Thursday, October 9, 2008

Politics and Idolatry

One of the cool things about my new ministry position is that I get to lead students through Martin Luther's "Small Catechism." For my whole seminary career I ate up Luther's writings and now I get to teach his theology to middle schoolers, life couldn't be any better. Coming back to the subject, about a month ago I was teaching on the first commandment and for a brief moment something dawned on me. Not only that, it has stuck with me and hasn't let me go so I figured I might as well put in on this blog.

As many of you know the first commandment reads, "You shall have no other god's before me." Quite simple, right, but what exactly does this mean. It's one of those things most of us have heard since we were out of the womb. Think about it though, "You shall have no other god's before me…" In doing research to teach this to middle schoolers I came across Luther's definition of what makes something a god in our eyes. He writes:
"A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god."
At the time I was reading this the democratic and republican national conventions were happening. As I was watching these on TV I began to look into my own heart and see whether or not I trusted in one of these two men to be my all and all. Maybe I was trusting America… Then I looked in the eyes of those at the convention. The funny thing is if you were to turn on one of the conventions on one TV and a contemporary Christian worship service on the other, you could barley tell the difference. They are both worship services. Whether it's worshiping the American dream, Obama, McCain, or Palin we all are guilty of setting our trust on something other than God. Just read their material:
"I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth" –Obama
"John McCain has the strength to keep America safe and the courage to secure the peace." –McCain's Website
I'm not going to waste your time with any more quotes, but just think about it. Look at Luther's quote again, "That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god."
So these thoughts have been in my head for about a month or so. What really motivated me to write about this now was listening to or reading people, especially Christians, talk about this year's election. So much anger, so much hate, so must investment in one of the parties. These kinds of reactions happen when one is so invested in something that it becomes part of his/her identity. I've done this too. Aren't we committing some sort of idolatry? Aren't we either trusting in Obama, McCain, America, or our economy to truly pull us through?
In the book of Revelation John pleas to the Christians of the Roman Empire not to become too involved in the ways of that nation. He writes, "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes" (Revelation 18:4-5). Commenting on this passage Tony Campolo writes, "We may live in the best Babylon in the world… but it is still a Babylon, and we are called to come out of her." Is becoming so invested in this political process, this American dream in line with this plea from John the Revelator? Think about it… When someone disagrees with you what thoughts or emotions go through your mind? Is it like they are attacking a piece of you? I ask these questions because I've experienced this.
When we commit idolatry in the realm of politics, we are following and trusting something that is completely opposed to the message the gospel brought to earth. No matter how Christian a candidate claims to be (and I'm not doubting their faiths), the process itself is at its best not even a dim reflection of the Kingdom Jesus is establishing. Commenting on this Kingdom author William Hale White writes, "A glimpse was caught of such a gospel nineteen centuries ago in Galilee, but it has vanished." If any candidate would truly practice what the New Testament demands he/she would never come close to winning. Early third century church father Tertullian exclaims, "Emperors could only believe in Christ if they were not emperors—as if Christians could ever be emperors." I'm not saying that the candidates are not Christian, I'm just saying that if they were to truly embody what Christ brought to earth they would not have made it anywhere in politics. If we are attuned to this, we as Christians might not become too invested in any candidate, party, philosophy, etc… because in the end it's all meaningless, pure vanity, and contrary to what Jesus brought to earth.
Celsus, an opponent to early Christianity wrote, "If everyone were to act the same as you Christians, the national government would soon be left utterly deserted and without any help…" I think the same is true today. If Christianity were truly practiced in government, what we know as politics would come crashing down because what exists is completely contrary to what Jesus stood for. Commenting on the political philosophy of Christianity Paul Zahl writes that it is, "Countercultural in the extreme. It has also never been put into practice." I would add that it probably will never be put into practice because of the limitations of original sin and the corrupting nature of power (just look at Gollum…).
So what does this mean for us right now? I think this means that we stop becoming so invested in who we support. It means that we step back and look to see if we are committing idolatry with our candidate. It means that we have charity to others view points. Lastly, it means that we bring the change from outside the system. True change will never come from Obama's center of hopeyness or McCain's maverickness, rather it will come through God's workings in a Christian community worldwide that is abiding in Christ's love and following his example of loving others no matter whether they are friends, family, or enemies. It will come from without rather than from within. True change is God's work. Remember that as the elections draw near and emotions run high. When that happens listen to Jesus' words:
"19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." -
Matthew 6:19-21

I'm Shawn Smith and I approve this message…

Two books of interest for this topic are:
Shane Claiborne and Christ Haw, "Jesus for President"
Paul Zahl, "Grace in Practice" (particularly his section on grace in politics)

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