Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Anger, panic, and politics

One of the reasons we get so politically angry with each other inside and outside the church is fear.  This makes no sense.  Panic does not rightly belong in any believer’s heart.
                Consider Psalm 97. Verse 1 says, “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psalm 97:1).  Notice that “reigns” is a political word. It describes a king exercising dominion over his subjects, the ancient equivalent (roughly) of saying, “President so-and-so sits in the Oval Office.” Of course verse 1 says much more. We elect American presidents for a brief time. Their “reign” is neither permanent, nor absolute, nor flawless, nor worldwide, whereas God’s is all four. His rule causes the “earth” to be “glad” and the “distant shores” to rejoice.”  Psalm 97:9 declares his absolute sovereignty over all authorities, whether seen or unseen: “For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” What an encouragement!
                When we bemoan the moral and social disintegration of American culture (whether we moan from the left or the right) we are often right. But when we speak to one another or to our own hearts in such a way as to stir up fear and panic, we are wrong. Our God reigns, and therefore we need not—we must not—be afraid as we exercise our civic responsibilities, no matter what seems to be going on around us.
                Consider the damage panic can bring. First of all, panic impairs judgment. If we give in to the voice that cries “Act now, or our great country will be forever lost!” we will find ourselves demanding easy and quick solutions to our nation’s problems, when in fact there are no such solutions. Christians, more than any others, should know that no candidate, no platform, no party has all the answers. But fear makes it easy to forget this.
                Panic breeds impatience not only with political process but also with people. It easily leads to browbeating and to polarization even in the church, the very place where God expects us to model the one community that will outlast all others. How quickly and tragically we accuse and demonize one another when we are afraid.   It is easy to demonize the rich and powerful (“take back Wall Street”), neglecting to note that some of the very rich are very generous.   Our hearts break over the killing of millions of unborn children, but are we really right to label every pro-choicer an advocate for murder and every woman who submits to abortion an accomplice in murder? What of the young woman who has been persuaded that the child within is not yet a child? What of the person who votes pro-choice because she cannot see how the legal battle against abortion will succeed rather than because she is pro-abortion?
                Because panic cries “Do something right now, before it is too late!” it dehumanizes us in our dealings with each other. For me to understand my neighbor’s motives and reasoning takes time, the very thing panic cannot stand.
                Panic can be used to justify falsehood. Some people, fearful of a religious takeover, have lifted Jefferson’s “wall of separation” idea out of its historical context and used it, dishonestly, to justify the silencing of the religious voice in every public place and discussion. Promoters of creationist literature, fearful of the impact of the teaching of evolution upon their children, have sought to sneak their material into a Pennsylvania public school by doctoring the terminology of their manual without substantially altering its content. Still others, fearful of the secularization of schools, have promoted “stealth candidates” with a hidden agenda (say, school prayer). Such subterfuge usually backfires, causing the opposition to retrench even further. Worse, when employed by believers, it dishonors the God they claim to serve by using ungodly means (lying) to advance an allegedly godly end.
                The worst thing about panic is that it displeases God. Fear is a matter of the heart, and our reigning King cares deeply and especially about our hearts, since it is from them that everything else issues (see Matthew 12:33–37; Mark 7:20–23). God cares about why we do something at least as much as he cares about what we do. Psalm 97 reminds us that, deep down, the fundamental tone of our lives must be joyful confidence in God’s sovereign reign, not fear: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice....Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name.” (Psalm 97:1, 12). When I choose political and social action because I am afraid, even if I can justify that action from Scripture, I am denying God at a deep level. I am acting from unbelief. I am taking his majestic name in vain.
                The next time we find ourselves driven by fear, or we hear a message that urges us to act out of fear, consider Jesus. Our Lord saw the desperate evils of life far more clearly than we ever will, and yet he never panicked. In The Waiting Father Helmut Thielicke wrote:
                What tremendous pressures there must have been within him to drive him to hectic, nervous, explosive activity! He no one else ever sees, with an infinite and awful nearness, the agony of the dying man, the prisoner’s torment, the anguish of the wounded conscience, injustice, terror, dread, and beastliness. He sees and hears and feels all this with the heart of a Savior...Must this not fill every waking hour and rob him of sleep at night? Must he not begin immediately to set the fire burning, to win people, to work out strategic work...furiously...before the night comes when no man can work? That’s what we would imagine the earthly life of the Son of God to be like, if we were to think of him in human terms....But how utterly different was the actual life of Jesus! Though the burden of the whole world lay heavy on his shoulders...he has time to stop and talk to the individual...By being obedient in his little corner of the highly provincial precincts of Nazareth and Bethlehem he allows himself to be fitted into a great mosaic whose master is God...And why peace and not unrest goes out from him. For God’s faithfulness already spans the world like a rainbow: he does not need to build it; he needs only to walk beneath it.

There is more to say about anger.  Stay tuned.

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