"…what they begged should take place" (Lk. 23:24).
Involvement in politics is one of the questions of daily living Christians find hard to come to terms with. Many point to a good influence that may result from Christians who "make their voices heard." Others argue that, apart from our heavenly calling, we are also called to play our part in the kingdom (which is true) and therefore in politics. This article attempts to establish whether that argument is valid.
Principles of politics
Luke 23 sets the scene. Having accused the Lord before the religious authorities (the Sanhedrim, Lk. 22:66), the Lord's enemies "arose, and led him unto Pilate" (23:1), the Roman governor of Judea. "And they began to accuse him" (v. 2). The accusation brought forward - that the Lord "perverted the nation, forbidding to give tribute to Caesar…" - was entirely unfounded (compare 20:25), but designed to achieve their objective. When accusing the Lord before the religious council, they used a charge of blasphemy. Before Pilate, they used a political charge.
After a brief examination of the case, Pilate stated that he "finds no fault in this man" (v. 4). This should have settled the matter for him, but we read that the multitude was "the more fierce." This is where a first element of (democratic1) politics becomes visible: what matters is not the correct moral judgment of the issue in question, but the opinion and mood of the crowd2. In one sense, it is not surprising that this principle has become the general rule in many countries. With the rejection of the Bible as God's word and as measure, there is a lack of absolute values; therefore, there is no base on which to define the meaning of "correct moral judgment." As people live in a moral vacuum (what scripture calls darkness), judgment is transferred to the masses3. As a result, the Man who "went about doing good" was "murdered by hanging him on a cross" (Acts 10:38-39). We do well to respect the old warning: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Ex. 23:1-2).
Pilate found himself in a political dilemma: the multitude exerted pressure against the right course of action. As a good politician, he makes a clever political move. When the expression "Galilee" was made (v. 5), Pilate immediately perceived a way of escape. If "the man" was a Galilean, this would be a welcome opportunity for the politician to rid himself of an embarrassing case by sending the Lord to Herod, the tetrarch ruling that region (vv. 6-7). This demonstrates another principle of politics: when an issue is clear but the right action is unpopular, then it is not dealt with at all or is referred to someone else. Of course, one must recognize there are some cases one is not able or not the right person handle and therefore should refer it to someone else. However, the aim should be to deal with the matter in the best possible way, not to rid oneself of an unpopular task.
After the Lord's trial before Herod (vv. 8-12), Pilate was confronted with the same case again. His next move showed his increasing desperation to solve the issue. He repeated his own evidence, that he "found no guilt in this man" (v. 14) and tried to strengthen his case by citing Herod's judgment (v. 15). His conclusion, however, must surprise the unbiased observer: "I will therefore chastise him, and release him" (v. 16). This verdict was calculated to achieve the objectives of both Pilate and the crowd at the same time. On the one hand, it would allow Pilate to release Jesus (as he knew he should). On the other hand, it would appease the crowd by declaring the Lord guilty in a twofold way: first, He would be chastised - which involved the cruel procedure of scourging (Jn. 19:1); and, second, He would be released, not as innocent, but because Pilate had to release a criminal (!) during the feast (v. 17). Thus Pilate would achieve his hidden agenda whilst giving way, to some extent, to the desire of the crowds. In one word, Pilate's proposal was based on compromise. Again, one can discern another element so characteristic of politics: when people are ready to bargain with their beliefs they will soon resort to the principle of compromise4.
Despite the popularity of compromise in the political arena, it does not always lead to the desired result. Pilate repeats his proposal another time (v. 22) without success. This leads us to what may be the most shocking moment in the trial of the Son of God. Despite the convictions of the judge, despite the overwhelming evidence for the innocence of the Man Christ Jesus, we read, "And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required" (vv. 23-24) or, as the New Translation puts it, he "adjudged that what they begged should take place." This sentence is diametrically opposed to the evidence, and the simple but telling reason is that the "voices prevailed." When pressure becomes too strong, political judgment bows to it. This is underlined by the next verse: "but he delivered Jesus to their will" (v. 25).
The Son of Man had no comment to make on these procedures: "as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth" (Isa. 53:7).
It was not only the intensity of the pressure, not only the rage of the crowd, that prompted Pilate to give in. John 19:12 throws light on the argument which brought about the change: "but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend." In politics (and elsewhere), good relationships with influential people secure one's own position and career; therefore, a righteous judgment jeopardizing one's own prospects and relationships must be avoided at all costs.
Servants of the King
Apart from the principles outlined above, the Lord Himself made a statement in front of Pilate that should also be weighed by any Christian who considers involvement in politics. John reports that the Lord said the following: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence" (19:36).
Should not these words alone settle the issue?
- If Christians argue today that they should be politically active in order to fulfill their role in the kingdom, the Lord's words, "my kingdom is not of this world," should make clear that these are spiritual and not civil duties.
- 2. If others point to negative developments in our societies and argue that Christians must not tolerate this, do not the Lord's words give the answer again? "If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight."
A more scandalous event than the Lord's trial has never happened since, yet His servants were not called to fight. One of them, Peter, had not understood this and cut off the right ear of Malchus (Jn. 18:10). "Put up thy sword into the sheath," is the calm advice of the Master.
Impact outside politics
Having examined some principles, or elements, underlying politics in a world that rejected Christ - and the terrible result in the case of cases - the Bible reader may concede that political activity is not the way for a Christian. At the same time, the question may and will arise, "How, then, can Christians have an impact in this world?
Christians do and should have an impact in the world. However, this is not achieved by "fighting" or trying to improve the world. Rather, the believer is called:
- to be light (Mat. 5:14 and Phil 2:15) - giving testimony
- to be salt of the earth (Mat. 5:13) - preventing corruption.
- to pray (not vote) for those that are in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2)
- to preach if sent to do so (Rom. 10:14.15)
- to be an example (1 Pet. 3:1-2
In a world which rejected Christ, our testimony is to a rejected Christ.
A matter of timing
Christians are identified with Christ. They reign when He reigns (Rev. 20:6), and they share His rejection when He is rejected. The Corinthians were not clear on this issue. They did not want to wait for the time of Christ's reign. Paul rebuked them, "Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you" (1 Cor. 4:8). Then he continued to describe how much the apostles were suffering. They were "appointed to death… made a spectacle" and "unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless, being persecuted, we suffer," etc. After this long list of sufferings the apostle appealed to the Corinthians to forsake their attitude of wanting to reign and rather to follow his example: "Wherefore, I beseech you, be ye followers of me."
A man who had an impact (and one who did not)
Another example that sheds much light on the subject is that of Abraham and Lot. Abraham was separate whereas Lot sat in the gate of Sodom, the place of influence (Gen. 19:1). Lot tormented his righteous soul (2 Pet. 2:7.8), and his testimony was compromised to such an extent that, when he warned his family, "he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law" (Gen. 19:14). He had no impact at all. Abraham, on the other hand, was separate. He had no place in Sodom and he would not even receive gifts from the sons of Heth (Gen. 23:3-16), nor from the great of the earth (Gen. 14:23). And what was the result? He had a much better testimony: he was regarded by them as a prince of God. Ironically, he turned out to be the one who had to rescue Lot (Gen 14:16). Look at the scene of Sodom's destruction (Gen. 19:27-29): Abraham stood afar off, and Lot was saved because of him (not the other way round).
A Christian has a far more elevated place (Eph. 2:6) and object (Col. 3:2). Once conscious of being "partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1), they should be less preoccupied with earthly objectives. Equally, let us beware not to introduce political principles (such as majority decisions) into the practical - individual and collective - life of God's people. Living in democratic countries, the development would seem so natural, but we can thank God for the absolute and infallible guidance contained in His word.
It has been said…
An old Latin proverb says: "vox populi - vox dei" (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Others thought it truer to say: "vox populi - vox bovis" (the voice of the people is the voice of an ox). It has been pointed out that, often, things are worse and we have to say "vox populi, vox diaboli" (the voice of the people is the voice of the devil). The passage from Luke 23 discussed above is a striking example of this. It remains true as long as the Nazarene is despised and rejected. But soon, He will reign on the earth and it will become true to say: "vox regis, vox dei" (the voice of the King is the voice of God).
- The Lord's trial before Pilate often occupies us with a focus on the Lord as the innocent victim, the Lamb of God as "brought as a lamb to the slaughter" and "dumb as a sheep before her shearers," and we consider His unique perfection in this trial. While this is certainly the main thrust of the passage, the report also contains valuable hints regarding the nature of politics which one should not overlook.
- In so far as politics aims to please the multitudes, it may easily go against the mind of God. The outcome of the trial led by Pilate illustrates the danger of decision processes based on majorities.
- Christians should be extremely careful not to adopt political procedures (such as majority voting) to regulate matters of their collective lives.
- Nonetheless Christians should, and do, have an impact in a world that rejected Christ, not by trying to improve it but by giving a positive testimony to Him.
- It is God's plan to put things right in this world: not by our initiative, but by establishing Christ's kingdom on the earth, the very place where He was - and still is - rejected. Then (during the Millennium) Christ will make the Church the central seat of government (Revelation 20:6 and 21:9-27)
1 Democracy is not the root of the problem. Decisions taken by monarchs may run against God's will just as much as democratic ones (e.g., Dan 2:5). The problem is not so much the form of government, but rather the fact that the legitimate king has been cast out.
2 Consider, for instance, the (Western) political debate on topics such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc. If a politician stood up and shed biblical light on these matters, this might well be the end of his career.
4You may think of examples in daily life where a compromise is appropriate. The danger comes in when biblical principles are abandoned because we settle for a compromise with a human (or worldly) point of view.