Politics and the Experience of the Kingdom
Religion & Liberty Online

Politics and the Experience of the Kingdom

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

One of the blessings we can look forward to on election day in the United States is the certain knowledge that, at last, we’ll be able to turn on the radio or TV without having to endure the unrelieved assault of political advertising. There seems to be some strange metaphysical law of campaigning that encourages politicians to outrageously inflate the actual record of accomplishments, and outrageously enlarge the scope of hopeless promises, as the number of campaign days dwindle down.

This year, a smaller companion blessing promises respite from all of the news stories that are generated by sending intrepid reporters out to — are you ready for this? — visit real churches in order to interview real Christians about their vote. One of the main news narratives this year is that President Bush’s Protestant Evangelical “base” is fracturing. We shall see.

In this election season, Christians are often voicing a deep disgust with politics. And there is plenty to be disgusted about. The temptation is to simply dismiss politics as a waste of time, a dirty business that people of faith have no need of. But that would be un-American. As Samuel Adams pointed out:

Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual — or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.

Accountable to God for our vote? Most assuredly. But let’s keep this in perspective. The great Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann pointed out that the “antinomical character” of the Christian faith has always generated a tension between the demands of the Kingdom of God and the earthly demands arising from a need for a government that serves humanity. Writing in “Church, World, Mission,” a collection of his essays published in 1979, the late Fr. Schmenann said that “to redeem the world or anything in the world, is then to place it in the perspective of the Kingdom of God as its end and ultimate term of reference, to make it transparent to the Kingdom as its sign, means and instrument.”

Fr. Schmemann cautioned against a dualistic view of the Church that sets it apart and above the concerns of the world. Rather, the world is the object of the Church’s “love, concern and action.”

Here’s the key thing:

The Church is not an agency for solving the innumerable “problems” inherent in the world, or rather, she may help solve them only inasmuch as she herself remains faithful to her nature and to her essential vocation: to reveal in “this world” that which by being “not of this world” is therefore the only absolute context for seeing, understanding and solving all human “problems.”

As to the “fundamental failure” of the Christian world, it should make us fully aware that there is but one essential sin, one essential danger: that of idolatry, the ever-present and ever-acting temptation to absolutize and thus to idolize “this world” itself, its passing values, ideas and ideologies, to forget that as the people of God “we have here no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). It is the “failure” of the “Christian world” that should make it possible for us to see through the “modern world” and the spiritual reality shaping it, to discern in it what is positive: the cry that comes from its Christian subconscious, and also what is negative: its truly demonic rebellion against God.

So, yes, get out and vote. It’s the faithful thing to do.

For more on Fr. Schmemann and his work, visit the web site dedicated to the ever-memorable Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann.

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.