Monday, April 20, 2020

Reflecting on C.S. Lewis—"Meditation on the Third Commandment"

This entry in our ongoing reflections on the essays of C.S. Lewis looks at 1941’s “Meditation on the Third Commandment.” Interestingly, I am not entirely certain which commandment he had in mind. And don’t say, “Are you blind? It says the third one right there!” I copied it, thank you very much. My point is that different traditions count the commandments differently. For Catholics, it is Ex. 20:8, “ Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” For Protestants, it is Ex. 20:7, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Lewis does not actually say which one he had in mind, and I do not know what Anglicans (which is what Lewis was) consider it to be.

I point that out because it could have been potentially confusing, but the context of the article does lead me to be fairly certain Lewis is following the Protestant tradition. Though he never explicitly says anything about taking the Lord’s name in vain, it is less of a stretch here than seeing a connection to the Sabbath day. He is advising against the formation of a Christian political party, which certainly could lead to dangerous misuses of God’s reputation.

This one stuck out to me both because I have an interest in politics and because it is not very difficult to shift the perspective from the mid-20th Century British situation to the early-21st Century American one. We only have two viable political parties and no one is talking about making a new, explicitly Christian one. However, the Republican Party is largely considered to fill that role. And the dangers of it doing so are very similar to the ones Lewis suggests.

The most salient point is when he says,

Whatever [a Christian political party] calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological. It will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill its members give it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies. But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty. It will not be simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. [Emphasis in the original]

Two things happen when Christianity is too closely associated with a particular party, and we are seeing them happen here. One is that Christians are seen as nothing more than tools for the Republicans. The other is that Christians question the faith of other Christians who are Democrats.

This is unhealthy. Faith is supposed to be higher than politics, not in service to it. Obviously, there is a place for faith in politics. I have made that point many times, and it is how Lewis concludes the essay. But membership in a particular group is not a purity test.

There are many Christian Democrats. I feel very strongly that they do not do enough to control the excesses of their party, which is a failure of Christian education. Any Christian who does not know that abortion is evil or that transgenderism is a disorder has not been taught God’s word properly. And of course, not everyone who calls himself a Christian is one. But positions on social issues are not the deciding factor. Faith in Christ is. My hope is that every Christian in the Democratic Party will recognize the truth and reform their association. I am unwilling to say they are not Christians simply because they do not leave it.

The same goes for Republican Christians. The President, the leader of their party, has been guilty of many excesses. Too many of these Christians treat allegiance to Donald Trump as being a litmus test for allegiance to Christ, ignoring how often Trump is out of alignment with the Lord. They justify, if not outright praise, the man’s every act. They do so even when he is clearly wrong, and they do so when he changes positions midstream.

This close identification is a dreadful peril to the faith. If politics rather than grace are at the center of it, then fewer people will be drawn to God. Policies will keep them locked outside the gates before they can approach the Lord who loves them. And we, not God, will have set those gates up. That is not the way it should be.

Again, I believe Christians should be politically active. But we need to stop giving power to parties. Christians, Democrat and Republican, need to be able and more willing to criticize their leaders. They need to effect real change that crosses party lines because it flows from their higher, shared allegiance. And, as Lewis says, the best way to move forward is by changing hearts in society rather than changing laws. We must be about the work of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, showing people their need for salvation and the goodness of living life in Him. That is the only affiliation that will matter in the end.

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