Monday, May 17, 2010

Christian Politics 101

Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
Mark 12:17

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.

John 18:36

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.
Matthew 10:16-18

About 2 months ago, theologian and conversation partner Justin Ashworth (MDiv, Fuller and on his way to further study at Duke Divinity) asked EasyYolk to respond to two important questions about our theological and political convictions (I simplify his questions here):

1. What is your view of how church and state work together and why do you think that your view is a better view than others?

2. Why do you think that readers who say that you have a leftist agenda are wrong?

Ashworth's questions were bathed with the deepest ethos of love and respect. They weren't attacking questions, but instead he posed them because they are matters that should be given priority because they are such vital concepts that hover over practically every post we write. Although most readers would not necessarily pin-point these questions per se (and we invite any and every question from all of our conversation partners), much of the disagreements between reader and EasyYolk boil down to these elements. Finally, here is our response to Ashworth's first question (we'll discuss the second question in a post later this week).
Living faithfully in regards to political engagement in 21st century America requires us to start with identifying three crucial pieces of baggage: fundamentalism, Constantinianism and the Enlightenment. It is essential to have a basic understanding of these in order to understand where our current misconceptions of the church-state relationship in the United States are rooted.

1. Constantinianism: in the early 4th century, the Emperor Constantine made a bold political move in an attempt to unify his kingdom--he legalized the Christian faith and gave it status. For the first time in 300 years, followers of Jesus were no longer a persecuted minority, but now had political power and prestige and privilege. Eventually, it became mandatory for all Romans to become Christians. Although it was, in theory, "one nation under God," this mentality led to a coercive and compromised faith.

2. The Enlightenment (or "Modernity"): sometime around roughly 1650, bruised by religious wars (Protestants versus Catholics) and disease throughout Europe, philosophers and religious leaders began to creatively espouse a worldview that breathed certainty and security into a world of confusion and constant threats. This led to "self-evident truths" that universalize biblical readings and it birthed a new understanding of religion that attempted to quarantine faith into a private realm of "spirituality" or "religion," separate from "politics" and "economics." A Christian politician, then, would check his religion at the door of the legislature, while the Christian pastor checked his politics at the door of the church building.

3. Fundamentalism: about 100 years ago, American Christians became more and more threatened by a trendy critical engagement with the Bible coming out of Europe (much more complex than simple "self-evident truths"), the Christian challenge of confronting horrific poverty and working conditions in the American inner-city (the social gospel) and the popularity of macro-evolution, which Christians viewed as a theory that competed with a literal reading of Genesis concerning the origins of the universe. The fundamentalist movement sought to defend the "fundamentals" of the dominant form of Christian faith in the US exemplified in their "doctrines" of an inerrant, self-evident reading of the Bible, a spiritual and future rendering of "the gospel" and an ambivalent stance towards government ("politics" mostly didn't matter except when it dealt with "moral" issues like evolution, alcohol and, eventually, abortion and homosexuality).

50 years ago, C.S. Lewis coined the phrase "chronological snobbery" referring to the human tendency, especially throughout the 20th century, to believe that we have it all figured out and that earlier generations don't matter. Present-day Westerners are ahistorical creatures. Lewis' phrase greatly applies especially to American Evangelicals. We desperately need to awake to the notion that it has been these earlier generations who, in fact, have greatly shaped the way we see Christian faith and how we engage with government. EasyYolk believes that our task is to wrestle with the biblical text itself in regards to how Jesus and his first disciples viewed "the state" and to honestly acknowledge the various ways that the Body of Christ has been and still is unfaithful in this ongoing political vocation. In various ways, these 3 strains have infected our vision of "Christian politics." We need to refresh our mission and throw off the shrapnel of these previous eras. We can do this by intentionally and humbly looking back to Jesus and the original disciples.

Arguably the most important vocabulary, echoed throughout the entire New Testament, was political: gospel, repentance, Messiah, kingdom of God, Son of God, Savior, Lord, church. Although it has been transformed by Luther's "two realms" theory of spirituality and politics, Jesus' "render unto Caesar" was a clear-cut choice for any would-be disciple: will you pledge allegiance to the empire of Caesar or the kingdom of God?

At baptism, the earliest Christians were, indeed, pledging themselves to a primary allegiance to the reign of God inaugurated in the crucified-yet-resurrected Jew named Jesus from Nazareth. They called him "the Christ" (or "messiah" in Hebrew), meaning "king." In fact, no one living in Palestine the 1st century CE would have understood the Messiah to be "spiritual" or "otherworldly." And, contrary to contemporary popular opinion, they weren't wrong about that. The paradigm that Jesus did, however, flip on its head was that Jesus taught and lived and died for a different kind of political reality.

"You have heard it said, but I say to you..." is how Jesus started many of his sermons (see Matthew 5-7) and when he stood before Pilate on the night of his unjust arrest and execution, he proclaimed that ‘My kingdom is not from this world." (John 18:36a) Greatly influenced by Constantinian, Modern and Fundamentalist thought, most contemporary Christian stop here and assume that Jesus was referring to a future heaven or a spiritually renewed heart. But Jesus continues, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews." (John 18:36b) Jesus, as a 1st century trailblazer to Gandhi and King, was all about confrtonting injustice with nonviolent direct action. The ethos of the world, on the other hand, was to seek revenge and overthrow the bad guys by taking up weapons and kicking some ass. Things haven't changed.

After his death and resurrection, Jesus exhorted his followers to go to the ends of the earth to invite others to join the cause: "teaching them to do everything I have commanded" (Matthew 28:18-20). As the gospel writers reported 3-4 decades later, this subversive teaching demanded that the disciples of Jesus, eventually called "Christians" (Acts 11:26), were to love their neighbors and enemies (not just those from their own tribe or nationality), to commit themselves to lives of humble service (not domination), forgiveness (not revenge), full acceptance (not exclusion) and to abundantly share their resources with one another (not hoarding or "investing"). These teachings formed the "politics" that the disciple communities committed to. It is what they pledged allegiance to in the power and legacy of the Spirit of Jesus. In fact, the Apostle Paul uses the greek word politeuma twice (the only times he uses this vocabulary in any of his surviving writings) in his epistle to the small community in the Roman colonial outpost of Philippi (1:18; 3:20). The local Christian "church" lived out the politics of Jesus, forming an alternative option to the politics of Caesar.

Here's how the Christians were described in the Epistle to Diognetus (100-150 CE), perhaps the earliest written defense of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire:

But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they
live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

These earliest Christians did not take their nationality or patriotism as their primary identity. They were, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of God and this kind of radical vocation (every Christian was a full-blown pacifist...just like their Master) is what the minority Christians, enduring cycles of persecutions at the hands of various emperors, committed to for the first 3 centuries after Jesus' crucifixion.

And then came Constantine, who encouraged Christian faith while using it for political gain, unifying the fragmented Empire. The Christians liked the taste of this new found political power and prestige, but it slowly compromised their faithfulness. Christianity became extremely popular, but lost its radical edge. John Howard Yoder, one of the towering Christian theologians of the 20th cenutry, called it "the Constintinian concubinage." That's right, the Church whored itself out to the world in exchange for massive numerical growth, respect and legitimacy. It certainly became watered-down, but various groups over the centuries, from the monks to the Waldensians to the Anabaptists, kept the revolutionary politics of Jesus alive.

We live on the other side of the Constantinian concubinage. Most of American Christianity is a form of "civil religion" that pledges allegiance to the political flag of the USA, while bowing to a spiritual version of Jesus' cross: Jesus died for our sins in order to acquit us or cleanse us from our sins so that we can have a personal relationship with God and go to heaven when we die. However, EasyYolk is at home in the minority report of Christian sub-traditions who "carry the cross" as a political vocation: Jesus' death came about primarily because of his obedience to the will of God which threatened the powers that be.

In a democracy like the US, the people have the power and the responsibility to govern. Those local churches that pledge allegiance to the reign of God as distinctly alternative to the American empire, however, live and speak and write and boldly criticize ways that our various forms of local, state and national government (and business and media and religious institutions) de-humanize and counterfeit God's will through social, economic and foreign policies. It is blasphemous to call the United States "the new Israel" or "a city on a hill." In the New Testament, these are metaphors used to describe the people of God in Christ who are determined to live and breathe the will of God no matter what the cost. Just because 75% of Americans call themselves "Christians" and "In God We Trust" is on our coinage doesn't mean we are a "Christian nation." Only a true separation between church and state is truly "Christian" because anything else, as history has proven, tends towards "coercion" or "compromise."

Our Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution in order "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves." This is the telos, or goal, of the US government.

On the other hand, the church, as the Body of Christ, exists to be a sign and foretaste of the reign of God inaugurated in Christ. These local faith communities enact the politics of Jesus consistently and creatively. The church is entrusted with the vocation of living out this vision of humanity. One aspect of doing God's will, as exemplified in Jesus, is the prophetic task of confronting "the principalities and powers" (see Colossians 2:13-15; Ephesians 1:) of our world that Jesus came to defeat. These are not demonic spirits in the air (a popular interpreation over the centuries), but the very real power systems that order our world. God created them (Col 1:16), but when they become god-like and demand worship and oppress humanity and God's creation, the people of God must speak and act against them.

The key question for the American Body of Christ, in regards to its relationship to "state politics", is how our various national, state and local governments go about establishing justice, providing defense, forming national unity, ensuring tranquility and securing liberty in the country in which we are "resident aliens." Where do the "reign of God" and the "reign of America" conflict? What are the deal-breakers for those of us committed to "gospel logic" living in a culture largely enmeshed with "the American dream?" This is the conflictual, (in)tense political space where Christian disciples dwell. Neither political package labeled "conservative" nor "liberal" faithfully addresses these questions for Christian disciples (more on this in our next post).

As a representative sample, based on the Bible and the historical minority report of "radical discipleship" Christianity, we believe that the following policies cannot be advocated, excused or justified:

-unmanned drones, controlled from military personnel in Nevada, that seek to kill al Qaeda and Taliban affliates in Pakistan, but have killed civilians at 50x the rate of suspected terrorists (this is no way for God's people to treat "the image of God" or love their neighbors)
-laissez-faire policies that regard abortion as a "woman's right" in any and every situation (unborn "life" and the cheapening of human sexuality should be weighed together with complex pregnancy termination decisions that overwhelmingly are placed on women)
-various tax policies that inherently expand the gap between the rich and the poor (this has much to do with what Jesus was getting at when he called the rich man to give up his possessions/properties in order to become a disciple and what Jesus protested in the temple action that led to his death)
-financial bailouts or subsidies that alleviate corporate personal responsibility and accountability and that adversely affect our national (and global) population
-de-regulation that gives corporations even more opportunities to take risks in order to magnify their already jacked-up profits (think oil spills and financial derivatives)
-the overwhelming focus on military recruitment as an outlet for young men and women looking for a future, but who cannot afford an education (the prophet Isaiah's vision of "beating swords into plowshares" is quite applicable here)
-any perceived scapegoating of vulnerable minority groups like the poor (under the guise of "lazy"), gays/lesbians (under the guise of "protecting the sanctity of marriage"), illegal immigrants (under the guise of "law-breakers" or "job-stealers") and Muslims (under the guise of "violent" or "misogynist" religion)--vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed people groups are always given privilege by the God of the Bible
-the perpetuation of an overeliance on non-renewable sources of energy that leads to a destruction of God's Creation (we are called to be "stewards," not "dominators" of the earth's precious resources)
-any set aside National Day of Prayer or prayers that invoke God's name (or more specifically "in Jesus' name") at the beginning of legislative sessions or coinage that bears "In God We Trust" (this is using God's name in vain, often times to justify actions, whether rampant consumerism or violent imperialism (etc), that the God of the Bible simply will not bless no matter how loudly or officially we chant God's name)
-the exhortation of American citizens to be consumers and shoppers so that the economy can be "healthy" again (we are called to live simply and give abundantly and our identity is rooted in the love of God and neighbor, not in what we buy)

This sample "platform" is not intended to be simple. It deserves a lot more consistent and creative discernment (and expansion) within local, Spirit-driven communities committed to a post-Constantinian, post-Enlightenment and post-Fundamentalist mindset. Christians, we believe, are called to work in, with, through and/or against government, depending on the issue, event, policy or leader. Jesus' missionary call for his disciples in a world of "ravenous wolves" was (and is) to be "as wise serpents and as innocent as doves." A real Christian platform must be, first, lived out in our local church (the political body of the kingdom of God) and it must take into account both the systems that shape us, as well as the importance of personal responsibility of each and every global citizen.

As we see it, there are a few Christian political rival mentalities that simply do not compel us:

1. "We Want Our Country Back" (the glorification of a not-too-long-ago mythical "Christian nation" that the liberals, through court rulings and laws, stole from us)

2. "The Religious Right is Always Right" (just follow the conservative political road to God's Will)

3. "Jesus Was a Liberal" (because jesus shook up his political world, so should we...with the liberal political package)

4. "Politics is Simply NOT Important" (the Christian gospel is spiritual and future--we should spend our Time here on earth getting souls saved for heaven)

5. "We Can Change the World Primarily Through Laws and Leaders" (there is always a tendency on both the right and the left to place all of our transformative eggs in the government basket)

6. "Christian Politics is Only Performed in the Local Church" (we are citizens of the kingdom of God and we live it out in community with fellow disciples)

As it is, our Christian political culture is fragmented. Many Christian individuals and communities live out a variety of these options, depending on the issue or event. Some fundamentalist, or conservative Evangelical, brands of Christianity jump around from #1 to #2 to #4. EasyYolk is most at home with conversation partners that are determined to live out #6 (a "radical discipleship" option that places a lot of emphasis on the intentional performance of subversive practices over against beliefs, doctrines and/or "individualistic" & "escapist" definitions of salvation), although many readers would place us with #3 (again, more on that next post).

Any political discipleship philosophy that neglects or downplays the Christian disciples call to engage, based on one's theology, apathy, cynicism or naivete, is wrong-headed. The vulnerable and destitute need our God-ordained voices in a world of derivatives, oil spills, drone wars, racial profiling, abortion-on-demand, human trafficking, sub-prime mortgages, foreclosures and sexting. Local churches model personal responsibility and accountability (the kingdom of God!) "before the watching world" (John Howard Yoder) in all these factors (and so much more). But churches should press and protest government bodies to enact policies that protect the disadvantaged from the privileged, infusing them with more of the kind of life God intended. As Martin Luther King said, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me."

*Readers interested in more of this political conversation can read the chapter in the rough draft of my eBook here--I'd love is truly a work in progress.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. Great response to my question--so impressed!

    Three things: first, good call on placing current sensibilities in the context of Const., Enligh., Fund'lism. It's important for us to realize that religious right, conservative evangelicalism / fundamentalism is not the only form of Xtn political commitment.

    Second, I love your paragraph beginning "The key question..." It shows that there simply is no monolithic "relation" b/t church and state, unless one admits that it will always be one of negotiation, challenge, acceptance, critique, rejection, support, qualification, etc. In other words, it sounds like what you're proposing is that Xtn politics take on a more "classical" definition of constant reasoning together about the goods of society in light of that highest good which is God's reign. I like. (D. Stephen Long thinks very much along these lines.)

    Third, I appreciate your rival Xtn pol mentalities at the end. I obviously tend towards a softer version of #6 as well (maybe more like "The 'truest' politics occurs in the church" -- understanding that in an Augustinian sense), but conversation with you and some others has convinced me that this could lead to a sort of aloofness from society that ends up looking a lot like #4. That would be problematic.

    Enough from me. Thanks for a great response to my questions--and for taking them as "bathed in love," which they definitely were! Looking forward to the next installment.


  2. Great post. I'm looking forward to the second installment. Is #6 the antithesis of #5? It is interesting to consider how 1 corinthians 10 23-29ish fits into the role of Christians shaping legislation. Obviously there are things on your sample platform which are non-negotiables on the other hand it may be ok that the American's are consumers, and it doesn't matter much to legislate away consumerism (if we think of a platform is a political agenda).

    on a side note. Justin, I am currently at Duke. If you have any questions about the area or need any help feel free to contact me.