The Tower of Babel, Politics, and Idolatry

As you may already know, I have much interest in the political implications of the Christian faith.  In other words, what does God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about our politics?  I would like to think out loud about this a bit with you.

My interest here has grown out of a concern that politics often becomes a big idol for both Christians and non-Christians alike.  Specifically, I am concerned that we humans have placed our faith in our governments more than we would like to admit.  The telling sign just might be how irritable we can become when having political conversations.

Another telling sign that we have made our politics an idol is just what we will do and/or support to ensure the survival of our political agendas.  This, of course, plays out in the way we support mere mortals, otherwise known as elected officials, to build and maintain our societies.

The sticky point is the fact that the absence of government is anarchy, which is not even an option worthy of consideration, so it seems necessary that we all participate in the establishment of some form of government.  In fact, the establishment of government in order to maintain civility among people is even ordained by God (cf. Rom 13.1, 4).  So there seems to be no inherent sin in appointing officials for this purpose and participating in this process, either by voting or even serving as an elected official.  The difficult question is to ask when the established government and our participation in its politics has become an idol.

You might recall The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.1-9.  In this story, the sin of the “mortals” (v. 5, NRSV) is driven by their fear of being scattered and consequently seek to resolve this fear apart from God (Brueggemann, Genesis, 98-99).  This is a sin which has played out again and again throughout history.  It begins by turning to ourselves, in the form of governments, gangs, tribes, etc… for our survival.  This subtle turn increasingly demands our absolute loyalty and anything less is regarded as treachery.

I want to share this extended, and somewhat prophetic, quote from R.R. Reno, Genesis, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010, 133-134:

   Devotion to the collective projects of society is very tempting, because it has the form of self-sacrifice that can seem similar to the life of devotion to God.  But we cannot escape our slavery to the covenant of the lie through patriotism or some otherworldly form of selfless service.  If we “settle there,” if we make any aspect of the political project of the earthly city into the object or goal of our lives, then we will turn the finite goods of social life into perverting idols.”

  …The history of the twentieth century is littered with the bodies of those sacrificed to a particularly powerful form of the covenant of the lie: that the finite human project of politics can be brought to fulfillment in the universal dictatorship of the proletariat.  The failure is plain to see.  But even in the rubble we continue to build strange new towers.  The only alternative to the worship of a finite good made into an idol is the worship of the one true God, the lord and creator of all.  …What begins as a fitting philanthropy ends with us rallying all the forces at our disposal to serve whatever god of worldly flourishing we have made for ourselves.  If people will not be free, then they must be forced to be free.  If our global economic system cannot eliminate poverty, then we’ll wipe it all away and force people to produce wealth in a new way‒even to the point of using fear in place of the old motive of greed.  We cannot live by bread alone, and if we insist on making bread the entire focus of service to our neighbor, we will end up tying others down to force the food down their throats‒and all the while we will reassure ourselves that the cutting ropes of bondage are there for their own good.

If Reno is correct, the sin of political idolatry is not mere participation in the political process but “devotion” to the process by “settling” or placing our faith in that process as though our life dependence hinges on the survival of the “project” which, of course, often leads to all sorts of immoral/unethical behaviors.

Questions worth considering:

  • Do you agree with the distinction Reno is seems to be making between participation and devotion?
  • Where is the boundary between participation and devotion?  How do we discern this boundary?
  • How do we participate in government and politics without giving away our devotion to God?

2 responses to “The Tower of Babel, Politics, and Idolatry

  1. this passage from the Psalm that comes to mind …trust you not in princes in the sons of men in whom is no salvation; his spirit shall go forth and he shall return unto his earth; in that day all his thoughts shall perish; blessed is he whose hope is in the Lord our God who has made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them….
    ….idolatries lie in the heart of all men, and it is through difficult spiritual struggle (ascetic podvig) that we can ever hope to escape. Daniel in the OT is an ideal icon and patron of those seeking to participate in politics but not be devoted to the idols that are intrinsic to all ideologicall driven polities… he kept inner stillness, he did not react, he spoke the truth given to him by God, and he prayed, faithfully, regularly….if one is not deeply imbedded in the life of prayer, it is a structural confession that we do not really believe in God, and that all power, kingdom and glory belong to Christ. Prayer is the venue that both witnesses to our faith and works the transforming work that delivers us from the vain political traditions that so easily ensnare. On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wistful eye, on Zions far and blissful shore where my possessions lie…where do our possessions lie? If we would be perfect, sell all that we have and give to the poor and follow Him…

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