Post last updated on February 2, 2023
Image credit: RAH
I cannot at all improve upon the quotation of John Newton that is offered below, but perhaps I can help you to hear it. After all, political and civil relations are now so frustrated as to regularly affect our feelings, and a hot heart is not often conducive to a cool head.
The short of it is that a Christian sometimes finds it difficult to be a citizen of two countries. Like Abraham, he must dwell in a strange country, even while he waits for that city which is promised from above (Hebrews 11:9-10). This is a more difficult task for some than it is for others, if only because some possess the kind of faith that sees who and what is actually lying ahead, even as they also see what is apparent now. Indeed, it takes faith to properly assess the present.
It is unexpectedly difficult to properly regard the present when the outward aims and motions of a government are initially and relatively benign, but then take an unexpected turn that disappoints or even frightens observers. It is then that a man is most easily aware and disappointed at increasing signs of change and corruption, even if it is painted as progress. It is, perhaps, similar to the surprise of a younger man when he first becomes aware of his knees. An older man has all the same pains (and more) of his younger friend, but certainly none of his surprise. Similarly, when a government has never even suggested an interest in righteousness, few are surprised at its absence, though they will be very wearied by its wickedness. That is how it is in the country that we call home. There is much here to lament, but little to actually surprise—unless we scan a higher horizon.
I have heard a few preachers warn against political participation, and then spend precious moments of their sermon carelessly belittling politicians. It seems that this error is at least as bad as the one that makes every patriot also a Christian. John Newton’s words, then, are helpful against these two easy extremes. His words cool our hearts because they remind us, not of what we sometimes feel, but of who we actually are.
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Helpfully then, Newton avoids and counsels against the two easiest inclinations. If a certain distinction is not comprehended in the quotation below, the better part of his advice is lost. Importantly, he is not advocating against a Christian’s participation in public, political life any more than he is advocating for it. After all, Newton was a friend and encourager to William Wilberforce, who remained active in political life at Newton’s urging. He is obviously, then, not speaking to the kind of political disengagement that is a virtue for some. At the same time, Newton is rightly concerned about a disposition of the heart that leads some Christians to questions and distractions outside the realm of both their power and authority.
We know little of what we think we know, and God has granted few of us power to actually affect political life; and yet, he has given all of us neighbors. And it is from the country that we truly reside, one filled with family, friends, and neighbors—and not the one presented by media—that believers will be ushered into another.
Querulus1Within the letter from which this passage is taken, Newton creates various characters to highlight Christian virtues and vices. He gives names to the characters, and he names this one Querulus, Latin for Complainer. The passage is taken from Select Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 66-67. wastes much of his precious time in declaiming against the management of public affairs; though he has neither access to the springs which move the wheels of government, nor influence either to accelerate or retard their motions. Our national concerns are no more affected by the remonstrances of Querulus, than the heavenly bodies are saved by the disputes of astronomers. While the newspapers are the chief sources of his intelligence, and his situation precludes him from being a competent judge neither of matters of fact, or matters of right, why should Querulus trouble himself with politics? This would be a weakness, if we consider him only as a member of society; but if we consider him as a Christian, it is worse than weakness: it is sinful conformity to the men of the world, who look no farther than to second causes, and forget that the LORD REIGNS. If a Christian be placed in a public sphere of action, he should undoubtedly be faithful to his calling, and endeavor by all lawful methods to transmit our privilege to posterity: but it would be better for Querulus to let the dead bury the dead. There are people enough to make a noise about political matters, who know not how to employ their time to better purposes. Our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world; and most of his people may do their country much more essential service by pleading for it in prayer, than by finding fault with such things which they have no power to alter. If Querulus had opportunity of spending a few months under some of the governments upon the Continent (I may indeed say under any of them), he would probably bring home with him a more grateful sense of the Lord’s goodness to him, in appointing his lot in Britain. As it is, his zeal is not only unprofitable to others, but hurtful to himself. It embitters his spirit, it diverts his thoughts from other things of greater importance, and prevents him from feeling the values of those blessings, civil and religious, which he actually possesses: and could he (as he wishes) prevail on many to act in the same spirit, the governing powers might be irritated to take every opportunity of abridging that religious liberty which we are favoured with above all nations upon the earth. Let me remind Querulus, that the hour is approaching, when many things, which at present too much engross his thoughts and inflame his passions, will appear as foreign to him as what is now transacting among the Tartars and or Chinese.
Notes & References
|Within the letter from which this passage is taken, Newton creates various characters to highlight Christian virtues and vices. He gives names to the characters, and he names this one Querulus, Latin for Complainer. The passage is taken from Select Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 66-67.