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OPINION - Political idols

Andy Flannagan, executive director of Christians in Politics, a UK cross-party group, asks 'Are we making idols of politics?'

Read time: 7 minutes

With the polarisation of the US elections dominating our media-scape, I want to stop and take a breath. Elections are a privilege. Elections remind us that we do not live under tyrannical regimes. But elections also accentuate divisions. Is there a chance we may all be losing our perspective?

As Christians, we follow the man who was God, called Jesus Christ, for whom ends never justified means. He was the ultimate example of the HOW always being as important as the WHAT. He was integrity personified. For example he constantly called out the Pharisees for their focus on the external to the detriment of the internal. Our call as believers is not as simple as ‘just getting good things done’. We are called to be ambassadors of his WAY as well as his TRUTH. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. Truth is not just a set of objectively correct facts. It is deeper, wider and more beautiful than that. Truth is found in a person. I would go so far as to say that it is possible to articulate what we believe to be objectively correct fact, but that if we do it in a way that is outside the parameters of how Jesus would have done it, it actually ceases to be true. He cares about how we say something as well as what we say. He cares about our motivations as well as our actions. His kingdom is extended by surrendered thoughts as much as surrendered actions.

'Our present day echo chambers are reinforcing our pre-existing opinions and radicalising us against anyone who would disagree.'

Actions and words that go beyond the pale are sadly all the more likely in deeply divided societies. That’s why so many folks are watching the USA with bated breath at the moment. I know those problems all too well from growing up in Northern Ireland. Our present day echo chambers are reinforcing our pre-existing opinions and radicalising us against anyone who would disagree. Their very humanity is questioned, allowing us to act inhumanly towards them in speech or action. When we intentionally or unintentionally surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, wider perspective is lost, and actions that would have previously been unthinkable become very thinkable in our desperation to win an argument or ‘get the job done’.

The Bible contains an idea that speaks into this debate - idolatry. One of the things that most people know about idols, whether they are of a religious bent or not, is that people sacrifice things to them.

All through history, humankind has sacrificed animals, people, food and anything else we can get our hands on to appease our idols. In 2020, we sacrifice our time, clicks and money to celebrity idols. We sacrifice headspace and spiritual health to our addictions and pre-occupations.

But the thing we often forget about idols is that on the whole they start out as good things. Food is a good thing. Entertaining art is a good thing. Money is a good thing. Colossians 3 v 5 says this 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Before we think, “those verses don't apply to me as a ‘middle-of-the-road’ sinner” we should note that a more accurate translation of the Greek here replaces ‘evil desires’ with ‘excessive desires’. We are much more likely to be tempted by something familiar and good in excess, than something transparently ‘evil’.

It’s when we allow something to take up more of our focus than it should that it becomes an idol. And once something becomes an idol in our lives, it is very hard to knock it off that perch. Idols start demanding our allegiance. Idolatry is putting anything above God, his honour, and his way of doing things.

Political ideologies may be valid in themselves. They may have many good aspects that help organise society well. But have those ideas grown beyond what are healthy for many of us? Have they become idols?

Continued below...

Christianity OPINION - Political idols

Before we spend time critiquing the USA, we need to hold up a mirror to ourselves. You do not need to be a theologian or a historian to realise that many things were sacrificed to the idol of Brexit and the idol of Remain. As someone who has been actively involved in UK politics for many years now, I have never seen anything like what that debate has done to us. Things are being sacrificed (like the sanctity of the rule of law) when a Government minister says “we will see” when asked if the Government will obey the law. Things are being sacrificed (like civil discourse) when we are so desperate to win the argument that people employ the language of war and violence. Things are being sacrificed (like the idea of truth) when lies or half-truths are used to enhance our side of the argument. We cannot simultaneously applaud the blunt instruments of threat and force to ‘get the job done’ and then complain when people are not disagreeing well! When winning is all that matters, that’s idolatry.

'As believers, we cannot just hope everyone gets warm and fuzzy and starts singing Kum Ba Ya around the campfire. It is very hard to get to reconciliation without repentance.'

Reconciliation happens through brave relationship-building. It has been my privilege through Christians in Politics to witness believers the length and breadth of the country coming together from different parties and different churches in Christians in Politics groups saying that for them it is “Kingdom before tribe”. We believe it is important to be active participants in earthly tribes, to be salt and light, but it’s also drastically important to not lose our identity to that tribe. Our primary identity is in Christ.

It has been wonderful to watch the listening and understanding across divisions that can happen when we remember our primary allegiance is to another King. The silver bullet which has made disagreeing well possible has been intentional relationship-building across party lines. Yes, you can be more polite on social media, yes you can take a deep breath before commenting, but it’s only in the context of real relationship that we can truly disagree well. Too many of us are politically interested but not involved. From the comfort of our armchairs, we complain and pontificate, being fed more of what we already believe by the algorithms of social media. What about intentionally listening to some folks who are just not like you?

So we must try to disagree well, but some of us need the nerve to disagree in the first place. I think there is an interesting spiritual, cosmic truth at play. As believers, we cannot just hope everyone gets warm and fuzzy and starts singing Kum Ba Ya around the campfire. It is very hard to get to reconciliation without repentance. And it is very hard to get to repentance without being confronted by truth (often in the person of Jesus). There is plenty that we all need to repent of. There was a reason that Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s commission in South Africa was called the Truth and Reconciliation commission. They knew that meaningful reconciliation could not happen without at least some forensic examination of what had happened. What had been said, and what had been done. We cannot simply brush things under the carpet and move on. We may not always agree on what has been true and what has been false, or who has acted appropriately, but the space to at least air our grievances and listen to those of others makes reconciliation that little bit more possible. This ‘calling out in love’ will be very important for our brothers and sisters in the United States as they seek to reconcile after a traumatic period.

The other reason for coming together in groups is to pray together. Being on our knees in front of the one who knows it all will hopefully remind us that we don’t know it all, rendering our ears that inch more open to hear. And being on our knees in front of the one who is holy and true will hopefully render our idols more recognisable as the counterfeit gods that they are. Join us. Let us pray.