The temptation of political power

Jan 20, 2020 by

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Of the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have commented: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.” This quote sums up the dominant political philosophy found throughout the world. A politician’s shared party affiliation or alliance with us is more important than the politician’s behavior. What’s most important is that our side gets to exert as much political power or influence as possible.

Sure, we think behavior and character and holding ethical ideals are important, but not at the expense of losing influence over others. In politics the game is to win, not to be honorable or consistent.

As a result, the sexual indiscretions (or even crimes) of Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump tend to be weighed differently, depending on our party affiliation. Whether we demand a balanced budget from Congress largely depends on whether we support the current president. As I once heard commentator Jonas Goldberg say, “If hypocrisy were helium, Congress would float away.” Not just Congress, but most of the American electorate.

The day before the last presidential election, when virtually everyone (including Trump, I think) assumed Hillary Clinton would win, I was very concerned about how conservatives would respond to the election result. They had so demonized Clinton that I could foresee many people refusing to recognize her election and doing everything in their power to make her presidency fail. But when Trump won the election, many liberals pursued this same response. If this response is wrong for one side, it’s wrong for both sides.

Currently our nation is facing the question of whether President Trump should be removed from office by the Senate following his impeachment by the House. (We know he won’t be, but the moral and legal question still faces us.) Our own party affiliation or support for the president will inevitably exert a powerful influence over whether we believe he is or is not guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, or whether his actions have been serious enough for removal from office. I have my own opinion on this matter, and I believe it is rationally and morally based, but I do not know how much my own prejudices and biases are influencing my own conclusions.

But there is another reason, a more important reason, why it is unwise and indeed inappropriate for me to say whether President Trump should be removed from office at this time or, later this year, re-elected. That reason is that I, as a pastor representing the mission of the church, must reject the temptation of political power. Too many Christians (and Christian leaders) have made the faulty assumption that a particular party must win elections because that party will promote our favored issues or give us more influence in the government and society. But at the heart of the Christian message is a rejection of domineering power.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is presented with three temptations before beginning his ministry. One of those temptations is the temptation of dominating political power. According to the story, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “I will give you all of these if you fall down and worship me.” The temptation is to possess all worldly power, to be able to dictate one’s will over others. But doing so is, in effect, demonic — even if it is Jesus who is exercising this domineering power!

If Jesus cannot exercise such power without worshiping the devil, neither can Christians (or anyone). The desire to dominate, to impose one’s will over others (no matter how good that will may be), is essentially anti-God.

This doesn’t mean that Christians should be uninvolved in politics or government. But we must reject political domination, sacrificing our ethical principles and integrity for the sake of maintaining or acquiring power. We must dispose of any trace of the philosophy that says, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

True power, according to biblical faith, is found in service to others. To exercise compassion, kindness and patience is the most profound way to bring about widespread good. Wholeness cannot be imposed on people by a government; it must be cultivated through love and nonviolence. Government has a necessary role in providing basic fairness and stability to society, and so legislating and upholding just laws is of the utmost importance. But the exercise of political power will not bring about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s why Jesus never sought it.

The church has a mission, and a method, vastly different from the government. Christian leaders who focus on promoting a particular political party or president are — unwittingly — distracting us from our mission and undermining Jesus’ method.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.


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