The Modest Dignity of Politics
By David B. Capes Friends know I don’t comment on politics often. The reason is simple. I have friends on both sides of the aisle, and I value their friendships. More to the point, politics seldom allows for quick and easy answers, the kind of thing you can say in a blog or on facebook. Hillary . . . good . . . Trump . . . bad. Or Trump good . . . Hillary . . . bad. It’s far more complex than people try to make it.
I ran across a statement recently attributed to Karl Rahner. He’s a Catholic philosopher and theologian, someone worth knowing. Here’s what he said: “Politics participates in the modest dignity of the penultimate.”
Now that is quite a mouthful. I could think and write about that for hours.
Politics offers us only a limited good in this world. It can’t, it doesn’t participate in the ultimate good. The ultimate good is beyond the reach of any politician or political party. Ultimate dignity comes to human beings by nature—after all we are created in the divine image—and it comes through our knowledge of and participation in the life of God and the rule of God in this world. That’s why Christians pray daily, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So, for my Republican friends, no, the Trump presidency will not be the beginning of the messianic age.
And, for my Democratic friends, no, the Trump presidency will not be the end of the world.
More likely, over the next four to eight years, the government Donald Trump pulls together will offer America and our neighbors only modest dignity, a few, modest gains. But that has been true of every political party, agenda and administration since the beginning of time. We should not expect more.
Dr. Ruth Turley, professor at Rice University, recently spoke in chapel at HGST and reminded us that Jesus entered the world during the reign of King Herod the Great, one of the most ruthless monarchs in the world in his day. He lived his entire life under the oppressive regime of Rome and was crucified on a Roman cross. Still Christians confess him to be the light of the world, the embodiment of God, the ultimate source of hope. His life is, for much of the world, the center of history.
Do not put your trust in princes,
In mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
On that very day their plans perish.
So in whom should we trust? Well, the psalmist goes on to say that we should trust in the LORD, the God of Jacob, who made heaven and earth, the sea and then filled them with life. He is the one who rescues the oppressed and feeds the hungry. He is the one who sets prisoners free and heals the blind.
Whatever good politics can do is not ultimate; it participates only in the modest dignity of the penultimate. Politics can’t create food or give me a happy home where I can enjoy it. It can and ought to regulate commerce. Politics can’t give a person a vocation that gives their life meaning and purpose. It can and ought to regulate some business. Politics can’t cause the right person to fall in love with you and live together until you're both in your 90s. It can and ought to make marriage economically feasible. Ultimately, what makes for a good life is beyond the reach of Democrats, Republicans or Independents.
Here’s a good saying to remember during any troubling time: “In God will I put my trust.”
Make it your own.