Having explored the call to the political arena in the first article of the “Faith and Politics: Lessons from Moses” series, this second article looks at the work of political action. While politics is a public arena for discourse and debate, it is ultimately an arena for action. It is an arena for mobilizing public opinion, contesting elections, representing and serving constituents, making policy, legislating, and governing. For those involved in politics, these are the actions that will be undertaken—and will be shaped by our Christian faith. By focusing again on the life of Moses, we will see the fundamental relationship between God’s character, his active presence in the world, and our own actions in the political world. Ultimately, it is God’s self-revelation that should shape our life and political action.
God Reveals Himself to Moses
Before looking at Moses’ political action, it is important to understand how God revealed himself, and the way he was at work, to Moses throughout his life. There are four distinct revelations that I have identified and will reflect on throughout this article:
- God reveals himself as the eternally present I Am to Moses personally at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is the liberator God who has come to free his captive people from bondage in Egypt in a political act.
- God reveals himself as warrior—the God who fights for his people—at the Red Sea where the Egyptian army and cavalry are miraculously destroyed (Exodus 14). In ecstasy Moses pens a victory song rejoicing that “The Lord has hurled the horse and its rider into the sea” (Exodus 15).
- God reveals himself as lawmaker and judge at Mount Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19, 20).
- God reveals himself again at Mount Sinai as the God of love, mercy, grace, and compassion when Moses is summoned a second time to the top of the mountain (Exodus 34). God is not only just but also the God who forgives sin—even the sin of rebellion.
Moses’ response to each of these revelations of God’s character and activity profoundly shaped his spiritual and political leadership. Just as they were instructive for Moses, they are also instructive for any believer today seeking to relate his or her faith to political involvement.
The Need for God’s Revelation
Once Moses had fresh insights into God as the liberator of Israel, and God as lawgiver and judge, he was able to join in the work he perceived God to be doing. While this participation was somewhat reluctant in the case of returning to Egypt—where his previous self-directed liberation effort had failed (as we explored in the first article)—it was wholehearted when it came to proclaiming and administering the Law of God to Israel.
It is helpful to reflect on our own experience of receiving and acting upon a fresh understanding of who God is and what he is doing. Have you ever received a fresh understanding of who God is and/or seen him at work politically? Did you see it as a call to join in that work? Seeing where God is already at work can help us to clearly discern the difference between the call to political action that is rooted in faith and the call to political action that is otherwise motivated and self-directed.
With respect to my own experience with Christians in Canadian politics, I would venture to say that most of us, regrettably, have not had any fresh understanding of God’s character or activity in our country which can truly inspire or direct our personal political efforts. In western Canada we do have examples from our past like church ministers J.S. Wordsworth and Tommy Douglas (on the left) and Christian laymen like William Aberhart and my father Ernest C. Manning (on the right), all of whom were specifically inspired by their Christian convictions to found political movements that would address the suffering and injustices of the Great Depression. But despite these examples, our current generation of Christian-oriented political activists is more like Moses in Egypt before his burning-bush experience. We are engaged in well-intended efforts to address the political challenges of the day but—rather than stemming from a revelation of God—these efforts are largely self-directed.
We see injustices—income inequality or the intergenerational injustice of chronic deficit spending, for example—and are moved to do something political to address them. But I question whether such efforts are really any different from those efforts whose motivations and approaches to the same injustices are rooted in humanism, the social sciences, and secular political philosophies. If this assessment is correct and they are no different, then it points to our desperate need for a fresh revelation of God’s character and work in our time. If we are to bring anything more than human resources to bear on addressing the ills of society, we need a revelation such as Moses had—a revelation of God as liberator, for instance.
Rather than look for a fresh revelation of God, we often rely on whatever has become our favourite conception of God and how he operates. In my opinion, the revelation of God as warrior became Moses’ favourite conception. This may have been because military command was part of Moses’ upbringing in Pharaoh’s household. Or perhaps it was because Moses anticipated the future military battles that Israel would face in order to occupy the Promised Land. As a political and religious leader, Moses found his greatest security in God as the one who fights for his people.
This aspect of Moses’ experience raises the following questions for us as Christians: Do we have a favourite conception of Jesus that particularly influences our Christian calling and activity? Is there an aspect of Jesus’ character or work that especially draws us to him? You might be particularly attracted to Jesus the teacher, Jesus the healer, Jesus the friend of the poor, or Jesus in some other role. For Moses, however, there was no one revelation that would see him through all of what he was called to do. Likewise, there might be revelations of God which challenge or expand those favourite conceptions to which we cling.
The Motivation for Political Action
For those who are politically inclined, it may well be that our favourite picture is of Jesus as the political activist. This is a picture that is often defined by the image of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple (John 2:13-17)—a public and political act which his politically ambitious disciples greatly admired and longed to imitate. Not surprisingly, this incident brought to their minds a relevant quotation from the Psalms of David: “Zeal for [God’s] house consumes me” (Psalm 69:9). Certainly this conception of Jesus has been attractive for Christians through the ages, from the Crusaders to members of the Moral Majority. But is this conception of Jesus the political activist one from which politically inclined Christians today should take their lead?
In my case (as a politician who favours “bottom up” democratic processes), it is Jesus’ interaction with the public that I find most attractive. We see it as he travelled from town to town communicating his unique message, speaking persuasively to small groups of common people—occasionally making major addresses in the synagogues or to larger groups—and, of course, public jousting with his opponents. Anyone who has tried to build a grassroots political movement or engaged in a political campaign to convince large numbers of people to support a cause cannot help but admire the genius and achievements of Jesus in this regard.
But what about political action rooted in religious zeal? Importantly, while Jesus was motivated to purify his Father’s house by religious zeal, he was able to exercise self-control over this zeal. His disciples, however, had much to learn before they could do likewise. For example, their uncontrolled zeal to advance the Kingdom would one day lead them to propose burning down a Samaritan village because it had rejected their master (Luke 9:51-55). Jesus had to rebuke them and expressly forbid them to have anything to do with the Samaritans (Matt.10:5) until they were fully imbued with his Spirit (Acts 1:8; 8:4-17).
In my experience, there is great danger when uncontrolled religious zeal is translated into political action. This danger needs to be scrupulously guarded against. Most significantly, the antidote to destructive religious zeal is to be found in the very same Psalm of David of which the disciples had remembered only a part. David himself knew what it meant to be consumed by religious zeal for political ends. But he was also well aware that when such zeal is not controlled by God’s Spirit it can lead to actions which disgrace the people of God and repel those who might otherwise seek him. Hence David begins that same Psalm by first praying: “May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me …. May those who seek you not be put to shame because of me.” (Psalm 69:6)
There is definitely inspiration and guidance for the politically motivated Christian in the example and teachings of Jesus the public man. But lest we become dangerously consumed by zeal for the cause let us, like David, pray: “May nothing I do or say out of zeal for the work of Christ cause the Christian community to be disgraced or those who might seek him to be repelled because of me.”
Responding to God as Grace
Finally, we come to Moses fourth and last great revelation of God’s character and his modus operandi in the world. It came when Moses and the people of Israel had been ordered to leave Mount Sinai and proceed to the Promised Land. God offered to send an angel before them but declared, “I will not go with you because you are a stiff necked people.” (Exodus 33:3)
In one of his most revealing discourses, Moses responds by pleading with God not to send Israel forth unless God’s presence accompanies them. God relents and replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:15). But Moses wants more, looking specifically for assurance that God will manifest himself again as the warrior who fights for his people, pleading, “Now show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). God responds by saying that, yes, he will manifest his glory, but through his chosen way—a different, yet greater, way to that which Moses asked for—and so responds, “I will show you my goodness (grace) ... mercy ... and compassion ...” (Exodus 33:19)
God orders Moses to once again ascend Mount Sinai with two more tablets of stone on which the Law will be re-inscribed (Exodus 34:1-3). When he obeys God Moses receives this incomparable revelation of the character and work of God:
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 43: 5-7)
Sadly, this is the revelation of God which Moses seemed to have the greatest difficulty comprehending and accepting. Perhaps it was the assertion that God is even prepared to forgive rebellion—something Moses could never quite bring himself to do. While Moses never tired of reminding Israel of God the liberator, God the warrior, and God the lawgiver, what he heard and saw when he ascended Mount Sinai a second time is scarcely mentioned in his final addresses to Israel.
How, then, might we embrace this fourth revelation of the nature of God and his work in the world, and let it be instructive to us today?
Think back to your favourite conception of Jesus. It might be that of Jesus as the political activist. It might be Jesus as the one full of zeal. Or it might be Jesus as the man of the people. While there is value to each of these conceptions, for me, politics at the highest level is ultimately about the reconciliation of conflicting interests. If that is the case, then shouldn’t the revelation of Jesus that most motivates and guides us be that of Jesus as the Saviour and reconciler of human beings to God and to each other? Surely it is this conception of Jesus—Jesus as the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness—that we should most faithfully and vigorously seek to represent in our personal relationships, in the marketplace, and in the public square.
- As Moses’ experience shows, some revelations of God will be more appealing to us than others.
- According to Josephus, Moses himself once led an Egyptian military force into Ethiopia. (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 9, section 2, to Chapter 11, section 1)
Biography of Preston Manning
Preston Manning works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy, including new approaches to the intersection of faith with democratic governance, the market economy, pluralism and multiculturalism, science and technology, and environmental stewardship.
Preston served as a member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, part of which he served as his party’s critic for Science, Technology and Innovation. He founded two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and was the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000. Preston also has 20 years of experience as an owner and manager of a consulting firm specializing mainly in strategic planning and communications advice to the energy sector. In 2005, he founded the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which supports research, educational, and communications initiatives designed to achieve a more democratic society in Canada guided by conservative principles.
Source: Marketplace Institute