Sunday, December 23, 2012

Engaged But Not Enraptured

In the November edition of First Things, R.R. Reno provided a timley reminder for Christians that while worldly politics should be important, we need to keep them in their proper perspective:

So we must be double-minded in our political engagements. On the one hand we’re to be committed to our natural duties of citizenship, and on the other hand we need to recognize that the final victory does not depend upon us. It’s a double-mindedness that protects us from both dangerous urgency and debilitating despair. To know that Christ is victorious delivers us from a political works righteousness that imagines the future to be entirely in our hands to shape and control, a mentality that tempts us to break laws and bend principles for the sake of political victory, because we’ve allowed that victory to become our only hope. It also protects us from political defeatism, a mentality that tempts us to give up on the proximate and imperfect good that we can do in public life. The future is not in our hands, and so we need not imagine that our present impotence makes our cause hopeless.

Therefore, instead of making politics pointless for Christians who believe in Christ’s victory, this double-mindedness rencourages a passion for the common good without tempting us to imagine that every election is the finally decisive one. In the concluding weeks of World War II, countless people died while the victory was not in doubt. Had we been directing the Allied armies, we certainly would have bent our wills to try to save lives, perhaps by intervening or shifting resources, or simply by working to hasten the victory. This exemplifies a salutary double-mindedness. The Allied triumph is secure, and so the moral focus changes. Free from responsibility for the larger strategic goal, preventing unnecessary suffering and death becomes more urgent, not less so. The victory won and the future no longer in our hands, we can focus on what can be done here and now.

In these and other ways, to know the ending, to have confidence in Christ’s victory, heightens the moral urgency without tempting us to a Manichean view of political life. That’s a spirit of engagement we very much need today. As I argued last month, we’re at the end of an era. A great deal is at stake. Christians have a natural duty to try to shape the future as best we can to accord with our vision of the common good. If we keep Christ’s lordship in mind, our political activism won’t be pointless, but it also won’t be supercharged with ultimate significance.

That’s one reason why Christians and other believers are especially well suited to play productive roles in the inevitable give-and-take of democratic politics. They have good reasons to be engaged—and good reasons to resist the temptations to make an idol of their political convictions, good reasons not to turn elections into cosmic struggles for final victory.