This fourth elephant on my list of seven that churches tend not to talk about openly is one that is in every living room. For some it’s a small elephant; for others it seems larger than life itself. And there are multiple reasons why churches should not talk about it in either case. That elephant involves power and politics.
For anyone serving in pastoral ministry, however, there are options other than talking and silence on any topic. I would contend from my own experience that every topic can be framed in terms of the Biblical narrative itself. What, for example, does the Bible say? What does Jesus (God himself) say, for He is the Living Word who is above the Bible in authority?
At the risk of getting too long in this message, I will try to make one point using three illustrations. The first illustration is from the time of Jesus living in Palestine during the Roman occupation. The social dynamics of his time and place involved a weak Jewish authority under the thumb of a strong central government, Rome. The economy was, in effect, rigged in favor of the wealthy and often at the expense of the poorer class. There was no real middle class. There was a scapegoat system in place that pitted one poor group against the other. The Romans blamed the Jews who blamed the Samaritans, or the tax collectors, or the prostitutes, or the lepers, the lame, etc. The Jews of Jesus’s day were like a circular firing squad, with great tension and a political market for someone, let’s say a Messiah, who could unite all parties against the enemy of Rome and could “make Israel great again.” That’s the context in which Jesus lived out his short life.
Second illustration. In Germany during the 1930’s, the social dynamic was somewhat similar. Germany was now a debtor nation with a weak central authority operating out of the town of Weimar as a Republic forced to meet the allied demands negotiated in 1919 at Versailles following WW I. The economy was rigged in favor of the wealthy and often at the expense of the poorer class; no real middle class. There was a scapegoat system in place that pitted one poor group against the other. There was great tension among the parties creating a political market for someone, let’s say an Adolph Hitler, who could unite all parties against their most common scapegoats, the Bolsheviks (Russian Communists), the Jews, the politicians, the intellectuals, the lame, etc. The general message of this new “messiah” that made him indeed wildly popular among his countrymen, women, children, was “make Germany great again.”
Interesting to note the similarities between the Palestine of Jesus and the Germany of Hitler with respect to how they used their power. Jesus used his power to lovingly influence others. Hitler used his to fearfully control others. Jesus was, by and large, NOT the Messiah the Jews of 1st century Palestine were looking for. Hitler WAS, by the large, the Messiah the Gentiles of 20th century Germany were looking for. The greatest irony of history is that the German Churches were largely silent about the elephant of power and politics. They largely failed to note the reality that their Savior Jesus, indeed their Messiah, was 180 degrees opposite the new German Fuehrer. Truth told, many regulars in the 1930’s German churches actually worshiped Hitler as their true Messiah out of deference to their national and patriotic identity.
Which brings us to 21st century America. Perhaps you’ve already noticed the pattern here.
Our government and its economy is no longer the world’s lone superpower. The Chinese economy is now so large as to literally create havoc in our own stock markets as China’s own credit and housing bubbles burst. We seem weak by contrast with our past. Our economy seems rigged to favor the elite class at the expense of the poorer classes. Our people are also in circular firing squad mode what with political mudslinging in our media, even as scapegoating of each other’s parties, politicians, races, religions, and nationalities seems most intense. A new political market exists for a messiah who will come and rid us of all such scapegoats with the promise to “make America great again.” Dare we speak the name of our Hitler act-alike(s) here in America’s current political marketplace? Dare we mention anyone whose egomaniacal Savior complex reeks of “false prophecy and pretending to be the Messiah” — Mark 13:22?????
Here is my own thought about the power & political elephant. It is any elephant that opposes Jesus in practice (not name). Keep in mind that Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven is one of loving influence and NEVER fearful control. If anyone opposes the good news of that Kingdom coming on earth, instead suggesting nationalism or patriotism or any other ism should claim our mortal sacrifice even to the grave in warfare with other nations or isms, then that elephant deserves in my opinion to be talked about for what he or she is: another false messiah seeking fearful control over others. If this is for the sake of our American kindgom, under the banner of “make America great again,” then that is one dangerous elephant to have in our room.
For further reading, may I suggest Milton Mayer’s classic book from 1955 entitled, “They Thought They Were Free.” May not be in print anymore, but does live on electronically to provide exposure to the social dynamics involved in human power and politics. All who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.