Low on Politics
by Len Wilson
At Invite, we exist to build a like-hearted community of influencers who are high on Jesus, low on politics, and biased toward innovation. But what does it mean to be "Low on Politics"?
Politics is about the exercise of power.
There’s an old hymn that goes, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it / prone to leave the God I love”. It’s an apt and elegant way to describe the ugliness that lives in us, and as true a statement of human nature as I know.
Enlightenment utopianism notwithstanding, we are not improving our way out of our own nature, and we cannot build the kingdom of God via our own effort. On the contrary, our human condition, formerly known to some as sin, is the desire to leave the presence and authority of God and to establish our own fiefdoms, east of Eden. We don’t want the power of the Almighty God; we want our own power.
The 19th century English politician Lord John Dalberg-Acton is famous for his remark that power corrupts. Whether this is causal—the acquisition of power is a corrupting influence—or correlational—power and corruption tend to go hand in hand—is irrelevant. Perhaps corruption is even a prerequisite for power. Evidence is plentiful that if you give a person power over other people, that person tends to make the maintenance of power their number one priority. This is known as “looking out for number one."
One of my favorite films is Michael Mann’s The Insider, the retelling of the whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand’s testimony that took down Big Tobacco. The protagonist of the film isn’t Wigand, however; it is Lowell Bergman, the 60 Minutes producer who stood up not only to the tobacco industry but to his own corporate overseers to speak truth to power on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves. In the film, Bergman represents the highest and best of American journalism. The best of journalism, and yes journalism is prone to corruption, is the realization that truth is imperiled by power, and the calling of the journalist is to continually opt for truth, even in the presence of money.
Human systems refect human sin.
What is the response of the Christian, then? Does Jesus call us to go to work to create a uncorrupt system? This was the idea of the Zealots of Jesus’ day, as so many prior and since, who have risen up in the name of righteousness to overthrow compromised authority. Some claim Jesus was political because he engaged in politically subversive activites or that Christianity is necessarily political because it favors the least. But the problem is the end. To what end is our work? God's kingdom is not a state built or maintained by human hands. And what is the end result of political revolution? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
Or to quote Sting, "there is no political solution."
As it is commonly understood, the word "politics" is shorthand not just for the work of governing society, but for the exercise of power by one person or group of people over another. Policy is a reflection of power, and power in human hands is a problem. The 16th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, no stranger to state authority, recognized that politics is essentially a zero-sum game. Any person or political system built by or governed by human hands is, in the end, a perpetuation of the problem of power.
Jesus knew the true source of the problem and thus did not act against pagan power; he in fact encouraged his disciples to pay their due taxes to Caesar. He told Peter to put away his sword. He refused to take Judas' zealous bait. He never engaged in the politics of power. Instead, Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees and Sadducees, those who manipulated God’s words in the pursuit of personal gain. He called them "a brood of vipers."
Politics begats power, and power corrupts, because it reflects our own fear and desire to be in control. The Pharisees and Sadducees sought signs of the consummation of their vision of a new kingdom, but Jesus rejected their idea of power (Matt 16:4), and then warned his people to beware of their leaven, their glutenous vision of human authority which slowly grows and takes over (Matt 16:16). Jesus is clear: the Kingdom of God is not found in the formation of political systems and in the exercise of human power, no matter how noble the intent; the kingdom of God is only found in the presence of God and is only built by Jesus (Matt 16:18). Jesus is the only good, true, and beautiful source of authority.
It is a question of the end. Any condition short of the telos of God inexorably falls short. The end of our systems, no matter how noble our intent, is just another corrupt structure. The end Jesus fulfilled was indeed a "kingdom", but not the sort of kingdom we envision.
The kingdom of heaven is the presence of God, and it exists now.
What happens when we place party over people.
Acts 15 tells the story of the first recorded conflict of the early church. While sharing the story of Jesus, the apostle Paul and Barnabas had found an audience with some Gentiles in the far flung community of Antioch. “Certain believers” from the home office got wind of what they were doing, and sent a posse out to make sure the rules were being enforced. They said, "unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1) One can imagine this may not have gone over well with the adult men in the local Gentile population.
As Luke tells the story, the declaration brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute. “So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.” (v2) The stage was set for a serious disagreement—one that went beyond a few customs to the very question of identity. Who are you, and who do you become when you decide to follow Jesus? The first question of church policy was on the table. This inexorably led to a question of power. Whose opinion would win?
Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem. They were received well, with one major exception: “Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:5) Notice the phrase indicating those “who belonged to the party”. This critical little phrase gets to the heart of the issue then, and the relentless issue of politics and faith today. Those who opposed Paul and Barnabas did so on the basis of their party affiliation, and with it their expectation that everyone should adhere to the party's specific set of rules. From their viewpoint, they had it all figured out. They had an ideology and an identity, and both needed to be enforced.
One of the most attractive aspects of Jesus is his unique ability to bring people together, including coteries and cliques who normally can’t get along. In Jersualem, a diverse set of people found themselves in the difficult position of navigating community, united by the Messiah but by little else.
What is the least helpful thing to do when you are reaching across cultural divides? According to this story, lead with your party affiliation. When your ideology demands hegemony, conflict is inevitable. This is not the Jesus way, because it lacks humility. Jesus knew who he was and never shied from naming it to others, yet he did not demand nor enforce compliance. He was humble, to the point of allowing his own murder (Phil 2:8). Now, we don’t even allow unfavorable opinions, on both the polticial left and right.
A recent article detailed how several influential American church leaders met with potential presidential candidates for an endorsement audition. These leaders perhaps saw their work as a means of defending the faith, but the world sees it differently. The way of the world is defined by power: dog eat dog, kill or be killed, winners and losers. When the church adopts the mechanisms of power, we become just another ideology to an unbelieving and unbelievable world, one of many menu options on the philosophers plate at the Areopagus. When we attempt to leverage power, even for righteous aims, we harm our witness, and the world dismisses the good news as a ruse, except even worse because its veneer of hypocritical piety.
As Carey Nieuwhof writes, "Jesus spent about zero time asking the government to change during his ministry. In fact, people asked him to become the government, and he replied that his Kingdom is not of this world. The Apostle Paul appeared before government officials regularly. Not once did he ask them to change the laws of the land. He did, however, invite government officials to have Jesus personally change them."
The message of Jesus is unique precisely because it is not of this world, which is not a reference to an I’ll fly away theology but a very practical strategic sign that Jesus does not adopt the ways and means of Rome.
The problem with politics is the problem with power, which is that there are winners and losers. For one opinion to hold sway, the other must acquiesce. This is not the Jesus way. Humility is the antonym of power.
The Jesus way is invitational.
The journey of following Jesus is invitational. It is a smile and a warm welcome to a better life. Enforcement belies the very nature of the abundant life we as his followers believe is possible in the kingdom of heaven. A focus on "party" eschews the values to which we aspire. While the call to follow Jesus is not a call to lose our identity but enhance the things that make us unique, the challenge is what others see in us—do they see the attractive Jesus, or do they see a posse of party compliance officers?
To be clear, Jesus was not apolitical. He
undercut zealotry with the warning that violence breeds violence (Matt 26:52). He warned his disciples of Gentile “great ones” who dominate their lessers (Matt 20:25). He unmasked the Roman system of benefaction as a “corrupt power-game” of gift, graft, and domination. He ridiculed Herod as a “fox” (Luke 13:32).
To say “low on politics” is not to say that we do not have political opinions or engage in political activity, nor is it to say that we do not work with people who possess political opinions or engage in activity. Rather, it means that to be “high on Jesus, low on politics” is to be of the same ilk as Acton and Bergman. It is the acknowledgement that not only does power corrupt, but that corruption is in the human heart. The end of the conflict in Acts 15 indeed resulted in some rules for the locals. But notice: the rules did not include circumcision. There were four, and all of them related to habits of food and sex. They did not challenge anyone on the basis of party or identity, but they gave much simpler guidelines for kingdom living. The letter they sent included a final, grace-filled line: "You will do well to avoid these things." No enforcement.
No organization, not even a faith-based one, has the corner on the truth, and any political system—any system of power formed by men and women—is prone to “leave the God I love.” We may only find power in metanoia, in turning away from the world, in humbling ourselves, in surrendering to Jesus, who has been given all authority on heaven and earth (Matt 28:20), and by receiving the authority of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, we welcome Jesus-seekers from a wide variety of faith traditions. We lift up Jesus as the ultimate authority on heaven and earth. And we tend to eschew activity which trends too closely toward any specific, partisan political platform.
Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health and used through public domain via Wikipedia Commons.