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May 4, 2010

3

The Mace: Losing it is NOT the end of the world!

by quaesitor

The mace (left) is the symbol of the Sovereign’s power – and in Parliament, it represents her delegated authority. When the Commons is in session, it sits on the table just in front of the Government and Opposition despatch boxes. Without its presence, parliamentary activity is invalid and even illegal. For any Government in this country will always only be (while the monarchy remains) His or Her Majesty’s Government.

But these are of course just constitutional niceties. As everyone knows, power (real and moral) lies in the hands of elected representatives. The presence of the mace could therefore symbolise the power delegated by voters in a way, which means that the government of the day has a mandate legislate and govern. And I do actually believe that politicians can make a difference for good or ill, and that they are not universally on the make or entirely self-serving (despite what has happened in the last, so-called ‘Rotten Parliament‘).

Yet we mustn’t be naïve or unrealistic. Who knows exactly what the situation will be come Friday. Hung Parliament most likely – though there are still so many undecideds in the marginals that there could possibly be a slim Tory majority. Who knows? Whatever happens, the situation will be different from how it has been for the last 5 years.

But it has been depressing to see how vitriolic and vindictive many have been, whether about a Tory return to power or about the record of Labour’s last 13 years… and I’m actually talking about Christians here (in their tweets, blogs and conversations). I certainly have my views on that, and they are reasonably strong. But I just wonder what the sense of desperation by some on all sides says about us.

It reminded me of some of the things Tim Keller wrote in his superb Counterfeit Gods about the idolatry of political power – and it is worth quoting at length (bearing in mind that he is obviously talking about the US situation).

One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on  the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!”

This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admin how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.
Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election [i.e. 2008 election which Obama won], my  eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?

Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizaes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of soemthing that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:

The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior.

This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.

(Counterfeit Gods, pp98-101)

Now I’m by no means qualified to assess whether or not the philosophical precis given in the quotation from Wolters are valid – but the key point surely still stands up. And we would all do well to remember this on Friday morning…

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 4 2010

    Do you think Wolters understanding of sin (or at least its effects) is too individualistic? Isn’t the problem of sin bigger then personal morality (thought it includes that too)? How would our view of Gods grace change if we could see it manifest in political power and the structures which we inhabit? I think of the Roman Centurion who comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his servant (his slave no less!) and Jesus says, yes I will and offers to walk with him:

    But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

    Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment. stMatt 8:5-10, 13

    The point being that Jesus not only heals the servant, but also praises the man for his faith, whilst saying nothing of his position of power. Though no doubt it is not lost on Jesus since the Centurion understands where he stand: under authority, with responsibility and freedom to command soldiers. Jesus praises

    I know this post is about something slightly different, but perhaps this perspective adds to why people feel strongly about who is in power. A recognition of that might help us mitigate the ’emotive power’ of the allegiance to a political party or ideology?

    Reply
  2. May 4 2010

    Thanks for the comment Lauri – I’m sure you certainly have a point. It’s interesting since this guy in Mt 8 was clearly different from many of the other Gentile rulers Jesus must have come across (hence his comment in Mt 20:25)

    Although part of me wonders whether one’s understanding of sin can ever be too individualistic!? This not to deny the reality of corporate and national guilt – far from it. But i don’t think we can even begin to grasp this until we’ve begun to grapple with the individual – otherwise we’ll only see people as victims, not as all are, both victims and culprits.

    But as far as feeling so strongly about who’s in power, isn’t there another factor, which was more explicit in Africa when we lived there, though just as real here: isn’t it essentially tribalism to varying degrees? i.e. I want to know that there’s someone like me in No10, so that my interests will be protected – which is why people harp on so much about Cameron’s schooling etc, even though (conversely) they don’t seem to make such a fuss about Clegg’s (whose was pretty similar).
    People have gained the impression (justly or unjustly) that he is so far-removed.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous
    Mar 28 2011

    Weird

    Reply

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