Lent Against a Million Faustian Bargains

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A few weeks ago the Rabbit Room editor sent out a message to his writers soliciting posts on various subjects. Two of the subjects—Lent and politics—caught my attention, because there’s a connection between them that doesn’t receive enough attention.

Of course, as a subject, politics receives hardly any attention at the Rabbit Room. After the editor suggested it as a post topic, I searched all the posts ever published here—now over two thousand—for the word “politics.” The search returned only twenty-six posts. Most of those used the word “politics” only in passing, and the word appeared in only two post titles: one promotional post for an event called “The Politics of Jesus”; one lament, by Matt Connor, about “The Lie of Politics.”

Near the end of Matt’s essay, which appeared about a month before the 2008 general election, he wrote this:

The truth is that there is no hope in principles or issues. There is no hope in politics, world leaders, policies or government. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ candidate. There is only the hope of Jesus Christ. The only thing that remains is the grassroots gospel of a new humanity of people loving and serving and giving their lives so that God might increase and be known to others as they do so.

Reading that paragraph now, several years after its publication, my first instinct is argue with Matt’s grave diagnosis. I want to quibble over definitions. I want to ask, “but there is no shortage of politicians that want either to co-opt Jesus—to make him the untimely-born champion of some twenty-first century political cause—or to kill him. Shouldn’t his disciples do something about that?” I want to argue that political acts have a place among the acts of love and life-giving service “the grassroots gospel” may produce.

And yet, for all that, which of us cannot relate to what Matt said? How often do we hear election results, or read a story about some legislation Congress passes, or read an opinion of the Supreme Court, and think: “I am in a padded cell; I’d sooner believe I have gone mad than that my country has gone so mad as that.” Or how often do we latch onto some political movement or candidate, only to catch buyer’s remorse when the movement gains power or the candidate wins office? And who among us has not alienated a friend, or at least dented a friendship, in a political argument? At such moments we are right to think: the pit in my stomach is not lying to me.

I like to think the Rabbit Room avoids political debates, not because its members and visitors are ill-informed, craven, or even quietist, but because we understand that when we swap stories and interests and struggles with friends over lunch, we get a broader, deeper, more nuanced—in a word, truer—sense of their characters than we would if we met them at a political rally. For the slogans we chant at a political demonstration are often platitudes, and sometimes falsehoods, skimmed from the surfaces of our minds; the stuff that we see in fairy tales and everyday tabletalk is more likely to arise from and engage our whole being.[1]

But we should notice the political stance implicit in this privileging of personal friends and stories over political leaders and programmes. We cannot deny that this is a political stance by following Tolkien, who once distinguished the “humane” motivations behind Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring from Denethor’s “merely political” commitment to protect his own realm and office.[2] Tolkien’s labels “humane” and “merely political” carry a political value judgment. Or, maybe, a meta-political value judgment—but not a sub- or apolitical judgment. Likewise, if I say, “the image of God I see in one friend across the table is weightier than the sum of all the images of the College of Caesars inscribed on all the coins in circulation,” or “I will not sacrifice even one jot of this story on the Procrustean bed of any political programme,” I am not practicing political neutrality. I am looking at Caesar and throwing down the gauntlet.

Which brings me, finally, to Lent.

Jesus Christ kept the first “Lent” in the wilderness near the Jordan River: forty days of faithful fasting to fulfill what was lacking in Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Red Sea and the Promised Land. At the conclusion of that inaugural Lent, the Devil promised to deliver to Jesus all the glory of the world’s kingdoms “if you will fall down and worship me.” In dangling the temptation before the Jesus, the Devil rather startlingly assumed that the authority and glory of the world’s kingdoms were his to give. That Jesus did not dispute the Devil’s assumption made his rejection of the temptation all the more resounding. Moses’s last sermons on the plains of Moab had been dramatic. But never had Moses’s words “You shall worship the LORD your God, and him shall you serve”[3] thundered as they did when Jesus recited them to defy the tempter.

We talk often of political revolutions: upheavals where one set of rulers, one body of governing principles, replaces another. But when we look at the means the revolutionaries employ—accusations, violence, trickery, demands that friends, family or neighbors be sacrificed to some Big Idea—we see that they’re merchants in the Devil’s political economy, passing around the authority and glory of the world’s kingdoms. The world is sick from a million Faustian bargains; the revolutions that arise to overthrow them are but a different set of Faustian bargains. Except one: the one Christ inaugurated by his fasting and temptation in the wilderness, commonly known as Lent.

Lent is not merely therapeutic or pietistic. It is, at least, political—maybe meta-political, but not sub- or apolitical. In Christ, God established a Kingdom in the world by means not of the world: fasting, resisting temptation, agony and passion, wilderness and Cross. Lent is a training season, a season of focus on what it means to share in the Father’s Kingdom by sharing in the means he used to establish it.

[1] This is a paraphrase and extension of a point in C. S. Lewis’s essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, where he advises authors against inserting a “moral” into a story: “Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness.” —C. S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children, in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature 41 (Harcourt 1982) (1966).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 240-41 (Humphrey Carpenter et al. eds., Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).

[3] S Matthew 4:10; Deuteronomy 6:13.

David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia. When he’s not practicing his profession, David is usually on stage, or playing a stringed instrument, or reading, or writing.


7 Comments

  1. Chris Yokel

    You don’t post on here much David, but when you do….dang. Thanks for those words. Reminds me a lot of N.T. Wright’s thoughts on the matter. Engaging the world and the powers that be, but not with the tools of the world.

    I just finished reading That Hideous Strength again recently, so now of course I’m thinking about Merlin vs. N.I.C.E. as well.

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Chris: Thanks. Tom Wright played no small part in helping me spot political implications all over the New Testament. A working politician cannot do better than to say “Jesus is my favorite political philosopher” — provided, of course, that the politician is really willing to follow that line all the way back to its Lenten beginnings.

    Merlin against the N.I.C.E. — tell me more about that connection when you have a moment.

    Laura: Footnotes are the best. I like them this much: http://lanternhollowpress.com/2010/11/11/you-know-youre-a-historian-when-you-footnote-your-fiction/

    Brenda: Thank you.

  3. Lisa

    Much fruit for contemplation here, thank you, David. My hubby is running for political office this Lenten season, so your words are ones that have great relevance here.

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