"History Never Sits Still. Thus Neither Can Our Politics.": Lee Camp on the Powers and Politics

As I mentioned last Friday, it is an honor to share essays with Lee Camp--author, theologian, and host of the Tokens Show

Let me also mention Lee's amazing books. I encourage you to get Mere Discipleship and Who Is My Enemy? Lee has also written some great stuff for the Huffington Post (click here for those articles).

Many thanks to Lee for the essay reprinted below. I couldn't agree more with him. To those who have ears...
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I had lunch this past week with one of the elders of my church; it was a great conversation, very enjoyable and lively. He had been a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, based upon a selective Just War position, and so we shared some of our experience and convictions with one another.

Along the way he mentioned to me that his wife had had a meal recently with the mother of one of my university students. The mother said she was very upset with me: that I had turned her daughter into a pacifist, socialist, and a communist.

I laughed and told him that I hoped that I had in fact made the student into a pacifist, but not a socialist or a communist. I further conjectured that perhaps the student was not really a communist. Perhaps the mother had wrongly concluded that her daughter was now a communist due to the sharp partisanship that characterizes American culture these days: everything is so very polarized that it seems, at worst, that there are only two possible positions, or at best, that there is only a single continuum between two possible positions. If the daughter comes home talking about non-violence, and the mother is a supporter of her government’s wars, then the daughter must be a damn communist, too.

Thanks to Jim Wallis, it has been noted very often in the last few decades that “God is neither a Republican nor Democrat.” I have my suspicions that sometimes this mantra is actually a cover for self-righteous Democrats: “God is not a Republican, and all of us clear-headed Christians are Democrats; and I cannot see how a Christian can be a Republican.” Whether my suspicion is fair or not, it does seem to me that we need some helpful pegs or constructive theological starting points at which to critique both Republican and Democrat, or better, to provide a constructive alternative to them both.

The constructive alternative, of course, is “the church”—a real community that is characterized by a voluntary commitment to the way of Christ, including sharing, reconciliation, and non-violence. This is, obviously, neither Republican nor Democrat. What might such a community want to say to Republicans or Democrats or Socialists or Communists, then?

Increasingly, I tend to think that it is the New Testament notion of the “principalities and powers” that provides ground to say important things to such partisans. As has been increasingly noted in New Testament studies in the last half-century, the “powers” and “dominions” and “thrones” and “principalities” are an ever-constant element in the Pauline writings. Our enemies are “not flesh and blood” but the “powers of this present darkness.”

And as the theologians have increasingly explicated, “the powers” get made manifest in a variety of institutions, -isms, systems, and structures. “The powers” are created for good (per the letter to the Colossians) but overstep their bounds, and rather than serving humankind, get “hell-bent on their own survival” (per Walter Wink) and thence begin to enslave and oppress.

With this sort of starting point, we take an altogether different approach: our task, short of the full in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, can never be any partisan agenda. This is because anything short of the full consummation of the Kingdom of God will necessarily still be tainted, or worse, corrupted, by sin. All political activism then—in the sense of being active in talking to the contemporary powers-that-be in western culture—is always and necessarily ad hoc, never utopian, and never idealistic. We deal with each concrete question and issue as it arises, and seek to bear faithful witness as best we are able.

For example, to those who foolishly idealize “the free market,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that they do in fact co-opt the supposedly free market for purposes of greed and grasping which corrupts and controls as much as any tyrannical dictator. Or to those who foolishly idealize “the welfare state,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that the over-weening bureaucratic mechanisms of control do in fact limit creative human creativity, and create dependence.

This does not necessarily entail “withdrawal” or a “refusal to vote,” though such stances could be an exercise in faithful witness. Sometimes it seems to be a genuine human good when the government limits the power-hungry greed that drives the quest for monopolies—a quest as old as capitalism. But then, of course, such legitimate limits, before we know what hit us, can overreach and become a stifling even oppressive practice. And then will be good to call the powers-that-be to let go some of its control-freakishness.

The centralization enacted by Joseph for the good of the starving Hebrews provided the very bureaucratic tyranny that served to enslave those same Hebrews. History never sits still. Thus neither can our politics. If we find ourselves lumping together into one mass group of political enemies anyone who disagrees with us (as in the irrational conclusion that the pacifist must be a communist), then perhaps we have become enslaved to the powers which use a binary, polarizing view of the world to create enemies, stratify communities, and breed hostility, precisely for the good of the corrupt powers, but never for the true good of humankind.

--Lee C. Camp,  Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of http://www.tokensshow.com/, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?

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15 thoughts on “"History Never Sits Still. Thus Neither Can Our Politics.": Lee Camp on the Powers and Politics”

  1. "This does not necessarily entail “withdrawal” or a “refusal to vote,” though such stances could be an exercise in faithful witness."

    What does this mean? Can anyone explain it to me? How can such stances be an exercise in faithful witness?

  2. In the faith tradition Lee and I are a part of, the Churches of Christ, there is a theological impulse that argues for non-participation in government as we are a "peculiar people" who "come out" from Babylon. This is also a dominant strain in Anabaptist theology.

  3. Thank you. I like that. For I am certain I can no longer participate. As such.


  4. I find this line of thought interesting, as while I never heard anything near being political from the CofC pulpit heard growing up, there was always an unspoken undercurrent of thought as to how people should use their vote. As a matter of fact, my present U.S. congressman is a man that was a District Attorney, and later, an appointed Judge from that congregation. As far as what I gathered from that church growing up, "non-participation" simply meant near silence in the political arena, and not the real non-participation of not voting.

    But, as you said, it's an impulse, and not a directive.

  5. As an impulse I think it was a minor voice, mostly associated with the thought of David Lipscomb. I was exposed to it as various Sunday School teachers I had expressed a dim view of voting.

    Regardless, in the last 20 years or so this impulse has been on the decline in the Southern CoC with many of our conservative congregations joining up with the flag-waving politicization characteristic of Southern evangelicalism.

  6. Really appreciated this, Lee.  Thanks, Richard, for sharing it. As an Anabaptist in inclination if not denomination, you correctly call out what I think is one of the major errors of most Christian political discourse...that the way of Jesus judges many planks in the platforms of both sides.

  7. As Steve began, I have similar questions (continuing points from the "Pledge of Allegiance" post). Though  I've become very detached from American politics, I make it a point to vote if for no other reasons:
    1. To honor all who have risked AND those who have given their lives (including the families of those lost) to preserve our 
            life as we know it in America.  This reason was mentioned in the "Pledge of Allegiance" post.
            Though America is far, far, far from perfect, the right to vote is one of those privileges not available in many other nations. 
    2. Concerned a day may come where we are no longer granted the freedom/right to vote, I hope my grandchildren will continue to
            have that option to vote or refuse to vote when they become adults.  I admittedly delude myself, thinking that our voting now might
            be effective enough to preserve this right to vote for our children/grandchildren.
    3. We live in a country (for the time being anyway) where we are still able to have the option of being a "Christian" without threat
          to our lives (again for the time being).  Whatever being  a Christian might mean - the liberty to enjoy that variation
          of "being a Christian" is a freedom in and of itself .  Again, I believe this is changing before our eyes.

    I've become as cynical as anyone concerning our American politcal system, seemingly going through the motions when casting a ballot.
    The last 8 years, I have had to force myself to cast a ballot, many times driven to vote "for" option 1 to offset/negate option 2 (what I perceived  as a "greater of two evils").  This is a terrible motive to apply a privilege heavily fought for.  You raise a crucial point.   How to balance this against a practice of faith, I have no clue (though I throw up a desperate prayer asking to do the right thing because I have no clue, asking for wisdom centered around my grandchildrens' futures).  In less than 3 months, we'll all get our chance to try this once again.
    What is your take?

    Gary Y.

  8. Nice essay. Thanks for posting. If the Church starts moving in the direction that you and camp are pushing, and gains traction as a political lever too, I'll be coaxed into both going to church and voting again. Yikes!

    Here's a research thought. "The Will to Believe" has been savaged by philosophers for being philosophically naive (Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy and Russell's History do so in well known sections). But it's the philosophers who have missed the point by not seeing that James was trying to get them to be less psychologically naive. James was engaged in real life analysis of how people form their beliefs, and stated that it is "the prestige of opinions" that "makes the[m]...light up the sleeping magazines of faith." The problem for a defender of James' social and psychological view of belief is that--though his observation is clearly credible--he never broke through to the mechanisms that light up those "magazines of faith." That's what Becker and Wink provide, it seems to me. 

    I note this not only because a psychologist or sociologist could make a nice interdisciplinary contribution to Faith and Philosophy on this note, but because it aligns so nicely with your new apologetic: a psychologically deep understanding of scripture is--you have taught me--nicely aligned with what psychology shows us about how a fear of death warps our views...  

  9.  It never really made sense to me to vote for a candidate, unless the candidate really wows you. Those are rare, and they tend to be too honest to succeed in politics, anyway (remember Carter?). The dumbest thing I've ever heard is "if you don't vote, you have no right to complain." What if you only have two choices, and they both stink? That's the usual scenario in the United States.

  10. Quote from article: "The constructive alternative, of course, is “the church”—a real community that is characterized by a voluntary commitment to the way of Christ, including sharing, reconciliation, and non-violence." 

    Where is this community?  I've yet to see it anywhere, including the author's community (of which I was a part for nearly a decade).  It sounds great, but where's the practical application of these ideas?  The problem is not the war mongers and conservatives, the problem is the "church" itself...there's simply no real alternative.  Yeah sure there's the handful of "peace" churches, but they are simply angry liberal versions of the conservative war-monger churches.  Anyway, that's why I am now a Buddhist. 

  11.  "angry liberal versions of the conservative war-monger churches?"  Wow.  I grew up Mennonite and Church of the Brethren, and have had friends in both Quaker and Brethren in Christ churches.  While some of them certainly are knee-jerk liberal (hence my departure from the Mennonites), I can't think of any that I would have characterized as "angry."

    I do agree that a constructive, peace-witnessing church is hard to find...in fact I haven't found it either, and every time I visit another Mennonite church any bit of wistfulness for what I have lost is overwhelmed by reminders of why I left.  Even so, I think your characterization may be a bit harsh...I wonder if the Buddha had anything to say about holding bitterness for the path one has left behind.

  12. Hi Thay,

    I have argued with myself long and hard over your question. It is perhaps the one question that threatens my own Christian faith as much as any other.  And it is the reason I used scare-quotes around "the church" in the article.  It is a good and fair and right question.  

    Two things I am grappling with on this:  one, I think "church" (as the sort of community described in the New Testament, broken and comprising broken folks, but nonetheless with practices that make it a community that provides space for an alternative way of life) may or may not correlate "church" in the contemporary world.  All depends upon the particulars.  Sometimes "church" (in the normative or biblical sense) for me has looked more like intentional communities of friends outside of "church" (in the contemporary sense) or as a subset of "church" (in the contemporary sense).  

    Two, I wonder whether even the unfaithfulness of "the church" (in both senses) is itself a mechanism by which the faithfulness of God is made manifest in the world.  But I am reticent about saying that, if only because it could so easily become an apologetic for all sorts of crap.  

    I do not understand much about Buddhism.  What I do understand about it, I find some of its practices quite helpful.  But I find its understanding of history as the main point of contention with Christian faith and practice:  viz., the notion that Jesus is the center of human history, and that the historical person of Jesus specifies the final point/direction/eschaton of human history.  If I understand Buddhism (which again, I am not so sure I do), it's not clear to me why human history and/or society and/or politics matters.

    Thanks for your reply.  Peace,  Lee C.

    PS, I've been trying to figure out if "the author's community" in your post refers to my particular congregation, or my particular Christian tradition.  

  13. Thanks Daniel. I can identify. And it makes me despair when I think about how deep into Empire I am. Sometimes I wonder, seriously wonder: Can a person with a mortgage and a retirement plan get to heaven?

  14. Obliged Richard, these are tough decisions and no mistake, but we americans are all children of the empire, and Caesars image fills our wallets and our hearts.  Reckon we better count on grace to see us through to the other side, otherwise we’re all fu#%ked.  blessings.

  15. I have too many sites to follow, but I did like this, and hope to be back. Disconnected notes:  I was a CO in the Vietnam era, but changed, perhaps mostly because of Lewis's "Why I am Not A Pacifist."  I was at any rate far left in many wys then, but now call myself Postliberal.  Lewis's God In The Dock essays are also quite compelling in deciding what a Christian party, or a Christian position should be in politics. As for Just War theory, I find that war opponents usually start with the odd assumption that the UN, or other coalitions of nations, are the only qualifying "duly-constituted authority." A nonsensical idea for most of history, it is now the default position.

    BTW Andrew T, the last thing I would call Carter is "too honest."  Vague candor about lust is not enough. A deeply mean-spirited person, who did much to move me out of the liberal camp.

    I think negative voting is entirely honorable, and perhaps even superior.  Americans think they are polarised, but I was close to the elections in Romania in the late 90's and early 00's, when the choices were often quite literally between a disguised communist and a disguised fascist.  We shouldn't wail and bemoan our fate so much.

    As for Thay's comment, Buddhists are very good at peace, which is why pacifists gravitate toward them.  They are also historically terrible at justice, for related reasons.  A cautionary word to the peace churches, perhaps, which try very hard to find nonviolent approaches to injustice.

    Hmm, I really bounced around and got irritable.  Ah well, weakened my persuasiveness thereby, I imagine.

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