What is “Politiks”?

To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning
of the uprising against the disorder of the world.

Karl Barth

We know about prayer, right? But politiks?

The term is excerpted from the German word Realpolitik, coined in the nineteenth century to refer to the merging of enlightened political ideals with pragmatic realities. Real: realistic, based on actual history and material facts. Politik: politics.

Politics is really just the art of divvying up the swag.
Will Rogers

Later the word took on more sinister meaning, as in hardball politics: Public policy achieved through coercive, partisan or ruthless means. In this sense, being political involves lying, cheating, and double-crossing in pursuit of your aim. The ends justifies the means. In its common use in the English language, politics seems the polar opposite of biblical values in general and the teachings of Jesus in particular.

But the origins of the word politics point to a very different orientation. Polis is the Greek term for “city,” and politics has to do with the complex web of relationships which characterize and govern the community. It holds true whether in the most intimate of personal relations or among the family of nations—and, as we are becoming aware, in the relations between the human community and the rest of creation.

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice,
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

In this sense, biblical faith is inherently political. In its more ancient frame of reference, politics involves decisions about the well-being (shalom) of all creation. Politics is the process by which we make decisions involving tangible assets based on moral values derived from spiritual vision. Peace is its goal; justice is its means; and mercy negotiates the conditions of peace with the demands of justice.

Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.
Charles Péguy

Ahh, but there’s the rub. What passes for spirituality these days often involves more than a little sugary confection. Modern notions of spirituality are a bit like cotton candy: Coming at you, it looks bigger than life; but when you bite into it, you discover it’s mostly air, and what substance there is can rot your teeth and turn your stomach.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight,
and the earth was filled with violence.

Genesis 6:11

Biblically speaking, spiritual corruption and physical violence are related as smoke to fire. One is indicative of the other. Violence and sin mirror each other. Spiritual transformation—getting “saved,” being “born again”—entails a reordering of human values. Few themes are more prominent in the Bible than God’s bias for the poor—the shackled, the shivering and the shamed, for all who lack access to the bounty of creation.

You have heard it said,
“You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
But I say to you,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 5:43-44

So, we are back to where we started—with prayer. But not just any prayer, but prayer in the context of dispute and conflict. Spiritual life, in the manner of Jesus, involves hitching the disciplines of prayer to the practice of a Realpolitik of the Spirit. As in when Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

The prevalent notion that spirituality and politics have nothing
to do with one another is the exact opposite of the truth.
Once it is accepted in a realistic sense, the spiritual life has
everything to do with politics. It means that certain convictions
about God and the world become the moral and spiritual
imperatives of our life; and this must be decisive for
the way we choose to behave about that bit of
the world over which we have been
given a limited control.

Evelyn Underhill

Practicing prayer-and-politiks is not the pursuit of an impossible ideal, or the fantasy of woolly-headed day dreamers, lost in the fog of sentiment and segregated from the blood-smeared face of history. The care we extend to the broken, battered and bruised parts of creation is a form of prayer before it is an act of ethics. For it is from the margins, where life is coming unraveled, that our hearts are most open to the beat of God’s promised future. “It is from the ash heap God is seen.” (Archibald MacLeish in J.B.)

Ken Sehested