In my last post, I looked at how 1 Samuel 8 provides a clear warning against appointing and choosing leaders who pursue greater power through military strength, and through extraction of resources for the benefit of themselves, the elite. Now, I want to consider how the New Testament guides our understanding of how we are to use our resources, which includes influencing the government. First, though, there are certainly no direct explicit statements in the New Testament about how to vote or otherwise appoint leaders. Passages like Romans 13 that most literally talk about the government, are focused on exhorting us to subject ourselves to the government, and spoken to people who basically had little to no influence on the government. However, living in democracy, we do have influence, and by properly understanding influence as a resource, there are indeed passages that can give us important guidance.
Taking a step back, I believe it is worthwhile to consider what political influence really means. In reality, influence is simply another resource that we may have, that can be used to accomplish something. Resources that God may give us include finances, talents, skills, and even influence. These things are not ends themselves, but are all resources we can use to achieve and gain other benefits. Influence should not be treated as fundamentally different than these other resources, as like other resources, it can be used to achieve a variety of goals.
From a historic perspective, living under a democracy is a unique opportunity. This opportunity affords an amazing level of influence, and this has significant value, it is a resource, a privilege that God has blessed us with. And like any valuable resource (or “talent”, as Jesus calls our resources in Matt 25), the paramount question for the Christian is how can we be good stewards of the resources we have been blessed with.
Indeed, the opportunity to live as a citizen of a democracy isn’t just an abstract nicety, it has a real, quantifiable value. The US government administrates about 3 and a half trillion dollars a year (about $3,770,000,000,000 in 2014) in the federal budget alone, which comes out to over $25,000 per registered voter per year. That means that as an American citizen, in a democracy, where power comes from the people, the value or quantity of your influence in the governing process is over 25 grand, and even more if you are more proactive in interacting with law-makers. And that is just for the federal government and their budgetary decisions, our potential influence extends to other government desisions as well as to the state and local governments.
Influence in democracy is a resource, and as you can see, is actually a very large and substantial resource. As an American citizen, this influence is a definite and even large form of wealth. Again, as a follower of Christ, the question is how to be a good steward of our resources or wealth, including this one. And just like the question of how we will spend our money, how will we spend our political influence?
When it comes to money, most people will spend their money on themselves, on what will benefit themselves. The same is true with politics, the majority of people’s political leanings are generally very easy to predict based simply on what candidate or party will benefit them the most. But Christ calls us to something different, and He didn’t shy away from the subject of how to use our resources, our wealth. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how to use what God has given us.
One possible choice for our political wealth is simply to do nothing, to be apolitical. Unlike material wealth, to forgo political wealth and influence, implicitly means that influence is handed over to others, to make decisions and assert their influence (influence is a zero-sum game). While this is deeply anathema to the American ideals of asserting your opinions and desires, to give away our wealth, to submit to the preferences is actually a very Biblical approach. Christ consistently taught us to live self-sacrificially, to be generous with what we have, and to defer to other’s desires instead of our own.
However, if we are to follow the words of Christ closely, I think we can do even better. And this is where we can turn to one of the most pointed and direct statements to one who has great wealth. In Luke 18:18-23, Jesus encounters the “rich young ruler”. This story is powerful and challenging, giving direction towards the wealthy to be incredibly and radically generous. However, we should also not miss the fact that Luke specifically indicates that this man was not only wealthy, but was said to be politically powerful.
What Jesus doesn’t say is just as compelling as what he does say. Certainly, meeting with a high ranking official would be an exciting opportunity for any of us. Jesus has encountered a powerful leader, and not only that, but this leader has basically asked Him what to do. Imagine if a leader wanted such open advice from you. Jesus could have easily responded and asked the leader to provide greater religious liberty for his followers, legislate scriptural commandments and morality, and maybe even offer tax deductions for the religious groups. Jesus certainly knew that great persecution was on the way, a real painful persecution that makes our petty complaints about religious infringements trivial in comparison. But Jesus, even knowing this (and he even foretold this of persecution), sought none of these things. His final command:
You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.
While this statement is unique in how challenging it is, it is quite normal in terms of the common theme of Jesus’ teaching and ways to characterize a Kingdom-oriented lifestyle as living on behalf of those in need (which has many dimensions, spiritual, emotional, relational, economic, and liberty). Here he teaches us to be generous, not living for ourselves, and specifically directs the one with wealth towards using their resources for the benefit of those without.
So how does this principle apply to different types of resources? We are called to use our resources to help those without the same kind of resource. Those with food help the hungry, those with clothing help clothe those without. Financially, the one with accumulations of money, is to help the poor. And applying this teaching to influence, a wealth of influence means power, and the call is to help and defend the powerless, the weak, the oppressed.
It is far too common to dismiss the story of the rich young ruler, claiming that Jesus asks different things of different people. And He does indeed ask for different things. However, there are perhaps few people in scripture that are more similar to most of our socio-economic positions than this rich young ruler. By any global standard, most of us have wealth that puts us in the top few percent of wealthy individuals. And that is just for this time period, if we are to compare ourselves to the rest of history (even adjusted for inflation), the typical wealth of an American is even more uniquely and exceedingly huge. The same is true of our political wealth. As calculated above, our political wealth, as citizens of America is very large (and potentially even larger if we are actively engaged). While we don’t know the exact position of the rich young ruler, if he was merely a municipal official, it is quite possible that simply being an American citizen entitles you to greater political power and wealth than this man. The story of the Jesus and the rich young ruler, is about as close as we can come to a imagining a story of Jesus and the typical American. If this story doesn’t speak directly to us, challenging us, nothing in scripture is relevant to us.
Unfortunately it easy to convince ourselves that we are acting “Christian” in our politics because we support candidates and policies that benefit us and our Christian friends, when in fact, this self-benefiting focus is precisely the opposite of the self-sacrificial ethos, living for those at need, at the core of Jesus teaching.
Therefore let’s recognize that we, in fact, do have great political wealth, like the rich young ruler, and then heed the words of Jesus, follow Jesus. Let us not spend that wealth on ourselves. If we are to spend it at all, let us use our resources rightly, our finances on behalf of the poor and our influence on behalf of the weak, powerless, and marginalized.