Christianity and Power: Four Cautionary Words
In recent days the question of Christianity’s relationship to political power has emerged. Over Christmas, the story of Jesus revealed not a conquering King but a helpless babe, while Philippians 2 was recited to describe a Lord who gave up heavenly privilege to embrace earthly poverty. Madeleine L’Engle’s “Bright Evening Star!” appeared in my (physical) mailbox to tell me that the story of Christmas records a Christ who rejects not just the abuse of power, but power as such. Soon after Christmas the 1-year anniversary of January 6 arrived. Russell Moore complained about the event’s perverse marriage of Christianity and political power, and others formed a chorus deriding the church’s senseless pursuit of power for its own sake as revealed on that day. Finally, David Brooks just published a long-form report of celebrity evangelicals decrying the American church’s connection to Donald Trump, its complicity in sex abuse scandals, and its refusal to take stock of racial injustice in society and within its own doors. He concluded that the church will never renew itself as long it continued its “lust for partisan political power.”
Shew. I think I need to take a bath.
My initial reaction to all of this commentary is to agree with it. However, I still have a question: what, exactly, is so bad about power? In this post I want to answer that question by providing three categories for how Christians should think about power, with one caveat to conclude. I’m using the three categories of philosophy — epistemology (theory of knowledge), metaphysics (theory of reality), and ethics (theory of action) — to caution the Christian as she pursues political power. And while these are directed at the Christian, I think my comments can be embraced by anyone who is suspicious of political power.
First, Christians should be wary of power because they are limited in what they know to be just. Hubris comes in many forms, but it may first come in ignoring our limitations as knowers. Who is to speak for God on what the just tax rate is? 25%? 50%? No tax at all? Is it a flat tax or progressive tax? It’s tough to say what God thinks about anything if he hasn’t told us directly what he thinks. When we speak about the nature of justice, our first posture should be one of epistemic humility. We don’t know what justice is. Because we’re creatures, we are limited, and because we’re sinners, we distort the little knowledge we have. We think we see the good in its fulness, but we only see half of it. What we see we willfully forget, distort, and twist for our own purposes. To gain political power means we speak for the community on what is right, just, and good. And yet, we don’t know really know what is right, just, and good.
This first point has some interesting corollaries. For example, I reject the view that Christians must be in public office for any society to be just. I think it’s good for Christians to be in public office, but not completely necessary. What’s more difficult to see is whether failed efforts to bring about justice, even when we think we know what justice is, are actually failed efforts. In other words, it’s quite possible for God to be at work through and in spite of failed efforts to achieve justice. If, for example, you know a particular policy option to be the more just one, what happens when it gets voted down? Can you justifiably say that justice has taken a step back? You should probably say so, but how do you know what God is up to?
Perhaps the best expression of this tension is in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In his brilliance, he surely knew what he was doing, but you can sense the struggle in his own mind as he tries to explain God’s hand in American affairs. On the one hand, everyone prays to the same God; on the other hand, the prayers of both can not be answered. On the one hand, surely nobody could “ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”; on the other hand, “let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Lincoln is trying to thread the needle between epistemic hubris and epistemic ignorance. He is, I think, modeling epistemic humility.
Second, Christians should be wary of political power because of the nature of history, reality, and human beings. Even if we had full knowledge of justice, we would be incapable of pulling off a fully just regime. Living within the secular age, the time between the times, means that reality is incapable of full transformation by human efforts, including political efforts. To expect politics to bring perfection to the world is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. It’s just not going to work.
This is also because the human materials (to use a phrase from Plato and Aristotle) are not the kind of materials fitted for perfection, at least not now. Both those who act and those who are acted upon suffer from imperfect motives and capacities. Even the most just law will be broken, and even the most just person will create unjust laws. It’s human nature. The nature of reality and the nature of the humans who live within it are not capable of perfection. To gain political power, then, for the sake of full transformation is a fool’s errand. If humility is required for our knowledge, patience is required as we face reality.
Third, Christians should be suspicious of political power because of what it does to the souls of those who wield it. “Power corrupts,” as Lord Acton famously said. This is the most pernicious of the three categories, since you won’t be aware of what happens to you when you have power. Power has a way of corrupting the soul such that the power-holder is unaware of his corruption. The proverbial upstart has high hopes for changing the world through politics, and within a few years she’s making deals with the devil in the back room. Ungodly ambition then gets connected to the idolatry of tribe and party, and before you know it, you have no idea why you support the man or the party he leads. You have been blinded by power, and you’ll tend to justify anything to maintain it. If humility and patience are required for the first two, perhaps circumspection is necessary for this one.
So those are three cautionary words, and I think every person would do well to reflect on them. However, I need to register one reservation, even as I affirm everything I’ve just said. In short, the time to pursue power is paradoxically right when its use is at its most corrupt. As a student of political philosophy, I can’t help but reference the founding text in the western canon, Plato’s Republic, where Socrates contends that wisdom and power must be united if the city of Athens is to be saved. It’s too simple to argue that power is bad as such. In fact, Socrates tells those who sit on the sidelines that they’re making a dangerous bet. The bet is that the city will do just fine without your contribution, that somehow you can muddle through while someone else takes charge. If you hide your wisdom under a bushel, however, you’re more likely to see cynics and sophists than philosophers take over. If you sit this one out, the “man in the arena” is more likely to corrupt the city than to bring justice. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, justice without power is useless, even if power without justice is violence.
The trick, I suppose, is to meditate on the cautions mentioned above, all the while pursuing justice in the public arena. For if we abandon power because of its limitations, our neighbors who need to live in a just community will suffer at the hands of the unjust ones who seize its reins.