Christians often emphasize not being “of” the world, but the command to be “in” the world is just as present in Christian tradition. We will certainly not be able to create a heaven on earth, but we are often able to put off the creation of little hells.
Should Christians care about politics? Should they be political? In a political conversation online recently, a friend argued for the negative in both cases from the conviction that all political activity is useless and a distraction from living out our Christian vocation. The world is apostate, he told me, and there is nothing one can do about it in the political arena. He wasn’t going to vote for the other guy or the other party. He would vote for no party. Civilization is dead, the earthly city is a delusion, and the handbasket holding the world is on the elevator going down.
I confess that I found that viewpoint somewhat refreshing. In our modern world the ordinary positions of most people on the left (and even some on the right) are that our problems are ultimately political and administrative, that solutions to our problems are ultimately political and administrative, and that every aspect of our lives derives its meaning from political concerns. My friend’s position, derived from a vision of Jesus as Alpha and Omega, is much healthier than that of so many other friends, whose vision begins in trust of princes and ends in Leviathan.
My friend’s position is also based in a thread of Christian thought that goes back at least to the desert fathers. The political concerns that characterize life here, along with the civilizations in which they are embedded, have had some pretty saintly discontents. Much of monastic history has involved the fleeing of the earthly city in order to found something new outside of the normal political and even ecclesiastical life—something more primitive in the Garden-of-Eden sense. The flight to desert or mountain is generally motivated by the desire to live out the Christian gospel in a newer, fuller way and to test the limits of what is possible now that God has become Incarnate and poured out his Holy Spirit on others. It took as its cue the idea that Christ has redeemed humanity and opened the way back to Adam and Eve’s Road Not Taken.
Politics as we know it and civilization, on the other hand, with their complicated and morally messy details, were founded by Cain, who founded the first city in the land of Nod after being exiled from his family. Cities have organized government, social stratification, and a written language. They have more complex market systems and, generally speaking, more advanced technology and a more developed artistic and cultural world.
Politics and civilization, you see, are the legacy of a killer.
The romantic vision behind a turn from politics might need some qualification, however. The story of the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 indicates that even such rustic beginnings were no inoculation against the temptation to seek to “be like God” and decide on good and evil for oneself. Our uncivilized beginnings were not only not fool- (or sin-) proof. They were also, it seems, not meant to be our ending. The prophecies of the Old and New Testaments indicate that what God has in mind for humanity is not another garden but instead a glorious city—the New Jerusalem.
Some Christians note that the proper understanding is that “our citizenship”—or better yet, our “city”–is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). But that does not mean the best attitude is one of rootless heavenly cosmopolitanism. That New Jerusalem, what Augustine called civitas dei or the “City of God,” is depicted in Revelation as the ultimate civilization, but it is not a brand new thing. Instead, it is the final resting place for all the greatness of historical human civilizations that will find fulfillment when human history is completed. In it, we read, will be found “the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev. 22:26).
Those like my friend will object that there is no honor or glory present because we live in a modern Babylon—or worse, an apostate Christendom, having left behind our Jewish and Christian assumptions, habits, and laws—so it is hopeless to attempt to improve things. Just waiting it out till the end is the best way. After all, it will all burn anyway in apocalyptic fire.
The objectors are of course right that things look bleak in many parts of the world and that the long term prognosis for all earthly things is death. They are wrong, however, in thinking that this should keep us from working through politics to create free, good, and decent societies that are rooted in justice and make possible a vision of grace that goes beyond this life. If we want glory and honor in our cities and nations that will echo into eternity, we need to take Jeremiah’s prophetic words to the people of Judah who have been exiled into the original Babylon seriously: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7).
Though our final citizenship is in heaven, that fact does not mean we should flee from the earthly city or be too heavenly minded to do any earthly good. Christians who echo the language of John’s Gospel with the phrase “being in but not of the world” need to remember that both sides of the phrase are important: we are to live and act (be “in”) the earthly city while being motivated and informed by values that go far beyond what ordinary human civilization can tell us (not be “of” it). Our citizenship in heaven motivates and informs how we live out our citizenship here.
So what does good citizenship involve? My friend would not object to the parts of citizenship that make up everyday life: raising a family, volunteering in the neighborhood, living in peace, maybe even paying taxes and filling out his census forms. But he thinks that politics is irredeemable and a waste of time. He believes that people who are active politically are at best wasting theirs and others’ time and at worst substituting one evil for another. He believes we are not political animals, as Aristotle would have it.
Again, I understand much of this. Where we agree is in understanding that 1) politics brings no final solutions, 2) sometimes politics does result in trading one problem for another, and 3) putting one’s whole trust in politics is both dangerous and idolatrous. To all of these points I add a resounding amen. To add a fourth point that is often argued about, I agree with him against those who argue that there is an absolute commandment to vote for candidates or a party. If one really thinks no party (or candidate) is any good, one is not obligated to vote for any of them.
Where I disagree with him is on two points. First, we are indeed political animals. If politics is about the ordering of a political community, even the most primitive communities end up being political. Even the Fathers, at least those not operating as pure hermits, had their disputes about how the Egyptian desert should operate. We cannot escape the questions about how human communities will run. Civilizations may make us despair of having any effect due to their size, complexity, and the manifest corruption involved in the processes. But even if our say is small, it is not nil. And it can be bigger depending on how we engage in the issues of the day. And if we don’t engage those issues, others will. We may not be interested in politics, but politics has an abiding interest in us.
The second point on which my friend and I disagree is his contention that because politics involves trade-offs of problems or evils, it is hopeless or even evil to engage in. While politics doesn’t give us any final solutions, neither does much else in life. And yet we continue to work to improve our lives, making judgments that are flawed and sometimes result in what might be called the opposite of solutions. Albert Jay Nock once observed of politicians that “They’re all mountebanks.” And so they are. But not all mountebanks are created equal. And some will pursue lines of policy, administration, and appointments that are better than others. Prudence dictates that we try to consider which parties and candidates will advance the policies, administer the departments, and appoint the people who will be best for our country, state, and city. While it may not be true in every political race, most of them offer a contrast that is significant and will affect the welfare of the earthly city. Simply to throw up our hands at the mess and say “It’s a disaster no matter what happens” is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In politics, we are constrained by the types of candidates and parties available. That might be depressing, but we always act within a set of constrained possible choices. I don’t think it absolutely immoral to refuse to choose, but I do think it generally unwise. Again, Christians often emphasize not being “of” the world, but the command to be “in” the world is just as present in Christian tradition.
Civilization is doomed, to be sure. But so too are you and I. Just as we take uncertain actions to preserve our bodies, so too ought we to think seriously about whether we can preserve the body politic. We will certainly not be able to create a heaven on earth, but we are often able to put off the creation of little hells.
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*The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, (Harcourt, 1985), p. 469.
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