Reflection: Politics in the Kingdom

As a young adult inspired by the Radical Reformation, I’m still in-process of establishing certain compasses in my life. One that seems pressing however, is my engagement with this country’s political process. From the school board to the White House, the question seems like an important one where not taking a position is the same as a position. Unfortunately, it would be foolish, misunderstood, and a big waste of time, to simply say “what I’m for”, without clearing the deck. So, before I state the few fixed points that reflecting on that question as a follower of Jesus has lead me to, here are a few alternative postures towards politics that I have ruled-out:

1. Headlong: This is to believe that (whether you have a dispensational-apocolyptic eschatology or a mainline progressive one) until that end arrives, the Christian way  is to strenuously spend yourself in creating law structures in order for them to be conducive to human flourishing, or, if you’d like, justice.

2. Hands-off: To believe that we should quite simply obey the law of any land we find ourselves in, never engage political systems, and focus exclusively on witnessing to Christ’s love and salvation.

3. Halfway Here, Halfway There: This, to be honest, is the posture I’m trying to abandon. At its’ heart, it is to not have any comprehensive principles or guiding rules that dictate under what circumstance and in what ways a follower of Jesus should engage in social construction. It is a “nominal” approach, and will more than likely just result in the particular Christian reflecting the views that you would expect them to given their age, upbringing, and particular theological tradition.

For example, I’d expect a second generation Latin-American like myself, given my upbringing in a Spanish-speaking charismatic church, loose familiarity with Guatemala’s political history, and large parts of my education occurring in private evangelical schools, to track with what we call “political conservatives” on issues of personal morality, and to track with “progressives” on issues of economic and foreign policy. But it is almost a sure-fire sign of unfaithfulness when Christians largely fit the mold that any political statistician would predict for them. If the salt has lost its’ saltiness, how can it be made useful again? I invite you to be reflective on this point. A good indicator of whether this is true for you is simply to look around and see how many of your acquaintances largely say and believe the same things you do.

Now, why are these un-Christian postures towards politics anyway?

What I mean by un-Christian is simply that Christ would not live like that. If you’re a Christian (and I do believe this means more than just “act like Christ”, but that’s another post), then, according to the sense in which that word was first used, you should live like Jesus.

The first posture is un-Christian because, if we understand the nature of laws, Jesus gave it a de-construction: “my kingdom is not of this world [note that He did not say ‘is not in this world’], if it were, my servants would fight to prevent me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders”. If there was ever an injustice, it was Christ’s crucifixion, and if Christ bases the lack of his servants fighting against that injustice on the very source and nature of His kingdom, then no injustice can retrieve that kind of fight and justify it as kingdom-work. That fight, which in first-century Palestine was a fight that necessarily would have involved physical combat, is at the very basis of law. Put simply, the only way to enforce a government’s law, is with a gun at the hip. The most beautiful, just, rational law exists with the implicit clause “and if you disobey, you will be forced to comply or to endure the prescribed punishment”. Thus, to fight for a law as a Christian (which, if you’re a follower of Jesus, everything you do is as a Christian) is to fight in a way that Christ tied to the kingdoms “of this world”.

The second posture allows me to nuance the sense of “political”. While it is impossible for humans to live in community without any agreed-upon norms, systems of production, and mutual love (part of this is what politics is engaged in), it is not impossible for humans to live together without any designated individual or group of individuals having the authority of force to keep everyone in-line with the agreed-upon norm. This second posture assumes that the first rejection of “politics”, in the sense of attempting to rule-over, entails rejection of the pursuit of community. How we could do the latter without the former is what I hope to hint at. As a side note, this is also why an explicit commitment to pacifism in the church is important to me. The church is a community with an authority structure, one that could grow to the point that we use the same reasoning that sanctions state-force, in the church, or that only keeps the distinction in theory (as has happened many times in history).

The third posture would be exemplified by me in 2012. I was passionate about speaking against American military aggression and economic manipulation, and found these two passions reflected in the campaign of presidential candidate Ron Paul. Were there other aspects of his policies that may have conflicted with my understanding of Jesus’ teaching? Yes! Didn’t I think that Christian stances toward foreigners should be hospitality and not closed borders? Yes! But if those two issues were as important as I believed (and still believe) they were, then details aside, the point is I acted on the basis of pragmatics. “In an ideal world, maybe followers of Jesus would do such-and-such, but it’s not an ideal world, so there goes that”, so I thought. This third posture is perhaps the most frequent one I encounter.

What is the alternative here? I do not have a pat-answer, but here are a few things I have thought about for a long time now, and will live by them until convinced otherwise.

1) The Kingdom of God is not “of this world” but it is tangibly “in this world”, and this means that Christians should be wholly invested in their faith-family’s missions. Those missions should be wholly invested, in all-encompassing way, in creating a flourishing community via conversion, education, health, economics, et.al., without lobbying for the institution of any particular law. That is, just do the Great Commission remembering that Jesus said “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”.

2) A tangible and effective way of engaging issues of justice is to undo, resist, and scale-back unjust and oppressive laws. There is a clear and definite distinction between creating and imposing a law, and abolishing a law. The abolishment of a law requires no “enforcement”, for obvious reasons. This would, perhaps, also justify reducing the severity of a laws demands.

While what I’ve said above runs very strongly against the grain of a large portion of “social justice” activism, and may even seem absurd when applied to certain problems. But it stands on actual ethical norms set by Christ, and the considerations I mentioned above seem clear as day to me. Still, they leave a huge arena of social-action open to the church, while preventing the church from taking the power of the state into its’ own hands. All this being said, I find great hope in the low-rumblings of Christians taking Anabaptist conceptions of the church, discipleship, and peace more seriously. This is a moment of opportunity that I pray the Spirit turns into a great movement in Christ’s church.

The Church, Pt. 2: Early Christians, Early Controversies

This is the second portion of an essay I recently wrote on “The Church” for graduate school application. I slightly edited it but have kept the footnotes as italicized numbers. This part of the essay explores some of the earliest Church practices, as well as a major persecution that, I believe, we can learn from:

So, if the Church is this society-forming reality, and the shape of this society is given by the New Testament teachings on the Kingdom of God, then what do these teachings say? I believe that Kingdom of God must be conceived of as a political reality in the broadest sense: “relating to government” (14) While this is an increasingly emphasized truth in evangelical Christianity, particularly those concerned with “social justice”, what is not yet thoroughly discussed is that God’s government is unlike and fundamentally opposed to every worldly government today. It is unlike worldly governments in that its’ rule is exercised through service and love (15), whereas their rule is necessarily maintained through the constant threat of coercion (16). It is opposed to worldly governments both because their violent power is wielded by the enemies of God (17), and because the Kingdom of God’s culmination will be their end (18). The earliest writings of the Church demonstrate an understanding of these same principles.

In the “Apostolic Tradition” and “Didache”, two of the the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the canon, we see a new, society-forming ethic being spelled out for the nascent Church, drawing on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (19). Christians were to cease gaining their income from immoral entertainments like gladiator fights, converted soldiers were not to kill or swear public oaths, military commanders and civic magistrates in the Roman empire were to give up their vocation, and burial for the poor was to be provided by the bishop (20). Rhythms of regularly shared meals were outlined, and economic inter-dependence is assumed by the guidelines which prevented outside guests from taking advantage of the community (21). With regards to being a “visible church”, the earliest Christian communities are exemplary. At the same time, we see in the earliest controversies of the Church, and ensuing history, how challenging it is to visibly reflect our identity as the singular body of Christ. I would like describe two interrelated controversies in depth, but not as a rote exercise! After evaluating them, there will be lessons applicable to the contemporary Church’s pressing challenges of maintaining unity in the face of political, theological, and moral disagreements.

Emperor Decius on a Roman Silver Coin. Click image for source

From the years A.D. 249 until 313 the church under the Roman Empire was torn apart as a result of two sets of intense persecutions, particularly under emperor Decius from 249-25122 and under Diocletian from 303-313 (until 324 in the east) (23). Decius required all citizens to offer a sacrifice to the gods of Rome and partake of the sacrifice. At the threat of an exceedingly cruel death, most Christians complied (24). According to historian Robert Wilken:

Some even brought their own wine or other offerings. In one city a bishop showed up with a lamb under his arms for sacrifice! …This is not surprising. As the number of Christians increased, the boundaries between the Christian community and the larger society were becoming porous (25).

After the Decian persecutions ended, the church was faced with the question of how, or even if, to re-admit people who wanted to return to the Church though they had denied their faith. The Church’s differing responses to this crisis is extremely relevant, especially because these responses set a trajectory leading to the ugliest features of both Roman Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation; features which the Mennonite tradition has historically stood in prophetic witness against.

There were three sets of responses to Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions. The Bishops of Rome advocated re-admission to the Church simply if someone expressed the desire to do so. Novation, a Christian leader in Rome, and his followers believed that there should be no re-admission whatsoever, eventually breaking off from the majority church and setting up Novation as an alternate bishop in Rome. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, arbitrated a mediating position in which significant penance, overseen by a bishop in communion with the majority church, was required to be re-admitted. For some, this penance was severe and would last their entire lives. Cyprian was similar to Novation in upholding “the Church’s holiness as a unique community set apart from the society at large” (27). Yet, Cyprian argued intensely against Novation’s separation from the main church, saying

he can be no Christian who is not inside the Church of Christ…there is but one Church founded by Christ…likewise, there is but one episcopate, but it is spread amongst the harmonious host of all the numerous bishops (28).

Cyprian thus denounced groups like the Novations as not truly being in the body of Christ because they were not united to the Roman church’s network of bishops. He even required re-baptism by anyone who wanted to come into the Roman church but had been baptized in an outside group (29). Of course, this was because of the authority of the “one episcopate” and not because of any Anabaptist-like considerations. While this practice drew serious ire from the Bishop of Rome, who called Cyprian a “false Christ and false apostle”, Cyprian’s position was adopted across all of North Africa and he was a revered teacher in North African Christianity long after his death (30). Cyprian’s positions were important in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecutions, seventy years later.

14 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/political. Accessed January 17th 2014
15 Matt. 20:25-28, 1 Pet. 5:3
16 In my estimation, a result of this fact is that enforcing this rule is incompatible with faithfulness to Christ’s teachings of peace. The most difficult teachings to reconcile with the enforcement of worldly government by Christ-followers being primarily found in Matthew 5:33-48
17 Luke 4:5-7, I have never found alternative explanations of this passage to be convincing
18 1 Cor. 15:24
19I list these not as models to be replicated, but as examples, though there are certainly timeless principles being reflected here that should be embodied by the Church at all times The Apostolic Tradition was written by Hippolytus, who separated himself from the established church in Rome as it became, in his opinion, too lax towards its’ members. Thus, the practices he cites are probably closer to the earliest church’s methods; schism is a topic I will address below.
20 Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 17-20. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York. 2004
21 Didache in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 20
22 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Novation Schism in Rome [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. https://sakai.gcts.edu/portal/
23 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Donatist Schism in North Africa [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. https://sakai.gcts.edu/ portal/
24 Wilken, Robert Louis, The First Thousand Years: A global history of Christianity. pp 67. New Haven: Yale University Press. Early church father Origen was killed on the rack during the Decian persecutions, as well as Bishops Fabian, Alexander, and Dionysius. The persecution was short, but it was devastating.
25 ibid. 68
26 ibid. 77
27 Wilken, 71
28 Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 55, in Reading in World Christian History, Vol. I. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. 2004. New York: Orbis Books.
29 Fairbairn, The Novation Schism
30 Wilken, 74

The Church: Pt. 1

This is an essay I wrote for a scholarship application recently on the subject of “The Church”. It specifically comes at things with the Mennonite tradition in-mind, but nothing in it is something I would not say to Christians from other traditions. I explore what the Church is, what  makes “the Church” different from other social institutions; and not just “a church”, but “the Church”. I talk about how the Church should conduct itself, in the world. I also delve into a controversy in church history that we can remember and learn lessons to apply in the American church specifically. I’ll split the essay into three chunks, and this first one mainly focuses on the question “What is the Church?” and “the unity of the Church”.

This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the Church” 

Writing about the Church simultaneously awakens a heavy heart and a burning love within me. I am, after all, writing about a whole of which I am a part. My current mission and later destiny are wrapped-up with what Ephesians says is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”. This essay comes on the heels of major shifts in my understanding of the Church, shifts which are still in progress. In this essay I will not be writing about those shifts, but will use biblical exegesis, theology, and case studies in church history to sketch my current understanding of “The Church”, and apply that understanding to pressing issues for the church today, including issues unique to the Mennonite church in the present. The reason why I will start with an in-depth theological and historical discussion is that my own experience, or even the experiences of the entire modern church, are not sufficient guides. It is a frequent and serious illness amidst my generation, one which I have struggled with, to have a narrow perspective on history, never really taking a look at things that have happened with the mantra “Be Present”, yet simultaneously we have grandiose and often narcissistic aspirations of our individual impact on it. At bottom though, our ability to leave a redemptive impact on history depends on how seriously we take a man who lived over 2000 years ago.

Christ's body is carried to its tomb. Click image for source
Christ’s body is carried to its tomb. Click image for source

A timeless topic for the Church is its’ identity. By “identity” I do not mean what does the church do which sets it apart from other institutions, already assuming that the church fits into a category of social science. The New Testament term for “church” is a religious takeover of the original Greek word defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly”, but this is not what I am searching for either. By “identity” I mean the common characteristic which binds the widely varying expressions and features of what we have called “the Church” across millennia and continents. What is the church?

The aforementioned passage in Ephesians likens the church to Christ’s body, and later in the same chapter Paul uses the analogy of a building; in 1 Peter 2 the analogy of a house is also used, along with these terms: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own”.  Within these two texts, two themes emerge: 1) the church is a singular, unified reality, and 2) the church is a society-forming reality. Behind both texts is language signifying what gives this reality its’ existence. In 1 Peter 2:4-5, we are told that it is only “as you come to him”, to Jesus, that we are made part of this new building, and it is “through him” that we carry out our function as a “spiritual house”. In Ephesians 1:1-14, the phrase “in Christ” or “in Him”, occurs 7 times to describe a location, and it is this refrain that leads to verse 23, describing the church as his body. These are only two texts, but I believe that the New Testament is consistent in stating that the Church is the human portion of God’s new creation in Christ, whose very existence depends on being in Christ; united to Him. This unity with the Godhead is maintained by the Holy Spirit, which sets apart and marks we who have accepted God’s invitation to come into His family, become freed, forgiven children, and give our lives to Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Messiah.  This brief search for a definition will become crucial as I continue discussing the two themes I mentioned above: the church as a singular, unified reality, and the church as a society-forming reality.

The unity of the church is a corollary of the identity of the church. In the New Testament the Church is never, ever, analogized to a plurality of physical bodies, or buildings, or priesthoods. While there are a plurality of churches-qua-gatherings, the fundamental unity can be seen in Paul’s rhetorical rebuke to the church in Corinth: …end your divisions…Is Christ divided? Now, growing up in the fundamentalist Pentecostal church of my parents, where even listening to preachers outside of the denomination was spoken of as potential backsliding, I am keenly aware of the sinful desire to set ourselves up as the ultimate judges of who is a part of this body, and who is not. Over the course of my first three years as a disciple of Jesus, I successively judged non-Charismatics, then non-Calvinists, then all institutional churches in general, and then myself. It was only after a major theological shift towards positions which I had previously thought were “heretical” that I saw my pharisaical, doctrinarian attitude as the insecurity it truly was. My journey has taught me that the fundamental unity of the church in Christ does not necessitate that I have that unity in the control of my mental concepts or ecclesial structures. As Dr. Miroslav Volf recently stated with reference to his early work on “free-church ecclesiology”:

I was thinking of all these small churches [in Europe]…they have given their lives, sometimes literally, to the work of the Gospel and they somehow aren’t churches but… whatever other institution there, is a church by the sheer fact of the succession and communion with Rome; and I, for the life of me, could not see how this is the case and how this in any way would correspond to what one finds in the New Testament”. 

If we are Christ’s body through His spirit within us, and if Christ cannot be divided, then we must start with this as an axiom in ecclesiology. We must conform our theology and practice to this most obvious biblical truth, not distort this truth to our theology and practice. In addition, while this conviction does lead us to believe that the unity of the church in Christ has an unseen, spiritual dimension, this conviction does not require us to ascribe to misconstrued understandings of the church as “invisible”. This is where the church as a society-forming reality comes into view.

A society-forming reality is not the society itself, but rather the source of ruling principles which form the society’s basic structure. This is true of the Church in Ephesians 1:20-23 where spiritual and earthly powers, including those which rule and order human societies, are “under Christ’s feet”, and the Church is Christ’s body. This is also evident in 1 Peter by the emphasis on being “born anew” and growing up as “newborn infants”. We are not describing a transition from one social group to another. To over-simplify: society is the outworking of human life; the Church is a society-forming reality because it is a unity of new humans birthed by the Holy Spirit. We must re-learn how to live, guided by obedience to the truth and sincere love; ruling principles which conflict with the “empty way of life inherited from your ancestors…”. The New Testament’s use of the phrase “Kingdom of God” further illuminates what kind of society this new humanity will produce.