An Easter Meditation on Freedom
There are countries in this world that no one would call "free" or "democratic." In recent years I have had the opportunity to visit several of them. Yet in these countries the church exists, indeed thrives. The freedom attained through Jesus Christ is all that matters. It is the only true freedom. If we grasp this freedom, we fulfill both ourselves and God's design for us. In Jesus Christ, the foolishness of God turns out to be wiser than the wisdom of the world. Human wisdom -- all of the "kingdom building" that takes the form of political action and economic control -- is utterly futile. Nothing of eternal significance in life takes place except by the Holy Spirit. This is, of course, no excuse for inactivity on our part. I have written my books and preached my sermons and taught my courses and advanced my causes and promoted my vision of this or that. But when all is said and done in the sphere of human activity, when all of our laws have been passed and all of our causes have been defended, all that remains is God's action. Unless He does it, it is not worth doing. Our only role is that of unworthy and unprofitable servants.
Job asks, "Where can wisdom be found?" (Job 28:12). Paul provides the answer: "Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). The Gospel! Man's folly but God's wisdom! I am struck by the vanity, the futility, of all of my efforts. It is useless service. What good is it to teach Greek unless God's powerful Word is reenacted in the lives of our students? What good is it to preach sermons if the application is completely out of our hands? Even prayer cannot be uttered without the sighs of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26-27). It is in this sense that we may say that nothing of eternal consequence takes place except by faith. This is why we must not press God into our systems and programs and plans and programs and politics. Often what we call "causes" are simply expressions of human pride. This is fatal to Christianity. Just ask David Brock, author of Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, or David Kuo, whose Tempting Faith tells "The Inside Story of Political Seduction." Kuo served as Special Assistant to the President under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003. Describing the seduction of Washington, he writes that it's "not just because of the perks, which are nice, but because of the raw power of the place hidden in a true desire to save the world. It is the ring of power from Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings.' The longer anyone holds the ring the more he loves it, the more he hates it, and the more desperate he is to hold onto it. It becomes the most precious thing in his life .... The ring owns, it is not owned" (pp. 250-51).
The Gospel is meant to subvert political power, not vice versa. Christians do not need to promote God's agenda. We should simply bow before the unfathomable expression of His love -- Jesus Christ -- and "live like He lived" (1 John 2:6). This, in short, is what it means to enter Godworld. In the kingdom, God always has the freedom to act in surprising ways, quite apart from our human archys. He seeks neither polemics nor apologetics but obedience. This is the way of Jesus. When we are tempted to bring the church under submission to money or the state or popularity, when we promote social triumphalism, when we engage in religious propaganda for political causes, the only remedy is repentance and faith. Both Scripture and history show us that when the church uses political means to protect itself and its interests, then it is endangered by the very thing in which it trusts. Politicians do not rely upon God. This is why government exists. As a Christian, it does not matter to me in the least whether America is a great nation, or that I should live in a democracy. The disciple of Jesus plays a role in society that is radical and disinterested. Institutional power is of no concern to God. He raises up nations and then sweeps them away. Some might endure longer than others, but none has an assurance of perpetuity. That the U.S. currently enjoys democracy should be a warning to greater usefulness in the kingdom and to greater love for the nations. The presence of the church in America is no guarantee of future divine blessing. Democracy may be lavishly golden. But it's a trap. Inside there is nothing of eternal consequence.
One wonders what would happen should America ever cease to be democratic. Would the church have to go underground, as it has had to do in so many other nation-states? Probably. But let me be quick to underscore that the idolatry of power can exist even in an underground church. Power divides and corrupts the innermost depths of man. But institutional power, whether political or ecclesiastical, is of no interest to God. On the contrary, the way of Jesus is the way of downward mobility and powerlessness. In His kingdom, outer props become unnecessary. The essential thing is not what we do but what God does in us and through us. All of our deeds are useless unless they originate from Him. Looking over my 35 years of teaching, I can tell you that establishing the discipline of hearing God was one of the most important decisions of my life. If I am an effective follower of Jesus, it is because I absorb the words of Christ into my attitudes and actions. The same thing is true of the church, the Body of Christ. The church is nothing less than the active presence of God Himself in the world. This is why it does not have to intervene in politics. Because Christ is present, even the least desirable political reality is endurable. To this actual, living, present Word of God, the nations must give an account. The emphasis is always upon prophecy, not upon political machinations. This means that, for the Christian, involvement in politics is never a matter of political action alone. The reality is that of judgment and not of ethics.
We learn from this two lessons. The first is that if we do not preach the Gospel and do the works of faith, nothing in this world is likely to change for the better. It is by casting our bread upon the waters that we see a foretaste of true freedom, a freedom exclusively offered in the Gospel and exclusively received in Christ. The second lesson is that in the political arena we have nothing of lasting consequence to achieve, nothing to prove. It is all finished. We are thus struck by the vanity, the futility, of politics, by its inadequacy and poverty. Vote? It is our privilege, yet it is a useless effort. All the lasting interventions in history find their true meaning in the Easter miracle of Jesus Christ. What has been accomplished at the cross and the resurrection is that men and women can now acquire the power of freedom, and true societal change now becomes a possibility. Because Christ has come and is alive today, the one who receives God's Word is restored to liberty. But we have to choose this course. If we fail to experience this freedom, we are without any excuses.
March 8, 2012
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.