Principalities, politics and C.S. Lewis

December 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 Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24