“To think of everything as political..to place everything in the hands of the state…to subordinate problems of the individual to problems of the group….these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth” -Ellul, The Political Illusion
What Ellul is getting at in this work is that everything in our society (and by “our” I mean all first-world modern nation-states, “technocratic” states as he would argue) has become a part of “politics”, and I say that the Church in many places is taking the bait on this. I want to quote Ellul on how these ideas have been stolen by “politicization” and how much they oppose what Jesus Christ has revealed to us about human life. Listen to how “politicization” forms our ideas of “justice”, “community”, “freedom”, and “progress”:
Justice: “justice no longer exists as a personal virtue…must be endowed with some adjective, particularly “social”, i.e., it is ultimately regarded as political. It is up to the State to make justice prevail..the Christian affirmation that justice is the individual’s miraculous transformation by the grace of god [no longer makes sense]
Community: “We cannot conceive of society except as directed by a central omnipresent and omnipotent state…we can no longer conceive of a society with autonomous “in between” groups or diverging activities…Any attempt on the part of any enterprise, university, or charitable enterprise to remain independent of the state seems anachronistic to us. The state directly incarnates the public good” (is this not our hope in elections!)
Freedom: “[Freedom] in our eyes is negligible unless..incorporated in a regime, or the fruit of a constitution, or represented by the participation of a citizen in state power…
Progress: “Man’s progress in today’s society consists in his participation in political affairs…women finally become human being because they receive ‘political rights’..A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person. To progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place. Progress is to read newspapers.”
Think about these ideas now from the perspective of scripture. Justice, according to Scripture, is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. There, we see an innocent man being crucified for others’ transgression! This point is buried in current discussions of justice. Let’s advocate for justice: Who will be the first to take-on the execution of another? Or, is it not obvious that the state cannot execute “justice”, but only “law”, retribution, punishment, coercion, when we are told to leave these things to God? (Rom. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Justice in God’s kingdom is infuriating until one follows Jesus, and accepts the truths at the heart of Christianity: that God has chosen to love the world through Christ, and love never fails (1 Corinthians 13).
Similarly, the vehicle for true community, a community that embraces all humanity, is no constitutional republic, no matter how much it borrows “Judaeo-Christian” values. The vehicle is the body of Christ, the “holy nation”. The “nation” that rejects the boundaries set-up by the nations of the world (1 Peter 2:9). Despite any appearance to the contrary, this nation will prevail, not by any sword, but by the “blood of the lamb” and the “word of its’ testimony” (Rev. 7).
What of freedom? What do we say about the freedom that Christ gives us? “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36). “Free indeed”, Jesus says. He does not say “free in spirit”, or, what’s worse and often implied, “free eventually.” No. We are truly free, now. Here were see some practical, real-life, ramifications that these teachings had on the early disciples, as they had no stake in the “political illusion” of freedom.
The illusion of the particular worldly kingdoms set-up as “democracies” is that if we do not participate in the positive decisions (as opposed to work that is done to undo oppresive systems or laws, as I argued in favor of here) made about who will “represent” us, we are not really exercising our freedom. Christ and the disciples lived under the Roman empire: they had no political say in who their rulers were. I will say without any hesitation they were more free than most Christians in democratic nation-states. Why? Because as we see in Acts, they were “autonomous in-between groups” conducting “diverging activities”, such as sharing their possessions, sacrificially serving the poor and foreigners, and causing fairly serious chaos in cities because of how their faith led to the undoing of lucrative, idolatrous commerce (Acts 16:16-24). They did this without approval, representation, or advocates in the empire, and at the service of their king. They were free. Their freedom was not ‘aloof’ but tangible, with real consequences, and ultimately fatal to the state’s attempt to craft its’ own vision.
Finally, what progress is it that the world seeks? Is it the end seen in Isaiah 2:4?
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Or is it really to consolidate those swords into the hands of those who are “just”and “good”? Can any worldly nation even theoretically say that Isaiah 4 is their vision for humanity’s future without self-imploding?
These criticisms are all well-and-good, but what do we say “yes” to if we’re giving a firm “no” to politicization? First, as Ellul so forcefully emphasizes, we look to the people who we actually know, actually can love, and the family that God has adopted us into: the Church of Christ! We have a call to “hasten the day” together, as Peter says,that day prophesied in Isaiah 4, and frankly the nations of the world (as political structures, not as ethnicities, peoples, and communities of creativity) play no part in this progress. In fact, they are part and parcel of the problem.
The simplicity of this alternative is deceptive. It took over 40 days of prayer and instruction for the disciples (who had already spent three years with Christ) to even begin their ministry in earnest (Acts 1-2). Yet when they did, their ministry had more “social” impact than any political movement before or after in history. When we look back at the witness in scripture, we do not see a replicable formula in their story, but the spirit of God guiding real decisions in concrete situations, and expanding his kingdom through concrete transformations of everyday life in the culture of that day (as in Acts 16:16-24). When we turn our efforts to the kingdom of God, allow the Holy Spirit to lead our decisions, and refuse to allow the world to limit the scope of Christ’s redeeming work, we are free.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” “These things” include how the economy will affect the work we are able to find, how we will produce food, be clothed, and live our lives (realizing that life is “more than” this). These very things will be found in the pursuit of this kingdom, not in any amount of politicized notions of justice, freedom, community, or progress . Leave the illusions aside, and take this freedom offered!