Put Not Your Trust in Princes…or Presidents

Put Not Your Trust in Princes…or Presidents
Brian Zahnd

In my time of prayer this morning I prayed Psalm 146, and it resonated so deeply within me that I would like to share it with you. Please take a moment and acquaint yourself with this ancient Hebrew hymn.

Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their plans perish.
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!
whose hope is in the LORD their God;
Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise for ever;
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed,
and food to those who hunger.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
The LORD shall reign forever,
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

During the final throes of this tumultuous election season the thing that troubles me most as a pastor is the degree to which those who ostensibly confess that Jesus is Lord put their trust in political princes, parties, and presidents. Day after day I hear high-profile Christian leaders announcing with frenzied alarm that the cause of Christ hangs perilously in the balance and can only be saved by a particular election outcome. These religious alarmists speak breathlessly of the need for a politician to “save Christianity” or “protect God.” It’s political hyperbole of the most ludicrous kind. But the ancient psalmist knows better than to fall for that blather. Rather the wise sage says in the song,

Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last, they return to earth,
and in that day their plans perish.

I can imagine this anonymous psalmist rolling his (or her?) eyes at the religious-political rhetoric currently in circulation. Ancient Hebrew psalmists and prophets had too much experience with Egypt and Babylon and other empires to fall for the propaganda that the plans of a mortal prince could rescue or imperil the purposes of God. As Daniel said so succinctly to a puffed-up Nebuchadnezzar: “Heaven rules.” (Daniel 4:26)

Furthermore, the early Christians in the Roman Empire knew better than to fall for the pretentious imperial claims that Caesar was the savior of the world. Their audacious confession was that Jesus — not Caesar! — is the savior of the world. Early Christians believed the world would be saved by the Son of God, not by some child of earth — even if that mortal was momentarily emperor of the Roman world.

But things changed once Christians fell for the preposterous claim that Jesus Christ has temporarily deferred his earthly Lordship to a sword-wielding emperor because Caesar was now some version of a Christian. And though this theological blunder was understandable (perhaps even inevitable) in the time of Constantine, it is totally inexcusable for Christians seventeen centuries later to pursue the now thoroughly discredited project of a political Christendom. Put not your trust in princes. The ancient psalmist was right all along.

The proclivity for modern American Christians to put their trust in politicians and political parties to bring about the purposes of God reveals a tragic deficiency in many of the most important theological categories. (We are indeed a nation of heretics!) The phenomenon of the Christian Right and Christian Left is the inevitable result of a low Christology, an insufficient soteriology, and an almost non-existent ecclesiology. Unless we believe the church is a viable avenue to embody the kingdom of Christ, partisan politics trumps everything. The ultimate problem with the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that “Christian” gets relegated to adjective duty in service of the all-important political noun. What really matters is the political Right or Left, and Jesus is merely trotted out as a mascot to endorse the true object of faith: a political ideology. But I refuse to get on that train and I will stubbornly keep saying, “Put not your trust in princes!”

But neither am I an anarchist. I understand the need for civil governance and recognize that in a representative democracy I have a voice and a vote. What do I do with that vote? On the imperial level (as opposed to the local) I mostly look for who will do the least harm. If I cast a ballot for Caesar, I cast it for the most benign version of Caesar. And recognizing that it is possible for even secular princes to somewhat cooperate with the purposes of God, I do hope that now and then some of the political powers might show an interest in what our psalmist sets forth as the politics of Yahweh:

To give justice to the oppressed.
To give food to those who hunger.
To set the prisoners free.
To lift up those who are bowed down.
To care for the stranger.
To sustain the orphan and widow.

If a politician wants to align their politics with the politics of God, then the political agenda set forth in Psalm 146 is what they will prioritize. And all the Hebrew prophets (including Jesus) said, “Amen!”

But my expectations are low and I’m certainly not putting my trust in princes and their political parties. Let me once again be clear, I’m not an anarchist and I’m not retreating into quietism. Nevertheless, when I confess that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, this is not an empty platitude — I really believe it! I really do believe the world will be saved by Christ — not just parts of people for another world, as an insufficient soteriology would suggest, but the world itself!

In the meantime the church needs to occupy itself, not so much with trying to change the world, but by seeking to be the world as already changed by Christ. For if we see it as our task to change (save) the world, the temptation to reach for Caesar’s sword (think of Sauron’s ring of power) will prove too much. And once we start down that road, our compromise and corruption are guaranteed. So please, church, put not your trust in princes — put your trust in our risen Lord who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.