Note from CM: I will be retreating this week to work on my book. You will be treated to a feast of thoughts from our IM writers, who have graciously submitted some poignant, thought-provoking, and discussion-inducing pieces. Throughout each day, I will be checking for comments that get held by the moderation system, but it may take a bit longer than usual. Thanks for your patience with that.
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Cisterns that Hold No Water
An Old Testament Meditation on Political Power
by Randy Thompson
When you hear the words “Bible Prophecy” you almost instantly think of some loon claiming, on the basis of an obscure text in Daniel, that the Anti-Christ is now living in Grand Rapids and is preparing to reveal himself next November, just before the elections. (Something like this is especially likely if the polls suggest a Democratic landslide.)
However, the Bible’s prophets can be weirdly relevant to current events without Dallas Seminary’s help.
Every year, I read through Isaiah and Jeremiah, as well as some of the lesser prophets, especially Habakkuk. Truly, these folks were lights shining in dark times. Sadly though, the people of God had little interest in these God-given lights, preferring the darkness of a sensible religion and a sensible God who could be placated by ritual and sacrifice and otherwise ignored. These prophetic “lights” represented a God who was too intrusive and demanding, calling into question the conventional political wisdom of the day, which was to seek peace and safety in political alliances with more powerful neighbors who they hoped would defend them from their enemies.
The people of God found it easier to play power politics than to take God seriously.
Isaiah, for example, tells Ahaz that making an alliance with the Assyrians will end badly. He counsels Ahaz to let the Lord of hosts be his fear and dread, and not the enemies he fears (Isaiah 8:13). Unfortunately, Ahaz trusts flesh and blood power politics–the Assyians–more than Israel’s God (Isaiah 7-8, cf. 2 Kings 16:1-20). Later, Jeremiah will also condemn Judah for playing power politics, seeking alliances with Egypt and Assyria instead of seeking their faithful, Covenant-keeping God. He tells them:
But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. . . for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. [Jeremiah 2:11b, 13]
The light of God was bad news indeed for a people enamored with political self-help, especially the self-help of realpolitik, whereby God is ignored for the sake of other, more practical options, such as alliances with Egypt or Assyria. Unfortunately, such alliances don’t end well in the Old Testament and the prophets condemn them. It is their condemnation of these alliances that, in my view, that is weirdly relevant to our own times.
One of these weirdly relevant prophecies can be found in Isaiah 30, where God, speaking through Isaiah, addresses Israel’s attempt to enter into an alliance with Egypt over against the Assyrians. It begins, “Oh, rebellious children. . . who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will, adding sin to sin.” The purpose of this alliance, according to God, is “to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt” (Isaiah 30:1,2).
God makes it clear that this ungodly alliance won’t end well:
Therefore the protection of Pharaoh shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt your humiliation. . . everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace. [Isaiah 30:3, 5]
Now, here’s where this passage becomes weirdly relevant, as a little bit of updating and re-contextualizing will demonstrate. Instead of Israel, imagine that the recipients of this prophetic word are white, American evangelical Christians:
Oh rebellious children. . . who make an alliance, but against my will. . . who set out to go down to the Republican Party to take refuge in the protection of Trump, and to seek shelter in the shadow of the Republican Party. Therefore, the protection of Trump shall become your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of the Republican Party your humiliation. . . everyone comes to shame through a political party that cannot profit them, that brings neither help nor profit but shame and disgrace.
Another of Isaiah’s oracles could be understood similarly, although I will leave that to your imagination, as by now you get the point:
Alas for those who go down to Egypt [the Republican Party] for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!
The Egyptians [Republicans] are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall, and they will all perish together. [Isaiah 31:1,3. NRSV]
In short, just as ancient Israel relied on Egypt’s supposed military power, so now too many evangelical Christians are relying on political power. The Republicans, like the Egyptians, are merely human beings and not God.
Too many American Christians are first Americans and only then Christians. There’s nothing wrong with being an American, of course. I’m proud to be one. However, for Christians, our first and foremost allegiance is to the Kingdom of God and to the Lord (!) Jesus who ushered it in. It’s a matter of priorities.
Furthermore, there’s a huge problem when Christian people trust human techniques and political strategies rather than the Gospel of the Powerless One who chose a cross rather than political power. Sadly, just as the “word of faith” Pentecostals have wholeheartedly bought into the satanic strategy of throwing themselves from the Temple walls (Luke 4:9-12), so have too many evangelicals bowed the knee to political power (Luke 4:5-6), seeking to do the right thing for the wrong reason, in T.S. Eliot’s words.
The tragedy is, right and good things ultimately are subverted by wrong reasons. To impose the “right” things on people is a blinded, short-term perspective that fails to see that short-term political pragmatism leads to long-term moral and spiritual failure. Cromwell and his Puritan army ruled Britain for a dozen years, but by the end of it, the British were sick to death of the Puritans, and their historical moment passed. I fear that much the same thing can happen to evangelical Christianity in this country. Short-term, realpolitik thinking has a very short shelf-life; it is transitory. Only a grand, big picture and long-term perspective rooted in the eternal Gospel abides.
Focused on short-term political successes, white evangelicals seem oblivious to the likelihood that the alliances they’ve made to attain these successes will erode the credibility of their witness. Evangelicals will increasingly be perceived in relation to their political allies, so that Christ increasingly starts looking like President Trump to those who take time to notice. To go back to Old Testament times, the people of God took on the characteristics–and the religions–of the powers with which they became allied. When Ahaz allies himself with the Assyrians, for example, he also allies himself with their religious practices, as 2 Kings 16 describes. The altar of Israel is remodeled to be like the altar of the Assyrians.
A sociologist of religion I knew years ago used to ask, “Who’s influencing whom?” This is exactly the question white evangelicals need to be asking themselves: “Are we influencing the United States, or is the sick moral, political and spiritual climate of the country influencing us?” (For that matter, mainline Christians need to be asking themselves the same question, especially the denominational bureaucrats.)
I find it wonderfully curious that the early church slowly grew and thrived in a hostile environment without attempting to “impact the culture” or “get out the vote” (or the Roman equivalent) or concoct “strategies” of church growth. Regarding the glorious irrelevance of the early church to Roman culture and politics, Alan Kreider’s “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire” should be required reading especially in the evangelical world (and in the mainline world, too.) . According to him, “patience” not only was rooted in God’s character and revealed in Christ, it was the “church growth” strategy of the early Christians. (For those of you who appreciate footnotes, check pages 35-36 in his book on this.) Patience? Think about it. For many of us, the closest point of daily, personal contact with the love of God is the sense of God’s patience. At least that’s so for me. Patience was the early church’s “no” to “wretched urgency.”
Historian Philip Jenkins speaks of the concept of “transience” in his fascinating (and disturbing) book about the vanished churches of the East, “The Lost History of Christianity”: “Looking at the sweep of Christian history, we are often reminded of this message of the transience of human affairs, and, based on that, of the foolishness of associating faith with any particular state or social order.”
Too many white evangelicals have not come to grips with the “transience of human affairs.” Who is in power today isn’t necessarily going to be in power tomorrow. Today’s winners usually end up tomorrow’s losers.
Jesus’ way is different. Good Friday’s crucified loser is Easter’s winner. And guess what? It’s always Easter now! We can afford to be patient. The powerless, discredited Crucified One is God’s power and God’s glory made visible to those with eyes to see.
Jenkins leave us with an encouraging word: “Yet while Christian states have come and gone, not all the apparent disasters that afflicted particular communities have prevented the growth of what is today the world’s most numerous religion, and which will remain so for the foreseeable future.”
By God’s grace, God’s power-in-weakness and “foolishness” is greater than human political power grabbing and political shrewdness. The disgrace of the cross is still the locus of God’s glory on earth, and what is foolishness to flesh and blood reality is still God’s eternally undefeated wisdom–God’s patient wisdom.
So, what will it be? An impatient, power-grabbing attempt to re-build the Tower of Babel here in America, lest we “be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4)? Or, a rock solid, patient, confidence that the meek really do inherit the earth, and that the Kingdom of God is in better hands than ours?