Tag: Politics

Sin – an ethical case for God?

In the previous post, I commented on Keller’s existential argument for belief in God in his book The Reason for God.  Keller, sounding a bit like Paul Tillich, argued that each person effectively deifies some role or goal, and the only way to avoid existential disappointment is to put our infinite trust in an infinite God.  If we find meaning in our friends and jobs, we will be shattered when they let us down.

But Keller doesn’t think that idolatry – treating finite goods as though they are the infinite God – is a risk only to the idolaters themselves.  According to Keller, idolatry puts everyone at risk.

The Sin of Self- Centeredness

If our highest goal in life is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic. [1]

In his book A Scandalous Providence, Frank Tupper makes a similar point.

The self turns into iteslf to gain stability within the self, the self-securing a failure to trust God . . . [2]

Unlike Timothy Keller, Tupper, takes his analysis further, locating the origin of this dangerous tendency towards self-centeredness in evolution.

Emergent human persons socialized within a particular community in a world stamped with indescribable, commonplace violence to protect its societal life.  Actually, self-preservation is the most significant factor relating earlier animal forms to the human animal in biological evolution, for self-preservation in the dawning of human existence involved the problem of self-protection through violence, the acquisition of food by violence, and the resolution of the fear of “the Other” with violence. [3]

Early human beings depended on desperate violence to preserve themselves against other animals and other human tribes.  Pacifist tribes, had they ever existed, would presumably have been quickly removed from the gene pool by starving warriors of neighboring tribes.  The genes and societal structures that survived the fires of early human life left a deep, violent mark on “human nature.”  Violent self-centeredness continues to this day.

Imagine a world where everyone could see beyond their own self-interests.  Imagine a world where the well-being of us isn’t more important than the well-being of them.  It’s hard to fit racism, war, and interpersonal ugliness into that picture.  The rich wouldn’t hoard their resources away from the poor, because rich kids would no longer be inherently more important than poor kids.  Nationalism would evaporate.  Globalization wouldn’t be so scary.  I would like to live in that world.  I would like to live that way.  But self-centeredness – sin – holds me (and us) back.

The Solution

What can we do about sin?  How do we opt out of the natural human tendency towards violent self-preservation?  The solution, say Tupper and Keller, is to center our lives around the God of love instead of ourselves and our tribes.  To borrow Paul Tillich’s phrase, if we are ultimately concerned with someone outside of ourselves, someone who loves each person equally, than we will be less taken by racism and self-preserving violence.  Threats to me and my group are less threatening if what really matters to me is God, who loves each person.

Of course, a shocking 81% of white Evangelical Christians who voted in the recent U.S. election say they voted for Donald Trump, a man who expressed precious little sensitivity towards people outside of the in-group of white, Christian America.  A recent conference of global Evangelicals expressed concern, claiming that Donal Trump “will harm the Church’s witness“.  It’s hard to escape the impression that Donald Trump considers American workers to be more important than workers oversees, the safety of American citizens more important than the safety of Syrian refugees, Christians more important than Muslims.  As this election has shown, belief in God does not necessarily inspire believers to care more about outsiders and less about themselves, at least on the scale of national politics.

Like most of Keller’s arguments for God, the potential political payoff of theism does little to demonstrate that God is anything more than a human projection.  As such, Keller fails to address one of my biggest questions.  Even so, I still think that Keller and Tupper have a point.  At least in theory, believing in a benevolent God should help me to resist discrimination and violence in my own heart and in the world at large.

 

References

[1] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 175. Print.

[2] Tupper, E. Frank. A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2013. 185. Print.
[3] Ibid. 186. Print.

God and Politics

The U.S. elections are big news recently – too big to ignore.  Many of my vocal Christian friends have taken to social media to remind believers that our new leadership (including Donald Trump) was selected by God, as indeed each political leader has been specifically put in power by God.  I don’t buy that story – I could never believe that God picked Hitler and Stalin.  But all their talk has me thinking about the relationship of God to politics.

Creation and Politics

In Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, God is said to be the Creator of the world.  If God is Creator, then the natural order of the world is, at least to some extent, sanctioned by God.  Power and leadership are inescapable aspects of the world that God made.  In Genesis 1, God consistently declares that creation is good.  Consequently, a “creational” view of politics emphasizes that our governments are divinely intended and inherently good.

From a creational perspective, “the way things are” is stamped with divine approval.  Those of us who aren’t in charge must therefore do what we are told.  God made it to be this way.  Paul sums it up best in Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God

When God is thought to divinely ordain the powers that be, believers often use political analogies to think of God: God is an Absolute King, ruler, and judge.

It is worth noting that my friends – the ones who think that election results are divinely dictated – have taken this perspective to an extreme.  Even if general systems of authority and obedience are divinely intended, this need not mean that each individual politician, from Hitler to Stalin, is hand-picked by God.  In any case, Christians can think about God and politics from an entirely different angle.

Eschatology and Politics

“Eschatology” is a tricky and technical word that Christian theologians often use to talk about the future.  Eschatology has to do with “the end” – the final redemption of Creation, when all wounds are healed and all pain dissolves.  Christians typically believe that the current state of affairs will eventually be toppled and made right by God, transformed into a perfect future.  Against the backdrop of a grand future, our present governments look a lot less grand.

Unsurprisingly, an eschatological take on politics often gets pretty Jesus-y.  The Gospels (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell the story of Jesus, a homeless wanderer who criticized the rich and powerful and was executed through the collusion of the rich Temple authorities with a powerful Roman governor.  Yet their verdict was reversed by God, who raised Jesus from the dead and thereby “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15).  An eschatological God is a God who refuses to let those in charge have the last word.

An eschatological perspective is always a bit suspicious of the people at the top.  The Jesus story of God puts “the way things are” in a bad light.  Sustained by hope for a perfected future in God, eschatologically-informed Christians roll up their sleeves and work with God to interrupt the present with the in-breaking kingdom of God, if only for fleeting moments here and there.

God and Donald Trump

My theory is that believers who find conservative politics most appealing will tend to think of politics in terms of Creation, whereas political liberals will feel a stronger tug towards eschatology.  After all, conservatives by definition resist change, whereas liberals embrace it.  As someone who tends to lean leftwards (sometimes very leftwards) when it comes to politics, I tend to bet on eschatology.

The news that Trump will become president is very concerning to me.  I am disgusted by Trump’s nostalgia for the past (“Make America Great Again“), unfathomable wealth, authoritarian bent, and consistent insensitivity towards women as well as racial and religious minorities.  (To be fair, Clinton was no homeless wanderer herself.)  In the same way, I find little to worship in a God obsessed with re-enacting the past, a God who brings wealth to some and poverty to many others, who accepts the pain of the “little people” as collateral damage, who exercises unilateral power to trump (pun intended) the decisions of people.  In short, I am not attracted to tyrannical politicians or divinities.

But a God who is revealed in a homeless Jew who criticized the rich and powerful, a divinity who raises the weak people who the empire crucifies,  a God who spells trouble for “the way things are” – I could probably love that kind of God – in fact, I believe that I do. Perhaps God isn’t pulling Trump up to the top – maybe God is bracing for the pain that Trump has promised to unleash on those at the bottom.

Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Politics

Do you ever find yourself discussing something controversial with someone you disagree with, only to find that there are certain “irreconcilable differences” beneath the surface?

Since I moved to North Carolina from suburban Virginia last year, I’ve had more than a few of those conversations. I’ve struggled to articulate why I so strongly object to a kind of wealthy, white, North Carolinian conservatism that is suspicious of the poor, unmoved by poverty, and preoccupied with an economic calculus of “the way things are.”  At risk of sounding cliched and holier-than-thou, maybe my understanding of Jesus is what makes the popular politics of possibility (say that three times fast!) so impossible for me.

Incarnation

Let’s imagine for a minute that God became a homeless wanderer who relied on donations from the wealthy to fund his ministry.  Even if that was all we had to go one, what might be our “default” take on homelessness and poverty?

Since I moved to North Carolina last year, I’ve met people who are “by default” suspicious of poor people: “They have not excuse for being poor.”  “There are so endless opportunities for everyone in this country, especially minorities.”  I have heard people actually say those things.

But if my “unconditional concern” is a God who became a homeless dude, I might tend to think differently.  The Incarnation of God in an obscure Jewish peasant threatens any tendency to find ultimate value and meaning (AKA “God,” in some sense) in money and power.  In light of the Incarnation, poverty is associated with God, not with laziness.

Crucifixion

But let’s say there’s more than just incarnation.  Let’s say that the Incarnate God was not only a homeless wanderer, but a party-thrower who challenged society’s hierarchies by inviting everybody (men, women, adult, child, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile) to celebrate the in-breaking “Kingdom of God” with him.  Let’s say that said homeless dude is executed by a powerful, wealthy Empire with the cruel and humiliating punishment reserved for political revolutionaries.

This grants a whole new sense of urgency to the Incarnation-instincts described above.  The story of a “crucified God” confronts me with a troubling question: whose side am I on?  Am I more like the greedy judges or the sentenced revolutionary?

Being suspicious of the poor becomes risky business in light of the Jesus story (especially as it’s found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Matthew’s Gospel relates a scene where Jesus is judging humanity at the end of history.  Jesus condemns the people who did not care for the “least of these” – the vulnerable, the poor, the incarcerated.  To the shock of the oppressors, Jesus declares that what is done to the “least of these” is, in fact, done to Jesus himself.  How could it be otherwise?

3. Resurrection

But what if there’s even more to the story than that?  Maybe God became a homeless guy, and maybe that homeless guy challenged the status quo and wound up murdered by the authorities.  But what if he was raised from the dead?  What might that mean for our political instincts?

The cross isn’t hard to imagine.  If a poor man starts poking holes in the very fabric of society, and if a small group of leaders are making a ton of money off of “the way things are,” then why wouldn’t they kill him?!  Maybe the opposition to change posed by the rich and powerful is “life as usual,” “the way things are.”  Maybe the cross of Jesus is “the right kind of nightmare” as Douglas Ottati says – maybe the cross shows us the ugly, unacceptable side of what we all take for granted.

The resurrection is more difficult to believe, precisely because it is God’s “No” to “the ways things are.”  Poor subversive types might be regularly suppressed by the powerful and the wealthy, but how regularly do the oppressed become resurrected?  As far as I know, that doesn’t happen very often.  Resurrection interferes with our calculus.  It up-ends “the way things are.”

Resurrection means that the “way things are,” the logic of the dollar, the authority of the powerful – none of these things are final.  But the resurrection of Jesus has already happened; God is already transforming things from the way they are to the way they should be.  The impossible future is already breaking into the present!

Having learned from Resurrection that God’s already in the business of up-ending expectations, we are free to dream of and work towards a society where every kid gets a good education, police brutality isn’t a constant threat to anyone, “my money” isn’t free from the demands of those in need.  If all of that seems impossible, then we might be doing something right!  After all, is there anything more impossible than resurrection?

Faith and Politics

“Baptists” and Politics

When I tell Christians in the mainline denominations (like Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.) that I grew up Baptist, I tend to get reactions ranging from horror to pity.  Among non-Baptist American Christians, Baptists seem to have a reputation for “turn or burn” evangelizing tactics, homophobia and misogyny, a history of racism, and a host of other undesirable characteristics.  The most recurring criticism of “Baptists” that I’ve encountered is that Baptists care more about conservative political values than they do about Jesus.

The Baptist churches and organizations that I grew up with weren’t that kind of Baptist – at least not the blatantly Republican kind.  I would guess that the majority of the Baptists I knew voted mostly for Republicans, but the subject of politics was politely avoided in sermons and small group meetings.

It’s as if I grew up with self-conscious Baptists who, afraid of being mistaken for the Republican-loving Baptists, tended to stay out of politics altogether.  We talked about our relationship with God, changed hearts, and spreading the gospel.  Our solutions to the big-picture problems with America and the greater world was to transform individuals from the inside out.

The Unavoidability of Politics

I’m happy that I didn’t grow up in a church that reduces Christian faith to American nationalism and conservative political views.  I think that it is a good idea to leave the highly complicated matters of public policy out of generalizing sermons and Sunday school lessons that always tend towards oversimplification.  But staying out of politics altogether doesn’t make much sense to me, either.

Consider this quote from one of my favorite books, The Crucified God:

“When [churches] regard themselves as being either unpolitical or apolitical, this is only because of the blindness which their social position inflicts on them.”

-Jurgen Moltmann

In a democracy (and perhaps in all other political systems), it is impossible to stay out of politics.  If I attempted to not participate in politics by not voting, I would merely be silently supporting the status quo.  And as Moltmann argued back in 1972, the illusion of non-participation is only possible among the privileged citizens whose interests are largely protected by the existing political structure.

But even if it was possible to avoid politics, a faith that loves its neighbors wouldn’t want to stay out of politics – at least in theory.  After all, politics have a big impact on the lives of many, especially the less fortunate (AKA “the least of these”).  And let’s not forget that Jesus himself was crucified – a punishment that the Roman Empire reserved for those who dared to challenge the established Roman structures of power and honor.

An Example: Poverty and Homelessness

I am certainly not the most politically informed person in this county, so I’m very hesitant to make a hard-and-fast connection between Christian faith of any sort and a specific political viewpoint.  With that being said, a particularly glaring example of the flawed disconnect between politics and [some forms of] faith is poverty and homelessness.

As far as I can remember, all of the churches that I’ve ever attended have been involved in some sort of poverty-related ministry.  Many churches are invested in providing food, shelter, and clothing to people who need them.  Yet in my experience, many of these ministries are able to avoid the glaring question of why there are so many needy people in the first place.

If there are, in fact, big-picture political changes that can reduce the rates of poverty that we see around us, then a faith that cares about others must be involved in pursuing those political goals.  At the very least, a comprehensive poverty-related ministry with a genuine interest in providing for the most vulnerable members of our society should encourage its participants to consider the relevant political issues and take them into consideration while casting their ballots.

In conclusion, I am very suspicious of any supposedly straight line from Christian faith to a particular political party.  Yet I am equally suspicious of a supposedly apolitical  faith because a faith tinged with love cannot afford to avoid politics, even if such a thing were possible.