Unpublished: The Small Politics of the Church

If you read a lot of Anabaptist theology you know that a key insight regarding the social and political witness of church is this:
The social and political witness of the church is simply being the church.
That's it. The church should be the church. That's Christian political engagement, being the church. Or, at the very least, having political activism flowing out of the life of the local church.

This imperative distinguishes the church from conservative and liberal/progressive Christian politics, which can be tempted by theocratic impulses and, thus, contaminated by Constantinianism and the temptations of Empire.

Being the church--really being the the church--is a political intervention, the church is a counter-politics to the politics of the State. Which means that to think politically in the church is to think locally, focusing on addressing our social and moral ills within the common life of the local congregation.

For example, the goal of the local church is to "have no needy person among you" (Acts 4.34). We are to address poverty locally in our communal sphere of influence, among ourselves. To have no needy person among us.

Relatedly, we also deal with issues of work locally. Paul says that "the one who doesn't work shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3.10). Importantly, that statement has nothing to do with the welfare state and entitlements. Paul is speaking to a local, congregational, and relational issue. The conversation about work is between people who know and love each other.

For example, at Freedom Fellowship we serve a weekly meal. And sometimes you hand a mop to someone and say, "Hey man, it's your turn to clean up."

The point here is that the Christian approach to poverty and work is inherently personal, relational and local. Christians practice a "small politics." These aren't laws being passed by the government but a common life being negotiated among friends.

The State is no substitute for the church. The call, then, isn't to give up the church for political activism but to invest more radically in becoming the church.

I'm put in mind of a quote by G.K. Chesterton that I'd like to tweak:
"The church has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."
--from an unpublished post contrasting the small, relational politics of the church with the political engagement found among evangelical and progressive Christians

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19 thoughts on “Unpublished: The Small Politics of the Church”

  1. Interesting distinction. I've tried making that same sort of distinction with respect to pacifism, and it gets rather little traction among the pacifists.

    Still, I've been thinking quite a lot about this lately. Many of the teachings of Paul and Jesus seem to assume a community, that is, they seem designed for a people for which mutuality is already a given, in which context the teachings also work fairly well as an empirical matter. As with pacifism, though, those same teachings don't seem to work very well among people who have nothing _a_priori_ invested in one another. Which is part of the genius, it seems to me, of marriage: an _a_priori_ investment in mutuality that creates space in which such teachings make coherent sense and can be shown empirically to work.

  2. Brent, maybe I'm getting slow in my old age, but I'm not sure why you set pacifism up as your target in making your point. I think the Religious Society of Friends would take issue with your statement, "As with pacifism, though, those same teachings don't seem to work very well among people who have nothing _a_priori_ invested in one another". Pacifism, like any other belief, does not create the mutuality, the unity. It is embraced by those who are already invested in transcendent mutuality. Trying to redefine it as an empty, failing system is, I believe, a failure.

    Please forgive me if I have misunderstood and misrepresented your thought.

  3. I'm all for people living out justice and love in the context of their own particular congregation. I think the "personal, relational and local" is vitally important -Gandhi's whole "Be the change" thing. But - I'm always a little suspicious of this particular line of argument. Laws passed by the government can do some stuff that a "common life negotiated among friends" just can't do. I think of your recent trip to Selma - where the African-American church was a vital part of bringing about tremendous change, primarily by means of changing federal laws, which were then imposed by force on a whole bunch of people, most of them Christians, who didn't find the end of segregation terribly friendly.

    I don't think it's an either/or thing - more of a both/and. I get the dangers of the theocratic impulse. Even when I agreed with their political position, It always bothered me when people said, "You have to support X policy or you're not a REAL Christian." or the "Christian position on X issue is Y, no exceptions." But poverty and work involve broad, systemic issues, and require broad, systemic solutions. I'm totally a social policy nerd, and when I still went to church, it always bothered me that my work with a community organizing group on affordable housing was seen as less vaild and less "Christian" than my work with the youth group - particularly since housing was a vital issue for a number of people in the congregation. I never really understood why hosting the weekly meal in the church for homeless people was more "spiritual" than trying to advocate for more affordable housing so that people didn't have to be homeless.

  4. Great points. As I've said before on Fridays, there is a reason these posts were unpublished. In this case because of the tensions you point to.

    For me, while I definitely think this is a both/and, what I'm gesturing toward is why the church isn't, for example, working more directly on creating affordable housing. My church is taking steps to provide housing for the homeless population in our town. Right now we lack the facility to do anything more than a piecemeal approach. We're hoping to create that facility. But until then our community ministries flowing out of Freedom Fellowship--where our community meals happen--do address housing needs as our friends and visitors encounter them (along with a host of other needs). All that to say, in light of my concluding quote, I think the church can be the answer in many cases if we'd actually be the church.

    But back to your point, one shouldn't have to choose between the two.

  5. Think: the personal responsibility of the disciple in her social relations (cf. Matthew 5) vs. the geopolitics of, say, responding to ISIS.

  6. I apologize that I don't have much to contribute to the main directions of the excerpt. I did want to say that I find the idea of churc. as "a common life being negotiated among friends" to be uniquely beautiful and compelling.

    It may be only proof of my own biases, but it seems to me that such a paradigm (and potentially the scope/size of church implied therein) is more likely to fulfill all matters with which church is charged: fellowship, governance, mission, service, meeting needs, etc.

    Whatever theory of church I might develop from the paradigm is inadequate and incomplete at this point, and is only a reaction. The image of church that immediately formed in my mind when I came across the words, on the other hand, was hued with perfection. Thank you for that.

  7. As for issues like Christian non-violence in response to ISIS, a Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, the response has been there for 2000 years but the world chooses to refuse that path. For one view see Micah Bales blog post http://www.micahbales.com/nonviolence-isis-ridiculous/

  8. I just read Micah Bales' blog; loved it, especially this paragraph:

    "When we choose to follow Jesus, it’s a death sentence. To become a disciple is to take up the cross, just as Jesus did. Followers of Jesus don’t get to kill our enemies. Followers of Jesus don’t get to conquer terrorists like ISIS with violent force. As followers of the slain lamb, we are conquerors through the blood of Jesus, through our commitment to show love even to those who want to behead us"

    Thank you for pointing me to it.

  9. While I dont necessarily disagree with his notions of non-violence towards the terror group ISIS, it's interesting that his article seems to view Bill O'Reily and viewers of Fox as the real problem and not the group beheading people. Personally I'm sick to death of reading articles that conflate following Jesus with renouncing politically conservative ideas. If you really want people to consider your belief don't start by belittling other's beliefs or else all you're doing is preaching to your own choir.

  10. But don't conservatives conflate righteousness and morality with renouncing liberal beliefs? And conservatives certainly do their share of belittling liberals. The first shot was fired back in the late seventies and early eighties when the the Christian Right became a political force. Their champion was Francis Schaeffer, whose books I read as a young preacher. In a capsule, his message was liberals have no moral standard; and this was their battle cry. But let someone push back, and you hear, "OUCH; you're not supposed to do that!!!"

  11. Let me state one other thing I'm sick to death of: it's the well-they-did-it-too response like I just read. You are correct that both "sides" do this. My post is not about defending conservatives. ( I'm neither conservative nor progress in my politics) The only reason I bring up conservative politics is they seem to be the red-headed step-child of the moment. There has been a great deal of talk on here about the demonizing "outgroups" and from my viewpoint that doesn't really matter to our brothers right of the political fence just like it didn't matter in the 80's when the conservatives were doing it. Micha Bales didn't have to slam people to make his point, unless of course his point is a political statement.

  12. JR, I've been out most of the weekend, but I wanted to get back to you. It has been my experience with relatives and old family friends, that when one of them comes out with, "I'm sick of it; just sick of it!", they see that as the "end all" of the discussion, as the last moral blow. It usually follows discussions regarding Marriage Equality, voting rights, social programs for the poor as opposed to military spending, immigration, etc. What I hear from them is a last, desperate angry cry at their world slowly fading away. Oh, indeed, I even sometimes here those who like to call themselves "progressive" (but that is only because they now believe fewer people are going to hell than they used to) insinuate that when someone proclaims, "I'm sick of it", then we must let it go and step back.

    But the reality is we must face each day accepting changes or challenging them the best way we how; we must choose. So, when someone says, "I'm sick of it", my response is, "OK, you're sick of it...now what?"

  13. No John, when I say I'm sick of it I do mean i am sick of it. It's not the end all to the discussion and it's certainly not used to strike the "last moral blow" ( nice condescension by the way) it means I do not like seeing this same mentality over and over again. Now what? It's the same thing I've been trying to do for the last two posts...trying to get some of you to look inward. It's not so much about the politics as it is the assigning of which political ideology is the most "Christian". The conservatives did this for decades and now that progressive politics are all the rage, guess what progressives are doing? Yep, that's right, they are sending the message that to be Christian means to be progressive politically. That's what I'm sick of, the assigning of morality to political ideology. Let me save you the suspense...they are all corrupt and in twenty years the political winds will change and we'll all be on here condemning progressive ideology.

    It's funny, when I first started reading here 6 years ago there was a lot of talk about people were tired of the mentality that to be Christian meant being politically conservative. There were numerous blog posts lamenting that the majority of churches in America were not willing to "extend the right hand of fellowship" to those with progressive ideas. ( I.e, Universalsm etc). Now, it seems we have flip-flopped the mentality and people of conservative thinking are the problem and have become the scapegoat.

    I really doubt many will listen to this but this is how I feel. So yeah, I'm sick of hearing about politics, progressive or conservative and the blaming/shaming/scapegoating that inevitably occurs afterwards.

  14. Clearly not all issues of poverty can be addressed by a local church congregation. A lengthy stay in the hospital for example for a lot of the congregation would clearly be beyond the resources of most local congregations--then what?

  15. Thanks for posting this, Richard (too bad it went 'unpublished' for a time). I have personally seen the redemptive transformation that can take place for community members, friends, and strangers, alike, in living a common life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You chose a great quote to close the post out.

  16. You're dodging the question. The question on the table was whether or not the teachings of nonviolence, directed at the community of faith, were intended to be extrapolated and applied at the geopolitical level. You've obviously already decided that they were, but you have not contributed to the presentation of evidence or reasoning.

  17. There is no intention of a dodge, but if you need clarification, here goes:

    It is not just the Hitler's, Stalin's , Pol Pot's and their minions that created the evil of the world. It would not have occurred if the people of their countries had not silently acquiesced to their domination. The position of the disciples of Jesus has been rather clear for 2000-plus years. The Treaty of Versailles, and the subsequent reparations in conjuction with the Depression in Europe, made it possible for Hitler to gain power. Even the church in Germany bowed down to him. Gott mit Uns, if the Church of Germany, and it's members, stood against Hitler, he would not have gained power.
    U.S. foriegn policy created Al Quida, which then gave birth to ISIS. If the Church in the U.S. had been the Church, and refused to support the CIA war against the USSR in Afganistan, and refused to support BOTH wars in Iraq and the U.S. invasion of Afganistan, ISIS would not have had a rational for existance.
    There was a Parisian philosopher during the Early Modern period that said something along the lines of "the King only has as much power as you give him." If the Church does not witness to power about the way of Jesus, we then agree to allow the "king" to exercise as much power as he chooses.

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