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When Politics Becomes an Idol

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Oct 30 2016


Society was in shambles. Those charged to serve the common good had instead used their power for selfish gain. Greed and influence-grubbing hobbled the body politic. Those who governed grew dependent upon the patronage of wealthy benefactors; those wealthy benefactors, in turn, grew fond of the legal advantages to which their ‘generosity’ entitled them. Quid pro quo was the rule of the day. And so justice became the property of those who could pay for it. The law was turned against the vulnerable and against the poor and against the great masses with no privilege to press. And the people groaned under the weight of their oppression; they cried out – not to the God who had vanquished Pharaoh, the God who had delivered them from bondage in Egypt, the God who shepherded that roaming horde of refugees through the desert, the God who led them into a land of their own, establishing them, prospering them. No, they cried out for a king, for a king to save them. Salvation would come, not by the strength of God’s arm, nor as a mercy from above, but in the person of a monarch who would oust the corrupt tribal big-men, who would rule with integrity, and who would hold the nation together around shared moral commitments. God was so … far off, after all. And anyway why would the people hope and pray for help from heaven when, with a bit of political cunning, they might be masters of their own fortunes and build for themselves a better future?

Even so, God warned them, God said that they would be saps to put their faith in some savior-come-lately, said that no king could ever set the world wholly to right, and that the one who tries will prove himself tragically, fatally captive to pride, will harbinger his own and his people’s demise. For kings are only human, and so it is foolhardy to hope in them. They will curry allegiance with extravagant promises, but they are buying your loyalty with lies, with lies is all. Just as soon as you fall in, just as soon as you are behind them, it will be clear that in fact you are beneath them. They will work to protect not you, but their own power. They will guard their prerogatives and at any cost. God pled with the people, God said: A king will conscript the sons of the poor to fight the wars of the rich, will send your boys into battle, will get them drunk on delusions of glory, will call them heroes, will call them great and lionhearted and stout, but really, what they shall be is but lambs led to slaughter. A king will abscond with your daughters, will force them into servitude, will make them to slave away in his kitchen and in his harem. He will let his men have their way with them. A king will be a pox upon your house – he will take your children, he will take your livestock, he will take your land, he will take the first-fruits of your labor, he will take and he will take, he will take all that can be taken, until you are left with nothing but the barest shred of dignity. And then he will take that, too.

It is a dark, haunting vision – of a people with legitimate grievances, mobilized to effect political change, putting their hope in a leader who will only let them down and, quite likely, leave them worse off then they were to start. We might describe this as deeply cynical and unduly pessimistic …  were it not so very resonant. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This word of rebuke could have been written yesterday. Sometimes, as it is said, the Bible interprets us before we can interpret it; this scripture certainly does so. The gravity and the starkness of its moral perspective impress themselves upon us, even these millennia later. Truth speaks for itself across all time, and surely I am not the only Christian in America who might feel the sting of it. Surely I am not the only Christian in America who has failed to heed its warning, who has shrugged off the counsel of this scripture, and who has, in the course of a presidential election turned gladiatorial blood-sport, who has hung all the hope I have on my candidate conquering. But what would it look like were I to repent and to take today’s reading to heart?

Probably, at the start, I should ask myself (and perhaps you should ask yourself, too): Have I made politics an idol? Have I put politics before God? That is, do I hope in, do I trust in politics more than I hope in, more than I trust in God? And if those questions feel a bit abstract; simpler stocktaking will do the trick. You and I, we need only ask ourselves: Do I think about, do I talk about politics more than I think about and talk about God? If the answer is yes, which, for me it is, that is a pretty good sign that I am investing too much of myself in something that either will not bear or is not worthy to bear the weight of my reliance upon it. Now, the temptation will be – and here is where a double helping of religious courage is called for, because being honest with ourselves can be painful – the temptation will be for me to say that a strong interest in politics and a love for God above all else are not mutually exclusive; the temptation will be to say that political engagement is not only a fine enough pursuit, but, more, that it is the par excellent way in which love for God is properly expressed. I mean, has not God called us to do justice and care for the needy? 

The temptation will be to say that, or something like that. But, hopefully, I will not let myself off the hook so easily. Idols are rarely evil in and of themselves; they are most often needful, good things which we wrongly make too much of. Idols are things we do well in turning to, but because we have paid them immoderate attention, then find ourselves unable to turn from. They are worthy things. But when they come to acquire a controlling share of our minds and of our personhood, there is a problem. Work can become an idol. Money can become an idol. Family can become an idol. On and on. So the spiritual issue is not politics per se, but how we, how I relate to politics. If I am relating to politics rightly, Christianly, that will show in my life; I will be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, and at peace, I will be freer for all my concern and engagement with politics. (And I can thank Anderson Cooper on CNN for that!) But if I am not relating to politics rightly, Christianly, well, knowing myself as I do, first, I will grow defensive at the very thought that it might perhaps have become for me an idol. I will want to protect myself from this unwelcome realization. I will bristle indignantly and reject the premise and say that I am grumping about The Donald for God’s sake. I will bristle like this, but, at least for me, quickness to rationalize is like a spiritual, attitudinal indicator light, a sign that there is something I should be looking at that I am not sure I want to see. 

And what might that be? What would I rather not face? Well, I am not sure I want to admit to myself how much time and energy I have wasted combing through polls, and listening to pundits dissect those polls, and reading opinion pieces, and riling myself up poking around in the comments sections of partisan hack blogs, and talking about this or that obscene thing He Who Cannot Be Named did or said and how his surrogates tied themselves in knots defending the indefensible. I am not sure I want to admit to myself that complaining about politics is actually not at all the same thing as doing justice or caring for the poor and that if I really wanted to make a difference, I would never again – never again – turn on cable news or read the editorials in the New York Times and would instead go out and chat with the homeless guys on the corner. I am not sure I want to admit to myself that my identity is more bound up with party affiliation than with faith, that I am a liberal first and a Christian second, that I may have confused the Kingdom of God for a more generous welfare state, and that my imagination has been so thoroughly colonized by the secular culture that, so far as hope is concerned, I would sooner die and go to Sweden than abide religious mumbo jumbo about heaven and pearly gates and streets of gold. I am not sure I want to admit to myself that no small number of Republicans are, actually are animated by the same imperatives of the gospel as am I, that they, too, want to help the poor, and simply believe non-profits and private charity work, with the thickness of personal relationship these make possible, that they simply believe these to be the preferred means to that end. I am not sure I want to admit to myself how reasonable and well founded some differences of opinion may well be. (Note: I said some – not all!) In sum: I am not sure I want to admit to myself how anxious, irritable, judgmental, severe, mean, and un-empathetic politics makes me. I am not sure I want to admit to myself how much I am sacrificing to this false god. 

And having faced such truths, having fessed up to my obsession with, my addiction to politics, what then? How do I, how do you, smash this idol, so to speak, without shirking the duties of citizenship? Well, I think we ought to vote. I think we ought to ensure we are reasonably familiar with the relevant issues, and then, as I said, I think we ought to cut ourselves off from the strident commentary and the polarizing cant that poisons goodwill. I think we ought to be vigilant, ought to be ever mindful of whether and how political engagement proves itself in Christian virtue, that is, ask ourselves: is XYZ way of being politically engaged making me a more loving person? is it bringing me joy? am I at peace? have I grown in my capacity to practice patience? what about kindness? gentleness? And I think we ought to hedge against politics’ claims to ultimacy, and so I think we must remind ourselves that there is a gap between what we can do for ourselves, even all working together, and what God will do for and in and with us. We must remind ourselves that even if the Democrats win every election for the next 300 years, the Kingdom will not have come, because salvation is not by works, and the transformation of the world no less than of our own selves, is to be a gift of God, a surprise surpassing our wildest dreams (and most outlandish policy proposals). We must remind ourselves that if, in the end, it shall be on earth as it is in heaven, this will not be because we have made it so, but by a feat of grace. We must do what we can, do all we can, but hope for more. We must hope in God, trusting that this hope will itself be as riches within us, funding new, daring, and imaginative acts of loving outreach which anticipate the final, perfect reconciliation that God alone is yet bringing to be.