Voices > Soul Food

Principle, pragmatism

Sometimes it takes a lot of both to win the biggest victories

Issue: "Finster's unusual art," April 27, 1996

Christians in this election year are confronted with the question of whether to work inside or outside the existing political parties. This is nothing new: Some in ancient Israel no doubt regarded the prophet Elijah as an impractical, hopeless romantic, always denouncing God's enemies and pronouncing doom and judgment against the wicked. He might get much further, they'd have thought, if he tried to "work within the system," perhaps accepting a respectable post as a minor official in King Ahab's administration. In time, he might be able to influence policy, subtly forestalling or derailing tyrannical assaults by the vicious, power-mad ruler bent on evil.

If Elijah's friends were to hear such a suggestion, they might regard it as little less than a seductive temptation to commit apostasy. Imagine! How could a godly man, for even one moment, contemplate making a deal with God's enemy? Yet Elijah did more than contemplate it. He was deeply involved in it, hip-deep. Intending to force a confrontation with Ahab (not to be confused with the prophet of the same name, who lived about four centuries later), one day the prophet suddenly accosted Obadiah, Ahab's butler.

Obadiah was a brave young man: During Queen Jezebel's recent rampage, he had demonstrated his courage by protecting about a hundred prophets in the caves dotting the landscape. But he was admittedly frightened by Elijah's offer to have a summit meeting with Ahab on Mount Carmel: Elijah's plan looked suspiciously like a trap. Besides, prophets were not known to have a track record of stability: Who could tell if Elijah might suddenly "feel led" to disappear? "I don't know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me!"

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Finally persuaded that Elijah's offer was sincere, Obadiah arranged the summit, and the rest is history: On Mount Carmel, false god Baal was humiliated and disgraced, 450 false prophets lost their lives, and the hearts of the people were turned back to Yahweh, repeating: "The lord, He is God! The lord, He is God!"

Understandably, Elijah is the hero of this story, inspiring countless sermons and Sunday School lessons. But we often forget the largely unsung hero: Obadiah. Elijah wouldn't have been able to have arranged the confrontation on Carmel all by himself. He needed a friend in high places. Of course, there wouldn't have been a story without Elijah either. To get the job done, God's providential purposes required both the prophet and the bureaucrat, the exiled "radical" and the well-placed "compromiser." Both elements in God's equation needed to understand and appreciate each other; it is indeed a tragedy when that doesn't take place.

During the Protestant Reformation in England, two very different leadership styles were represented by John Knox and John Hooper. Both men were undoubtedly courageous, but their tactics widely differed. Knox is remembered today as the "fiery Scot" whose writings and sermons shook the world, but in some ways Hooper was by far the more radical.

In every situation, Hooper and Knox acted differently-with dramatically different consequences. Hooper recklessly declared his beliefs, without considering the political consequences; Knox never compromised his principles, but never went further than seemed tactically advisable. Hooper defied the law, and was imprisoned; Knox stayed just within the law, and avoided imprisonment. Hooper refused to flee, and offered himself for martyrdom; Knox fled, and afterward led a successful revolution. Hooper died at the stake; Knox lived to send his enemies to the gallows.

It is worth noting that our Lord did not adopt a "martyr complex," either for himself or for his disciples. Luke 4:28-30 records what probably was a typical example of Jesus' avoiding a confrontation by passing unnoticed through a hostile crowd. In fact, he urged his disciples to run from persecution whenever possible: "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another" (Matthew 10:23). It appears that they took his advice, too: In Acts 8:1 the early Christians chose evangelistic flight rather than noble martyrdom, and so the gospel eventually spread from Jerusalem to the Empire.

We can extend the argument further. Luke 22:36-38 quotes what some commentators stoutly insist could never have happened: Jesus Christ's plain authorization of self-defense when disciples face a hostile world. On the other hand, Hebrews 11:35 honors a more familiar picture: Early martyrs were "tortured, not accepting deliverance." While Paul didn't always insist on his legal right to be treated with the elite honors due a Roman citizen, sometimes he did (Acts 16:37; 22:29; 25:11; 26:32); here is no single "pat answer" about what to do when faced with opposition. The wise Christian "understands the times" and acts accordingly (1 Chronicles 12:32; Ephesians 5:15-17).

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