Monday, July 9, 2012

The Treebeard Approach to Politics, Take 2

Last week I wrote about my approach to politics by quoting Treebeard from the Lord of the Rings series, one of my favorite characters. Basically I said that I was neither on the Republican nor Democratic side, because no one was on my side (i.e., the Christian side). I then proceeded to discuss five topics which were of great importance to Christians, some of which the Democrats had right and some of which the Republicans had right.

Today I wish to demonstrate that this is not simply my opinion or a new thought process, but is in fact similar to the early church writers' opinions on politics. Below are three quotes from early Christian thinkers, each of which argues for Christians to have little or no engagement in the political world.

"In us, all ardor is for the pursuit of we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than the duties of State." --Tertullian, c. 195

Here Tertullian rejects political life and specifically the involvement in community town-hall style meetings because he says it is "foreign" to the Christian to care about the government of men on Earth, when we are instead focused upon bringing about the Kingdom of God.

"If we remember this rule (to avoid idolatry)...Let us suppose that it is possible for anyone to succeed in operating under the mere name of the office, in whatever office. Let us also suppose the following: he neither sacrifices nor lends his authority to sacrifices. He does not farm out sacrificial victims. He does not assign to others the care of the temples. He does not look after their tributes. He does not give spectacles at his own or the public expense, nor preside over them. He makes no proclamation or edict for any pagan festivals. He does not even take oaths. Furthermore, he does not sit in judgment on anyone’s life or characters (for you might allow his judging about money). He neither condemns nor indicts. He chains no one. He neither imprisons nor tortures anyone. Now, is it believable that all this is possible?" --Tertullian, c. 200

A few years later, Tertullian argues that Christians ahould avoid public office. Now of course we must say that this specifically referred to the Roman political system, where public office required both the sacrifice to, and worship of, the Roman emperor. Tertullian notes that it is practically speaking impossible for a Christian to avoid either taking part in or helping to support pagan festivals and sacrifices and worship in that role. So one might argue that this portion of his argument is invalid today. (However, as I have noted before, many politicians seem to raise America itself to a form of idolatry, worshipping the nation rather than God, studying the Constitution instead of the Scriptures, and seeking the wisdom of the Founding Fathers instead of the Church Fathers.)

Still, though, note Tertullian's argument in the latter half. It is impossible for a Christian to make no judgment on people's life or condemn or indict someone, or to avoid causing people to be put in chains or imprisoned or tortured. The early church fathers were all strictly in agreement that any form of judgment which led to imprisonment or execution was wrong; indeed, I would say that Tertullian himself was a bit radical in this regard, probably completely pacifist.

The point is valid for modern day, though. Few people doubt the legitimacy of George W. Bush's faith. Yet in his time, he made decisions which resulted in war and the loss of life; imprisonment and torture of potential terrorist; and chose whether or not to extend pardons to criminals. Tertullian argues that this is impossible to avoid if one wishes to govern, and that the Christian should therefore avoid roles in government.

"Celsus [a pagan] also urges us to “take office in the government of the country, if that is necessary for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.” However, we recognize in each state the existence of another national organization that was founded by the Word of God. And we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over churches. It is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices. Rather, it is so they may reserve themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God." – Origen, c. 248

Origen, like Tertullian, argues that Christians should avoid public service but for a different reason. Origen says that those who were blessed with the ability to lead organizations are meant to use this for the Church, not for civil service.

In modern America we have this completely backward. We see the pastor as being somewhat important and the President being incredibly important. Not so! The President, true, makes policies which will affect people's earthly lives and earthly incomes. But the pastor's work directly contributes to the Kingdom of God. Viewed from the perspective of an Eternal God, no doube all of the American Presidents combined have had less impact than some unknown small-town preachers. Origen says that if you excel in leadership and communication, it was to aid the Church (where your work has eternal impact), not the State (where it has only temporal impact).

So you can see that I am not out on my own here. The last fifty years, with the rise of the Religious Right, we have seen an increasing focus on politics in the Church. This is a shame, and a distraction. It is like the child being so concerned with playing with their two-dollar Mickey Mouse toy that they fail to prepare for their trip to DisneyWorld: when we consider politics more important than the church, we are focusing on a very, very short-term issue instead of the eternal issues of true import.

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