An unholy alliance
An unholy alliance
27 September 2021
Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet in the movie Dune. Image: Disney
The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with power. Like the proverbial water and oil, the two don’t mix well. Or, in a more real-world scenario, they make an awful mess when one is forcibly combined with the other. Hollywood has no trouble seeing the problem. The question remains, why do the members of Christ’s kingdom?
October will see the release of the science-fiction blockbuster Dune – assuming you’re able to get out of your house to see it. It’s hard to overestimate its importance. Dune is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings was to fantasy. Its arrival as a novel in 1965 ushered in a new age of world-building storylines. It has been described as Star Wars for adults. Embedded in Dune’s alien cultures and epic landscapes are some surprisingly earthy things to say about religion’s cosy relationship with power.
Dune is as much political thriller as space saga. It is set in a galactic empire tens of thousands of years from now. Amongst the leading imperial families is House Atreides, a potential threat to the current emperor. Consequently, Duke Leto Atreides is ‘invited’ to exchange his ocean planet Caladan for the desert planet of Dune. It appears to be a promotion because Dune is the only known source of ‘spice’, an extremely expensive substance that dramatically increases lifespan and mental acuity. But the exchange is a trap. Almost as soon as House Atreides sets foot on Dune, it is fighting for its life.
At the centre of the drama is Duke Leto’s heir, Paul, played by Timothée Chalamet. A gifted young man, he must overcome every natural urge to become the saviour Dune needs. And so he recites:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer ... I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone ... Only I will remain.”
This power mantra is taught to Paul by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, what passes as a religious order in this speculative future. It hints at the complex relationship religion and politics share in the world of Dune. The imperial government both takes advice from and wields power over the dominant faith. But a Reverend Mother warns Paul that it is a cosy relationship that benefits neither in the long run:
“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”
As fantastical as the futuristic faith of Dune is, this is something modern believers might do well to dwell on. Since the days of Justinian, the first Christian emperor of Rome, the Church has had to be careful of developing an overly comfortable relationship with political power. Dr John Dickson, author of Bullies And Saints: An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history, says that the conversion of the most powerful person in the world represented an incredible challenge to the humility and self-control of the Christian church:
“A people used to mockery and social exclusion (and worse) were now invited into the very centre of power. And, perhaps most bizarrely, the Christian sign of humble self-sacrifice, [the cross] was now a formal part of the Roman war machine.”
The same challenge has arisen in modern times in American politics. The way in which various key evangelical figures became promoters for the Trump administration is a cautionary tale. The mouthing of phrases that promised a return to conservative family values led to extraordinary support from white American Christians. Election exit polls in 2016 and 2020 suggested that around 80 per cent of white evangelicals backed the Republican president. However, the unhappy result was that Christians found themselves aligned with an administration that encouraged riots on Capitol Hill.
We might just as easily consider the connection between Pope Urban the second and the courts of Europe that forged the first Crusade. Or again, the close relationship between the 18th-century church missionary movement and the British government that resulted in the forcible transformation of African and island cultures. Historically speaking, the closer the faithful have come to power, the more fraught the relationship has become. The question is, why do men and women of good conscience continue to make this mistake? One answer can be found in the Old Testament.
In the first book of Samuel, the people of Israel go to the prophet Samuel and ask him to appoint a king over them, “... such as all the other nations have.” The inference is that Israelites want a ruler who will do two things: keep alive the religious truths established by Samuel and fight their battles for them. In those respects, you can see an early attempt to meld religious and political authority. You might also argue that their ostensible goals of national faithfulness and peace are not bad things. However, both God and Samuel see a more significant problem:
“But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”
The problem with the Israelite request was that it revealed their desire to be kingmakers and their preference for a ruler who would serve their purposes. In short, it is a goal that takes God off the throne. So, then and now, the fundamental challenge for the people of God is not so much the distance between the church and power as the one who wields it.
This is not to say that there is a problem with Christians entering politics or believers attempting to influence the political process. History is just as furnished with faithful politicians like William Wilberforce and activists like Catherine Booth. The problem arises when Christians forget where power resides. When Christians come to believe that the power to change the world for Jesus’ sake rests in the hands of politicians, they make as fundamental a mistake as the Israelites who ask for a new king.
The same caution could be issued for the break room as well as the board room. When we come to believe that our future rests in the hands of a principal, a manager or a supervisor, and so court their favour, we begin to change our allegiance. We might have the most Christian of goals, but we have started to set up a new king. By contrast, the Bible reminds us that:
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will (Proverbs 21:1).”
– so all decisions are His decisions, and
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God (Romans 13:1).”
– so all governments work at his behest.
Does this mean that we are to abdicate from all sorts of social change because ‘God will get it done?’ Not at all. We are called to proclaim the Kingdom of God not only by our words but through the world we strive for. However, we are to engage in the politics of power without losing sight of who we serve, who ordains the rise and fall of governments, and who it is who will hold both them and us to account. Real power is found by a man or woman on their knees, entering the throne room of Heaven. This is where the real decisions are made.
 J. Dickson, Bullies and Saints, Zondervan, 2021, p.60.