Culture At Large

Having faith in the system

Robert Joustra

The Zimmerman verdict has exposed a raw nerve of disbelief and incredulity about our social and political systems. Our faith is badly shaken. President Barack Obama has even added his voice, one touched with emotion and a frank retrospective that, for the grace of God, Trayvon Martin could have been him. Yet despite the powerful and the persuasive of the land rallying, the Zimmerman verdict remains, and more Zimmerman verdicts, we fear, are yet to come. Can the halls of power be so godless, those with good intent so impotent, that we totally lack the possibility of transformation?

Faith in the Halls of Power is what Michael Lindsay called his opus on this subject. Now President of Gordon College, Lindsay’s double entendre was intended to provoke. First, there is and remains real evidence that political and social goods are indeed facilitated through the “halls of power.” The story of irredeemable corruption is neither false nor constructive. The barbarians may be “in the city” as MacIntyre says, but we wait not for a new Benedict to flee its ruin, but a new Kuyper, to work among them. Faith remains.

Second, Lindsay offers a corrective for those inclined to believe Washington (or Ottawa) are godless wastelands of irreligious realpolitik. Religious people, Christians - evangelical Christians specifically - punch way above their weight in the District, according to Lindsay. The problem, he says, is not that “our” people are not there, but that they’re not who they need to be where they are or - more to the point - that the discipleship of those in power is incomplete, piecemeal and in need of community. There is hardly a person for whom this is untrue, but it is perhaps most obvious, most painfully felt, in the halls of power. Yet those halls are among the most religious in the nation. The promise of connecting belief to policy, of doing public justice, is a terribly hard one to keep. Christian lawmakers, leaders and lawyers can disagree, manifest most obviously in sitting on both sides of the aisle. It doesn’t make them godless; it makes them human.

Politics is a game we play together. It is neither godless nor irredeemable.

But it is also true that there is a third way to read Lindsay’s title: that the halls of power themselves have a kind of faith, that the system is alive with its own logic, its own resonant assumptions of God and the human condition. Charles Taylor argues that the modern condition often leads to a kind of scapegoating in politics because we understand all of our social and political institutions to be essentially derivative of human will. That means when things go wrong, it is always someone’s fault, because there is no such thing as a political or social force outside of the people’s sovereignty. Sovereign power suggests sovereign control, and thus the tension between agency and structure, between self-determination and mechanization, the at times irrational insistence of subjects that their rulers have powers that they do not, in fact, have (or believe they have).

The halls of power have their own faith, their own logic. Whether put there through successive cultural ritual or the iron-clad logic of the human condition, institutions are not neutral. Just like in the human heart, the line between good and evil cuts through them. This is the reason that Jonathan Chaplin exhorts young Christians to love faithful institutions as the building blocks of a just society. Or why Gary Haugen argues that justice for all can never be realized by intervention after intervention, but only in the “diagnosis and repair of the ailments of broken public justice systems.” Chris Seiple says simply “we don’t just want to get people out of jail, we want to make sure they never get there in the first place.”

Faith is in the system. It deserves the best exactly in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, because neither presidents nor congressman have the power in their short time, and with their modest faith, to repair these ruins. Politics is a game we play together. It is neither godless nor irredeemable, but it does take a lot of faith.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Politics