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Dec
13

The Necessary Shift: Thinking Theologically About Politics

For a season, politics pretty well dominated my life. I was an International Relations major at San Diego State University, reading Kissinger and watching the news. I really became a newsaholic. Even back in high school, I was on a speech team that demanded I be up on current affairs, be it a crisis in Pakistan or the emerging war in Vietnam. I began to form my identity around politics. I ran for student government every year I was in middle school and high school. I practically worshipped the moment I shook Ronald Reagan’s hand in Sacramento while attending Boys’ State. I can’t explain this fascination. It may have all started in third grade, when I was the designated milk monitor.

newspaperPolitics no longer dominates my life or the news (especially after I read the article in First Things, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb” – a thirty second “in depth report” does not really inform). Still, I know a number of people that look to politics for a part, if not most, of their identity. As David Brooks notes in last week’s NYT article, “The Stem and the Flower”, some treat their partisan affiliation as a form of ethnicity. For some, FOX News or CNN is part of the daily ritual. Absent of other attachments, partisanship can give them a sense of righteousness and belonging.

What Brooks laments is what all of us should lament, that most TV and radio talk today is minute political analysis, while talk of culture has shriveled. We have lost perspective. We’ve made government the main substance of life rather than the background order it is supposed to be. As Brooks opines, “Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.” Hence, there is a certain emptiness, as well as a cynical backlash, when the audacity of hope does not deliver.

It reminds me of a talk years ago by Chuck Colson, who once was consumed with carrying out Richard Nixon’s will. He made government his god, and it eventually corrupted him. He was speaking to pastors, reminding us that life does not emanate from Washington, D.C. Though the news creates the perception that what really matters are the daily decisions made by the President or Congress or the Supreme Court, the reality is that they are small in comparison to the far larger issues of life, beginning with the Kingdom of God. What God is up to is what really matters.

Stepping back from writing a NYT column for three months has given Brooks opportunity to think about other things than, say, Obamacare. What we need to remember is that government is the stem of the flower, not the bloom. As he puts it, “The best government is boring, gradual, and orderly. It’s steady reform, not exciting transformation. It’s keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.” He concludes, “I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up about a tenth of a corner of our minds. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture, and fun.”

Unfortunately, as much as I admire Brooks, he is still describing the stem. The more I know about God, the more I realize how much He deserves the dominant space of our lives. As my study in the gospel of John keeps declaring, Jesus alone gives meaning to so much of the senselessness. Only He brings the most centering words, gives the only real solutions, and provides the power to live life as it should be lived. He reveals a God who comes in search of us, is deeply in love with us, and gives us a mission worth getting up for, and if necessary, giving one’s life for.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary. He also has a strong commitment to building the church worldwide, partnering and teaching ministries in Lebanon and India.