The Inescapability Of Politics

My sincerest sympathies and no small amount of empathy are with anyone who attempts to wrestle with the issue of politics when it comes to the Church of God. The main reason for this is the wide gulf that exists in the desire that people have (especially those in positions of authority) to denigrate involvement on the part of ordinary members in political matters with the absolute mania that these same authorities have in practicing politics without self-awareness or insight into their own political behavior. The other reason, and the one I will be focusing on here, is that the Bible itself is a deeply political document and believers themselves are engaged in politics of the highest order and so it can be very difficult to properly demarcate the legitimate practice of godly politics from what is often viewed as the illegitimate practice of worldly politics, a task which is difficult enough already without considering the hypocrisy that is often involved in this demarcation.

When we look at politics in its most restricted form, we see that it comes from the Greek word related to the city, the polis. Just like economics springs from the household management of fathers and mothers (oikos being the Greek word for the household, and the root of economics), so too politics springs from the rule of city-states, the foundational unit of Greek politics. This alone ought to clue us into the political nature of being a believer. After all, Hebrews 11:8-10 reads: “ By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” The very same passage that praises Abraham for distancing himself from the politics of the earth by living in the land of promise as a stranger and pilgrim and foreigner points out that he was waiting for the city whose builder and maker is God–namely the New Jerusalem, pointing out that his estrangement from earthly politics was due to his devotion to the politics of God’s kingdom. We should note, as well, at least in passing, that this city is described in detail in Revelation 21 and 22 and the arrival of God’s polis on earth marks the end human history and the beginning of the world to come which we hope for so fervently but know comparatively little about the logistics and workings of eternal life within the Kingdom of God.

Similarly, any mention of the behavior of believers and the promises of God to believers indicate sthat politics is at the heart of what is being offered to those who live a faithful life in obedience to God’s laws. (It should go without saying, of course, that obedience to God’s laws and a defense of their legitimacy is itself a political matter, as the laws of God are political insofar as they are the laws of God’s Kingdom and the expressions of God’s eternal character, and obeying them is an act of loyalty to the King of that Kingdom.) For example, when believers are called “ambassadors” in 2 Corinthians 5:20, such a title has always involved political behavior, namely representing a particular political entity that has a recognized statehood and supporting its interests and well-being in foreign and sometimes hostile lands. As believers, we are not vulnerable and helpless refugees who are stateless and lacking in citizenship and a national identity, but we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, with the highest possible political identity for human beings imaginable.

And lest we lose sight of this fact, the Bible makes this matter plain in both the Old and New Testaments when talking about the blessings for physical and spiritual Israel. Exodus 19:5-6 reads, for example: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”” Similarly, 1 Peter 2:9-10 reads: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” It should go without saying that the promised blessing of being kings and priests are themselves political offices in both civil and religious matters. (Lest we forget, politics exists in both church and state.) Indeed, both Exodus and 2 Peter make it plain that it is God’s acceptance of Israel and the Church as His people that gives us an identity that we would not otherwise have and which we can in no way deserve. To be considered the people of God is to have a political identity as being citizens of His nation and members of His family. Citizenship is political. Royal families are political. Being kings and priests is political, as is the exercise of those offices.

Even when we look at the blessings that are promised to individual believers, those are precisely political in nature, and indeed often involve the uncomfortable discussion of earthly politics. Let us, for example, take the discussion of the rewards given to those people who serve God and Jesus Christ faithfully on earth in Luke 19:11-27: “Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business till I come.’ But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.’ “And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned ten minas.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned five minas.’ Likewise he said to him, ‘You also be over five cities.’ “Then another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief. For I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ And he said to him, ‘Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ “And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.’ (But they said to him, ‘Master, he has ten minas.’) ‘For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.’ ””

This particular parable is immensely political in ways that are both very obvious and less so. Most obviously, of course, is the political behavior of the lord who became King Himself, in giving to his loyal followers political power as a result of their enrichment of Him through profiting from what He has given them. As believers, we expect the be rewarded in his Kingdom with ruling over five or ten cities or some other political office of that nature. Let us not forget, after all, that the original meaning of politics involved the management and rulership of cities, which is precisely what believers expect (with reason) as a promise to be fulfilled for loyal and faithful service by God. We who obey God on this earth and claim fealty to His Kingdom expect to be rewarded by political office, and we are entirely reasonable to expect this given the political nature of the biblical promises themselves. To claim that voting for political offices or expressing one’s support or lack of support for various political leaders and positions is somehow political while denying or ignoring at the same time that ruling over cities in the world to come is also political is immensely stupid and hypocritical.

The politics of the parable of the minas, though, is not limited to the political offices that are promised to faithful and productive believers. Let us note that this passage begins by describing Jesus Christ as a nobleman who went into a far country to receive for Himself a Kingdom and then to return. This is, as we might note, an accurate description of Jesus Christ’s behavior in returning to God’s throne to receive authority in ruling over earth and then returning in the future to set up and establish that kingdom. It is also, though, a reference to the politics of the contemporary Roman Empire, where the various rulers of the Herodian dynasty (and other such people) would go to a far country (Rome) and receive for themselves a subsidiary kingdom or tetrarchy to rule over as a client king of the Roman Empire. In at least one such case, Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was opposed by Jewish leadership who did not want him to rule over them, and as might be imagined he was not in a charitable mood when he received Judea and Samaria as his tetrarchy and returned to rule over his kingdom [1]. Thus even a discussion of the politics of God’s kingdom uses uncomfortable and somewhat on-the-nose discussions of earthly politics.

As an aside, this is by no means the only occasion where Jesus Christ alludes to earthly politics in His ministry. He was challenged about the propriety of taxation to the Romans (always a heated subject in any nation where the legitimacy of rulers is questioned) and also asked to express his opinion on the extralegal application of the capital punishment on a woman caught in the act of adultery. He was even questioned about his stance on paying the temple tax given his criticism of the corruption that went on that “den of thieves.” Perhaps most pointedly, though, Jesus Christ is quoted as saying the following in Luke 14:28-33: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

This passage does not strike the contemporary reader as being immediately political, but it was in fact a rather pointed criticism of two aspects of the behavior of Herod Antipas, who was, we should not forget, the political leader of Jesus Christ, being the ruler over Galilee and Perea, where Jesus Christ was a subject of his being considered as a citizen of Nazereth as well as someone who frequently lived in Capernaum, a border town within Antipas’ tetrarchy. Antipas was famous as a builder [2], but he also left some incomplete buildings which subjected him to ridicule, and his irregular patterns of divorce and marriage led his army to be defeated by that of his scorned father-in-law, who was the King of Nabatean Arabia at the time [3], thus making this passage a political commentary on the follies of his own ruler, a daring act and also one of considerable relevance for contemporary believers.

Given all of this, therefore, it is beyond dispute that the Bible itself deals deeply with political matters and indeed requires believers to be conscious of their political duties to God and to Jesus Christ as Lord and King. Our obedience on this earth is a matter of politics in demonstrating our loyalty is primarily to the Kingdom of God and only secondarily to our political loyalties here on earth. The blessings that we are promised and the offices that we expect to receive in the world to come are political–though they are not voted on by men but given by God, demonstrating monarchical rather than democratic politics, it must be admitted. At times, the Bible comments on political matters and even (especially in the Hebrew scriptures) shows anointed believers as prophets and believers interacting with and influencing political matters, serving Gentile rulers in high political office, anointing rebels against kings God has weighed in the balance and founding wanting, and in delivering politically charged rebukes against the corruption of Israel and Judah, even pronouncing God’s views of geopolitical matters like alliances and the course of empires.

In giving a biblical discussion of the involvement of believers in politics, it must be emphasized that the believer has, by virtue of having committed to obedience to God’s laws and ways, already made a political statement in favor of the Kingdom of God and already has received a political identity as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and as an ambassador of that kingdom to the rebellious province of earth. Involvement in politics is, as a result, unavoidable for the believer. Perhaps believers may need to be reminded of their ultimate commitment and loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven, but this merely reframes the question of how our identity as believers shapes our politics, because politics itself is inescapable. Moreover, any discussion of the legitimacy of the involvement of ordinary members in politics must also address the near universality of the mania for institutional politics practiced by the ministry that has existed for decades. Just as believers are to serve as models for the behavior of those who, at present, have not entered the Kingdom of God but will be held accountable to it at the time and place of God’s choosing, so too leaders within the Church of God serve as examples as to the legitimacy of involvement in political processes for members to imitate. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, International Relations, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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