Editor’s note: This is the third of four in a blog series by Jonathan Saur. Each day this week, he will offer a new post.
IV. Why I reject the entire conversation, and V. Why our mission is important and why we should stop being distracted
We invite you to read and weigh in on the discussion.
IV. Why I reject the entire conversation
It is my view that neither of these political philosophies are where Christians, ultimately, find the Biblical approach to the world expressed. And, in fact, both of these political philosophies are part of an ancient conversation that has, time and again, served to pull Christians away from witnessing to the work of God and towards idolatry.
In college, I majored in communication studies. Unlike modern communication studies programs, we focused primarily on rhetoric and on becoming orators, rather than broadcast communications or social media theories. We spent a good amount of time studying the classics, looking into such rhetoricians as Quintilian and Cicero.
When introduced to the character of Cicero, I became fascinated. This Roman politician had a remarkable career. Before being murdered at the hands of Julius Caesar’s former accomplice Marc Antony, during Augustus’ rise to power, Cicero used his exceptional oratorical abilities to rise through the ranks of Roman power.
The more and more I delved into Cicero’s life, however, the more and more I saw the same conservative/liberal split present in ancient Rome as is present in modern-day America. I do not believe this is coincidental. As Russell Kirk points out, many of the fathers of the conservative movement looked back to ancient Rome for inspiration. Many Christian leaders have insisted that Cicero must be saved, that he was a pagan who would have adored Christ had he only lived during Jesus’ time.
The founders of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance harkened back to ancient Rome, also. Drawing from Greek and Roman influences, they emphasized reason as a basis for societal formation.
One can go back to ancient Rome and see the same political fault-lines back that exist now. There was an educated, wealthy aristocracy that controlled the Roman Senate, the ancient conservative movement embodied by men like Cato. (Interesting that a modern day conservative think-tank is named the Cato Institute.)
On the other end of the spectrum, one will find a leader like Julius Caesar, claiming to speak for the people and leading a populist movement against the Roman Senate.
Step back and realize that it’s the same conversation that takes place in America today. Aristocracy vs. populism. Status quo vs. change. Conservative vs. liberal. Now, I don’t want to overplay my hand. There are definitely differences in terminology, language, and application of ideas. However, fundamentally, the conversation is the same. And, after you’ve accepted that this is fundamentally the same conversation, step back and realize that it predates Christianity.
Which came first – the struggle between conservatism and liberalism, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The answer is, decisively, the conservative/liberal split. And, when Christianity became fused with Rome, the conservative/liberal dialogue subsumed Christianity. Power acquisition and power distribution became the concerns of Christians, as they are the concerns of all political leaders.
In this process, the New Testament witness was diluted, because the conversation in the New Testament is fundamentally different from that of civic leaders and rulers. Leaders and rulers will always use the parts of the New Testament message that are useful for leading and ruling. Those aspects that bear no relevance to their concerns, however, will be abandoned.
And now, for Christians living in America, we have accepted the conversation of Roman elites as our dominant political conversation, rather than the conversation of the Roman peasants, slaves, and women who were being slaughtered, for their profession of Jesus as Lord, by those same Roman elites.
Pause to think about this. When it comes to politics, Christians in America have not adopted the world-view of the early followers of Jesus, but instead the world-view of the Empire that oppressed and slaughtered Christians, and then laughed as lions tore our defenseless forebears to shreds.
This should send chills down our spines. But, it doesn’t. Instead, we turn on cable news and continue watching the same arguments play out, over and over, eternally. And we campaign for elected officials whom we believe are proclaiming the word of God, and we help them acquire power. And we get angry when they distribute power in ways we find inappropriate. Power acquisition and administration – the conversation of Roman elites.
One of the chief reasons that Christians were killed was for the simple confession, “Jesus is Lord.” The state religion worshipped Caesar as Lord. Caesar was divine. But if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar could not be Lord. This confession reflected an attack on the divine authority of Caesar.
Christians in America are not killed for proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord.” Instead, our message is co-opted. Our state religion isn’t as explicit as Rome’s, but our culture still engages in idolatry. Since separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution, however, we engage in worship of our political figures, both past and present. The time, devotion, and fervor which Americans venerate political figures reflects the time, devotion, and fervor with which any culture venerates its idols.
Our children attend schools that teach them about American political history. Indoctrination into the American cult begins, really, in Kindergarten. Conservatives are taught to venerate Washington, Adams, Reagan, while liberals are taught to venerate Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, Kennedy.
And in the midst of this, the confession, “Jesus is Lord” has been neutered, because the substance of the confession is never what is debated. Instead, the social impacts of the confession are what are debated. “Is it offensive?” “Should we be offended if non-Christians find it offensive?”
No, Christians aren’t murdered for their devotion to Christ in America. But our proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus becomes ineffectual. Our mission has been co-opted, by both the conservative and liberal political philosophies, and the eternal struggle between them. And this is a scandal, because, as the New Testament tells us, it is this proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus that the world desperately needs – not our opinions on Jefferson’s deism, or on Adams’ conservatism, or any other number of issues that distract from the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
V. Why our mission is important and why we should stop being distracted
American politics surrounds us – on television, on the Internet, in our schools, in our everyday conversations. And, as technologies develop, the work that the God of the Bible is performing is being drowned out by the message of American politics. Christians in America should be working against this trend. Our message is too important. We have, for too long, been the tools of American politicians.
The endless debate of Liberal vs. conservative has become such a part of our culture that it seems almost impossible to escape it.It isn’t our conversation, though. That is not our struggle. Our struggle is against sin, despair, and, ultimately, the hopelessness that arises from our separation from God. In the face of this hopelessness, we possess the ultimate message of hope – Jesus is raised. And the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us and restore the Earth to glory. This is our conversation. This is our cause. This is our mission.
Jonathan Saur is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, CA.