The Imitation of Christ
—a book by Thomas à Kempis (1418)
Religion and Power
There are three different religious approaches to community and freedom. The first abandons politics and society at large in the name of religion. The communities it creates are small, and the degree of personal freedom that each community allows may be rigidly limited in terms of that community’s goals and beliefs. This is the religion of escape and retreat.
The second uses political power and technology, either magical or scientific, to create, maintain, and advance the life and health of a given community. The community in question may be very small (a village) or very, very large (an empire). The degree of personal freedom that its members enjoy will steadily erode and decline. Those in charge of the community will impose greater and greater restrictions and controls in order to obtain their goals. They will justify their increasing tyranny in the name of public safety, the common good, and even liberty and brotherhood. This is the religion of power and domination.
The third creates community and freedom through individual transformation and personal responsibility. It does this in the context of covenant authority and ethical absolutes. This is the supernatural religion of regeneration, faith, and stewardship. This is biblical Christianity. For Christianity, freedom and community belong to the life that is in Christ. As a man comes to Christ individually through faith, he is engrafted into a Spirit-created, covenant-bound society that grows through truth, grace, and service (Ephesians 4). In imitating Christ, believers live to serve God and their fellowmen, who are made in the image of God. As they serve in terms of God’s absolute truth and law, He delivers greater and greater responsibility into their hands. This takes a lot of time and requires patience and self-discipline. For Christianity, then, stewardship comes through service. Political freedom is the outgrowth of spiritual freedom and personal responsibility.
Worldviews in Conflict
In most cultural conflicts, the religion of power finds itself opposing the religion of godly responsibility and stewardship. Those who self-consciously belong to the religion of retreat usually watch from the sidelines, while they wait for the end.
Proponents of the power religion have a simple strategy. They must accumulate more and more power until they can successfully recreate the world in their own image. (This is Satan’s gig from day one.) They work diligently to control the civil government, the universities and schools, the media, the economy, and eventually the private lives of individuals. They regularly speak of social concern and love for the poor and the planet, but they constantly push the world in the direction of the total-control grid described in Brave New World and 1984.
The proponents of godly stewardship usually oppose the moves of the power religionists to some degree. Certainly, they preach and write against their basic tenets, methods, and goals. A few will run for political office with the hopes of effecting change. A few more will start committees or organizations dedicated to social reform. But for the most part, these people devote their time, money, and energy to their families, their churches, and their vocations. With their tithes and gifts, they support schools, hospitals, orphanages, and rescue missions. Their often meager savings together provide a tremendous amount of investment capital for business and industry. And at election time their votes usually make a difference. But when it comes to dominating others politically, they are generally not all that interested.
The amazing thing is that the power religion fails again and again. The power State fails to deliver on its promises and eats up its own resources. Often it falls apart violently amidst violence and bloodshed. Sometimes it goes out with a whimper and often times it just gets rusty. Those who have been faithful in their covenantal responsibilities generally survive into the new “post-power” state era and many help to pick up the pieces of the broken order. Occasionally, a handful become major players in recreating society. But in general, folks get married, women have babies, we all hustle off to work and soccer games to watch our kids. Life goes on.
The Politics Trap
Unfortunately, when a cultural crisis begins, some men and women who, in theory, are committed to covenant living suddenly put their faith in primarily political solutions. They forget their priorities and their fundamental assumptions. This time, they say, politics will save us. This band of reformers tends to be a driven, energetic lot, full of short-term vision, and wholly dedicated to the mission at hand. They are often frustrated that their co-religionist won’t jump on the political salvation bandwagon. Sometimes these men and women accomplish something really significant. Often they elect a great candidate or pass a good proposition. But rarely can they maintain their own political or social movement for more than a very short period of time. After all, most of their friends are really very busy with their families, churches, and vocations. All political movements, no matter how intense, fade with time.
Abraham and Lot
A few years after Abraham and Lot entered Canaan, they parted ways. Their herds and flocks had become too large to share the same pastures. Abraham graciously offered Lot a choice of pasturelands. Lot selfishly chose the best. He moved his herds into the well-watered Jordan River valley and pitched his tent towards Sodom. “But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly.” (Gen. 13:13)
What motivated Lot to move his family towards Sodom—eventually, into Sodom? It could have been any of a number of things. Sodom was the nearest center of learning and scholarship. Sodom was a happening place, full of society and culture. Sodom needed to hear and obey the word of God. So Lot moved his family into the city and it would appear got involved in its political and social life. He earned a seat in the city gate, the equivalent of our city hall. He found husbands for his older daughters and (apparently) wives for his sons. Perhaps his efforts at righteous living were paying off (Gen. 19:12). He helped his younger daughters to preserve their chastity, though the instructions he gave them in covenant theology were sadly uneven. No doubt his business was prospering. But in a single night it all fell apart. God destroyed Sodom and the neighboring city of Gomorrah. Lot lost everything and everyone except his younger daughters. And then, too late, he found out that the corruption of Sodom had infected them as well. The children they had (through incest) became the fathers of Moab and Ammon, wicked people who were thorns in Israel’s side for a thousand years.
What did Abraham do all this time? Lots (no pun intended). He led his sheikdom in public worship which included sacrifice and prayers and the reading of God’s Word. He conducted his business with wisdom, skill, and honor. He earned the respect of the neighboring sheiks and taught them the fear of God. He practiced hospitality to friend and stranger alike. He was kind and merciful to his employees. He trusted God. Only once did he do anything really remarkable: he led his servants and his allies in a strategic military strike against withdrawing Mesopotamian armies. He defeated the armies and rescued their captives. Lot was one. The king of Sodom was another. But Abraham refused to make any profit or take any political advantage from the venture. Lot’s safety was all he was after. Abraham went back to his flocks and herds and led a faithful life.
Lot was a godly man (2 Pet. 2:7-8), but his choices did nothing to promote God’s kingdom on earth. He gained a seat in city hall, but lost his wife and children to the wickedness of Sodom. In time his seed became vicious enemies of the covenant people. His life was a tragedy. Abraham was also a godly man. He was motivated by God’s long-term promises. He moved in terms of faith, family, responsibility, and service. His faith has changed the world for all time.
Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph
Genesis contains the stories of three other men, descendants of Abraham, who carried on the work of God by faithful, humble stewardship. They were all responsible, hard working, and patient. They never grasped for the scepter and crown, but their choices laid the foundations for the nation of Israel and thus for Western civilization and our way of life.
Isaac was Abraham’s son. He inherited his father’s sheikdom and managed it well. He also tried his hand at farming with tremendous success. He dug new wells, but the locals stole them. Isaac moved on, wisely avoiding military conflict. In time the local chieftains came to him, seeking an alliance. They saw that he was faithful and perceived that he was blessed (Gen. 26).
Jacob was Isaac’s son, the younger of two twin boys. While his brother Esau was off playing, Jacob ran the family business… for sixty years. When he left home in search of a wife, he got trapped into a bad business deal with his greedy father-in-law. But Jacob did what he always did. He worked long, hard hours and waited on God. And God, in His own time, took all of Laban’s wealth and passed it on to Jacob (Gen. 25; 28—31).
Jacob had twelve sons. The youngest, except for one, was Joseph. While Joseph was still in his teens, he became overseer of his father’s flocks and received prophetic dreams. His brothers hated him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph continued his patient, responsible behavior in the house of his new master, Potiphar. God blessed Joseph’s faithful hard work. Joseph acquired authority and power within the household—until its frustrated mistress accused him of rape. He ended up in a royal dungeon. But again Joseph labored patiently and diligently until he found himself running the prison. His next step was into political office. In fact, Pharaoh gave him Egypt to run. He was thirty. Joseph went on the save Egypt as well as his own family, yet Joseph never asked to be top dog in all of Egypt. He served his way to the top, and he never cut moral corners or compromised (Gen. 37; 39—50).
We are in the midst of a cultural crisis. There is a place for activists and firebrands in politics. After all, the world always needs godly statesmen and civic leaders, now more than ever. But the true recovery of freedom, prosperity and a righteous society in America will take place in families, churches, schools and in the workplace, as ordinary believers work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). It often takes generations, as well as requiring patience, wisdom, and self-discipline. The religion of power will come and go over time. But in the end, the meek, those gentled by the Lord for faithful, godly stewardship will inherit the earth (Ps. 37:11; Matt. 5:5).