Politics, Power, and Sacrifice

October 3, 2016 at 5:15 am 4 comments


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Originally, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to watch last Monday’s presidential debate.  But my curiosity got the best of me, so I turned on the TV.  I have seen many on social media bemoan the state of our politics in this presidential election and, I suppose, I would sympathize with their chorus.  The tone of this election is grating.  The discussion about this election often borders on and even ventures into the banal.  And the goal of this election appears to be little more than an undisguised race for power.  People across all points on our political spectrum are desperate to see their person in power so their interests can be furthered while others’ interests are overlooked, or, in some instances, even crushed.

Power is a funny thing, in part because it is such a dangerous thing.  In the famous dictum of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Power ought to come with a warning label: “Handle with care.”

Power, of course, isn’t always bad.  God has plenty of power – indeed, He ultimately has all power – and is quite adept at using it.  But it is also important to point out that God’s power always comes with a purpose.  He uses His power in order to sustain the world.  He uses His power in order to constrain evil.  He uses His power in order to rescue us from hell.  Power, for God, is a means to some very good ends.

The concern I have with so many in our political system is that power has become the means and the end.  Politicians want power because, well, they want power!  And this means that when they get power, they often use it in a most detrimental way – not to help others, but to help themselves.

Yoni Appelbaum discusses this reality in an article for The Atlantic titled, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate.”  The way he describes America’s situation is jarring:

Civil religion died on Monday night.

For more than 90 minutes, two presidential candidates traded charges on stage. The bitterness and solipsism of their debate offered an unnerving glimpse of American politics in a post-Christian age, devoid of the framework that has long bound the nation together.[1]

He goes on to describe how traditionally Christian-esque values were not only not extolled in the first of our presidential debates, they were proudly repudiated.  Virtues, Appelbaum says, were reframed as vices.  Altruism was painted as a sucker’s game and sacrifice was left for those who are losers.  “The Clinton-Trump debate,” he concludes, “was decidedly Marxian in its assumptions – all about material concerns, with little regard for higher purpose.”  Yikes.  I hope he’s wrong.  But I couldn’t help but notice that not one transcendent concern made an appearance during the debate.  We, as a nation, have become so obsessed with the exercise of power in the material realm that we pay little regard to the transcendent One who gives power as a gift to be stewarded rather than as a weapon to be wielded.

When the high priest of political pragmatism sirens us into trading cherished values like altruism and sacrifice for the formidable forces of power and control, something has gone terribly wrong.  Such a trade fundamentally undermines the very purpose of power – at least in any Christian or morally traditional sense – in the first place.  Power is to be used for the sake of altruism, not to dispense with it.  Power is to be used in concert with sacrifice, not to insulate oneself from sacrifice.  Any of the men and women in our nation’s Armed Forces can tell you that. Jesus certainly expressed His power in sacrifice.  The cross was a place of no power and great power all at the same time.  On the cross, Jesus gave up all power, even power over His very life, as “He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).  But through the cross, Jesus exercised great power, conquering sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus’ power, to borrow a concept from the apostle Paul, came through weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

Political power might not involve dying on a cross, but it sure would be nice if it involved taking one up.  It sure would be nice if politicians used their power to do the right thing, even if it involved some measure of sacrifice.  It sure would be nice if politicians fashioned themselves more as public servants and less as demiurge saviors.  It sure would be nice if voters stopped cynically leveraging the power-obsessed sins of an opposing candidate to minimize and rationalize the power-obsessed sins of their own candidate.  A willingness to see sin as sin, even if it’s sin in the politician you happen to be voting for, is a first step to an honest and healthy analysis of our problems politically.

I understand that politicians are not always Christian, and I understand that non-Christians can be competent politicians.  I am also not so naïve as to think that every politician will see his or her elected office as a cross to bear rather than as a career to manage, even if they should.  I furthermore understand that the civil religion of which Appelbaum speaks in his article is not coterminous with – and in many ways is not compatible with – Christianity.  But the virtues of Christianity it promotes – charity, selflessness, and humility, among others – are good for our world even as they are good in the Church.  We need them.  We need them because, to quote another proverb from Lord Acton, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.”  The curbing of despotic power may not be the ultimate reason to foster and preserve Christian virtue in our political system, but it sure is a good reason.

We the people should expect of our politicians – and of ourselves – something more than a blunt exercise of power, even if that power happens to promote our interests.  We the people should expect real virtue, both in the people we elect as well as in ourselves.  Do we?  If we don’t, there’s no better time than the present to change our expectations.  Remember, the people we elect to public office are not just products of a corrupt political system, they are reflections of the values we celebrate and the vices we tolerate.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take a good, long look in the mirror.

__________________________

[1] Yoni Appelbaum, “America’s First Post-Christian Debate,” The Atlantic (9.27.2016).

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steven Krueger  |  October 3, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Pastor Zach, your blog is very well written, as usual, however I am wondering about the perspective. The perspective of the blog seems to see very little difference between the two.
    I see VAST differences between these two. Very well explained in this article; http://www.charismanews.com/politics/opinion/59206-if-you-re-on-the-fence-about-your-vote-this-pastor-clarifies-how-the-very-future-of-america-is-at-stake
    I am curious if you see these differences?

    Reply
    • 2. Pastor Zach  |  October 3, 2016 at 8:03 am

      Good morning, Steven! There are certainly policy differences between the two major candidates for President (and, for that matter, there are policy differences among the non-major candidates as well). Though these issues should certainly be addressed and should inform any person’s vote, this blog is not particularly aimed at addressing policy differences, but is aimed at addressing the caliber of character we expect in our politicians. Indeed, the character question is one we should ask not only of our presidential candidates, but of anyone running for any office. Certainly, no candidate is perfect, nor would I expect any candidate to be. But, as I said in my blog, asking questions about what we expect out of our political system in general and the politicians who serve in it is important. Do we expect a messiah-like figure who can fix our ills? Or do we want a humble servant who is devoted to serving “we the people”?

      Reply
      • 3. Steven Krueger  |  October 9, 2016 at 1:58 pm

        We definitely agree more than disagree, as we discussed in person. And, I do want you to know that I love your preaching, teaching and blogging. I treasure your work more than I can say.
        I do want to present to you and the readers; while both candidates are flawed, and to your point we deserve better, one has a long history of public service that has been self serving and the other has been self serving in the private sector, is stepping into the public sector with the intention of making things better for average Americans. To my eyes that is a vast difference.
        I am looking forward to tonight’s debate.

  • 4. 2016 in Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 2, 2017 at 5:33 am

    […] On this blog alone, I wrote about issues pertaining to this year’s presidential election here, here, here, here, and here.  Politics was certainly front of mind for […]

    Reply

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