they are talking about.

    This brings to mind the time when the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him if they should pay taxes to Caesar. They knew that a Roman coin was the property of Rome and they would have been well aquainted with politics but they wrongly assumed that Jesus was an anarchist. Jesus didn’t tell people to come out of the world or become spiritual, nor did he criticize them for doing good or what they believed to be right. In the final analysis the one command Jesus gives us is to love. If you are in politics because you love people and love drives you to seek office? Go for it.

    • No need to apologize, Chris. While I lean to the right in my politics, I think that the fundamentalist right are wrong even in their desire to turn our country into a theocracy, if not by name, at least in principle. I think that some of the “standing on the Bible” that the right has done in the past is as big a problem as Pelosi’s recent call that the legislation that her party sponsors is the “gospel”. Both imply that, on some level or another, our US government is an incarnation or representation of the Kingdom.

      However, by Kingdom, the stress I have on it is not that it is in some fashion a political or national unit. My great-great to the nth degree grandfather, Christian Martin, was imprisoned in Bern, Switzerland, for living out the Kingdom as an Anabaptist. His offense? Leading his neighbor to Christ over the fence between their properties. The Kingdom that I speak of is the one that is incarnated in the Church as my anscestor did. And even the “Church” is not an institution but the transcendent and incarnate body of Christ in this world, spanning denomination and nationality. Yeah, a pretty big idea, but that’s what I read in the Scriptures.

      We humans have this tendency to build our own “gap” between God and us. For some it’s the law, for some it’s the Word (I appreciate what you said about tele-vangelists, I see that, too, and mourn), for some it’s the denomination. As I understand it, the Kingdom is something more than this. It is transcendent and beyond the confines of the physical world and yet it intersects and overlaps what we experience every day.

      I think we in the US can learn a lot from our UK brothers and sisters about what it means to live in the Kingdom but not necessarily be tied down to the temporal constraints of party, politics, and government. It is not up to us to establish the Kingdom on earth. It was already established by Christ. All we are called to do is live as if we are in THAT Kingdom while our physical reality has us in our temporal nation. That’s where the struggle is.