Christian Political Witness: A Review

I want to say thanks to Scot McKnight for sending me a copy of Christian Political Witness for an online review.

Scot asked his readers for names of potential reviewers, I was nominated and then selected by Scot.

Christian Political Witness collects the papers that were presented at the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference which tackled the subject "Christian Political Witness." (You can watch videos from that conference here.) In a partnership with Wheaton, IVP Press publishes the papers from the conference. The volume Christian Political Witness, that gathers the respective papers from the conference, was edited by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee.

Contributors to the conference and the book include: Stanley Hauerwas, Mark Noll, Scot McKnight, Timothy Gombis, George Kalantzis, Jana Marguerite Bennett, William Cavanaugh, Peter Leithart, Daniel Bell, Jennifer McBride, David Gushee, and David Gitari.

It is difficult to summarize the entire volume of Christian Political Witness as each chapter is topical and stands on its own. So what I'd like to do is try to trace one central theme through the volume bringing in other topics as they come up.

If there is a theme that holds most of Christian Political Witness together it is this: Christian political witness is the politics of the church.

By itself that claim isn't all that new or novel, but various contributors unpack this idea in some interesting and provocative ways.

For example, let's start with Scot's own contribution entitled "Extra Ecclesiam Nullum Regnum: The Politics of Jesus."

The Latin phrase extra ecclesiam nullum regnum can be translated as "outside the church there is no kingdom" and that notion goes to the heart of Scot's thesis.

According to Scot there has been a tendency in many Christian circles to distinguish between "kingdom" and "church." "Kingdom" in this usage is a good word while "church" has become a bad word. More, "kingdom" or "kingdom work" is taken to be a description of any and all good work in the world. "Kingdom" is often simply used as a synonym for social justice.

Digging water wells in Africa? Kingdom work. Housing the homeless? Kingdom work. And so on. Scot summarizes:
Kingdom folks gag on the word church. For many kingdom work refers to good deeds good Christian people do in the public sector, while church is about religion.
Scot wants to push back on this, what he sees as a false and pernicious dichotomy between "church" and "kingdom." According to Scot "church" and "kingdom," if properly understood, are the same thing. Extra ecclesiam nullum regnum. Outside of the church there is no kingdom.

Scot grounds this judgment upon an analysis of the gospels and Jesus's own kingdom declaration. Scot defines "kingdom" as "the redeemed community under Jesus." In short: "The politics of Jesus is the church."

Summarizing his criticism of equating "kingdom" with any and all forms of "social justice" Scot makes his point and his criticisms clear:
There is no kingdom outside the church--extra ecclesiam nullum regnum. Why? Because the only kingdom is one where people live under Jesus, and the church is the redeemed community of Jesus. The kingdom is not an ethic that can be flattened into a secular social ethic and then announced that wherever we find that secular ethic we've got kingdom. The kingdom is fellowship and discipleship under Jesus, and only there.
If Scot grounds his claim that "the politics of Jesus is the church" in the gospels, Timothy Gombis makes a similar claim working from Paul's letters in his contribution "The Political Vision of the Apostle to the Nations."

As Timothy notes, many have seen a disjoint between Jesus's focus on "the kingdom" and Paul's focus on "the church." Paul, it has been argued, preached a "depoliticized" gospel, working to establish churches that stayed out the way of the Roman Empire. But in his essay Timothy wants to push back on that characterization, suggesting that Paul's focus on the church was very much a political and a kingdom vision. As Timothy summarizes,
[Paul] proclaimed the lordship of Jesus Christ and established communities that enjoyed his gracious reign. His letters of instruction to these bodies politic involved their social ordering, the transformation of their community practices, their economic exchanges with one another and their treating one another according to radically alternative social rules. They were to relate to one another, in fact, according to the realities of a coming political order--the kingdom of God. Paul imagined each church as a polis functioning and flourishing in the midst of a wider polis. When Paul talks about the church, then, he is elaborating a political vision.
In short, if you combine Scot's (the gospels) and Timothy's (the Pauline letters) chapters you have in hand a nice New Testament theology articulating a vision of the church embodying "the politics of the kingdom."

The issue then becomes, what is the nature and character of the church as an alternative political entity?

This is a point William Cavannaugh investigates in his contribution "Are Corporations People?: The Corporate Form and the Body of Christ."

William begins with the controversial Citizens United US Supreme Court decision which concluded that "corporations are people" when it comes to electoral campaign contributions.

Many have blasted the notion that "corporations are people" enshrined in Citizens United. But William makes an interesting observation: Christians have long believed in corporate personhood. We call it church. William writes:
The fact is that corporate personhood is central to Christianity; the people of God and the body of Christ are corporate persons, recognition of which should prevent Christians from thinking that only individuals are actors in the world.
So is William supportive of Citizens United? Goodness no. The issue for William isn't corporate personhood but the type of personhood being privileged. That is, the church and the business corporation are different types of corporate persons. And therein lies the problem. William:
...I think that Citizens United is a disastrous and distorting decision, not because it recognizes corporate persons as such but because of the kind of corporate person it privileges, the business corporation.
William goes on to make the contrast between the church and the business corporation. Specifically, whereas "the body of Christ called into being was clearly a challenge to existing social, economic and political stratification" the business corporation, by contrast, embodies "class antagonisms, not a true social solidarity." The goal of a business corporation is profit which creates an antagonistic relationship between capital (e.g., shareholders) and labor. The church, by contrast, embodies solidarity across class divisions where the stronger care for the weaker. Thus a tension exists between these two sorts of corporate persons:
The church's goal in society is to speak as a corporate person on behalf of the poor, to promote organizations of true social solidarity and also to encourage businesses to pursue legitimate profit within the wider telos of an economy of love.
The problem, of course, is that the church has, by and large, failed to make that critique. In the face of corporate greed, economic disparity, war and state-sanctioned violence the church has, far too often, been silent.

Not surprisingly, Stanley Hauerwas in his contribution "Church Matters" is particularly good on this point:
[I]n the interest of being good citizens, of being civil, Christians have lost the ability to say why what they believe is true. That loss is, I want to suggest, a correlative of the depoliticization of the church as a community capable to challenging the imperial pretensions of the modern state.
Why has the church lost its political voice and courage?

According to Stanley this loss is due the rise of liberalism and the liberal state. Specifically, liberalism "seeks to domesticate or neutralize the effect of religious commitment on political life." Liberalism accomplishes this by creating a "way of life [that] depends on the creation of a people who think there is nothing for which it's worth dying."

Until, of course, it is time to die for the state. The liberal state robs the church of her martyrs. Hauerwas:
[T]he modern nation-state...has been an extremely effective sacrificial agent able to mobilize its populations to make sacrifices to sustain its existence as an end in itself. The nation-state, therefore, has stepped into the place of religious belief, offering the individual the possibility of transcending one's finitude. War becomes the act of sacrifice by which the state sustains the assumption that though we die it can and will continue to exist without end.
The church has been rendered politically ineffective because there is nothing worth dying for in the liberal societies except for the nation-state. Like I said, the church has lost her martyrs to the state.

Of course, appeals to martyrdom are worrisome in a post 9/11 world where religious terrorism is a geo-political problem. Which is why Hauerwas' piece is nicely supplemented by George Kalantzis' contribution "A Witness to the Nations: Early Christianity and Narratives of Power."

Specifically, in reviewing the witness of the early church, George notes how the witness of the Christian martyrs was rooted in their refusal to kill other human beings. From George's conclusion:
To the coercive power of the state, articulated in the demand for devotion to the gods of the empire and the emperor as their vicar on earth, the example of Christ provided Christians with a new interpretive matrix that allowed them to follow a completely new paradigm of power and sacrifice--and the undergirding instrumentalities of violence in all its pluriformity, including killing--based upon civil disobedience and a passive cooptation of power that found its strength in nonviolent resistance, in imitation of Christ. In the end, Louis J. Swift puts it best: "If violence had any place in the Christian's life, it would appear that it must be a violence which is endured rather than inflicted, a violence which is suffered in imitation of the Founder as a way of transcending human passions and breaking the endless cycles of injury and retaliation."

This was the Christian witness to the nations.
Into this discussion about the witness of the church in relation to violence, Peter Leithart contributes his essay "Violence."

In the first part of the essay Peter defends a definition that "violence" is the "unjust use of force." According to Peter, a just use of force is not violence. Thus, both God and the state are not "violent" when they exercise force, even lethal force, when punishing evil or wrongdoing.

And yet, Peter goes on to ask the question "What counts as a sinful use of force?" This is a difficult question because, as Peter points out, "governments use force to curb worse violences, but all to often they become agents of violence themselves."

So how is the church to relate to violence? Or sort out just versus unjust uses of force? Peter doesn't give a comprehensive answer, but where he ends up sounds a lot like where Timothy ends up:
Filled with the fire of the Spirit, the church is to preach God's fiery, furious words against the violent. The church is to stand apart from the clashes of the nations of the saeculum, refusing to choose among varieties of violence. The church is to be a shield between the violent and their victims. The church is to hold out hope of an absolute peace, and to be the sacrament of the holy mountain where "they neither hurt or destroy." The church is the community of martyrs, suffering violence in the world, swallowing death in dying with Christ. Among the politics of the saeculum, Jesus erects his strange city, filled with his own Spirit to carry on his zealous conquest of violence--a suffering city, called to love enemies and lay down its life for the life of the world.
Having discussed the effects of liberalism upon the church above, let me shift the focus away from violence to point to another interesting analysis regarding the depoliticization of the church in the face of Western liberalism. This is Jana Marguerite Bennett's contribution "Not So Private: A Political Theology of Church and Family."

According to Jana, liberalism depoliticized the church by creating the private/public distinction. According to liberalism, faith is a private matter and should be kept out of the public sphere. And one of the ways the church acquiesced to this demand, especially in evangelicalism, was to turn its focus inwardly upon the private life of the family.

We all know how evangelicals have "focused on the family." According to Jana, this "focus on the family" has unwittingly bought into the liberal demand for a strict private/public distinction. As she writes: "any attempt to divide family, state and church into spheres called 'public' and 'private' is more a concession to a modern Enlightenment-based culture than a response to Christ."

Reclaiming the Christian political witness of the family involves, then, turning the family radically outward. To make the family more "public." Jana describing this:
There is here [in the words of Jesus] a radical acceptance and a radical rejection of the standard family as determined by culture. While Jesus clearly acknowledges the need for and presence of mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers and so on, he also places a claim on those families in a much larger way. In other words, Jesus accepts the fact of the family and of course embraces marriage and family as instituted by God. Yet at the same time, marriage and family both become absorbed into the new creation, which turns away from an inward focus directly almost solely between the couple and their children, toward outward discipleship to Christ. Family, rightly oriented toward God, cannot be a private entity.
We're back, here, with a vision of the church, a "family" looking outward to include others in acts of radical hospitality. Jana shares a beautiful illustration in this regard:
...Christians are called radically to embrace other members of the body of Christ as their family. I am reminded of a church in Chicago where, if the pastor discovers that a teenager has become pregnant and has been thrown out by her family, he asks his congregation if anyone will take her in and care for her as their own daughter. This is not because they think that out-of-wedlock pregnancy is a good thing or that premarital sex is good--but rather that, regardless, this girl is a part of their Christian family. If she is Christ's, then she must be theirs too.
Since the issue of morality is raised in this story let's turn to another essay in this collection. Specifically, we've been dwelling on the issues of economics, violence and hospitality. But what about the political aspects of the Christian moral witness? When we think of conflict between the church and the world many evangelical Christians don't think of Christians critiquing the violence of the state or the injustice of the markets. Rather, they think of the culture wars and the decay of Christian morals within society.

I think Jennifer McBride's essay "Repentance as Political Witness" is a nice contribution on this subject. Specifically, Jennifer argues that the Christian moral witness needs to be both bold and humble. But that's a difficult trick to pull of. Especially within a pluralistic society tired of Christian hypocrisy and judgmentalsim. So how to find that balance?

Jennifer answers that a balanced Christian moral witness--one that is humble but boldly proclaims the lordship of Jesus Christ--will be characterized by both confession and repentance. Using the work of Bonhoeffer to create a theological account of Christ's solidarity with sinners, Jennifer argues that the problem with the Christian moral witness is that the church too often makes itself the moral judge of the world. But if the church is to follow the pattern of Jesus it should accept the judgment of God upon itself. Jennifer summarizing this:
The problem with a political witness based on morality is that it presumes the church is specially positioned as judge over society, which not only ignores the clear command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, "Do not judge" (Mt 7:1), but also denies the form of Christ. Bonhoeffer contrasts the human being as judge with Christ's form. The former directs God's judgment away from oneself or one's group and toward others, and the latter directs God's judgment not to others but to oneself. Christ takes humanity's "true form" as judged, Bonhoeffer says, enabling the church to then take the form of Christ, which is characterized by an exclusive acceptance of guilt. The church witnesses to God's judgment on the sin and injustice that harms human beings when--as the continued incarnation of Christ in the world--it also exclusively accepts responsibility for the sin and injustice that plagues our society. The church plays a central role in exposing sin in the world by acknowledging it in itself.
Through a witness of confession and repentance--"exposing sin in the world by acknowledging it in itself"--the church presents both a humble and bold moral witness concerning the lordship of Jesus.

To move toward a conclusion, let me say that I didn't find agreement with every essay in Christian Political Witness. Specifically, I found myself a bit perplexed by Daniel Bell's essay "Just War as Christian Politics."

Daniel's essay is an interesting attempt to unite the notion of "just war" to virtue ethics and ecclesiology. If you are familiar with Hauerwas, imagine everything Stanley says about how the church should be a place where virtues are cultivated to form pacifists. Now take that entire apparatus but connect it to the formation "just warriors."

This sort of virtue formation Daniel calls "Just War as Christian Discipleship." A bit of Daniel's argument regarding how the cultivation of virtue is critical to waging a "just war":
What this means is that just war requires not just information and will-power but long-term preparation...Just warriors cannot be pulled like rabbits from a hat on the eve of war. This is the case because character and virtue are not formed in an instant but require time. It takes time to learn and inhabit the dispositions, instincts, judgments and vision associated with just war as a form of Christian discipleship...An unjust people cannot wage a just war...
Space and time do not allow for me to respond to Daniel's vision of "just war as Christian discipleship." I have a number of objections. I mainly want to alert you to Daniel's essay if you're interested in it and use it as a bridge to Mark Noll's essay "The Peril and Potential of Scripture in Christian Political Witness."

I want to conclude with Mark's essay because not everyone in Christian Political Witness agrees with each other regarding the proper character of Christian political witness. For example, I expect Peter and Stanley would have an interesting conversation about Constantinianism. To say nothing about how Stanley would react to Daniel's vision of "just war as Christian discipleship." (Oh to have been a fly on the wall when Stanley heard or read that essay!) And when David Gushee in his essay "Toward and Evangelical Social Tradition: Key Current Debates" walks through just about every hot button issue in the culture wars-- from abortion to creation care to the death penalty to gay rights to torture to US war making--I'm sure many Christians would find themselves in disagreement at various points. And more often than not, in all these instances we would all support our positions by citing biblical text--book, chapter, and verse.

So how does the bible support Christian political witness?

Mark's chapter is humbling on this question. Mark's chapter recounts his analysis of how the bible was used in American pulpits during the American Civil War to support either abolitionism or the institution of slavery. The same bible was used to justify two extremely different moral and political positions.

How could such a thing happen?

By closely examining how the bible was used and interpreted before and during the Civil War Mark cites five interrelated issues. Summarizing these:
1. Mixing biblical rhetoric with your own rhetoric
As Mark observes, "preachers used the words of the Bible as their own words even when quotations or paraphrases had nothing to do with the substance of their teaching."

The problem with this is that, "Not only did such rhetorical use lend a sacred aura to the speaker's own thoughts, it also implied that those who opposed the speaker's rhetoric were somehow opposing the Word of God."

2. Failure to recognize that you are interpreting the text
As Mark observes, problems arose for the Civil War preachers when "the speaker proceeded to treat what they brought to their texts with the same authority ascribed to the Bible itself."

3. The "heretical hubris of American exceptionalism"
As Mark observes, "preachers fell over themselves expressing the conviction that in the whole history of the world there had never been a nation so uniquely successful in achieving liberty, so unambiguously righteous in its political history, and so singularly blessed of God as the United States of America." Mark concludes that, "Sober realism...about the character of the United States was in short supply."

4. Sinful and self-serving readings of history and providence
Among the sermons he examined Mark describes how everyone, both in the North and the South, felt that they could read the signs of history and providence with perfect accuracy. Everyone was certain they knew exactly what side of history God was on. That is to say, their side. Never once did anyone consider that these readings might be self-serving. Thus Mark's conclusion: "In their great self-confidence about the ability to read providence as if they were God, Americans North and South, and of all political opinions, fell prey to the weakness of fallen human nature."

5. The bible may be infallible, but no one agrees about what it says
All the preachers examined by Mark agreed that the bible was the infallible Word of God. And yet, they couldn't agree on its meaning on the foremost moral question of their time. Mainly, and this remains a problem, because the preachers of the Civil War could not agree on how the diverse and ancient cultural contexts of the bible apply to modern and equally diverse contexts. No one agrees about how the temporal and cultural disjoints existing between the bible and modern life are to be successfully bridged. To say nothing about how the moral and theological tensions within the bible itself are to be successfully harmonized.
Which is to say, while the bible might inform discussions regarding Christian political witness, theology and hermeneutics will, in the end, determine the ultimate shape and character of that witness.

Long review, but I hope it gives you a good sense of the content you'll find in Christian Political Witness, a book with a provocative and informative mix of reflections about the political witness of the Christian faith.

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One thought on “Christian Political Witness: A Review”

  1. Great review! Just FYI, Daniel Bell is one of Hauerwas' students, so he's very familiar with Bell's Just War as Christian Discipleship - Hauerwas even gives the first blurb on the back cover. http://www.amazon.com/Just-War-Christian-Discipleship-Recentering/dp/1587432250

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