Of God and Politics

By the time this is published, hopefully, the United States will have a President one way or another. This article is not a reflection or pitch for one candidate or another. It is a reflection on claims that this or any political event can validly contend to pit "good against evil" or God against Satan.

Psalm 145 instructs us:

"Trust not in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return unto his earth. In that day all his thoughts perish" (Psalm 145:4).

The Psalmist had good reason for writing this. If we look at the history of Israel, we see that whenever the Israelites believed that they could find there salvation in politics, trusting not in the Lord but "in princes," they were faced with disaster.

Saul, the first King of Israel, died by his own hand after his sons were killed in battle with the Philistines. It could be argued that this was an indirect result of his envy of David, the son of Jesse, who was politically more popular with his people than he was.

King David himself used his political office to have Uriah the Hittite killed in battle so that he could marry Uriah's wife, Bathsheba. Psalm 50 is said to have been written by David as an expression of repentance after Nathan the Prophet confronted him.

King Solomon's "political marriages" with foreign princesses introduced idolatry into Israel and led to the breakup of the nation into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Political intrigues between the Israelites and their neighbors would lead to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and, eventually, the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C. when the rulers of Judah sought to ally themselves with the Egyptians against the Babylonians in opposition to the will of God as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.

Even in the New Testament, it was politics (you will not be a friend of Caesar!) that instigated Pontius Pilate to allow the Jews to vote whether they wanted Christ to be set free or Barabbas. We all know the outcome of that ballot.

Jesus, once and for all time, put an end to any relationship between politics and God when he told Pontius Pilate, "I have no kingdom in this world" (St. John 18:36).

Certainly, there have been attempts to create "Theocracies" on earth. People often speak romantically of "Sacred Byzantium" and "Holy Russia" and of the "symphony" that existed between the Patriarchs and Emperors. A careful study of these "Orthodox" empires shows that while many of their emperors and empresses were pious Orthodox Christians, many more were not; some were capable of committing ghastly deeds in order to retain their political power.

The Russian Orthodox Church in its recent canonization of Czar Nicholas II and the Royal family was careful to recognize that the reason for their canonization was that they were "passion-bearers:" they suffered patiently in the Lord as "new martyrs" of Communism. It was not because of the rule of Czar Nicholas, a rule that many would characterize as autocratic and brutal.

In the West, things were no different. The Pope became the religious and the de facto political head of culture; the Protestant Reformation had just as much to do with throwing off the political shackles of the Papacy as attempting to reform the Church.

In the words of one writer: "Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's often left Caesar with the greater part and God with very little indeed."

Interestingly enough, the early Christians were martyred because they refused to be "political."  In the Roman Empire of the latter first, second and third centuries, it was expected that citizens would not only pray for the emperor, but actively take part in the sacrifices to the genius or guardian spirit of the Emperor. They were also expected to worship the local deities, praying for their blessing and the bestowal of good fortune.

Every activity in ancient life was cause for the invocation of the gods. During public events the emperor and his statue or portrait were honored with sacrifices, even at chariot races and town festivals. These sacrifices had both a religious as well as a political significance. They were very much like pledging allegiance to the flag at school every morning or singing the national anthem at sporting events. People who refused to participate were thought not only odd, but as offending the gods and causing political division. The early Christians refused to "be like everyone else."

The pagans had no problem with adding Christ to the pantheon of gods. It was not because they worship Christ or the Trinity that the Christians were martyred; it was because they would only worship Christ and denied the validity and existence of all other gods. To the pagans this was tantamount to offending the gods, and thus, endangering the social and political welfare of the state.

The refusal of the early Christians to participate in this civic unification of the political and spiritual spheres caused them to be charged with "atheism."

The early Christian separation from pagan political life, led to their refusal to serve in the army, or if drafted, to kill in defense of the Empire. They saw themselves as in the world, but not of the world. They were willing to live peaceably in the world, but refused to deny the Kingdom of God for this world. In this they were uncompromising. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, Pope of Rome (circa 235 A.D.), gives a list professions that are unsuitable for those who wished to become Christians. Among those mentioned we find: "A man with the power of the sword (i.e. a judge) or a civil magistrate who wears the purple must give it up or be sent away" (i.e. o politicians could be baptized into Christ).

It was not until the fourth century accession of Constantine to the Imperial Throne that the Church revised many of these proscriptions regarding participation in political life, which now was theoretically "Christianized."  In the fourth century and later, those bishops who criticized the political life of the Empire often found themselves exiled. Witness St. John Chrysostom, whose attacks on the extravagance of the Empress Eudoxia in setting up a silver statue of herself while many of her subjects were starving, lead to his exile.

Christian Emperors were fond of quoting Chapter 13 of St. Paul's letter to the Romans: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1). This was put forth as a proof text for the obedience that they demanded from their subjects. (Actually, the Apostle Paul is simply calling upon Christians to respect civil authorities and not to be violent revolutionaries as were the Jewish Zealots whose political dreams caused the destruction of Jerusalem in a tragic insurrection against Rome in 70 A.D.)

Many Emperors, such as the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries, gave many martyrs and confessors to the Church who refused to compromise their faith for imperial politics.

At the heart of this refusal of the Church to be political is this knowledge that comes from the Gospel of St. Luke:

And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours." And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve'" (St. Luke 4:5-8).

"For it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will." This verse ought to be printed on every election ballot and every lottery ticket. To be certain, there are many elected officials who are conscientious in their work and seek the public good, just as there are many generous lottery winners. But there are seemingly far more whose careers are based on the lust for power, the reason that Satan rose up against God in the first place!

Woe to those churches who invite politicians to express their political views as sermons! Isn't someone forwarding his or her political views and programs as equivalent to the Word of God and preaching them in a church, comparable to "the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place" (Matt. 24:15)?

Archbishop John Shahovskoy teaches us that the Church is to be "metapolitical," that is, it comes "after politics" in order to pick up the pieces when politics fails.

Politics is failing in America today because it has attempted to cloth a naked lust for power with a sham concern for the "collective rights" of a society in which the majority not only reject God, but posit that all moralities are of equal value and that truth is something that is always changing.

It is our task as Orthodox Christians, who live in the world, to bear witness to the fact that truth is eternal and unchanging, and that God is the ultimate source of truth. We must bear witness to the fact that (our favorite political candidates aside) moral problems cannot be solved on the outside of man with new laws and social programs but only on the inside through the love of God as expressed to the world in Christ Jesus. The words of the Psalmist are still true today:

"Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD" (Psalm 145:5-10).

- Fr. Lawrence Barriger


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