Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Permitted, Not Encouraged?

It is an article of faith for both the religious right and religious left that some political situations demand action, and to hang back is to leave Christian duty unfulfilled. Exactly what those circumstances are is contended, and there is wide variety of approach and solution, but the necessity for Christians to act in the larger world to influence the larger human systems is rather taken for granted. It is a very western, especially American, approach.

Evangelicals point to William Wilberforce devoting his life to the elimination of slavery in the British Empire, or Quaker Abolitionists. Liberation theologies would focus rather on confronting the powerful qua powerful on behalf of the poor qua poor, assuming injustice on the basis of their simple existence. The religious left would insist that righteousness be demanded of government in issues of war and care for the poor; the right on issues of biological interference.

I imagine I don't need to describe this exhaustively. Others have outlined these things far better than I could. I recommend First Things if you like to read religious/political discussions among people who are more than talented amateurs. (Most blogs that touch on Christian issues are more exhortatory than thoughtful, providing evidence for familiar POV's. This applies to the essays by clergy as well.) I tend to hang out among the talented amateurs myself.

I also doubt I need to spend much time on the stories of Amos, Jeremiah, and Moses to illustrate Biblical examples of some political involvement, or the NT verses outlining what issues Christians should be concerned about. You know them or could find them pretty quickly. God told the Israelites to organize their society according to just principles, and repeatedly tells individuals to act with justice and mercy toward others.

But is the call to confront larger injustices placed upon all Christians? When there is injustice in one's society, is the Christian obligated to become involved? Assuming the Christian picks the right side of the argument, is involvement always laudable? In the time of Amos, were all who lived in the society obliged to pressure the rulers to make changes, or is that just a retroactive imposition of a value from our western tradition of self-rule?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer long held back from political involvement even in extreme circumstances. I don't doubt that he was permitted to act in Christian conscience, or that Wilberforce, or John-Paul II, or civil-rights workers were permitted their expressions in this sphere. But the idea that if you do not become active you are "participating in the system (leftspeak)," or "tolerating evil (rightspeak)" - perhaps that idea is nonsense. Perhaps such involvements are generally discouraged for most Christians, and only allowed under specific direction of the Holy Spirit.

I ask this because I see how quickly the political goals seem to take over the religious ones in public action, and I figure God knows that tendency in us.


Anonymous said...

AVI, this is the type of write-ups that keep me coming back to your blog, so very insightful and full of probing questions of all that ultimately matters. On another site they were maintaining the POV of the necessity of keeping God out of what ought to be a secular-based (presumably unbiased and all-inclusive) politics to our democratic electoral process. I contend that there's no real way to do that - that one's religious and political convictions are most often intertwined. Perhaps with further speculation they would admit that what they really uphold is that a prerequistie to being a viable candidate is the ability to compromise for the sake of furthering a political agenda that involves people from many other walks of life - where there's no room for zealotry, that's all. To the contrary, many Christian thinkers have spoken about how political involvement corrupts the soul. Saint Augustine defined a dichotomous existence between the City of God and the City of Man, and Reinhold Niebuhr (in his Moral Man & Immoral Society) and Jacques Ellul (in his The Technological Society) talk of the less than noble ends of public policies and the deficiencies inherent to the impersonalized bureaucracies they engender. So on one side are the Christians warning to avoid politics in this world, and then there's the other extreme like the Latin American Jesuits and Maryknolls who stay vigilant in their dedication to actively struggle against what they deem to be the sources of human oppression. Yours here is the most crucial question to every human really, whether they're aware or not - how ought she/he to live? And if there's a God, what does He expect of me? And how does one ever know that she's/he's receiving "specific direction from the Holy Spirit"? How easy it is to delude oneself and/or trick others (like some televangelists that speak of their actual conversations with Jesus ... "as if!" as the youngsters say today). Enjoyed this immensely, and will be looking up more on the likes of Wilberforce, thanks!

Chris said...

As tomg said, with so many things of God, there is a natural tension inherent in His principles. Perhaps this is tied up in the principle of gifts, that some are gifted with involvement in political or social issues. I would suspect that said gift would need to be tempered with much prayer, and an exceeding openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, because the pitfalls of becoming absorbed in secular causes are manifold and painfully obvious.

David Foster said...

C S Lewis said that if you want to feed the hungry, you don't need a Christian, you need a cook. To which I would add, if a Christian (or other religiously-inspired person) takes up cooking in order to feed the hungry, he'd better learn enough about cooking to avoid poisoning them.

The same applies to all political issues. People who feel morally impelled to get involved in them should learn enough to give their activities a reasonable chance of doing more good than harm.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

David, I commented (well, mostly linked) on that topic last November.

And you can always quote Lewis here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris - just came back from a long trip, but yours is a great point. Much has been made of the Irish propensity, for ex., toward political discourse and their "gift of gab". But that gift, though most useful in the art of persuasion, unto itself does not guarantee an effective or even ethical politician - rather such gifts must be placed in check by higher ends, with the person realizing that it comes with responsibilities in ensuring it's used for the greater good (such it is with the broader term of having charisma, as is attributed to the likes of Adolph and Castro, both evil-doers par excellence). Cheers, Tom