If you’ve ever watched a pair of toddlers playing together, you’ll understand that politics starts early in life. Politics has to do with interests. If one child is interested in playing with a given toy, and another child is also interested in playing with that toy, you have an instant, primal, conflict of interests. Both toddlers automatically pursue their interests. The result is a power struggle over who gets access to the toy. The child who ends up with the most toys becomes the King of Toddlers. He has what the other children want. To get any of those toys, the toddlers must play a kind of simple politics. How often we have watched two of our children or grandchildren tugging on the same toy crying, “Mine!” All this is summed up in the adult bumper sticker that reads: “He wins who dies with the most toys.”
Adults play the same game. We are all operating out of self-interest to one degree or another. At times, those interests clash. When they do, we find ourselves engaged in political struggles. Most of our adult struggles have to do with money, power and sex.
In high school, the handsomest jock feels entitled to the prettiest cheerleader – so he pursues her. Other guys think that they too should date her, so they compete. There is great, sometimes hostile, competition for boys and girls in high school. The politics of dating in school can be a precursor to the withering politics of adulthood.
If you’ve ever been involved in, or observed, children’s sports events, you’ll know that they too are highly, intensely, politicized. Some parents have been known to kill in order to advance their child in sports, beauty contests or cheer leading competitions. Parent’s egos are often on the line in their children’s performance. Children who make their parents look bad in sports can find themselves in deep trouble at home. Some of the most vicious politics in the country takes place at the Little League level.
Any of us who have spent any time in the workplace are familiar with, and perhaps the frequent victim of, office politics. Again, it’s about interests. It’s about people struggling to obtain for themselves more money, bigger bonuses, better office space, more prestige, more power, more benefits or some form of increased security. Modern workplaces are dynamic: full of discontinuities, uncertainties and restructurings. The Executive Suite is a place of power struggles, all of which affect the rank & file below. Employers no longer hold loyalty to employees as a high value (official statements notwithstanding). Everyone and anyone is expendable. These days, there’s really no such thing as “job security.” All too often, skill in office politics eclipses work skills as the means of surviving from one paycheck to another. Put another way, hardball politics often eclipses hard work.
The tactics of office politics can be quite ruthless. Some women “sleep with” the boss in order to gain leverage with him. Others spread false rumors about their boss in order to have him or her removed from his or her job. Some sabotage projects in order to make their bosses look bad. Rebellion, non-cooperation, sabotage, whispering campaigns, utilizing the rumor mill, setting up workers for failure (so that the boss can justify firing them), going over the boss’s head, etc. etc. are all common tactics of office politics. We see at work power by proximity and guilt by association. Christians, fat people, ugly people, people of politically incorrect races and ethnicities, older workers and other “undesirables” are often targeted for termination or early retirement, by young, slim, attractive people in power suits who vie for power. Bosses may tend to hire people of their own ethnicities, religions, or types. Once ensconced, employees help bring in friends and relatives of the same groupings.
Family businesses hire and place in key positions family members. This is the politics of nepotism. The whole idea is to control the power to control the money to get the gravy and have lifelong security. Even religions can be family businesses. In such “religio-businesses,” family members and cronies dominate boards, control the money, and insulate the “glorious leader.” All cults of personality function pretty much the same way.
Power profiles in the modern workplace are changing rapidly. Today there are as many, or more, women in management than there are men. Being an “older white male” is not longer an advantage in the workplace – it’s the opposite. Women and minorities are being more rapidly promoted. The so-called “glass ceiling” has been well shattered.
Ideally, one would not expect to find the kind of vicious politics in the Church that one finds in business, sports or entertainment. But one does – and sometimes it’s even more ruthless and unprincipled. For nearly 20 years, I worked for a church. While I was a “field minister” I didn’t notice the politics so much. But when I finally arrived at “Headquarters” I was introduced to some of the most withering politics I’d ever experienced. There, I realized that almost everything had a political dimension – even the formation and defense of doctrine. One man, often on the basis of family politics or prevailing expediencies, determined doctrine for everyone.
That’s because all power was concentrated in him. Any power anyone else had was derivative of this man’s power. That meant that to have any power, one must curry favor with the man who doled it out. When he did dole it out, it was to serve his interests.
To be powerless was to be ineffective, impotent and unable to accomplish anything meaningful. Yet to have any power was to walk around with a target on one’s back – even if it was only enough power to do one’s job.
The politics of headquarters included “power by proximity,” kissing up, exposing those who were “disloyal,” “liberal,” or allegedly “plotting” to overthrow the boss (I call it “applied paranoia”), discrediting others in order to obtain their jobs, floating damaging lies on the rumor mill, claiming seniority, mounting campaigns against those who didn’t fit with the current in-clique, implying that certain people were “demon-possessed,” etc. etc. To be labeled “liberal” was the kiss of death. Once that happened, one was on the skids. Pariahs were spun out to the periphery and jettisoned into political oblivion. Politics at church headquarters was every bit as mean-spirited as it is anywhere else! On the part of those who played politics with vigor, there appeared to be no conscience toward God.
Sometimes those who had the most to lose played the most vicious politics. “Top” people could be, and often were, utterly ruthless in the way they demoted, fired or otherwise “got rid of” people. Much was done by whim and caprice – or on the assumption of “discernment” and “inspiration.” Thank God they did not have the power of life and death over the rest of us – as had some of the early Catholic and Protestant church leaders who were able to burn each other at the stake! In all church systems, a “heretic” is anyone who does not agree — about anything — with those in power.
Just the other day, the Los Angeles Times, one of my least favorite newspapers, carried a report on a lawsuit being brought by lay members of the Greek Orthodox Church against their denomination. Said the Times article: “The civil suit, filed in New York, is the latest development in a controversy stemming from attempts by some lay members of the 1.6 million Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America to assert more independence from the mother church, led by His All Holiness Bartholomew I, who presides over the historic see of Constantinople, now Istanbul” (LA Times, February 4, 2004).
At present, Bartholomew personally appoints all bishops for the American Church. American Orthodox members want the right to elect their own bishops without involvement by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul.
What’s happening in the Orthodox Church is happening all around the world in church after church, denomination after denomination. It occurs at both micro and macro levels. It is the struggle for power. It is as old as mankind itself. No church organization has yet been able to escape it. Those with power cling to it. Those who lack power seek it, often resorting to any tactic that looks like it might work. The net result is that people get hurt, careers are shot down, and the Church is full of destructive discontinuities.
Personally, I think that every parent should seek to understand just how human politics works. Call it “interpersonal skills” or whatever politically correct term you want to use – but learn how it works. Then teach your children about it. Teach them how to play honorable politics, without compromising their moral and ethical principles in the process. Teach them the politics of survival in human systems. Help them to understand what makes people tick: what motivates them. Vince Lombardi’s dictum – “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” – is a lie. If you break the rules to win, you haven’t really won; you’ve just made others lose. A runner who breaks a world record with the help of steroids isn’t a true winner. His victory is bogus.
The Sin of Slander
Regrettably, much of human politics has to do with slandering another person’s reputation – as some Democrats are doing in the current battle for the White House. The President is being unjustly characterized as a “draft dodger” and a “deserter.” This is libelous. Yet some are doing it without any compunction because they want their man in the White House and Bush out of it. Every presidential election seems to produce new lows in political tactics in this country.
In Judaism, the fourth worst sin one can commit – after idolatry, murder and adultery – is liable or slander. To slander a person is to destroy that person. A person whose reputation is shot can no longer function effectively within his or her community. As we read in Proverbs: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1 KJV). The Jewish Translation renders it a little differently: “Repute is preferable to great wealth, grace is better than silver and gold.”
The apostle Paul warned Timothy about people who file false charges, based on rumor, against elders. “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (I Timothy 5:19). We have seen many ministerial careers and reputations ruined by overzealous deacons and other church worthies who have taken it upon themselves to “narc on” a minister they don’t like. The problem has been that those charges are often brought in the form of rumor, innuendo, hearsay or gossip. Those in authority over the person charged often uncritically accept the charge without checking it out or inviting the accused to offer a defense of his own actions.
Every minister, it seems, has his Judases.
At the same time, we also find ministers abusing their power, especially in dictatorial church systems. We have seen lay members publicly excoriated and sometimes humiliated from the pulpit for things they may or may not have done. We have seen ministers wield power arbitrarily, without due process, and without concern for the reputation of those they are denigrating. This doesn’t exactly endear them to the laity. I personally know of many ex-church members who are embittered because of some perceived ministerial injustice. Often, it is favoritism, and sometimes nepotism. In church sports, the minister may have favored his child over others.
Instead of allowing church members to select from among themselves those whom they wanted to serve as deacons (cf. Acts 6:3), the minister has played favorites and ordained cronies to that office. Cronyism, nepotism, favoritism are inequities that all too often characterize church politics.
Point is, Christians should behave differently than carnal people. As I often tell my wife, we cannot expect converted behavior from unconverted people. Problem is, we don’t always see converted behavior from allegedly converted people. Something’s wrong with that picture.
If we accept the authority of the Bible, then we all have a common standard to live up to. The apostle Paul admonished the Philippian congregation: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better themselves.
“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
The tenth commandment also applies here, even though its reference to slavery is no longer politically correct: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Deuteronomy 5:18, JT).
The operative term there is “anything that is your neighbor’s” – i.e., his job, his position in a hierarchy, his power, his wealth, his influence, his office, or anything that is his.
God operates a meritocracy, in which he is not a respecter of persons. At the same time, he does not reward us “according to our sins” or we’d all be grease spots on the ground. Once we repent, he welcomes back his prodigal sons and daughters. But he expects us all to live up to The Standard. Playing politics with people’s lives, careers and reputations is not God’s way. Where possible, we should seek and celebrate the success of others, not their political demise. At the same time, there is no reason to support evil people in power. If someone in power is hurting the people over whom he or she wields that power, then that person needs to repent or be removed from office. If that is done, it should be done God’s way, not through Machiavellian politics. That means witnesses, proof, evidence and an official judgment.
It is not he who dies with the most toys that wins, but he or she who pleases God.