In his first letter in the New Testament, Peter emphasized the importance of Christians being a nation apart. He didn’t want them involved in politics. They had more important things to worry about: he wanted them to minister to their neighbors and spread the gospel. He gets even more explicit later in the letter in what is one of the most challenging passages in Scripture for American readers:
Submit yourselves to the Lord's sake to every human authority, whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.
- 1 Peter 2:13-14What he’s saying goes against everything our country is about. If the Founding Fathers had taken Peter’s advice, the U.S. would not exist. The notion of submitting to authority is alien to us. The whole point of a democracy is that we are the authority. Americans rule ourselves, or at least we think we do. Most of us, if we believe in God, consider it a God-given right.
Americans believe in a progressive view of history, with all of human history building towards the present. As the Cold War ended, a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama summed up the spirit of the age with a book called “The End of History and The Last Man”. His argument was that capitalist democracies had shown themselves to be the best system of government, so nothing would replace them as they spread to every corner of the globe. They were the final step of human social evolution. Heaven, in other words, had come to Earth.
In the Hollywood version of his story, Peter leads a revolution that overthrows the Roman Emperor and restores the Republic. The Emperor had absolute power in ways most modern-day despots could only dream about. He was literally worshipped as a god. Imagine North Korea, except if they ruled the entire known world, and had done so for as long as anyone could remember. Letting the Emperor “win” seems like cowardice at best, and outright evil at worst. Should Germans in the 1930s not have resisted the Nazis? Should Eastern Europeans not have fought against the Soviets?
These were not hypothetical questions to Peter, or to the people he was writing to. The Romans had not only crucified Jesus, they were a few years away from a devastating wave of persecutions that would nearly destroy the new religion. Peter, as the leader of the church in Rome, was crucified soon after writing this letter. He would have been well within his rights, at least in our understanding, to make common cause with the Jewish rebels in Israel who were planning a long and bloody uprising. They were the good guys. Surely God was on their side.
Instead, Peter is essentially telling his readers to collaborate. Christianity has often been accused of being nothing more than a tool of the elites to keep people content, and it’s easy to read this passage as that. Don’t worry about how you are being exploited - submit to authority and receive a prize when you die. That’s what Karl Marx meant when he called religion “the opiate of the masses”. In Animal Farm, George Orwell mocks Christianity with the character of Moses, the raven whom the human master uses to lie to his animals:
The pigs had an even harder struggle to counteract the lies put about by Moses, the tame raven. Moses, who was Mr. Jones’ special pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds. In Sugarcandy Mountain, it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all year round, and limp sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place.There are many American politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who act like Moses the raven. They claim to be Christians but show little evidence of it in their personal lives. Religion is a means to an end for them, whether it’s an underlying ideological goal or simply power for its own sake. They don’t believe in Jesus anymore than Moses believed in Sugarcandy Mountain. Who needs God when you have the power of a god at your fingertips? There probably aren’t many genuine believers in the highest corridors of power. In that sense, Washington D.C. and New York City aren’t much different than Imperial Rome.
However, if religion is the opiate of the masses, the reverse is even more true: power is the opiate of the elites. Power is a drug. It consumes your life, it doesn’t last, and it always leaves you wanting more. There aren’t many politicians who get a taste of power and decide to walk away. They stay in the game as long as they possibly can: it gives meaning and purpose to their lives. That’s why U.S. Senators run for re-elections in their 80s. In the end, though, the world chews them up and spits them out, just as it does everyone else. No matter how much power you get, you can’t cheat death. Immortality isn’t possible for any human. As Peter wrote earlier in this letter: “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
Peter had no power compared to the Romans who killed him. The Emperor and his minions spent their lives scheming and plotting to climb the ladder and achieve ultimate power. None of it makes a difference now. The Roman Emperors are just names on a paper, and faded etchings on stones. Peter was playing a much longer game than any of them. 300 years after his death, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Peter lead no Christian armies in the same sense that Joshua lead the Jewish armies after the death of Moses and Abu Bakr lead Islamic armies after the death of Mohammed, yet his religion was still able to take over Rome from the inside-out.
Power is like any other form of worldly success. In America, we measure success by how much money you make, how far you advance in your career, and how famous you become. Yet you can’t take any of that stuff with you when you die:
And then she had one more thing to teach me -- then she said now it all goes back in the box. All those houses and hotels, all the railroads and utility companies, all that property, and all that wonderful money. None of it was really yours. It was around along time before you sat down at the board, and it will be here after you are gone.
Players come and players go, but it all goes back in the box: houses and cars, titles and clothes, even your body. Because the fact is everything I clutch and consume and hold is going to go back in the box, and I’m going to lose it all. You have to ask yourself when you get that ultimate promotion, make the ultimate purchase, when you have climbed the ladder to the highest point of success and the thrill wears off ... and it will wear off. Then what? How long do you have to walk down that road before you see where it leads? Surely you will understand it will never be enough.Psychologists call it “the hedonic treadmill”: humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes. Once you get past a certain level of bare sustenance, no additional money is going to make you happy. We just get used to it after awhile. It becomes the new normal, and all the problems you had before come rearing back, except they are exacerbated by the fact that everyone around you looks at you like a paycheck.
What you realize as you get older is that time is the most precious resource you have. There just isn’t enough time to do everything you want. Human beings can’t have it all. So then it becomes a matter of what you are going to invest in. Are you going to invest in your career, or in your family and the people around you? There’s nothing wrong with trying to do your job to the best of your abilities, but ambition for its own sake will only leave you empty. That has been one of the big lessons for me in my first year of marriage. I could always watch another basketball game, or network with more people in the industry. Those things would make me better at my job, but they would come at the cost of time with my wife. How you spend your time is what economists would call a “revealed preference”. You have to decide what your priorities are.
As a Christian, I have to trust that God will provide for me, and that whatever happens to the U.S. is part of His plan. We cannot control the world, no matter what the media may tell us. The forces of history are much bigger than any one person, or any one nation. All we can really control is our own lives, and the way we interact with the people around us. Let hyper-ambitious people play the game of thrones in D.C., or try to be a billionaire in NYC, or be famous in L.A, or chase a vision of a techno-utopia in San Francisco. None of that will make them happy:
The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. [Emphasis added] According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.
The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important.There are a lot of unhappy people who throw themselves into politics and look for it to solve their own personal problems. It never will. Human beings just aren’t wired that way. We are micro-creatures in a macro-world. Invest in community instead of yourself, and love your neighbor. That’s the Christian way of life in a nutshell. Maybe it’s for suckers. Or maybe the real suckers are the ones who give their lives to a game they can’t win.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
- Matthew 6:19-21