Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Religion and Politics: What's a Christian To Do?

Below is a sermon I preached this summer on this issue. Since the election is upon us, I thought I might post it here. Since I wrote this out for preaching, it is full of typos and has some incomplete thoughts, especially near the conclusion.

Proverbs 31:1-9

The sayings of King Lemuel—an oracle his mother taught him: “O my son, O son of my womb, O son of my vows, do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel—not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

1. You have a responsibility to be diligent

These instructions come to us from King Lemuel and were given to him by his mother. No one knows who Lemuel was, but most scholars believe that he was not an Israelite. Yet, here we have in Holy Scripture some advice he received from his mom. At first glance, it is just some simple homespun wisdom from a mother to a son about what it means to be king, about what it means to have power.

The reason we are reading these verses is because, in a democracy or a republic, “We, the people” have power. In our governmental structure, we have been given a great measure of power. So, the instructions to the kings of old would have direct application to those of us who live in a democracy. The question is, how are we going to use the power that has been given to us?

What we see in Lemuel’s mother’s instructions is a contrast between the worldly use of power and the redemptive use of power. In verse 4, she tells her son not to drink wine and crave beer. Now, this is not a prohibition against drinking. If you were to read it as that, then you would have to read verse 6 as an encouragement for the poor and oppressed to drown their sorrows in drunkenness. Certainly, the Bible does not encourage that. Instead, what these verses say is that rather than using your power to create your own life of luxury, to be concerned about your own comfort, your own personal peace and affluence, you are to use your power redemptively. God has given you power and with this power comes a grave responsibility. So, take your responsibility to govern seriously. Think soberly about your responsibility. You need to be diligent in dispensing justice.

Specifically, you need to work hard to see that rights are protected and you cannot be passive about this. You need to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Well, what does this mean for us? This is a democracy. That means that “We the people” sit in the place of the king. God has given you power in the governing process. With that power, comes responsibility.

Millions of people will be impacted by how you engage or fail to engage in the political process. What you do or don’t do will determine who will make decisions about healthcare, social security, the economy, the war on terror, energy, the Supreme Court, and on and on. That means your involvement in the political process will indirectly affect who lives, who dies, who gets financial help, who does not. It is a big deal and you must accept it as a big deal.

Well, you might say, “I don’t care for any of the candidates. So, I don’t want to vote for someone who does not share all of my views. John Piper says this:

There is no escape from responsibility by pointing out the imperfections of leaders. That is the only kind of leaders there will ever be. Our calling in this world is not to wait for the arrival of the perfect, but to pick our way through the thicket of flaws. We would be arrogant to put ourselves above this fray and say, "A curse on both your houses."

If you have the right to vote, then you cannot lay aside the responsibility because you don’t like the options. That would be a neglect of your power and dereliction of duty.

2. You have a responsibility to act justly

We live in a pluralistic society. That is, in our country, there no longer is a shared consensus of morals, ethics, and values. So, the question is, is it proper for Christians to bring their biblical teaching to bear on public life? Does religion have any place in the public square?

One of the areas that came up a few years ago was the topic of embryonic stem cell research. Regarding stem cell research, President Bush said the following:

…scientists believe further research using stem cells offers great promise that could help improve the lives of those who suffer from many terrible diseases -- from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer's, from Parkinson's to spinal cord injuries. And while scientists admit they are not yet certain, they believe stem cells derived from embryos have unique potential.

He goes on to say that while stem cells can be derived from sources other than embryos, “most scientists, at least today, believe that research on embryonic stem cells offer the most promise because these cells have the potential to develop in all of the tissues in the body.”[i]

Yet, even though embryonic stem cell research holds such great promise, President Bush is opposed to it. Why? He opposes it, not on scientific grounds, but on moral grounds. In order to harvest stem cells from embryos, you must kill the embryo. If you believe that an embryo is a human being, then to destroy that human life, even for something as noble as finding a cure for terrible diseases, is still morally wrong. We do not kill any human beings for the purpose of scientific research.

The President’s policy sparked a firestorm. At the center of this firestorm was Christopher Reeve. You will remember that Christopher Reeve. He is the actor most famous for playing Superman, who died due to complications from a spinal injury. Reeve, along with many others, had hoped that embryonic stem cell research might hold the cure to his injury. In commenting on the President’s policy, Reeve said: "It is my belief that when matters of public policy are being debated, no religion should have a seat at the table,"[ii]

However, it is impossible to separate one’s religious beliefs from one’s beliefs about public policy because all of us have values and those values must come from someplace. Everyone believes that we should have values and be governed by those values. But the question is, how do we arrive at values?

For example, without referring to God, why should we find a cure for spinal injuries or Parkinson’s disease as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox suggest? Well, we would all say because human life is valuable. But, how do you know it is valuable? Science does not tell you that human life is valuable. If you want to go with a pure Darwinian view of life, then it is survival of the fittest. There is no place in such a worldview for compassion and mercy and caring for the weak.

If there is no God, how do you determine values? How do you know what is good and what is evil? Most people take the Jiminy Cricket view of ethics. That is, they say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” But whose conscience? Hitler’s or Mother Teresa’s?

Some ethicists today say that society agrees upon its values. That raises the question, whose society? When societies disagree about values, who is to say which is right? Was the North right to impose its values on the South during the Civil War? In some cultures, it is acceptable to have Aunt Betty over for dinner in other cultures it is acceptable to have Aunt Betty for dinner. Are those two cultures equal? In Afghanistan, the Taliban refused to educate women, forced them to wear Burka’s that covered them from head to toe and denied them the basic rights that every man had. Who are we to say that culture was wrong?

If you take God out of the equation, then values are merely social constructs, which means, values are the means by which one group imposes its will on another. Values and morals then become nothing more than power plays. If you think I am carrying this to the extreme, I assure you that I am not. This is the view of most contemporary philosophers and ethicists who deny God. They believe and are teaching our children that morals are social constructs that those in power impose on those who are without power as a means of oppression.

Ultimately, that means that no one can say that one person’s values are better than anyone else’s. There is no basis for making any important decisions because there is no compass. Was invading Iraq right or wrong? That is a values statement. Is protecting the environment important or unimportant? Should rich people be obligated to pay for poor people’s healthcare? You can go through every issue of this election and it comes down to values. But, the question is, where do those values come from? What is their foundation?

Everyone—without exception—brings their values into the voting booth. No one derives his values from neutral, scientific observation. The difference is, the Christian seeks to anchor his values—not in his own personal preference—but in the character of God the Creator.

However, even here, we must be careful as Christians. We must use our political influence for the sake of justice, but we should not be confused into thinking that we can bring about revival through political power. We do not live in a Christian culture. Rather, we are living in a post-Christian culture. There no longer is a shared consensus. In this, we are living in an age that is very similar to the Jews who lived in exile in Babylon and the Christians living in the pagan Roman Empire of the early church.

I do not see any model in the New Testament where Christians were called to reform the moral character of the Roman Empire by grabbing the levers of power. Christians did not march in protest against the Emperor Cult or the temple prostitutes of Corinth. Instead, they lived moral lives and engaged in acts of mercy and compassion.

Leslie Newbigin, a missionary to India summed it up this way. In answering the question of how the kingdom of this world is displace with the kingdom of God, he writes, “How is the throne itself to be shaken? Only by the power of the gospel itself--announced in word, embodied in deed [and in the Christian community] ... The victory of the Church over the demonic Power of the Roman imperial system did not begin when Christians seized the levers of power: it was won when the victims knelt down in the Coliseum and prayed in the name of Jesus for the Emperor. The martyrs did not displace the emperor with swords, but rather through them the entire mystique of the Empire, its spiritual power, was unmasked, disarmed, made powerless.”
Jesus ushers in His kingdom, not on a warrior’s horse, but on an executioner’s cross. The reason is, it is only through His suffering, only through His death, that He can bring about the kingdom of God.

As a church, our mission is not to promote any political agenda. Our mission is to make disciples. In making disciples, we want to encourage our people to live out their faith in every area of life including the home, work, leisure, school, money, and politics. A biblical world and life view is all-encompassing. At the same time, the Session, which is the governing body of the church, has made it very clear, that it will not permit the distribution of campaign literature. Only in very rare cases, will the church endorse any particular legislation.

In fact, as Presbyterians, our Confession of Faith, which all of our elders and deacons have taken a vow to uphold, states very clearly that the church is not to “intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” [Westminster Confession of Faith, 31-4].

So, there is a difference between what Christians as responsible citizens should do and what the church as an institution should do.

3. You have a responsibility to care for the weak

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

It is natural for those who have power to see it as a means to increase their own comfort, to use it for their own personal gain. Because of that, it would be easy to go into an election and think, what will I get out this? Which candidate would be better for me and for my family? Who will give me the best tax cut or the most government benefits?

But, those are not the right questions. Here, in the climax of her instructions to her son, the queen mother reminds Lemuel that he is to use his power to give justice to the poor.
God’s Word is clear that those who are in positions of power must use their power to defend the powerless. We are to be the defenders of those who cannot speak for themselves. Certainly, this would include the unborn. They literally have no voice. They are completely powerless. If we do not stand up for them, who will? It is our royal duty to protect the weak and powerless. A failure to come to the aid of these—the most powerless people in our culture—is clearly negligence.

Yet, the unborn are not the only ones. Minorities—simply because they are in the minority—do not have the same access to power as those in the majority. If we are only looking out for our personal interests, then democracy devolves into a tyranny of the majority.

The group that God mentions explicitly in this passage are the poor and needy. This is not an exception. We see this same emphasis in the giving of the law in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as well as in the Old Testament prophets. This should not be a side issue for Christians, but should be front and center. The reason is, it is front and center with God. Here, God commands the king specifically to defend the poor and needy, which is a clear sign that this is a critical role of government.

One of the things that has upset younger evangelicals is the way we who are older have cherry-picked the issues of social justice that concern us. We preach with great passion against the sins of our culture, but give very little priority in our thinking to this issue. Yet, there are far more commands and instructions in Scripture in regard to justice for the poor than there are on issues of sexual morality.

God is concerned about the poor and the powerless. Here, the king is commanded to ensure he provides justice for them. Because God is concerned about this issue, it should be front and center for us as well.

Proverbs 29:7 - The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.

In Ezekiel, we read why God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it isn’t what you think. He says:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)

Now, we might reasonably differ on what is the best way to defend the rights of the poor and to see that they are cared for. You can have two people who care about the poor and yet have radically different views on which program cares for them best. Government handouts and socialized medicine are not always the best thing in caring for the poor and oppressed. Just look at Communism. It did not work very well. On the other hand, a totally free market economy doesn’t have the best track record, either. To see that, all one has to do is look at the oppression of the worker during the Industrial Revolution or visit some of the emerging economies around the globe today.

Yet, even though we might reasonably differ on how we should approach this issue, we should agree that this is a priority for the Christian. It is not a secondary issue.

The point is, we must see our power as voters, not merely as a means to make our own lives better, or even to improve the lot of people like us. Rather, we need to vote to promote a just and equitable society, with particular concern for those who have no voice or power themselves.

Many of you have heard of William Wilberforce. He was the subject of a movie a couple of years ago called “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce was a member of Parliament. He spent forty years in Parliament fighting against both the slave trade and slavery in England. In 1833, three days before he died, England passed the Slavery Abolition Act. In order to get the bill passed, the English people were willing to compensate the slave owners for their financial loss. So, the people of England agreed to pay 20 million sterling, which was an astronomical amount in those days. 20 million sterling in 1833 is the equivalent of $42 billion dollars today. That would have been the equivalent of $3000 for every man, woman and child in England and Wales. The citizens of England were willing to sacrifice to end the horror of slavery. They were more concerned about human dignity than they were about their own pocketbooks.

So, as you step into the voting booth, the Christian should not be thinking about which candidate or amendment will simply give you lower taxes or greater government benefits. Rather, which candidate or policy will promote justice? If you are speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, what should you say? What should you do?

No king in Israel ever lived up to the instructions we find here in Proverbs 31. David abused his power to commit adultery with Bathsheba. Solomon taxed the people heavily so that he could live in luxury. His son was even worse. He taxed the people so much that it caused a civil war. Almost every king saw power as a means to increase his own comfort.

However, hundreds of years later, a King was born who would sit upon David’s throne. Isaiah prophesied of his birth saying,

... and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:3-5)

Isaiah, of course, is writing about Jesus. Jesus did not use His power and position for his own comfort. Rather, He sacrificed His comfort for us. As Paul writes in Philippians,

...Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)

Then, in 2 Corinthians, we read:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Jesus did not do this just for the deserving poor. Rather,

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Throughout history, kings have called upon their people to die for them. Jesus is different. Jesus is the King who died for His people. It is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we have forgiveness of sins—including the sin of abusing our power and failing to care for the weak. It is also through Jesus death that we have been redeemed out of our former way of life—a life of selfishness—and brought into the kingdom of His light.

So, as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, may we remember the grace that we have received and so extend it to others.

[i] http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/08/20010809-2.html, Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research , The Bush Ranch, Crawford, Texas, August, 2001. it is important to note that President Bush is not against all stem cell research, but only embryonic stem cell research.

[ii] http://www.yale.edu/opa/v31.n25/story7.html, Yale Bulletin & Calendar, April 11, 2003.

1 comment:

Xavier Pacheco said...

AMEN to that! I've just pulled Marvin Olasky's "The Tragedy of American Compassion" and "Renewing American Compassion" from my shelf. In light of this election, I thought it might be a good idea to once again look at biblical approach to providing for the needy.

Thanks for post.

-- xavier pacheco