The Myth of the Political Fix

Spiritual problems need more than just political solutions.

At the beginning of this year, I spent a few months helping at an orphanage in South Africa.

Seeing South Africa nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid was a real eye-opening experience.

Despite the formal end of apartheid, its spirit still lingers, spurred on by people’s mistrust, entitlements and prejudices. As the orphanage’s director, Pastor Mike, told me. “Apartheid may have ended, but it still lingers on in the way people live. South African life is still very divided among blacks, whites, Indians and coloreds.”

During my time in the country, I started to realize the change South Africa needed wasn’t so much systematic, but personal.

No matter what politicians you put in place, policies you enact or laws you change, people will be people, and only God can change people’s hearts.

The more I chewed on this, the more I began to really see that this was true for more things in life than just South Africa. Changing a system is an incomplete transformation. Change must happen on an internal level and on an individual basis.

We deceive ourselves a bit when we hope changing the system will solve our problems overnight. And yet, we often act as if it has the power to do so.

That’s really what we think is at stake when we get so worked up about politics. Depending on who you talk to, Barack Obama is often portrayed as either the savior of America or the one who is ruining the country.

But no matter what politicians you put in place, policies you enact or laws you change, people will be people, and only God can change people’s hearts.

I’m not trying to totally undermine the importance of politics. I still believe it was a very crucial thing that apartheid came to an end, that the segregation laws in the U.S. were repealed, and so on.

But when we view these things as the one-step solution to all of the world’s problems, we trick ourselves—and that breeds all sorts of cynicism, hopelessness and divisiveness. Political changes are simply manifestations of a much bigger change, and our political support cannot be used as a substitute for personal investment.

Perhaps it is tempting to hope for this overnight fix because it is way easier than waiting. Just lobby for the right things and then, problem solved. But if change happens on an individual, internal level, then what is required is an individualized investment in people. Starting early, starting young. Being a presence. Loving unconditionally. And that takes time, energy, love, patience and commitment. It takes being in it for the long haul.

Investing in people isn’t a one-time deal, nor is it easy, and it often won’t feel like the world-changing step that it is. But it is.

The perceived lure of an overnight solution is nothing new. People in Jesus’ time expected a Messiah who would bring a quick, political fix to their problems.

But when Jesus began his ministry, He started not by changing anything at an institutional level or by starting any sort of program or system. Instead, He picked 12 men of unlikely backgrounds and invested in their lives.

After three years, the disciples still asked questions that showed they didn’t quite understand many important areas, despite being discipled by Jesus himself. Yet the amount of investment and presence He demonstrated shows us a way to bring about change that can transform the world.

Our political support cannot be used as a substitute for personal investment.

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Transformation is a process, not an event. Change comes from God, and we get to play a role in that process through our relationships. This means it requires trust when we don’t see results and commitment when we encounter resistance.

The reality of the transformation process means there aren’t timetables to growth, and it underscores our call to love people rather than ideals. Societies are reflections of their people, and people are shaped over time—not in an overnight fix.

When I think about the kids at the orphanage in South Africa where I helped, I realize they are on a path right now toward a future that could go one way or the other. Their immediate surroundings invite them into a culture of gangs and violence, but the orphanage offers them a different way. Every teacher, role model and influence they have is so crucial, but watching them grow is a long, slow process.

In the end, long-term dedication to an individual investment is often less glamorous and more demanding than an overnight solution, but its impact is much, much deeper.


Dawn Matusz


Dawn Matusz commented…

Agreed. I get heated responses from many friends when I speak about this very issue, that making laws on certain matters will not fix the spiritual atmosphere of the country. They all but lynch me for saying such things!

Adam Dustin


Adam Dustin replied to Dawn Matusz's comment

Yeah, politics have a fascinating way of turning full grown adults into crying, screaming, illogical children.



Mikael commented…

I think the author seems to conflate systematic change with institutional change. Of course, value systems, social relations, and material conditions are part of systems as well. They envelop both institutions and individuals, as well as groups, identities, and ways of talking about life and what is possible. Moreover, politics operates outside institutions, so the dichotomy between the "internal level" and systematic change is a false one (I suspect the author might agree, and maybe my point is a bit semantic, and I think I agree with him when he writes that "political changes" are manifestations of other changes, if we take political changes in this case to be institutional changes). I think to buy into a strict separation between public and private is to buy into a notion of the political that Jesus seemed to reject. On the modern, liberal view, there is the proper political realm of public, state institutions, and then there is the private realm of social relations, religious beliefs, culture and so on (I use the word "liberal" in its strict sense, not in the American pop sense). It's not so much that Jesus wasn't political, but that the politics of Jesus are of a different nature, of a different type of kingdom, wherein our private lives are expressed publicly in a deeply political way, in the sense that internal, communal, and systematic transformation are caught up in each other, wherein one's personal transformation becomes even more transformative as it reaches out into the world and becomes co-implicated in the mutual transformation of other lives.

Again, the author might still agree. I guess my point is just that to make a strong distinction between the political and individual might miss out on a broader sense of politics, as well as that internal change is in a lot of senses external change. To minister to widows and orphans is to challenge, expose, and counter-act pernicious value systems, material conditions, and social relations. These acts reveal institutional and systemic deficiencies, whether they are working alongside marginalised people, helping organise better working conditions, and so on. We shouldn't be afraid at aiming at systemic change (in broad and narrow senses), because systems contribute to and delimit people's capacities for meaningful change in a lot of circumstances, but we should indeed be wary of according the notion of systematic change congruity with institutional change.



Martin commented…

As a South African hoping for a better future for all of us, I just hope we can get one thing into the national mindset:
The best form of revenge is forgiveness, not retaliation.

Adam Dustin


Adam Dustin replied to Martin's comment

Unfortunately we are living in a world now where Christians are beginning to believe that if we've been wronged in some way then "Thou Shall Not Kill" can be thrown out the window and be justified. In America, there's becoming a strong connection between Politics, Guns, Homophobia, self righteousness and Christianity. It's really scary actually.

Esther Aspling


Esther Aspling commented…

We pick the losing team when we choose politics over God. One is set for destruction, the other eternal. It's a pretty important thing to remember, especially when politics reach is so pervasive in our culture, and God not so much.

Adam Dustin


Adam Dustin replied to Esther Aspling's comment

Christians are guilty though of trying to get involved in politics. It's bringing out some real bigotry. Everyone has the right to reject Christ or follow him, but our Christian nation is getting obsessed with pushing political powers to do "God's will" by not allowing gay people the opportunity to choose what the rest of us have had, God's way or not. They may be sinners, but so is everyone else, including myself. But I haven't been persecuted by the Christian nation like gay people have. I don't see Jesus agreeing with a lot of what's going on. Christians need to avoid politics and its corruptive nature all together. The Government can NOT change Christian doctrine, so there's nothing to worry about. If the government wants to recognize gay marriage, then so be it, but it can't force the church to, and all gay people want is the same rights as anyone else. So again, there's nothing to worry about except for Christians getting corrupted by getting involved in politics. Lead by example, don't force it.

Steve Cornell


Steve Cornell commented…

I appreciated the tone of this piece. After many years of writing a religion column (once a month) for our Sunday News, the editor asked if I would write a political column (twice a month). I agonized over this decision on many levels.

As Wall Street executive, David Bahnsen suggested, “Politics is a field in which the consequences of culture play out; it is not the field in which the culture itself is formed.” Political leaders who are true agents of cultural change have become increasingly rare.

In a country whose government is meant to be by the people, those who shape public opinion are working upstream to political outcomes. Abraham Lincoln stated this well when he said, “In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”

The difficult thing we face in America as Christians is the fact that there is no biblical instruction on citizenship presented to people who lived in democratic forms of government.

We learn many things in the New Testament about how Christians should respond to authority when living in non-participatory forms of government but no one in Bible times lived in our form. Many Biblical truths and principles about government reach God’s people in all places with binding authority and overlapping application (Daniel 4; Acts 17:26-27;Romans 13:1ff; I Peter 2:13-14). We can look to the prophets and learn much about God’s concern for justice and protection of the vulnerable. We find in the teaching of Jesus mandates for a personal ethic of nonresistance (although we should not make the mistake of the pacifist by applying nonresistance to the ordained function in government — particularly in law enforcement).

While we cannot draw a direct parallel from the NT to our political circumstances, responsible citizenship means that we must pursue a common good with others -- as each one brings his or her beliefs, morals and values to the table. Robust and respectful debate is necessary and we should not shy from it or allow others to marginalize our voice. We must not approach engagement as “winning culture wars.” Such language (and the demeanor that often accompanies it) is not fitting to responsible Christian engagement in a representative form of democracy. But neither should we become passive when called to engage.

As Christians, we should try to be as informed as possible and work hard to be examples of those who are kind and considerate toward opponents. At the end of the day (or process), we recognize that some of the laws will conflict with our beliefs, morals and values. If those laws force us to violate our beliefs, we will find more explicit application from Scripture on how to respond.

If interested in a deeper discussion of responsible citizenship,

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