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Principalities, politics and C.S. Lewis

Dec 13, 2013

Whenever the topic of politics comes up, I always think of demons. Not because politics or politicians are evil, of course, but because of how C.S. Lewis’ fictional conversation between Screwtape and Wormwood demonstrates one of Christianity’s most unsettled and controversial relationships: Its connection to politics.

Many, no doubt, are familiar with Lewis’ famous volume The Screwtape Letters, where Lewis catalogues the conversations of Screwtape, an elder, wiser demon, to his apprentice nephew, Wormwood. Their dialogue has shaped the imaginations of Christians young and old for over five decades.

In the preface, Lewis writes, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

Despite Extremes, Politics Matter

The same extremes can be said about how Christians view and engage in politics. For some (like myself), politics is a spectator sport where election nights are treated like Super Bowl parties. Flatscreens act as political commentary as winners and losers are declared. Twitter feeds are updated with near instantaneous repetition. For others, any time spent dedicated to politics rivals the anxiety of an afternoon in the dentist’s chair—feelings of reluctance, annoyance, despair, and even a desire to escape.

But politics matter, especially if you’re a Christian. For some, that either excites or elicits dread. But even the most politically cynical, sports-crazed pastor is an unwitting enthusiast for politics. Every time a football game maintains order, or the NBA draft is conducted with mutually agreed-upon regulations overseen by a commissioner, politics is happening.

“Humans,” Aristotle famously quipped, “are political animals.” We group ourselves into associations and organize our lives to ensure stability. If you can remove the connotation of what “politics” means according to FOX News or MSNBC, you’ll recognize that politics isn’t just about public relations standoffs, constituents, or the most recent poll. Politics is about what systems we arrange ourselves in in hopes of facilitating and attaining public order and the common good. Humanity has been ordering itself in no small amount of political arrangements—some more successful than others since our beginning. Whether democracy or communism, politics is about exercising dominion (Gen. 1:28). It comes as no surprise, then, that much of the Old and New Testaments are written with political imagery in mind. Jesus knew his times and his people’s imaginations—how to target their assumptions and what would draw their interests. Imagine, for example, if Jesus’ earthly ministry were today. He could be announcing the “Democracy of God” rather than the “Kingdom of God.”

What Lewis says of demons is also true of politics—it is possible to absolutize or minimize politics to unhealthy degrees. Either everything is political, or nothing is political. Both extremes have errors. Moderation and proper perspective the cure, what we can do with politics is what Jesus does by putting politics and government in its rightful place. How does he do this? By subordinating either political apathy or obsession to a greater kingdom; a kingdom ushered in on Jesus’ terms—a kingdom whose coming is not subject to razor-thin electoral losses.

Politics & the Tempting of Christ 

Consider an episode in Jesus’ life. When offered the kingdoms of the world by Satan during the desert temptations (Matt. 4:8-11; Luke 4:5-8), Jesus refused them. Before him was the opportunity to rule the nations with an iron fist and secure lasting peace. Jesus had every opportunity to establish his political order. He refused the offer.

His refusal was not born of a lack of confidence in his ability to execute his rule. Neither was Jesus unwanting of what was rightfully his. In fact, the opposite is true. As theologian Douglas Wilson has observed, Jesus refused the kingdoms of the world because he wouldn’t be given them. Jesus’ kingship and authority over, well, everything, would be on his terms; no mediation or negotiation. Satan’s willingness to hand over the kingdoms was contingent on Jesus acknowledging him as Lord, but Jesus didn’t take the bait, meaning there’s no amount of earthly good that can be accumulated if it means surrendering one’s allegiance. A peaceful world with a devil in charge is a well ordered hell.

Satan’s offer was a veiled asking of Jesus “Who is your Lord?” Satan was propping himself as an imitator of authority; a common ploy of his tired playbook. By refusing a political handout from Satan, Jesus reaffirms that the one true Lord is the one who possesses absolute, ultimate authority (Luke 4:8).

Jesus would accept nothing less than total victory over Satan. And victory is his. By his death on the cross (Col. 2:15), Jesus finalized the terms of Satan’s unconditional surrender over the kingdoms of world, kingdoms that Satan said he possessed (Luke 4:6), but never really did (John 8:44). Humiliating and dethroning Satan as the “ruler of this world,” Satan is judged (John 16:11; John 16:33). But there’s a chapter to the story that the immediate context of the temptation doesn’t get to: the cross. The cross represents a looming foreshadow, a death march to Golgotha. Jesus’ pathway to claiming ownership not only of the earthly, political kingdoms, but also of the cosmos, was a path of self-surrender, political humiliation, and ultimately, death. Jesus knew the kingdoms were his, but they could only be claimed according to divine design.

Politics as Faithful Witness 

There’s a lesson for Christians in regards to their relationship to the state and the political order in Jesus’ refusal to be given the kingdoms of the world: political power is demonic if it means sacrificing our call to faithfulness.

Christians are more than a little capable of mishandling politics. In the recent past, in America, the mix of religion and politics has produced little else than politics with a Christian veneer. Absent a larger theological agenda, Christians have traded barbs and jabs with secular opponents hoping to score political points, but have ended up with political pottage. We’ve often forgotten that we are first Christians having an American experience before we are, secondly, Americans having a Christian experience. Satan was promising the kingdoms through the vehicles of expediency and mistaken identity. He still is. But Jesus knew that the pattern of redemption is traced through the narrative of faithfulness, often long-suffering faithfulness that is accompanied with exile and martyrdom.

The temptation to rage against the political order is constant; the lure to bemoan the loss of “Christian America” with fear mongering its own marketing niche. America is changing or, rather, has changed. Consider a re-telling of stories from this year: Same-sex marriage is soon to be knocking on every county clerk’s office in the United States due to the Supreme Court’s June striking down of section three of the Defense of Marriage Act. The New Mexico Supreme Court just offered a sobering downgrade of religious freedom—insisting that a Christian photographer’s refusal to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony is illegal. Abortionist Kermit Gosnell was tried and convicted for heinous, unspeakable crimes against children born after botched abortions.

Christians can no longer assume that culture will prop up Christianity through the decaying channel of civil religion. Gone are the days of the Moral Majority; new to the stage is the Moral Minority—we ragtag band of Christians who insist that the state religion of sexual liberation will never give bended knee to Caesar.

Though Christians find themselves beset and besieged by a culture that looks a less like it used to, the kingdom marches on. Whatever context Christians finds themselves in, we are to love our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31) by loving culture (Jer. 29:4-7; Matt. 5:13-16). Carl Henry said, “if the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” That “someone” is the same tempter lurking behind every political debate.

Politics & the Coming Kingdom

Jesus’ status as Lord, Heir, and King of the universe is past, present, and future tense (Rev. 11:15). Lord over all and ruling through his church, Jesus commissions us to pronounce the coming kingdom, announcing, as Henry said, “the criteria by which God will judge men and nations.” This necessarily includes a strong, courageous, and winsome witness to the political order and the public square. Jesus’ kingdom was present in his ministry and remains present everywhere the gospel goes forward, undoing the reign of the former “god of this world.” As those destined to reign with Christ, the kingdoms of the world are ours; what matters at present is that we steward the responsibility of our ownership in a way that reflects Christ: faithfulness on the path toward victory—and an inheritance (Psalm 2:8).

Politics still matters; and we do politics because first and foremost, the kingdom of Christ demands kingdom ethics. As long as humanity exists, there will always be politics. The solution to the increasingly post-Christian culture that Christians find themselves in isn’t a retreat to the catacombs. The solution is being rightly political. That means understanding that our religion and our politics aren’t separate realities; that instead, the proclamation of the kingdom means that local churches should be against the world, but for the world—micro-cultures that embody the ethical formation that the gospel produces when churches refuse to accommodate, for example, to the divorce and cohabitation culture.

The best type of Christianity isn’t a Christianity that’s primarily political. The best type of Christianity is the Christianity that keeps bloody crosses in its crosshairs. When Christians went before the Emperor’s lions, they could do so without buckling knees—knowing that the gospel is more powerful than any political threat waged against it. None of the martyrs who went aflame knew that their act of faithfulness would ignite a civilization’s embrace of Christianity, an act that bears onto present day.

As Christians march forward announcing the Kingdom, we bridge the errors of political passivity and social justice insurgents. Consider these words of Lewis of Screwtape to Wormwood,

Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster.

On the other hand, we do want—and want very much—to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice.

Lewis understood the twin errors of Christianity and politics. The demons want our politics kept separate from piety. They also want a program of social change that bypasses a cross. We should have neither. Satan would shut down Planned Parenthood if it meant the cross would never happen. Satan would be lord, you’d be in hell, but abortions would not be happening. But Jesus knew that usurping the false authority of Satan meant sacrificing himself for the nations and establishing a Kingdom where Jesus will wipe away every tear and death shall be no more.

Demons shudder and campaigns fade, but the kingdom of our Lord Jesus endures forever.

This article originally published in the Midwestern Magazine from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. In his role, he researches, speaks, and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public policy, and the church’s social witness. He also... Read More