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Ben Irwin: Reject political idolatry this election season

A group of pastors is asking churches to celebrate communion on Election Day to send the message that the church is a radical alternative to the power structures of our world.

iStock/Philip Gangler

October 9, 2012

Every election year, we’re reminded that political idolatry -- the temptation to put our hope in a particular party, platform or candidate -- is all too alive and well.

First-century followers of Christ encountered political idolatry in their day -- namely, the assertion “Caesar is Lord.” It was an assertion that Christians rejected wholeheartedly. Salvation was found not in Caesar but in Christ. Jesus, not the emperor, was the true Son of God, the light of the world.

Given Rome’s imperial dogma, you can imagine how subversive (and dangerous) it was to say, “Jesus is Lord.”

Thankfully, none of the candidates running for president in 2012 have the temerity to claim divine status -- though, as my political science professor liked to say, it takes a good deal of hubris to decide you’re the best person on earth to lead the country.

While neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama claim to be God, both candidates (and their parties) offer what biblical scholar Pete Enns calls a rival eschatology. “All political regimes are utopian,” he writes. “They all promise that, without them, you are lost. They all claim to have ‘arrived,’ to represent the culmination of the human drama, to … bring you and all humanity true peace and security.”

Need evidence? Notice how presidents from Kennedy to Reagan have misappropriated Jesus’ “city on a hill” in Matthew 5:14, applying it to the United States. It was supposed to be Jesus’ followers -- not any nation or government -- whose light shines in the darkness.

So what if, when Barack Obama offers us “change we can believe in,” we remember the real source of lasting change? Body and blood, bread and wine. The gifts of God for the people of God.

What if, when Mitt Romney tells us to “believe in America,” we remember that we are called to believe in something bigger?

What if we start living like the resurrection really does change everything? One way we can do this is by remembering what holds us together -- and making a point to do so on Election Day, of all days. That’s why more than 140 churches in 40 states (and counting) have signed up to participate in Election Day Communion on Nov. 6.

From the start, Christianity has offered a radical alternative to the power structures of our world. In fact, this is precisely what Jesus was thinking of when he told Pontius Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). “If it were,” Jesus noted, “my servants would fight to prevent my arrest” (NIV).

In other words, the pursuit of power is incompatible with the way of Jesus. We are called to be a prophetic voice, speaking truth to power without ever seeking it for ourselves. We cannot fulfill this calling if we fall into the trap of political idolatry. We cannot be a prophetic voice if we buy the lie that our favorite politician or party can deliver the utopia we long for -- or, conversely, that the other guy’s election will mean the end of the world as we know it.

The lure of partisan politics is strong. It will not be tamed easily. Idols don’t go down without a fight, especially in an election year. The truth is, many of us who worship Christ have been swept away by the 24-hour news cycle, the relentless pursuit of power and the increasing polarization of our society.

These are not just the sins of the religious left or right. They’re the sins of all of us who’ve put our faith in a political messiah to bring about the kind of kingdom we think our country needs.

Remember when “hope” was more than a political slogan?

It’s not that our world doesn’t desperately need hope. It’s that hope never comes in the form of a ballot, a super PAC or a gun. It doesn’t come when we amass enough votes to impose our will on those living on the other side of the “us vs. them” divide.

It comes when we start doing what Jesus told us to do. When we take up a cross. Serve. Love. Sacrifice. Turn the other cheek instead of fighting back. It comes when we subvert injustice and proclaim freedom to the broken and the beaten down.

It comes when we refuse to play by the world’s rules anymore, when we opt out of the world’s zero-sum power game. It comes when we stop trying to build an empire for ourselves.

By holding a simple communion service -- by partaking of Christ’s body and blood, by commemorating his sacrifice -- we can remind ourselves and others that true power to transform comes not from politicians or governments but from the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

That’s the change I choose to believe in this year.