As a Christian, you might suffer some level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to American politics. There’s a reason.
We can’t find any political analysis in the New Testament, all the more remarkable since some of the most decadent Caesars lived during the time of the apostles. Caligula, who was at first highly celebrated by the Roman public, was a thinly veiled madman. Philo of Alexandria wrote that Caligula killed for amusement and practiced sexual perversity. He also sought to have a statue of himself erected in the Jerusalem Temple for worship. Nero became a persecutor of early Christians, and had the brutal temperaments of a beast.
Being a Roman citizen, Paul might have felt the urge to offer some Christian perspective on how these men were ruining the empire and hurting the church. As a Jewish man he could also have complained about the treatment Israel had received at the hands of Rome’s often disrespectful occupying presence. He didn’t. None of the other writers of Scripture did, either. Whatever the reason for their silence, by the time I finish the closing chapter of the New Testament they have written, I don’t feel politically motivated.
For common people of the ancient world, political involvement was off the table. Democratic ideals had earlier originated with the Greeks and evolved with the Romans, but the general populace was not in the habit of electing kings and emperors. Rulers either inherited power, appropriated it through political savvy, or stole it through outright revolt.
Still, biblical writers looked down the corridors of these events and saw the sovereign hand of God. Paul wrote, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).
But what about all the morally, spiritually, and ethically unqualified folks in public office? That’s a great question we could ask about Pontius Pilate. Who could be less qualified than a public figure who sentences an innocent man to death, knowing that he is innocent —“I have found in him no guilt deserving death” (Lk. 23:22). At some point I have to leave these questions with the One who knows how to unfurl history for His own purpose.
When my American world isn’t spinning right despite our best efforts to fix it, I remember that there was a time in church history when the Roman world wasn’t spinning right, either. Yes, that kingdom fell apart because earthly political systems can only take so much abuse. Human government is a temporary and imperfect fix. It dispenses justice like a gorilla with boxing gloves. I suck it up and cooperate where I can, but I’m less than inspired by it.
I’m a Christian, but I’m also an American, which means I’m opinionated to the core. Television programs that agree with my views make me worse, stirring the pot of my personal agitation until I can’t even look at some political figures on a television screen. Paul instructed us to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:2a). Was he kidding? For a man like me, this takes some serious realignment of thought.
The apostle’s reasoning becomes clearer though, as you read on. We don’t pray for leaders because we necessarily like them or their policies. We’re not interceding for them so their political ambitions will flourish. We’re praying for them so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2b).
We want to continue practicing church life without interference. That’s important because “God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3). Down through time, leaders have often interfered with the gospel due to their own personal incendiary words and ideas. They inspired policies that turned the general public against Christians.
We petition God that even if our leaders don’t find Jesus themselves, they won’t become an impediment to those who do. I find myself praying that government won’t do too much damage—an underwhelming thought, to be sure.
Every four years we go nuts with “hope” and “Happy Days are Here Again.” All the excitement comes from finding someone we dislike less than the other guy. That’s a mistake. Mortal administrations/candidates are made of the same stuff we all are—dust. You can dress it up otherwise with media fanfare and a polished public image, but everybody knows it’s only a matter of time before we find out we elected a human. We’ll find in the wake of any person (even a good one) a predictable backwash of mistakes and character shortages. That’s life in what Augustine called, The City of Man.
But Daniel chapter 2 reminds us in the most picturesque way, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed…it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44). Isaiah also speaks about the coming Christ, “of the increase of His government and of peace, there will be no end” (9:7). If I have sounded cynical, then allow me now to celebrate. Something completely superior is on the way.
While the Great Kingdom is on course for full manifestation, we all still partly occupy a mortal one. This little piece of American ground and the principles surrounding it were hard fought-for. Cynicism shouldn’t deal a death-blow to our involvement in the here and now.
Good government tries, in a fragmented way, to capture some of the values of the big Kingdom such as truth, justice, and freedom, even if it doesn’t always successfully practice them. Better still, we’ve inherited a political contract from our forefathers to participate in our system of government. At the very least, we can vote. That’s awesome.
Human government is a stop-gap measure. I may not be the guy who gets fired up about it in door to door campaigns, or attending rallies, or posting impassioned tweets. But I understand the value of a clunker car when the Rolls Royce is not yet available.
Photo Credit: David Smith