Politics? Are You a Good Man?

I just finished re-reading Graham Greene’s magnum opus, The Power and the Glory. Every time I read this amazing book, it seems to be begging me to convert to Catholicism immediately. Not so I can be a whisky priest mind you.

Although that might be a perk

Rather because it seems to me to embody such a depth of mysticism and Catholic wisdom that I feel far too many Protestant churches lack. One quote in particular stuck out to me.

“It’s no good working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward–and all the rest. I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same–and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.”

I’d like you to pause a moment and reflect on this quote if you will. It is quite a challenging quote to me. Perhaps that has to do with my particular situation at this particular moment of time. The USA is gearing up for an election in one of the most charged political atmospheres for a long time. Added to that are my recent studies for my Ph.D. work, including quite a bit of political theory. Especially politics from a postcolonial perspective that places the focus on the poor and marginalized.

Now, think about a political party. Any party. It doesn’t really matter which, or what country. Democrat, Republican, Labour, Green, Pirate Party… You can even think about anarchists who adhere to no party. What are these groups promising? What claims are they making? Each group has some grand vision about how to fix the problems in the world.

Or… Sometimes not such a grand vision…

Poverty will be reduced, the economy will be fixed, etc. Sometimes they promise the moon. Wait, never mind, humanity has been to the moon. I suppose Mars is the new promise.

The point here about the visions promulgated by every political group is that they suffer from the same criticism that the anonymous priest of Graham Greene’s novel leveled: “There won’t always be good men in your party.” And when those good men or women are gone or corrupted by bad people, what is the result? “Starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow.” That sounds rather familiar. Almost as if it was accurately describing pretty much all of the political systems throughout history.

Where does this leave us? Don’t worry, I haven’t written all this just to bring you around to nihilism or despair. Nor am I necessarily advocating abandoning politics altogether. Although some theologians have advocated such a withdrawal because of corrupt political systems, or a worry that it jeopardizes the message of the Church, or for a variety of other reasons.

I think the first step is to become “political skeptics.” We need to keep the words of the whisky priest at the back of our minds. What starts out good can very easily be corrupted. Social welfare can become permanent dependency. Privatization can become exploitation. Shrinking the government can become abandoning shared social responsibilities.

To use more theological terminology, we need to take politics off the pedestal and recognize that we have been engaging in idolatry. This is the core of the whisky priest’s argument. And it is the central contradiction of the two main characters in The Power and the Glory. Even if good men and women engage in politics with the best intentions, it will inevitably be corrupted by bad men and women. The utopia dies with the decent people who crafted it. The whisky priest names the alternative to this idolatry. Sacramentalism. That is, investment in the incorruptible body of Christ that is the Church.

Now that I’ve said the Church is incorruptible you may be thinking: “Hold on a moment, what about scandal X? What about crime Y?” I’m not saying that crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted. They should. Nor am I saying that scandals should be covered up. They shouldn’t. The Church is called, to an even greater degree than any other institution, to repentance. The Church is a hospital, a place for the broken and the wounded. Augustine of Hippo also once said, “The Church is a whore and she is our mother.”

Um… The Church?

Nevertheless, the Church is, as the creeds say, “One, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. And while some (even many) in the Church may be misled for a time, the grand scope of the Church throughout history is a path of holiness.

Now, think back to the Graham Greene quote. The whisky priest mentions he is a coward. Earlier in the book we learn that he has fathered a child in direct opposition to his vows as a priest. And, as the title “whisky priest” makes clear, he is also a drunkard. In fact, he has such a problem with drink that he once christened a boy “Brigitta.”

“Yeah, my name’s Brigitta. You got a problem with that?”

So, yes, the Church is made up of good and bad people just like any other institution. But can any other institution give the body and blood of God? Can any other institution grant God’s pardon? It is irrelevant how good or bad the priest may personally be, because it is God who acts through the sacraments. The priest may be living in mortal sin, but it is the mystery of God that turns the bread and wine (or grape juice if you’re Methodist!) into the body and blood. And that mystery operates regardless of the priest. But wait! There’s more! It operates regardless of us too. Now, isn’t that pretty amazing?

That brings me back to politics: I think we need to depose politics from the idolatrous place it has attained. The mysteries of the Church need to be restored to their proper place and Christians of all political stripes should look to that first. This doesn’t necessarily mean we withdraw from political action. Although perhaps for some of us, it will mean precisely that. It depends on how serious the sin has become. We can still act in ways that we hope will help others. But how can we do so without falling into idolatry?

At the very least, I hope such a recognition of our idolatry and reorientation of our lives will help us to see others in a more compassionate light.


~ by crossingthebosporus on June 23, 2012.

3 Responses to “Politics? Are You a Good Man?”

  1. Another v thought-provoking, as well as thoughtful, piece. For me, it is when we get to issues such as abortion that I find the line most difficult – were I am American, despite supporting some Democrat social and economic positions, I don’t know I could vote that way because of the pro-life issue; but, on the other hand, for all the promises, the Republicans seem to deliver little either!

    • I think the truly sad thing is that both of the political parties in the US are so caught up in fighting each other that they have really dropped the ball regarding abortion overall. They absolutely could work together to address the root causes of why a person might want an abortion, and by so doing, work to decrease the overall demand for abortions. It would really be a win-win situation for both parties if they ever decided to think about the good of US citizens over short-term political gain. It’s at least a way to work together and move forward while simultaneously saving a great number of lives.

      But perhaps politics is simply the art of not delivering.

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