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Being God-Centered About Our Politics

I grew up in a Baptist church in the 70s. The Bible was revered as God’s Word and the Gospel was preached. And Sunday School was king, at least in terms of being a priority for attendance.

The Sunday School curriculum in those days usually revolved around a series of biblical men and women: Moses, Daniel, David, Esther, and, of course, Jesus. The lessons were often filled with history and character traits. The family of Moses took great risk to save his infant life. Daniel showed unyielding faithfulness to God even when his life was threatened. David was a brave shepherd boy who killed a giant. And Esther combined wisdom and courage to save the Jewish people.

The moral of each story was roughly along the lines of how God blessed each of them for their faithfulness and courage, and the application was that God will bless you too, if you are faithful and brave.

It was probably about 20 years ago that an article about Sunday School curriculum reshaped my thinking and helped me see what now seems so obvious: Those stories were meant to do what all of Scripture does: to focus me fully on the God of Moses and Daniel and David and Esther. Each one calls me to see that God was the hero and is worthy of my worship. Yes, the Bible urges me to be faithful and even courageous as a follower of Jesus Christ, but only as I humbly depend on His strength. If anything worthwhile is accomplished through my life for Christ’s kingdom, it is because of Him; whatever strength I possess is in Him, supplied by Him, and for His glory.

This struck me today as I thought about politics and government: it’s a realm where even Christ-loving believers are still tempted to be man-centered, and to see the world in terms of heroes and villains. We talk of history with a kind of sacred reverence for our Founding Fathers. We want their records to remain largely unblemished. And our politics, like it or not, tends to revolve about particular men and women. Yes, we hold to ideas of how government should run, but more often than not, those ideas are embodied in the heroes who lead the fight for those principles, and our heroes must defeat the other side’s villains.

As many of you know, I spent nine years outside of full-time pastoral ministry, working in politics. My thoughts yesterday were of terrified Hill staffers; the ones who often answer the phones and lead the tours. Within their first weeks in a congressional office, they discover that it’s sadly normal to field angry, demanding, curse-filled phone calls.

As a staffer, there’s a certain level of loyalty ingrained in your thinking. That’s not necessarily bad; if I commit to work for an elected leader, I should be committed to support and defend his or her agenda, even as he or she has pledged to uphold the Constitution.

But the reality is that politics revolves around politicians. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Hill staffer or a voter, your values tend to be wrapped up in the candidate who will speak up for the ideas you believe, and who will tweet about them, and pledge to fight for them. At the same time, our culture has encouraged a kind of thinking that makes my politician virtually flawless, and yours to be completely wrong about virtually everything. In fact, the other side is terrible and misguided.

But here’s the point: politics and government are realms where Christians still tend to excuse man-centeredness. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are heroes, period. Criticism of their flaws is not tolerated. My candidate today should be elected and re-elected because he or she fights for the right agenda. Criticism of my candidate is dismissed as fake because it only represents vilification by the press or the opposition. And the candidate who represents that opposition is not just wrong on the ideas, he or she will almost single-handedly destroy the country. If you don’t believe that, just search “lost our country” on Twitter.

The man-centeredness of our politics can be blinding. It’s become political self-destruction for an elected official to admit being wrong, but even the normal response of his or her supporters to criticism is to ignore it and to respond with, “What about (fill in an opponent’s name)? He’s done far worse,” and then run off a list of that person’s sins, while looking away from the charges against our guy.

The Bible doesn’t allow us to get man-centered. Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David all acted on great faith in God, but their sins are also on full display in the Scriptures. Peter preached boldly in Jerusalem but was publicly confronted by Paul for his hypocrisy. Paul had a violent past and recognized himself as the chief of sinners. They’re all exposed, not to encourage us to point fingers and rail against them, but rather to help us identify with them. We know our own hearts well enough – our own anger, and bitterness, and lust, and dishonesty – that when we see it in people in the Bible it reminds us of how desperately we all need the soul-baring conviction of God’s truth and the relief of His grace.

So do our elected officials, all of them – the ones I voted for and those on the “other side.”

It serves no Godly good for us to revere political leaders as heroes and to ignore their sinful frailty, their foolishness, and the things they have done wrong because to say so might seem to give a win to the other side. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Obama, and Trump only served as presidents because the God of the universe raised them up to that position. If they had accomplishments that benefitted the American people, it was due to the kindness of God’s providence. That our country today enjoys freedoms many in the world do not is a reflection of the mercy God has shown to our country, not because of our Founding Fathers, but in spite of them.

The world apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ is expected to have blind spots. Those who don’t understand the depravity of man or the grace of God from a biblical perspective can be expected to blameshift criticism. When Trump is called bad, his followers cry, “But Obama did this and Biden will do that,” and vice versa.

That should not be how we as Christians view politics and our elected officials. They are flawed and sinful, and as in need of God’s grace as you and I. From the perspective of the law, they must be held accountable, but from our vantage point they should also be prayed for, with the recognition that their most desperate need is the same as that for every man and woman – the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, through faith in His gospel.

We dare not rally around them as those old Sunday School curriculums would, touting humans and their courage. Rather, we must acknowledge that they are sinners who do what sinners do – they let their anger get the best of them, they make foolish decisions, they say things that are unwise, ungracious, and unkind. And we don’t need to defend those things, nor should we believe that everything they say is right and true.

What we must do is keep pointing to the one ruler who is perfect and good in all of His ways, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The fact that our country is strong and has survived December 7, 1941, and 9/11, and now January 6, 2021 is fully the result of God’s grace and strength, working through the means of sinful men and women. It is His unmerited favor and common grace on an undeserving people. “God bless America” is more than just the closing line of a speech, it is the truth that explains whatever favor He has shown us. Jesus Christ is our true hero who alone is worthy of praise.

in Life

How can it be good?

Good Friday
What a name
For a day when
Darkness seemed to reign.

Good Friday
Daring hope
In a God who
Took our shame and pain.

Good Friday
Yes it is.
For our God did
Not stay dead.

Good Friday
For we know
That our Savior
Reigns. He rose instead.

If there were ever a phrase that reminds us how hard and necessary it is to hold two contrary ideas at the same time, it is the words: Good. Friday.

How can a day filled with violence toward the innocent be rendered good? How can a day that left Jesus’ followers scattered, lonely and confused be good? For those who lived through it, it wasn’t yet good. And it is good for us to sit for a while in that reality with them. “Step into the shoes of the disciples,” my little liturgy book encourages today, “who did not know Jesus would rise from the dead. Imagine your world without the resurrection.”

Read through John 18 and 19 — and read no further. Stop, abruptly, at the words, “they laid Jesus there.”

We were reading the familiar story to our children this morning as they ate their eggs. They asked why I wept at the “crown of thorns” and “purple robe.” Because, dear ones, he is our King, and the people did not see it. They tried to mock him with these trappings of Lordship, but he was their Lord all along. A servant king who washed feet the night before. An all-powerful God who permitted a crown and robe of pain. He wore those things for us. He was humbled and shamed before he was exalted. In the ultimate irony of an upside-down kingdom, he turned the cross into a coronation.

I remember feeling the weight of Good Friday as if for the first time on an April day in 2010. I was a reporter at a small newspaper in Anacortes, Washington, where tragedy had struck the night before. Across a little bay from our house, a heat exchanger at a local oil refinery exploded, killing three people that night and another four in the coming weeks, seven in all. I woke to the rush of reporting on it, and also to the weight of it.

I lived closest to the scene, so I reported from a nearby coffee shop, talking to others who had felt the ground shake in the middle of the night. I remember sending in my contribution to the breaking news story and then sitting in my car for a while, weeping. It was Good Friday, the day that we remember Jesus’ death on the cross, and it felt like it. The rain was coming down heavier than usual. Gray smoke from the explosion lingered in the midday sky. And I asked God, “How can you call this day good?”

Many might be asking that today, a decade later, as the coronavirus seems to take over more and more lives. Where I live near Washington, D.C., no one is unaffected. We’re all homebound but for grocery runs and essential work. The fortunate ones, like us, still have work they can do, even if it feels impossible with kids at home, too.

Outside, most days are sunny and spring-like lately. Sometimes, on a long enough walk, taking in the tulips and dogwoods and redbuds, you can almost forget the tragedy that’s taking hold of the world. Your soul sinks into the rhythms of God’s creation, remembering, without a word, that he is still making all things new. That he brings life — surprises us with it — where, a day or two ago, there was only death.

Last night, we tuned into our church’s online Maundy Thursday service. We served ourselves grape juice and Tam Tam crackers and ached for the communal part of communion. We heard again just how off-key we can be when our singing isn’t drowned out by the rest of the saints. We took in the pastor’s reminder, once again, that this is not how it will always be. As Sandra McCracken sings:

“We will feast in the house of Zion
We will sing with our hearts restored
He has done great things, we will say together
We will feast and weep no more.”

It’s OK that we weep today. In fact, it’s good. As Andrew Peterson sings, “This is the dark before the dawn.”

And I believe it will be brighter for it.