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In Politics and Religion, the Devil’s in the Details

Most readers are more than a little familiar with the encounter between Jesus and his disciples that is recorded in Matthew 16:13-20.
It began with Jesus asking the disciples what people were saying about him. Responses varied, but when Jesus asked the disciples what they thought about him, Peter declared, “Thou art the Christ.”

Jesus’ affirmative response followed, along with his assurance that Peter had not come to that decision on his own, that his declaration of faith was foundational to the church, and that this confession was empowering for the future of the disciples and the church.

If the encounter ended right there, it would seem enough. However, it did not. Jesus began to talk about the implications of his being the Christ.

A likely surprising detail was that, for the time being, the disciples were to keep this a secret (Matthew 16:20).

Beyond that, Jesus reminded them of his eventual trial, crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 16:21-28).

When Peter contended that such would never happen, Jesus called him “Satan” and told Peter to get behind him.

Jesus then continued with the demands of discipleship—the “he who saves his life shall lose it” passage—and assured them of the eventual judgment of all.

I have often been struck by the close proximity of Jesus’ bold approval of Simon Peter and his calling Peter “Satan.”

Of course, we don’t know how much time actually elapsed between the two, but they seem close.

I am reminded that it is one thing, and actually a fairly easy thing, to make declarations, preach sermons and pontificate about the person of Christ and the truth of the gospel.

It is quite another when the inherent realities of those declarations begin to raise their heads.

Peter’s declaration brought the open approval of Christ. His objecting to the implications of Christ’s lordship brought the Satan accusation.

Thus, in this case and in many others, the devil shows up when dealing with the details.

That old adage probably didn’t begin with this story. A variety of persons are credited with first saying it, but no one knows for sure.

It may have actually begun with “God is in the details,” which claims that God is involved in the details of doing good things.

On the one hand, a sanctuary or Christian gathering may ring with “amens” and shake with nods of approval when declarative preaching is taking place, when important positions are taken or when resolutions are approved.

On the other hand, when the committee or “team” is meeting and working out the details, or when the business meeting is in session and the details come to bear, Satan has a penchant for coming around.

The word “gridlock” is often used to describe the actions or inactions of many governments these days.

Political parties often seem so bound by ideology and party loyalty that too few seem willing to give a little for the common good.

At one time, I saw politics as being like a wrestling match—the opponents went at it until one was pinned, a winner was declared, and both lived to fight another day.

Today, political efforts seem more like a boxing match—an event in which the opponents bludgeon each other for a while, rest up for a minute, and go at it again.

If a knockout doesn’t take place or a towel isn’t tossed in, they stay at it until they are often unrecognizable and winning seems secondary.

I was ordained as a Baptist pastor in 1980, less than a year after changes in the Southern Baptist Convention began in earnest.

I was there when Joel Gregory preached his message of reconciliation, when the Peace Committee (a misnomer if ever there was one) reported, and when some efforts at coming together around the priorities of “missions and evangelism” were made.

I saw it all unravel when details of efforts to work together were presented. The scenes and efforts have been repeated in innumerable settings before and since.

Today, I read of the political struggles in Washington, Richmond and beyond, as the seeming unity that surrounds common vision dissipates when the implications are faced.

Most Republicans will readily agree to spending cuts, but balk when their constituency is at risk. Most Democrats behave likewise.

Most Republicans will even agree to some select tax increases, but not among their constituency.

Most Democrats are more open to tax increases, but want the bulk of tax increases to fall on someone other than them or their kind.

The fact that it will take both actions to restore fiscal sanity is outside the box.

A rousing State of the Union address may bring Washington to its feet, but the details that necessarily follow often bring a response that seems sent from hell.

To be sure, I don’t have the answers.

However, the spirit that unifies citizens and believers around dreams and visions must translate into some measure of camaraderie and compromise in the halls of political power and church business meetings, particularly when the details are considered.

Otherwise, the devil will continue to win without even having to try very hard.

Reggie Warren is pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Virginia, and a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.