Tuesday, April 12, 2005

In Government we Trust: Can Culture be Transformed by Political Power?

Anyone with half a brain and clear vision can simply by a glance know that our culture is in dire need of transformation. Warfare, violence, immorality and greed abound, and casual observation suggests that these are getting worse by the day. But how is a culture transformed?
In a recent book on conflicting ideologies in North America, Thomas Sowell suggests that there are two prevailing views concerning how government and society should seek to transform culture to the degree that our problems are eradicated. Sowell refers to these two views as the “constraining” and “unconstraining” views. The “constrained” vision of America sees the purpose of government as that of restraining sin through the law, while the “unrestrained” vision believes that government should release individuals by providing public education and other entitlements. Sowell’s contention is that the former vision is embodied in the Republican party, while the latter has found a home among Democrats. He is half right. In actuality, both parties believe in both a “constrained” and “unconstrained” element of government’s role in public life. Building on Sowell’s view, it might accurately be stated that Republicans in general believe in a “contrained” approach on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, while taking an “uncontrained” approach to economic issues. Conversely, Democrats as a whole believe that the best way to better society is to reverse these visions, thereby “constraining” the public on economic issues while removing any social constraints.
Anyone reading smell anything rotten yet? Pastor Mark Driscoll finds the common denominator in all of this by stating “one thing the two visions have in common is that their faith rests in institutions; they simply disagree as to whether these institutions should release or restrain us.” In short, “rock-ribbed” republicans as well as “yellow-dog” democrats believe that the answer to cultural transformation is found by way of taking over the structures of power and using those structures to implement one’s own vision.
Believe it or not, this sort of scenario has happened before. . .and failed! 2 Kings 21 records the reign of King Josiah, crowned at the tender age of eight in 640 B.C., and the praise he attained for reversing many of the immoral policies of his father Amon and grandfather Manasseh. To the public in Judah, Josiah was the seventh century B.C. equivalent to FDR (or Reagan, depending on your political persuasion!). Josiah’s reforms repressed many evil practices, such as the sacrifice of children to the god Molech. But the Scriptures tell us that his policies alone were ultimately unable to change the hearts of the idolatrous Hebrew people. After a shallow revival brought on by these reforms, Josiah is killed in a battle with Egypt. Within months, his son Jehoahaz also dies as a prisoner of war, and the wicked King Jehoiakim comes to power. Bringing back all of the evil practices that had taken place freely prior to Josiah’s reign. In other words, government regulation, while well-intentioned, brought only a shallow, false revival followed by a return to wickedness.
Now before I go any further, don’t read what I haven’t written!! I’m not suggesting that Christians should have no voice in government. I’m not saying that the moral issues that happen to be before the legislature should not be of concern. After all, Christianity is not just a faith, it is a worldview which should seek to inform all of our decisions as followers of Jesus. Issues that pertain to the sanctity of human life created in the image of God and other moral discussions are issues on which the church dare not be silent! But while we are commanded to maintain a “prophetic voice” within our governments, we must understand that many of these issues are peripheral. After all, our worldview is not determined by the Republicans or the Democrats, but rather by Scritpure! The problem in Josiah’s day (as in our own, I suspect) was not that Josiah did something wrong. It was that God’s people didn’t do enough!
Now, fast-forward six hundred years to the time of Jesus and you have yet another example in the Zealots. These individuals shared Jesus’ desire for the coming Kingdom of God. The problem lay in their view of how this was to be brought about. Their desire was to “overthrow the godless Romans” and take over the power structures. This sort of thinking re-emerges today with Christians who give all of their time to moral political agendas and crusades against evil. The real danger of this approach is that you start to hear strange, nationalistic phrases like “The US is a Christian nation.” Believe me when I say that this great nation of ours has NEVER been Christian! In fact, the only fully Christian state I can recall is the Roman Empire under Constantine. Suffice it to say that we as the church were not at our best during those years!
Is there a place for the church in political discussion? You better believe there is, and government would do well to pay attention when the issues of concern are being addressed by the Word of God! But the transformation of culture will never take place if the church simply shortcuts the missional path to which God has called it by taking over the power structures. Abortions will not stop because Roe vs. Wade is overturned (although I pray every day that it will be!) They will stop as the church fulfills its missional calling in the world to reach out to the helpless and needy. Homosexuality will not go away by Constitutional amendment. Adultery will not be curtailed by bringing back sodomy laws, and drunkenness will not be eradicated by strengthening “blue laws.”
Ironically enough, Scripture teaches us that the transformation of culture happens by a means that is diametrically opposed to the approach of Zealots. Isaiah 52 speaks of the coming Kingdom of God, who reigns sovereign over all the Kingdoms of men. Then there is Isaiah 53, which sheds light on how this eternal and all-encompassing Kingdom is to be inaugurated; by One who comes to suffer! And was this not fulfilled with the life of our Savior, who weeped over Jerusalem, healed the sick, opened blind eyes, ministered to the poor and downcast, spent much time with the lowest of sinners, and ultimately died in the place of sinful humanity, broken on a Roman cross?
Maybe the answer to transforming our culture is to remember that the Kingdom of God is yet to come! The United States is a wonderful nation, and the political parties that make up its government have both had great moments, and “not-so-great’ moments. But these parties are not forever, and neither is the United States! As “unpatriotic” as this may sound, Scripture is clear that a day is coming when all the Kingdoms of the earth will surrender unconditionally to the eternal Kingdom of God, and that includes the "kingdom" of America. Therefore, the call to the church in this age is to incarnate that Kingdom, via planting new churches, into communities worldwide. Culture never has, and never will be, transformed by political power. It will be transformed as the church once again takes up its responsibility to infuse the light of Jesus Christ into a dark world. Laws may restrain evil, but they cannot change the heart. But we know One who can change hearts. Let us remember this, and let our confidence not be found in government, or any other temporal structure, but in the same Gospel which transformed each of us.

Take a look at the following resources for further reading:

Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1996

Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching out without Selling Out Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: Basic, 2002

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