Politics & Sick Societies

I was perusing C. S. Lewis’s essays in the volume The Weight of Glory this past week and came across something I had read before and had highlighted in that earlier reading (that’s what professors do when they read–they highlight things so they’re easier to find again). It was in the essay titled “Membership.”

The entire essay deals with the individual vs. the collective and the proper understanding of the Body of Christ and how that’s not the same as a secular “collective” mentality. The section I had highlighted speaks even more to me now as I survey our political scene. Here’s what Lewis said:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other.

But if either come to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

It startled me to see that this time, and I immediately applied it to what America currently is experiencing. We have made everything political. We think about politics all the time (generally speaking—I know some avoid it, but it impinges upon even those who try to stay separated from it). Why are we so drawn to politics? Could it be because we are, truly, a very sick society? And we somehow think that the answer to our sickness if to be found in just the right political solution? If so, we are sadly mistaken. But more than that, as Lewis comments, our focus on politics “has become itself a new and deadly disease.”

This is hard for someone like me since I teach history that is awash in government and politics. I want the best for my nation, and that is not a bad thing. God wants us to bring our Christian worldview to bear on what are normally considered secular endeavors. In fact, I’ve spent most of my teaching career telling students that we shouldn’t create this artificial barrier between the sacred and the secular because the Lord is Lord of all ultimately, and even what we think are secular pursuits should be carried out His way.

Toward the end of the essay, Lewis reminds us of what is really most important and eternal. He writes, “For this is the real answer to every excessive claim made by the collective. It is mortal; we shall live forever.” What does he mean by that? “There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life is extinct and every one of us is still alive. Immortality,” he continues, “is promised to us, not to these generalities. It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men.” This echoes his more famous formulation in Mere Christianity (the chapter called “The Three Parts of Morality) where he states,

Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever. . . .

If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state, or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

Yet we sometimes think that the future of a nation is more important than the future eternal state of an individual. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that we withdraw from politics and not work for what we believe is good government. We definitely should be doing that. But we must always see it in its proper perspective. As much as I love the founding documents of America and the vision behind them, this nation is not eternal. It will not exist in heaven. People will.

My concern is that we sometimes wallow in a pit of politics that can dim our vision and distract us from keeping our priorities straight. In another of Lewis’s essays, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” in which he shows how any attempt to set up a Christian political party will ultimately fail, he ends with this line: “He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.”

Amen. Let’s keep first things first and not submerge ourselves in the rancor, vindictiveness, and ego-stroking that dominates so much of our politics today. That’s never God’s way.