Christian Politics

Sunday, November 16, 2008

In my last blog post I addressed the question of how we can know whether a President (or any political official) is a Christian, and suggested that the real question we need to ask (one that should affect our vote) is not about their personal faith, but about how they will govern, what they value, who they will represent, how they will conduct themselves... In this post I would like to explore that more concretely: What does it mean to govern in a Christ-like way?


In America when that question is evoked one immediately thinks of the Christian Right. I would like to propose however that the way the right - in other words, they way my church - has gone about this has been in a way that reflects the opposite values of the kingdom of God. Let me interject that I in many ways agree with the positions themselves, but what I object to, and see a profoundly un-Christ-like is how we go about pursuing those goals. For example I am pro-life, but I seriously question whether the pro-life movement has a reputation of grace and Christ-like love.

So what I would like to unpack is what the values of the kingdom of God are, and how they can be applied to political life. One way that Jesus defines the kingdom of God is in contrast to the "kingdom of Satan," or in John's terminology, in contrast to the "world". By 'world' here John means 'worldliness'. In other words, a system of values which Walter Wink calls the "domination system". This world system is run though force and dominance. The strong rise to the top, the weak lose. It's law of justice is the rule of quid pro quo - you get what you have coming to you. In stark contrast to this Jesus says that his kingdom is "not from this world" system. If it were a world-values-based kingdom Jesus continues - he would have used military might (a legion of angels) to attack the Romans. But the kingdom of God does not come to us by force, but comes in weakness and humility. The 'first' are made last, and the last first. The poor are blessed. Its law of justice is a redeeming justice that seeks to heal and mend. The true leader "will be the servant of all."

Throughout history many people have tried to adopt a "two kingdoms" approach to this, saying that while they acknowledge that the kingdom of God is the right way to go, it is unrealistic. In the "real world" things work differently, and if you want to move in the real political world you need to use manipulation, power, wealth, and force to survive and win in that world. Others have seen this world of dog-eat-dog dominance as so evil that they have concluded that it is simply not possible for a Christian to be involved in politics at all. I would like to propose here a third option - that we should be involved in every part of our society, that we should have a role in how our country and society is shaped and not simply abandon it, reducing faith to a private affair. But to do so we will need to find a way of being in politics that can be "in the world, but not of it". One of the models for this comes from the Anabaptist response to our prison system which involved introducing restorative justice. That's a practical example of how a completely new, deeply Christian paradigm can engage and reform the existing system. I've blogged a bit about this HERE.

For example a Christian would have to reject the dirty political campaigning that seeks to manipulate voters through fear, and instead appeal to the good in us, to serve, to engage, to believe and hope and work to make our country a more just place. It would need to be one that does not polarize people into 'us versus them', but seeks to reconcile both our divisions at home, and our divisions abroad. It would have to be a politics that has its focus on compassion, rather than on law. It would need to be a politics that is accountable, transparent, and honest with its citizens. It would need to be a politics that acknowledges our human penchant towards sin and pride and which is therefore open to hearing from the other side, rather than one that seeks to have absolute control, trumping the Constitution, the Congress, and the courts. It would have to be one that can see its errors and learn, rather than one that insists that it is beyond error. As if learning and adapting were a sign of weakness.

The issue here is not about specific policies. We might disagree on the best way to address poverty for example. But I think where we can agree is that the way that (neo) conservative politics has conducted itself, both in its governing and its campaigning, has been in a way that is diametrically opposed to the values of Christ and his kingdom. And what's more, the conservative church has uncritically aligned themselves with this new Constantinianism. So much so that for me to critique it virtually disqualifies me from being a conservative, even though many of the positions I hold are conservative both morally and theologically.

I think the church's tunnel vision here stems from a deeper issue. We cannot recognize this worldly behavior in a politician because we can't even recognize it in a pastor. I've gone to churches where the pastor was extremely arrogant, prideful, and judgmental. Even though there is, biblically speaking, no sin that is confronted more harshly by both Jesus and Paul than religious pride and judgmentalism, this pastor was not seen as someone with a profound sin problem, but as a "powerful preacher". Until we truly value Christ-like servant leadership in church, we will not as a church be able to instill those kingdom values in those people in our congregation who will go into politics, nor for that matter will we be able to disciple those who will become the future CEO's of our world in what it looks like to do that as Jesus would, and on and on. The values of the kingdom are not simply about being for or against something, it is a way of being in the world which is characterized by grace.


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4 Comments:

At 6:48 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

I like most of what you have to say here, Derek. I feel much the same way about the abortion issue as you.

The part I seem to diverge on is when you start talking about the three systems (the two old and the one 'new' proposition). That section seems a bit confused (not confusing).

Yes, there are basically three different approaches to Christians & Politics. The first, 'two kingdoms,' is exactly as you say. You said, "Others have seen this world of dog-eat-dog dominance as so evil that they have concluded that it is simply not possible for a Christian to be involved in politics at all." This would be the camp that I fall into. Some call this Christian Anarchism, but prefer Christarchism.

However, I fell that you demonstrate a misunderstanding of the position with your next statement. You said, "I would like to propose here a third option - that we should be involved in every part of our society, that we should have a role in how our country and society is shaped and not simply abandon it, reducing faith to a private affair," essentially equating the second position with a sort of pietism. I have been accused of this by many people who fail to grasp a very simple concept (as has Greg Boyd, and Mark Van Steenwyk [www.jesusmanifesto.com]). The false assumption is that to remove oneself from the political process is to do nothing at all (much like your statement above says). I believe that we should have a role in how our society is shaped and that we certainly should NOT abandon it. THIS is the position of the Anabaptists/Mennonites.

The point is not only that the system is corrupted or that satan is the acting CEO of all kingdoms-of-the-world, but that the very idea of trying to bring change through government/politics (the empire) demonstrates a misplaced trust/hope.

I agree with you that if a person were to try to govern empire in a Christ-like it would/should look much like what you've written, but the question still remains, "Should we seek to govern this way?"

Jesus rejected the offer of ruling the kingdoms-of-the-world offered to Him by satan. I believe that we should too. Jesus didn't seek to bring change through government/politics (nor did He try to change the government itself). I don't believe we should either.

stay salty,
>>zack

 
At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Zack,

I am familiar with Boyd's views here (I've read his book "Myth of a Christian Nation" and listened to his sermon series on it). From that I would conclude that Boyd's position is that what Christians should be involved in is saving souls and not in any sort of political or societal reform. In other words, Boyd (along with statistically most Evangelicals) believes by saving souls this naturally will lead to social reform.

Now is that same view that you are espousing? or would you describe your position differently? What I find needs unpacking, is if we should have a role in how our society is shaped and not abandon it as you say - what would that look like? Do you go beyond Boyd's approach above?

For my own position, I am not advocating placing trust in empire (the kingdom of Satan), but in the kingdom of God, and I would maintain that His kingdom affects life on a personal AND on a social level. It affects every aspect of human relational life. Jesus rejected the offer of Satan to rule the kingdoms as you say, but under what conditions?

"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 'All this I will give you,' he said, 'if you will bow down and worship me.'" (Mt 4:8-9)

Jesus rejected not rule, but rule under the false kingdom. Rule under Satan. Just as Jesus rejected the false role of God in Philippians:

"Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing,taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." (Col 2:5-6)

But of course that very passage ends concluding "every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (v 11). Jesus rejected a false image of God and a false understanding of power. He did not reject Lordship nor kingdom. I think we can bring about change - through art, through charity, through social work, through community... and yes through government too. All are important aspects that we should not neglect. And all of these things - being an artist, a politician, a scientist, a relief worker, a CEO, are things that we can do with salt, informed by the way of Christ. But they do not happen (contra Boyd) automatically. They require discipleship.

 
At 7:01 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Hey Derek!

I do take Boyd's position a little further in that I choose not to vote. Boyd says he still participates in the process in that regard. Aside from that, I find that I basically square away with his position.

I've also been pretty heavily influenced by Mark Van Steenwyk from jesusmanifesto.org as well. He is a Mennonite pastor that leads an intentional community (neo-monastic) in Minneapolis.

You said,
"From that I would conclude that Boyd's position is that what Christians should be involved in is saving souls and not in any sort of political or societal reform."

Having read about everything by the guy I can get my hands on, I don't believe that accurately represents his position. In fact, I think the article at http://www.gregboyd.org/qa/christians-social-issues/christians-politics/are-you-a-pietist/ was written to debunk that very misunderstanding. Give it a read if you have the time.

stay salty,
>>zack

 
At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Zack,

I read the Boyd article. One thing he points out which I think is important is that historically pietism was very socially engaged – in working with the poor, in fighting slavery, in feminism, and so on. So to label the 2nd position as “pietism” is historically inaccurate. It also seems unfair to identify this with Anabaptists and Mennonites since they have been instrumental in working towards restorative justice. Heck, Mark Van Steenwyk is a Mennonite pastor.

I do appreciate Boyd's call to social activism and engagement in his paper. I am also quite familiar with the work of Yoder and Hauerwas who all speak of the dangers of empire, and Walter Wink who coined the term “myth of redemptive violence”. So I think I can say I very much understand and sympathize with the basic position of web journals like Jesusmanifesto. I am also a big fan of Boyd and like you have read everything he has ever written. All that said, I still feel like there is quite a bit of over generalization going on here in how “politics” is being framed by the “Christianarchy” crowd, and a more nuanced view is in order.

For example, the politics of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ is very different from the politics in the United States today. At the time of Jesus the poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill had no societal resources outside of family. Today we have a complex network of social services, shelters, soup kitchens, free clinics, 12-step-programs, and on and on. They are by no means perfect, but they are vast improvement over what was there at the time of Jesus, and people who work as social workers or in an ER are in a very real way living a life of sacrifice. Part of the reason that those people who work with the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, those with AIDS, can do so is because we have a society that has established those institutional structures. In other words, part of what government does is make those kinds of humane social services possible on a one-to-one “street level” basis.

I would also point out that work with the poor, hospitals, orphanages, hospices, 12-step-programs, rehabilitation for prisoners, woman's shelters, and on and on are all things that begun as works of the church, and which have become integral parts of what we today find makes up a humane society. In other words, the church has shaped society to be more compassionate, and that is again woven into what our government does. Our government also I might add guarantees our right to protest. In ancient Rome protesters were crucified on a public hill. Today protesters are given police protection and have streets blocked off for them to march. Why? Because our government believes that protest is a part of how a healthy politics takes place. When you protest, you are taking part in democracy and government.

So the church has through engagement in society over the years gradually transformed the “empire” into a place that still gets involved with some pretty shady military actions, but at the same time can also produce hospitals, woman's shelters, and global aide to fight poverty. That's why Walter Wink has argued that, biblically speaking, the Powers are, like us, fallen but redeemable. The Powers are, like us, messed up and sinful, but also capable of grace. That's why I think that one can do good as a social worker, as an activist, and as a politician if one endeavors to bring the way of Jesus into their work.

 

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