What the story of Jesus’ temptation says about the Christian culture wars

What the story of Jesus’ temptation says about the Christian culture wars February 6, 2020
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I’m not much involved in the culture war because I think it’s a misuse of time and energy, especially on the part of Christians and churches, to be vying for political power.

The Evangelical Right was the first to fall to this temptation in recent American history, but the Progressive Left is quickly following suit. It’s like we’ll do and say almost anything to bolster our advantage against the other side.

Hear me out on this matter, please. It’s not that I think certain issues aren’t important when it comes to our culture, and it’s not that I think we shouldn’t stand for what is right, especially when it comes to our solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society. The church has a prophetic calling to speak “truth to power” in every sphere of life.

It’s the way we go about it that matters.

You’re probably familiar with the story of Jesus going to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-14). The good book says that after he fasted and prayed for forty days, Satan came to offer him some help.

“Use your power to feed yourself,” he suggested (I’m paraphrasing here). “Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple. Just show me a little obeisance and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. Easy peasy.”

Of course, Jesus refused his offer on every count and subsequently returned to town “in the power of the Spirit.” I think we tend to overlook the significance of this exchange, especially that last little bit. Jesus returned with power, but it wasn’t the kind of power the devil offered him. It wasn’t worldly power Christ sought but spiritual power, the difference between “power over” and “power with.”

Essentially, this story symbolizes the human temptation to take power over our fellow creatures — in effect, bypassing the suffering of the cross — to gain what might otherwise seem to be legitimate ends. Jesus denied himself this temptation and chose a better way. Christians are called to imitate Christ in this way, but the culture war demonstrates our overwhelming failure to do so.

Forgive me if I’m wrong here — and I’m well aware of how much my privilege may be playing into my viewpoint — but I think both the Evangelical Right and the Progressive Left in America have fallen for the devil’s temptation. In a well-intended but misguided effort to advance their righteous cause(s), they have left the way of Christ to jockey for political power instead.

Without going deeply into it, I should also point out that political power is always “power over.” It is the power of the State which is maintained by either the threat or force of violence. Granted, the violence of the American state (at least upon its own citizens) may seem benign compared to other “authoritarian” countries, but it is no less real. If you don’t believe me, just stop paying your taxes for a while. You’ll find out how “free” you really are.

It is precisely at this point — the way we understand and relate to the State — where I believe modern evangelical and progressive Christians alike stand to learn from the early churches.

Until the time of Constantine, there seems to have been a fairly unanimous if not universal view among Christians that taking the way of Christ meant refusing participation in the “ways of the world,” which amounted to not being a direct participant in the affairs of the State. In the words of Eberhard Arnold,

The [early] Christians abhorred and attacked [any] mixture of the religious and the patriotic.  They detested any State religion that forced back God’s rule; they loathed all religiosity influenced by the politics of the moment, and fought against any veneration of the existing power structure.  This included any political system with a religious emphasis. These were to be regarded as the inheritance of Babylon, the works of sin and demonism. They were nothing short of the devil’s state and the service of Satan. (The Early Christians in Their Own Words

Theoretically, this conviction would have held true whether or not the state was considered “Christian,” as it often is in modern-day America. In fact, most early disciples would have scoffed at the notion of a “Christian” nation, because, again — every nation is founded on either the threat or force of violence, and this type of power (“power-over”) is essentially anti-Christ. It is the way of the world.

I realize that I’m hinting at some pretty big implications here, but I don’t see how the Christian faith proposes anything less. At the very least, it suggests that no matter which side wins the Christian culture war, we’ve already lost the battle for a new world just by participating in it.

I’ll stop there. The prophets and patriarchs of old dreamed of a celestial city “not built with human hands, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Part of what I think this means is that the new Earth, including its people and its social systems, will not be built on the foundation of human violence as our current systems are. We need a better way for a new humanity. The way of Christ.

About Joshua Lawson
Joshua Lawson is a pastor, writer, and spiritual caregiver. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cats. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at www.patreon.com/JoshuaLawson. You can read more about the author here.

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  • Newton Finn

    This is a thoughtful piece, worthy of pondering by those who lean politically right or left. But one problem I have with excluding Jesus from today’s political arena (or at least limiting or moderating his influence) is that the idea of a genuine democratic government, subject to majority rule by all citizens (not merely the richest and most powerful) had not been conceived until the Enlightenment. So my question is how Jesus, whose spirit we can grasp through his teachings and life example, would now engage with a political arena that had not even begun to open during his lifetime. Would he remain largely aloof from it, be somewhat for or against some or all of it, or perhaps eagerly embrace it? And if he were to embrace it, what would a modern democracy look like were it based upon the implementation of his core teachings? Here’s one answer to this vexing question:

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/11/19/on-earth-as-in-heaven-the-utopianism-of-edward-bellamy/

  • Clyde Wood

    Well said.

  • olbab

    “…the Progressive Left is quickly following suit.”

    I just don’t know where this is coming from. I read a lot of stuff on the nets, but have not felt this vibe. I feel myself to be progressive (and of course Left), so I presume I would have seen it.

    Now, if Josh is upset that I would like to harangue every Christian Repub I met to to consider Jesus’ words and not the centuries of accretions that followed. (As if I thought it would change anyone’s opinions!) Or upset that I would vote and encourage Repubs to vote for Christ-centered legislation.

    But I would not say never-again-Repub. It’s never again unless. But I’m not holding my breath.

  • James Elliott

    Well said. I have noticed that often both “right” and “left” do precisely the same thing from opposing sides. It’s more evident in the secular world, but present in the Christian sphere. Which is to say, not all Evangelicals are necessarily demons, nor are all Progressives saints. It’s commonly held that conflict is not itself a bad thing, but it reveals our fight strategies. I appreciate that this blog seems to be trying to get us to develop strategies which conform to Christ’s way.

  • Thanks, James. More proactive strategies would be nice.

  • James Elliott

    It does have a kind of “Christian” sound to it. 🙂

  • Harvey James Johnson

    Here is where I disagree: Without going deeply into it, I should also point out that political power is always “power over.” This quote by Josh Lawson seems to come out of Thomas Paine and the Jeffersonian perspective that government is a necessary evil that restrains the impulses of evil men. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther disagree with that assessment of government and politics. Government, as an ideal, is a blessing and politics is nothing more or less than a community deciding together how they will live in harmony for the common welfare.

  • Hello, Harvey. I see where you’re coming from, but I wonder: How are the rules of government enforced? Ultimately, it is only by the exercise of power over individuals. That is what I’m getting at here.

  • I’m glad that’s not been your experience of progressives or progressive-ism in general. I’ve observed it quite a bit, unfortunately.

  • TWE

    Not to push too deeply into theology here but isn’t all social interaction have ” force” by how you describe it. Even within Christian theology the idea of the ” wheat being separated from the chaff” for those who don’t accept is a force. In order to take an item out of a store you must exchange it for something of yours or they will force you out and may never let you back. My point is that if force means playing to a set of rules then there is no escaping having force be applied, whether by the state, the store, or the saints.

  • AntithiChrist

    What the story of Jesus’ temptation says about the gullibility of Christians in general isn’t all that flattering.

    Supposing for the sake of argument that the entire Jesus=God idea is true, Jesus is supposed to have been a god who, in cahoots with his Dad/Self/Holy Spirit, created an entire universe. This means that the Satan character in this story was tempting Jesus with an incredibly small fraction of a thing that Jesus already owned…um…hello?

    Thinking things through: If more Christians did this we’d have far fewer of these embarrassing moments.

  • Obscurely

    [ Brother Wood — the Trump over Pence thread refused to post this, so I’m sending it to you here. ]

    YES, I like your analysis very much, brother! Christians should be offering an example to the larger American society of insisting on the highest moral standards for political leaders but not demonizing those who fail to hold people like Trump to that standard. I think Mitt Romney did a heroic job of holding that balance in his Senate floor speech explaining why he voted to remove Trump.

  • Sure, ok. But you’re missing the point here. Or just disregarding it to beat your own drum.

  • Obscurely

    [ With apologies to C. S. Lewis, I offer below the text of a private letter from the tempter emeritus Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, recently promoted to Regional (North America) Tempter. ]

    My dear Wormwood …

    I note with pride the enormous success you are enjoying in America with the many millions of your patients who are for us so conveniently content merely to bear the Name of the Son of our great Enemy, or to confine His loathsome teachings to a purely private sphere. I mean of course the success of your clever stratagem of inducing them to exchange the lasting treasure of the credibility of their iniquitous creed in the public mind for transient political power. If you will pardon my employing an analogy from their own unholy book, it is rather deliciously like the sensible Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew.

    I have taken particular delight in your brilliant deployment on a vast scale of the-end-justifies-the-means gambit – how much easier that venerable truth of Our Father Below has made our work there among the unfailingly suggestible humans! And to think they continue to uncritically support in such devout numbers a faithful Father-fearing president at the unwitting cost of utterly discrediting Our Enemy Above – as if He could ever in our most fevered imaginings be truly the Author of a confusion so useful to our righteous cause.

    I hope to be joining you in November to celebrate the re-election of our honorable friend, which your tireless efforts have now rendered all but inevitable. Until then, keep up the good work, my boy! – and be assured I will be commending your achievement to the attention of my superiors.

    Ever your affectionate uncle,
    Screwtape

  • AntithiChrist

    Fair point, even if the drum representing negative effects on culture of human gullibility on a religion-sized scale is worth beating, which btw it is.

    Your article appears to argue for a “pre-Constantine” sort of dedicated-to-Jesus, small, unassuming ideal of worship, divorced from the political turmoil of the world, uninterested in the affairs of government.

    If I’ve got that right, then we are very close to being on the same page. I consider that sort of worship, if one must worship something, the ideal form of worship, although I acknowledge that it’d be naive to expect that it could ever happen, pre-apocalypse.

    To identify Constantine as the opportunistic rising Roman emperor who backed the right religious horse and ultimately gave us Big Church, is a step in the right direction, even though your characterization of pre-Connie Christianity is a little on the simplistic side.

    But credit where it’s due: you don’t often see many evangelicals even bringing up the messy evolution of the various Jesus sects and cults competing for market share out on the social fringes of the 1st – 4th century Roman Empire. For that, you’re to be commended.

    But starting with all the rival Jewish breakaway sects from the earliest days of the Christ church, there were different, often rival, versions of “The Christ,” or what have you, being taught to each small group of worshipers. Bibles hadn’t been invented yet and at best, some of these groups would have a letter or something similar written down to share with fellow worshipers, some preacher’s “testament.”

    Eventually, humans being fully comfortable existing in hierarchical structures, religious hierarchies formed out of these various worship groups. Each group taught its own embellishments to its own flock and each flock believed its own leaders’ embellishments.

    Eventually many congregations (or warring Jesus-tribes, take your pick) were well repped enough – that is, some bishops had acquired enough regional religious/political power – to enjoy the notice of Constantine and his successors. Then began the basis of genuine Christian political power. The rest is history.

    Throw in the Grand Commission to save the souls of the world, and couple that with an empire (any empire will do) focused on achieving global influence and power, and you’ve got a recipe for culture wars. You might say that culture wars are embedded in the Evangelical DNA. From the earliest days, back when Paul was running around griping to his particular followers about Those Other Guys, the “traffickers in Christs.”

    But that brings us back to the gullibility issue. Evangelicals are taught to put their faith in Christ, who has all the answers. Most Christians, despite their personal one-in-one relationship with Jesus, are influenced by their church leaders and leading voices, if not Fox News commentators. As a simple example of how wrong this mindset can go, consider that Evangelical church leadership posted some pretty dodgy answers to their questions to Jesus regarding who to vote for in the 2016 election. The Evangelical flocks looking to this bunch for leadership, many of whom asked their own questions directly to Jesus himself, voted as a nearly solid block for a stock, leading character out of an anti-Christ movie. Gullibility got us here. A little actual observation, research and critical thinking would have gotten us very different numbers from this group.

    Voltaire said it best: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”