I consider politics to be a necessary evil.
Maybe that’s too strong a statement. Someone might reply to me that the Christian message itself has political implications — and they would surely be right. Obviously, the Old Testament prophets — just to cite one obvious example — had a political message about justice and fairness (in addition to a moral message about right and wrong). Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God finds its roots in the message of the prophets. I’m all in favor of spelling out the political and social aspects of the Christian message. Really. I am.
And, politics is unavoidable. Where two or three are gathered together, there — pretty soon — will be politics in their midst. People have differing ideas and goals and agendas. If people gather together to accomplish something, then, soon these differences will arise. Sides will emerge. Issues will emerge. The question will be: who will prevail.
So, while there is national politics, there is also community politics, church politics, and family politics. I know that. And, there is no avoiding it.
But, here’s my problem with it:
1. Politics is inherently divisive.
Imagine this scenario. A group of people see something in the community that is unjust and unfair. It should be changed. (Or: they see a human need in the community that is not being met.) But, it will take effort. Things need to change. A new program or initiative must be begun. So, with this goal in mind, they gather together and organize themselves to meet the need. Since this involves change, this naturally elicits opposition from those who have differing values, or have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. The opposition may even have legitimate concerns about the unintended consequences of the changes being proposed. Or, they may misunderstand the motives of the people who are organizing for change. Whatever the reasons, though, factions naturally emerge.
Soon the people on the one side begin talking among themselves about the people on the other side. They do not talk to them, but they talk extensively about them. Then people start writing. They not only state their side of the issues but they also castigate and malign those who disagree with them — maybe they even find names to call them. The problem with this rhetoric is that in order to prevail, the winning side will need to convince enough people of the rightness of their cause. And, the language of political controversy tends to be designed to rally the faithful and attack the opposition. People don’t like being maligned or castigated or called names.
Oh, well. One side or the other needs to prevail (though there may actually be several “sides” or perspectives on whether or how to address the issues). So, people need to take sides, and somehow the struggle needs to be resolved so that one side wins out over the other. If it comes to a close vote, one side may win — but the backlash is likely to be fierce.
Politics doesn’t bring people together, it divides people into camps. That is just the way it is. It may be possible to mitigate the effects of this divisiveness somewhat — and people ought to do what they can — but I don’t think this can be avoided altogether. It’s a necessary evil.
2. Politics resorts to power to address social problems, therefore it is implicitly coercive and maybe even violent.
Power is the ability to get something done. Political decisions mobilize people do do what has been mandated. One side won. Changes must be implemented. People don’t have to like it, but the change or the policy — whatever the case may be — has been mandated. Political authority is now rallied behind that decision. Maybe a change has been mandated. Maybe a policy has been adopted (possibly a policy to keep change from happening). Maybe a law has been passed. Whatever. But, it is compulsory. Those in opposition may organize to seek to change things down the road, but, for now, the decision has been made.
Just because a decision has been made, doesn’t mean people have to like it. But, they do have to work within the new reality. This is why I say that politics is naturally coercive and possibly even violent. The force of the state (or organization) imposes the decision on everyone — and there are consequences for not conforming.
Dissenters may now viewed with suspicion. It is natural, in these circumstances, to seek to silence dissent. In the USA we believe in freedom of speech — and so we recognize this to be wrong, at least theoretically — but it is very natural for people who have “won the day” (so to speak) to view dissenters with impatience and annoyance. (“Can’t these people just go away.”)
You can’t legislate morality. Morality is the result of personal values, growing out of personal character. Forcing people to be moral doesn’t make them moral — and it may make them resent the values being imposed on them.
Forcing people to compromise their principles will also produce deep resentment.
As the old saying goes: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make the horse drink. And, just because a decision has been made doesn’t mean people are happy about it. Some people may seek to undermine it. Coercion generally produces resentment — in and of itself, it does not change anyone’s mind about things. Which naturally brings me to my next point.
3. Political action produces backlash. Some political victories can spell defeat in the long run, since it may give new life and energy to the opposition. Thus, political victory (especially victory in the absence of a strong consensus) can be ultimately counter-productive.
Nothing helps ignite and organize the opposition more than their own political defeat. It’s part of the whole political process — it’s part of how the society as a whole thinks the through the issues of its day. Politics is an ongoing push-pull — and those involved in the political process need to continue to make the case for their own point of view — seeking to move the public in one direction or another. Political victory can move the victors toward complacency — giving their opposition an opportunity.
So, in the teeth of Roe vs. Wade, for example, the younger generation has become more anti-abortion than its predecessor generation. The long term effects of various political victories — however won — are difficult to predict. Prohibition (it is often argued) didn’t change people’s minds about drinking alcohol. Rather, it fueled the illegal trade in alcohol — and thus, fueled organized crime. This is also why a War on Drugs (let’s say) may not work — swelling the prison population without really putting a dent into the traffic in illegal drugs — since strong financial incentives keep the drug traffic alive. And, then, suddenly, people start talking about an opioid epidemic.
As I said: you can’t legislate morality. And, morality imposed by force is likely to be resented.
Political victory — and political coercion — produces unexpected results. Wise people remain on the lookout for backlash and for various other unintended consequences.
4. Politics — especially when linked with faith — appeals to the human tendency toward self-righteousness. It blinds us to our own arrogance and narrow-mindedness.
This is, to me, the most repugnant thing about politics and political activism. If people think they are right — and who doesn’t — they naturally congratulate themselves on their perception and wisdom. They speak with disdain of anyone who would disagree with them.
This is especially the case when politics and religion are allied together. According to the Internet, science fiction author Frank Herbert once said:
When politics and religion are intermingled, a people is suffused with a sense of invulnerability, and gathering speed in their forward charge, they fail to see the cliff ahead of them.
Religious certainty can be dangerous. Religio-political certainty mows down everything before it — since it assumes that only abject sinners would stand against it. It is blind to unintended consequences.
As Tony Campolo says:
Mixing politics and religion is like mixing ice cream and manure; it doesn’t affect the manure much, but it really messes up the ice cream.
5. But, human beings are moral to the core. They must be appealed to in a way that respects their moral being.
Among the basic things human beings know about themselves is the knowledge that we are moral beings who make choices — and that we are responsible for these choices. I would argue that this knowledge is as basic — or maybe more basic — to us as our knowledge of the existence of an external world. We are moral beings. We are conscious beings that make choices. We seek to put life together in some way that makes sense — we are meaning-seeking beings. It is basic and essential to who we are. We are beings who require a higher purpose and a cause to which to commit ourselves. We admire loyalty and unselfishness. We look for justice and compassion.
Or, to put it another way: we are spiritual beings.
I think of all this in an essentially Christian manner — as you would expect. The message of the Bible — the message of the prophets and the message of Christ — addresses itself to us as spiritual beings. It addresses human problems basic and endemic to our life: selfishness and arrogant rebellion. It calls us away from a life centered on self-preference to a life of service to God and others.
The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus’ basic message to his generation was this:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” — Mark 1:15 NRSV.
It is a call to repentance (morally turning around the other way) and faith (trust in a truth greater than self). This echoed the call of John the baptist — and also the call of the prophets:
“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” — Joel 2:12-13 NRSV.
This call is basic to our moral life. It is a call to turn from shallowness to our highest and our best — to live a life of love — devotion to a God of love and justice — and compassion and service to other people.
This moral call — this call to faith and repentance — is pre-political. It is a basic call to awaken the spiritual and moral life. “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14 NRSV). It lays a foundation for the moral life. It lays the foundation for political reflection on the good of society. It is a call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27 NRSV). So, for the Christian, the question is: what are the political implications of a life lived this way.
But, yes, the Bible’s message — and particularly Jesus’ message — has political implications. And we need the grace to God to hear and heed the call to the life of love. We need to grace of God to allow us to hear and respect one another. Politics is a necessary thing. Only the grace of God can enable us to engage patiently and lovingly in the political struggles of our day.