Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is it OK to Legislate Morality?

Here is another question I recently received:
1)      When talking about Christianity and politics you will always seek to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  How can a Christian decide which of God’s values should be enforced by law and which should be enforced by other means?

This is a very good question calling for a great deal of careful thought.  We should note first that everybody legislates morality—even the atheist—for morality expresses the values we hold dear and laws are the codification of those values.  So the really important and interesting question is not whether we should legislate morality, but rather which morality we should seek to legislate—your question.

First, some of God’s laws go straight to the human heart and are, for that reason, unenforceable by human law.  These should remain off the books.  I am thinking, for example, of the first and the tenth commandments (“You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not covet”).  There are other  divine laws that address human public behavior and need enforcement for the purposes of limiting human selfishness and cruelty.  “You shall not kill”, “you shall not steal”, “you shall not bear false witness,” and possibly “caring for the poor and marginalized” all belong to this category.  The Christian and the non-Christian can often find common ground in these areas.  But even here it gets tricky: Abortion in my view is a form of killing that should have laws written against it—but what precise form should they take (what form of the law is likely to pass, what should the sanctions be for breaking the law when so many don’t view the unborn as a person, and what provisions should be made in the case of rape and other special circumstances).   How about killing in a war if the war is not a just one (and who decides whether a war is just or not)?  Or take the command against stealing.  What constitutes stealing, and what sorts of stealing should we write laws about (Are excessive interest rates stealing?  Are certain executive salaries outside the range of what is fair and just and therefore a form of stealing from share-holders and employees?  Who decides?). 

Even trickier are laws that pertain to marriage and sexual behavior.  Christians may agree, for example, that gay sex and therefore gay marriage are wrong, but they may in good conscience disagree on the best way to advance the cause of traditional marriage in our culture.  Some may earnestly believe that legislation is not the way to go, that it will only drive gay people from the church; others may be convinced that legislation is the way to go.   And how, even if Christians all agreed that gay sex should be forbidden by law,  would such laws be enforced? 

So the answer to the “which law” question is nuanced.  Christians should think and talk about the question, refining their thinking and knowing that they may well have to live with the fact that they will come out in different places on the question in particular instances.  For this reason, I believe that pastors, speaking on behalf of Christ from the pulpit, should be very reluctant to dictate on the question.   As private citizens, not speaking for Christ, but simply talking about their own view in informal conversation, they can and should speak their mind. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Utopians on Their Knees

       Another blogger recently put to me the following question:
      In your book, you call some Christians ‘secret utopians.’  How is that contrary to what Christ promoted and how can our prayers reveal that aspect of our lives?

Christians ought to be utopians in one sense.  We believe that Jesus is ruling at the right hand of the Father and it is only a matter of time before his kingdom becomes fully manifested on planet earth.  This hope animates us, or should, in all that we do in our public discipleship.  What I mean by the term ‘secret utopian’ is something different.  The secret utopian is the person who thinks that we can ourselves bring in God’s good society by our own efforts and strategies and is therefore driven to make it happen and fearful when the ‘bad guys’ seem to be getting their way.  This sort of utopianism can show up in bitter and impatient praying—“God, get rid of that Senator!”  It can show up in the failure ever to thank God for one’s leaders or to pray humbly for them, understanding how very difficult it is to govern given all the frustrations and temptations of office.  It can show up as well in triumphalistic praying: “Oh God, thank you that your man is in the White House!”  The praying of the proper sort of utopian (the one I mentioned first) will be earnest, grief-stricken, humble, and hopeful:  earnest because we know that no human being or group of human beings can solve our nation’s deepest problems, grief-stricken because this is our country and we are responsible for what is wrong with her, humble because we ourselves can only guess at what the best solutions are, and hopeful because we know our Father hears us, his triumphed in Jesus, and will in the end put everything right.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dealing with Political Panic

Well the conventions are over.  It is easy to be cynical about the hoopla but I choose not to be.  I look at Syria and remain deeply grateful that we can still have clash culturally in this country without bloodshed.  I do not want to take this for granted. Nevertheless we still get too angry with each other, even in the church.  That anger is often the result of fear, and fear arises more often than we think from idolatry.  Below are my answers to some questions a blogger recently put to me on the subject.  

1) Why are Christians so prone to panic during the political process and how can we avoid panicking?

I think Christians are prone to panic, at least in part, because they have made an idol out of political solutions.  Idolatry happens whenever we put our deepest hopes in anything created—whether it is our vision for America, or a particular candidate, or a particular law we hope to see passed, or a particular platform we hope to see established.  There is nothing wrong with having a vision and a strategy for seeing that vision advanced.   The problem arises when we put our deepest hopes in such things.  And anger, fear, and panic are good signs that we have.  Christians need to see that making an idol of political solutions is more than frustrating for them (idols have no life in themselves).  It is deeply wrong, for it is false worship (“Let all be put to shame…who boast of idols”—Psalm 97:7). 

We can avoid panicking, or we can at least reduce our panicking, by repenting of our idols and renewing our trust in God.  As part of the process of repenting we may find it helpful to note how weak political power actually is:  Very few people get to exercise it, and when they do, they discover huge obstacles to exercising it in a democracy like ours where Congress can hold up legislation for years.  And more than likely their power is short lived—as Democrats discovered in the 2010 mid-term elections.

2)      Could you explain what you meant by “the idol of too much hope” in politics?

Some Christians just want to be left alone.  But others have rightly discovered that in our democratic system they have a voice.  We have discovered, rightly, that we need to exercise our voices in the public square.  We have more hope when it comes to exercising political influence than do many people in our world, both now and down through the ages. 

The problem as I see it is when we put too much hope in the political process.  Politics is made up of people, and people are weak, fallible, and self-centered.  Our power, if we ever get any, is short-lived, our political solutions are imperfect (often with unintended consequences); if we succeed in passing a good law this time around the likelihood is that it will be reversed by the ‘bad guys’ the next time around.  Thinking that there exists a ‘magic bullet’ politically is, for these reasons, na├»ve, and it sets us up for disappointment, frustration, and anger. 

Ironically, those who put too much hope in politics often end up so disillusioned that they withdraw into the ‘safety’ of cynicism.  The Christian who properly moderates his hope in politics is more likely to stay active, as he should, because his deepest hope does not lie in political success.  He knows that God is in charge of results, while he is “in charge of” faithfulness—patiently and humbly seeking to move things in the right direction.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Prayer moderates the utopians among us--and the cynics too

A final blog on prayer and politics.

One of the reasons Christians tend to fight with each other over politics is that we are often secret utopians. We say we trust in Christ, but we really trust in ourselves, or some human solution, to make the world a better place. We keep hoping for and believing in the “silver bullet”—the candidate, the policy, the platform, the Supreme Court configuration—that will fix things. And when we find that someone else’s silver bullet differs from ours, we don’t trust him anymore—even if he is a fellow believer. Or we keep clinging to the mistaken notion that America is God’s chosen nation, positioned to make things right in the world: if we can just get America “right” we will put the world to rights. And when we find someone with a different vision for what it means to get America “right” we demonize him.
Prayer reminds us that utopianism, together with the stridency that often accompanies it, is mistaken. For when we cry “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are appealing to God to do what we cannot do. We are acknowledging the selfishness, blindness, and weakness that drag at us, and will continue to drag at us, until we ourselves are made whole by the coming Lord. We are choosing, in short, to be realists about human solutions. And this realism makes us patient with each other.

To say that prayer makes us realists is not to say that it makes us cynics. To the contrary, it fills us with hope and that hope keeps us engaged. For prayer reminds us not only of what we cannot do, but also of what Christ most certainly will do. And that guaranteed future motivates us to represent him as best we can while we wait for him, even when our efforts are imperfect and seem ineffectual, even when those efforts are not completely in sync with those of other believers.

Someone has said that today’s cynic is yesterday’s idealist. And this makes sense. For when we begin with the premise that we have in ourselves the full solution to even one small problem, we are bound to be disappointed. And that disappointment will make us either angry or despondent. But the praying Christian begins with a different premise. He looks past himself to the wise God who died and rose to put all things right, and that focus keeps him both humble and hopeful.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Some more advice on political praying

One of the reasons that praying about politics turns down the political heat is that it reminds us that God is in charge.  When we remember this, we end up clinging a little bit less desperately to the people and policies that we believe in.  And when that happens we are a little less likely to demonize ‘the opposition’, a little more likely to be civil, a little more open to discussion and compromise—all of which are necessary if our form of government is going to work.

But how, more specifically, do we pray?  Paul gives us some guidance in 1 Timothy 2:1-6, part of which I quoted in my last blog. 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.

Notice first—we are to pray for all who are in high positions

In the midst of giving a commencement address, a speaker asked everyone to rise. He then said, “Those of you who do not know the name of your state governor, please sit and remain seated.” Some sat down. Then he said, “Those of you who do not know the name of at least one of your state’s senators in Washington, please sit.” A larger number took their seats. He continued, “Those of you who do not know the names of both your state’s senators, please sit.” Lots of people sat down. He next asked, “Those of you who do not know the names of your district representatives in your state government, please sit.” By that time, all but a handful were off their feet. Then the speaker observed, “Friends, if we do not know the names of these people, how can we be praying for them?”

We could all broaden the sweep of our political praying.
Notice what Paul then says about the content of our political praying: …that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 

The most important thing, it seems, is not that a certain law will pass or a certain person will come into power, or that a certain kind of America will take shape.  It is rather that, whoever governs, he or she will govern in such a way as to allow the church and its people to thrive.  The heart of our political praying is, strangely, that the church will be robust in its love, freedom, and holiness.   This means, I might say in passing, that we should be wary of any who use religion politically to divide the church. 

Why Paul’s odd priority?  Why is the health of the church at the top of Paul’s ‘political prayer list’?  He tells us in what follows.  It is because the church is the one place on earth where people get to find the deepest source of social binding—the one God through his one mediator. 

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.

I don’t think that Paul’s advice on prayer in 1 Timothy 6 is exhaustive.  I am not suggesting, in other words, that all we need do is pray for a robust church—since, if we have a strong church, we will have lots of converts, and, presto, a Christian America.  I don’t think it is that simple (Nor do I think that God has promised us a Christian America). 

What I am suggesting is this.  Whatever else we pray for as we pray for America, we must pray for the churches of America.  The church is God’s chief political strategy—the place where love and truth come together by the power of the Spirit, where the true Ruler and his cross are known in the breaking down of the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ that are the hallmark of man made political solutions.  When we do not pray for the church, we lose sight of her and stop loving her, and we fall into the folly of thinking that there is another, better, more lasting place to find the harmony we long for.  There isn’t.

The church shall never perish!  Her dear Lord, to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her, and false sons in her pale,
Against or foe or traitor she ever shall prevail.
--Samuel Wesley.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Should we actually thank God for politicians?!

Everybody has been commenting that the campaigning between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney for the Florida primary was particularly brutal.  I wonder whether it would have been different if the two men and their super PACs had been praying for each other. 

Listen to the Apostle Paul’s recommendation for political praying.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1)

How odd that Paul would counsel people to pray with thanksgiving for leaders in the world he knew, a place of political despotism. But he did, perhaps partly because the fragile church was often wrongfully accused of revolutionary aims and needed for its survival to show its good intentions. But surely Paul had other reasons. He saw government as God’s gracious way of controlling the socially destructive impact of sin. He also had the wisdom to see that, for all its imperfections, the Roman rule brought the sort of order and stability that made mission work and evangelism possible. 

Pollsters tell us that Americans are bitter and cynical about their political leaders. And primaries tell us that political contestants are bitter towards each other.  One imagines that if any praying gets done at all, its tone is frustrated and content judgmental: “Lord, change that man or get rid of him! Lord, send a firestorm on those self-serving bureaucrats!”
We err when we pray this way. It makes the already difficult task of governing in our age even more difficult. Many in government work hard at doing what they genuinely feel best in settings that invariably require compromise and draw flak. Many of the best-qualified people never even enter politics because it is so thankless and difficult.

Those who govern us need our encouragement at least as much as our criticism. When we thank God for our leaders, when we call to mind in prayer the good things they do and the efforts they make, we find ourselves behaving more charitably toward them. This change in us fosters a climate in which they find it easier to govern more responsibly. By contrast, negative praying tends to feed the cynicism we are naturally prone to, and cynicism discourages our leaders.

Such a dynamic may be more difficult to envision in national politics than at a local level (we are far more likely to rub shoulders with the members of our district’s school board than we are with our state’s senators). But I believe that it can happen at any level. Do not underestimate the power of attitude. It cannot be legislated, but it is often more powerful than any law.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Something Only Prayer Can Do

The South Carolina primary was pretty interesting.  Quite suddenly Mr. Gingrich is in the running again.  For some of those who are outraged over Mr. Romney’s 15 % tax rate this is wonderful news.  For some of those who are outraged at Mr. Gingrich’s marital infidelities it is depressing.

Outrage drives many of us during an election year.  It might be outrage over taxes or the decay of the family or abortion or something else.  But it rises as an expression of our hope that there really is, deep down, a moral order to things.  The cynics among us laugh at this.  For them there is no moral order, or (if there is) it is either not discernable or it is of no real interest to politicians, whose every decision (cynics say) is controlled by polls rather than principles. 

Should a Christian be a cynic or an idealist?  Probably a little bit of both.  I know I am both.  I am with the idealists when it comes to my confidence that there is an underlying moral order to things and that, one day, it will be fully vindicated.  But I am with the cynics in some ways as well (though I do think I am cynical)—for a couple of reasons.   First I sometimes share the cynic’s discernment problem—say for example when it comes to deciding about economic policies.  My second reason runs deeper.  I have my doubts about the lasting impact of policies or candidates—even really good ones. 

What our country needs most deeply can neither be legislated nor voted into office.  We need the sort of self-policing that comes from a widespread sense of accountability to a divine Person who sees and measures everything we think and do—what an earlier generation called an Awakening.   

Think about it.  Regulating financial behavior may have some value but there is no way of regulating greed out of the human heart: there will always be any number of financial wunderkinds who can find their way around regulations.   Let me put things positively.  When the people of a land genuinely fear God, they are less greedy (and therefore more generous), less predatory and promiscuous in sexual matters (leading to a diminished felt need for abortion), more faithful in their marriages (with happier and less wayward children), and more responsible towards the environment.  You can probably think of other benefits.

I am not suggesting we stop trying to write good laws or to get good people in office.      Nor am I encouraging us to be revivalist utopians.  No matter how broadly and deeply a genuine fear of God might reach in America, we will still have to await the return of Christ for things to be put fully right.

I am simply trying to persuade the church to keep praying.  As I said last blog, praying is something any Christian can do, a great consolation at those moments when we feel that the issues are beyond our understanding or control.  And praying is something we must do.  If the church does not obey Jesus and pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” who will? 

Praying is not ‘feel good’ behavior, a way to avoid the depressing fact that we have no real influence over the world.  It is obedient behavior—which should be reason enough to do it.  It is powerful behavior.  This we do not yet fully see—but one day we will.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Something we all can do during the primaries

Now that the field is beginning to narrow in the Republican race for the nomination, the gloves are off.  Claiming that Mr. Romney was brutal to him in Iowa, Mr. Gingrich has decided to answer in kind as the South Carolina primary approaches.  The cynic in me smirks and plans to watch the brawl from a distance—not a stance I am proud of.  The better man in me remembers that Jesus commands me to love my neighbor as myself.  This means for starters that I have to love Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney, whom I must labor not to turn into mere media figures—the incarnation of the few sound bites I manage to hear from them.  And then I have to move past them to the people in my neighborhood, and then the people of my country and the people that my country has an impact on.  When I start thinking this way, I begin to understand why it is so tempting to be cynical.  If I were to really care, I would be overwhelmed: The world out there is too big—the issues too complex—the forces at work too powerful—the personalities too subtle. 

I sometimes wonder if the ardent true believer among us is just the flip side of the cynic.  In neither case is there a willingness or an ability to deal with how complicated everything and everybody actually is.

What do we do?  There is no single answer.  We all have different callings—different gifts, different types of opportunities.  But if we are Christians there is one thing we all can do.  The shut-in who can’t get out to the polling station can do it, as can the twelve-year-old who is not old enough to vote, the conscientious citizen who has studied an issue carefully and is still confused about it, the civil servant who is dismayed by the corruption and inefficiency in the department where he works, the soldier on the battlefield, the official in the State Department struggling with how best to respond to an international crisis, the missionary who is being thrown out of an Islamic nation whose government has just turned radical, the national believer who is on trial for her faith, the young black who is pulled over on the highway for racial reasons.   We can all pray.

Not only can we pray.  We must pray.  If the church does not pray for “God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,” who will?  Just how we pray is the subject for another blog.  Let me say this much here.  If the Bible is to be believed, praying is the most powerful and strategic thing we could ever do for our country. 

We may assent to this—but I don’t think we really believe it.  Question.  How much time (how many actual minutes—count them) did you spend last week praying for the country, praying for President Obama, praying for the candidates in the race for the Republican nomination, praying about whatever issue is really exercising you at the moment?

Some of the Freudians among us might say that politics (like everything else) is just sublimated sex.  I wonder if politics isn’t rather sublimated prayer.  We fight politically because we do not know how to pray politically.  Think about that.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A New Year's Resolution for the Church

This New Year is also an election year.  As I write things in Iowa are humming as Republican candidates face their first formal electoral challenge.  Interestingly enough for our discussion on this blog, the news media are reporting that the Evangelical opinion is divided on which Republican candidate is the best.  Does this promise, I wonder, even further fragmentation in the church—not simply between Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans, but even among the Christian Republicans?  Who knows.

Political disagreement among Christians is bound to happen—even among Republican Christians.  And to my way of thinking this is OK.  It proves that we are thinking.  If we are really wrestling with the complex issues before us, we will not all agree on the best strategy for nudging our country in the right direction.

But there is one thing I hope very much that Christians can all agree on--one thing I would like to recommend as a suitable New Years’ Resolution for the church during an election year.  It is this: That in the midst of all the important and valid political discussion of 2012, we will not be diverted from our essential tasks.

There are certain things that simply will not happen if the church does not do them.  They are (1) praying for God’s kingdom to come, (2) evangelizing and discipling the nations, and (3) caring for the poor and weak in Jesus’ name.  To do these things right calls for an enormous expenditure of time and energy—much of which can be siphoned off during an election year if we give the wrong sort of attention to power politics. 

Notice I say “power politics”—by which I mean the politics of election, and by which I mean to remind us all that “politics” in the broader sense (politics as the science and practice of learning how to live together) is a major concern of the gospel and continues whether or not we are campaigning in the narrow sense.   When the church stays on target—when she keeps her priorities properly—she actually contributes in the most powerful way imaginable to the improvement of politics in this broad sense.  And when the church allows herself to get politicized—pushing hard for this or that “man made” solution, she actually robs her neighbors of their greatest social and political need—namely the new heart that the grace of God at the cross alone can bring.

Let me put it this way.  Societies change most dramatically as people change, one by one, from the inside out, rather than by the imposition of rules and restraints from the outside in or from the top down.  Sometimes, of course, those restraints must be imposed. That is why God established our government, and why we respect it and the process we are engaged in this year: Without God’s rule through our government, our natural selfishness would reign uncontrollably and make living together impossible. But a greater glory shines, and a better society thrives, when people voluntarily come to bow with joy before the King of kings and this heartfelt allegiance spills over into all of life. Renewed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who writes God’s moral law on the heart (see Ezekiel 36:25–28), people need less and less the fear of governmental sanctions to make them live as they should.

Who is responsible for advancing this powerful and strategic solution to society’s woes? Clearly, it is the church.   So let’s stay focused.  Someone (was it Casey Stengel?) has said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Let that be our 2012 New Year’s resolution.