Friday, January 16, 2009
A Christian Political Mythology
A while back I was reading a blog post and got to thinking about how we, as Christians, view the world. Is this life a place of exile or a pilgrim land, through which we merely pass? If we are merely passing through, we would do well to ignore the world, even hide from it, and focus on the end goal, our return (reditus or nostos) to the Lord. On the other hand, if this present life is a gift from the Lord, then it should not only be noticed, but cherished. How we understand the Christian response to politics is largely colored by our understanding of our present state. (I have recently been reading Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy, which has perhaps fueled my interest in legitimacy, law, subversion and such questions.) So what exactly is our present state? I have been trying to piece together a few archetypal insights into what you might call a Christian political mythology. Here it is:
Once upon on time there was a great and glorious kingdom, ruled by an ancient and wise King. Though His dominions were vast and rich, one day He decided to create a new land for His kingdom. Yes, create. Somewhere in the distant seas He decided to raise an island. He drew up plans, dispatches the greatest engineers and landscapers in the kingdom and a lavish island world was made. Legend had it that some of the most spectacular wonders of this land were the product not of His servants' hands, but of the King's own mental powers.
On this island He chose to settle some of His leading citizens. But in spite of choosing only the finest of settlers, and in spite of the lavish world He had created for them, the island settlers revolted against the King. And so, He decreed, their island home would no longer be a place of privilege, but of exile.
As the years passed, the distant King became increasingly relegated to the stories of legend. There were rumors among the islanders that at some distant time His armies had come and smashed the greatest wonders of their island home. But many of them doubted that these stories were true. They began to doubt that there were other lands, a splendid capital city with streets of gold, or a great and benevolent King Who ruled there. Some of the islanders even began to doubt that there were such things as greatness or benevolence.
But then a very curious thing happened: the King returned to His island. At least, that is what certain small gatherings of people began to claim. First they whispered it in the dark, but soon some were shouting it in the streets. He had returned, showing Himself to those of His subjects who were still faithful. He assured them that greatness and benevolence and love were indeed real, and He was the embodiment of them all.
But then something as curious as the King's return occurred (or so the story was told). He left. The King left the island once again. He had ordered those willing to listen to live as His faithful subjects and then He had left. But not without promising to return again (and this time, He said, there would be no confusion: He would come in power and might with all the royal armies). Moreover, He promised that those who remained faithful citizens of the kingdom, who proved themselves in the midst of this rebellious land, would be taken with Him back to His capital city, where they would rule with Him.
But what, the faithful asked, were they to do in the meantime? Should they seize control of the island, making war on their fellow islanders? Many doubted that had been the King's intention. Indeed, from time to time secret messages would be smuggled back and forth between the King, on the mainland, and His faithful subjects on the island. Though He exhorted them to love one another and remain faithful to Him, He never spelled out exactly how the island should be governed. While a handful of the islanders proclaimed themselves to be in open rebellion against the King, most simply doubted His existence. Some even stated publicly that they wished there was a King beyond the seas, but - alas - they were convinced there was none.
Some of the small number of open rebels, denouncing the tyranny of the King, demanded a government of the people, a democracy. The vast majority, doubting there ever had been a King, did not see themselves as rebels, but nevertheless thought this a good idea. Could they too, the faithful wondered, enter into such a government? Or would it be treason, a betrayal of their beloved King? Some said they should have no dealings with rebels. Other insisted that by sitting in council with the doubters, perhaps the faithful could win them over. And, after all, the King had left no governor to rule the island in His stead. Was it really treasonous to form a democracy, which might try to govern according to His will, in His absence? Some insisted the faithful should band together in one corner of the island, where they might live according to the King's laws, abandoning the rest of the island to the rebels. Other thought the King would want them to extend His reign across the whole of the land.
This, it seems to me, is the basic place of the Christian: we live in a world which was once a gift, became an exile, but has been transformed into a rite of passage, a preparation for some great reward and responsibility to come. How do we, Christians, live in the midst of a secular world? Do we abandon the political realm to the secularists? Do we try to seize government to impose virtue upon the unbelieving? Can we compromise with those do not share our moral views?
Insofar as the world is in rebellion against God, we are subversives in such a world. But we are also restorationists, traditionalists, loyalists trying to defend the monarchy of Christ the King. We are revolutionaries, insofar as we are called to change the world. But we are also pilgrims, ever called to remember that something greater lies beyond this world, and in our future.
These, it seems to me, are the conundra of Christian political philosophy. Relating them in a single story does not solve them but it does, I hope, at least bring the questions into slightly sharper focus, by bringing them into relation with one another.
This post first appeared on the Quincy House blog a few days ago.