The Need for an Anabaptist Political Theology

After reading this piece in Christianity today, a few things stuck out to me.

One is that I have a serious and deep suspicion that many fellow disciples are lacking a coherent set of principles guiding their decisions about how to engage with society. That is, if I were a betting man, I would place an inordinate sum of money on the wager that I could predict a Christian’s political views without knowing anything about their particular beliefs about Scripture. Why? Because we do a sloppy job of thinking through this issue in general, and because, as the article above shows, only 1% of theologically conservative Protestant Pastors have preached at least one sermon on a public policy issue in 2016. I don’t know if I would fall into that class if I were a pastor, but I certainly know plenty of pastors who would. How is that statistic possible when, at this particular juncture, almost all American Christians are going to be getting hammered with political opinion on issues that are not simply about “elections”, but about the intimate details of their daily lives from their workplace, schools, family, and culture at large? The answer, I think, is the lack of a political theology.

Kenneth Collins in his book “Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism” expresses this lack of a deeply integrated worldview for Christians in the present when compared with Christians in prior eras:

…traditional societies, medieval Christendom in Europe for example, were held together by the common ties of a carefully articulated political theology, with its robust belief in God, as well as by a philosophy of history that went back at least to the time of Augustine in his City of God….

Now, I strongly side with the Anabaptists of the 16th century, so I would unquestionably reject the medieval synthesis (as well as Collins’ own positions on this matter, though his book and analysis are excellent in many respects!), but what is to replace this? Catholicism has maintained its’ theological heritage on a synthesis of church, sword, and state (and has, to my knowledge, never taken an outrightly pacifist ethic) that, in my opinion, makes it untenable for the needs of the 21st century. Its’ ecclesiology is also still a far cry from the reforms called for from the dawn of Protestantism. Still, at least they have an idea of what they’re going for! What options do Protestant Christians, let’s say particularly in America today, have before them?

One option I see frequently expressed and say strongly “Not enough!”, is that Christians in a democratic state are free to engage with the political process, but they should not think that any particular way of ordering the society is better than any other. I might think we should help the poor by a just redistribution of taxes and government programs to alleviate fallen conditions of our society, and you think that our current structures of governance make it impossible to address the root causes of poverty and think that a laissez-faire market (one that is truly free, not the modern capitalist accommodation) would more quickly alleviate such issues. But, neither option is more “Christian”, because Christ never gave us a way of making these decisions. Yet, are we really supposed to think that Scripture-at-large has nothing to say about this question?

If there is no answer to this question, what makes it “unanswerable”? Take for example the more general question: “How can we best serve the poor?” Does scripture give us no ability to answer that? The two opinions I expressed above are possible answers to that question for any Christian. So, if scripture gives us any light on this, then it offers answers to questions which all the world would give”political” answers to, and so it is that scripture inevitably inserts itself into the social dimensions of earthly life, the “political” dimensions.

All of this is to say that the glib pronouncement of an “agreement to disagree” between Christians of all political persuasions will not move the Church further into its’ God-given kingdom mission. It will not stop laymen and laywomen from engaging, or not engaging, and it will not help them live more faithfully. What is needed is a deeper, consistent, radical call to a political theology informed by the New Testament. I have found this nowhere better expressed than by the Radical Reformers, and it is why I consider the writings of many 16th century Anabaptists to be a treasure trove for our modern predicament. In the next few months I hope to write more specifically on issues that are pressing in my particular, American, context, but thought that this general beginning is necessary to understand what kind of questions I’m thinking about.

…as Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding. For any kingdom which is divided within itself will be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession, 1527

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.

Christian Engagement in Elections: Interview with Ethicist Dr. David Gill

There are innumerable voices chiming-in on what/how/who to vote for, and on this “big” day in the election cycle it’s appropriate to take a few minutes to think deeply and critially bout what we’re doing if/when we engage in politics, especially if you claim to be a follower of Jesus. To this end, I interviewed Dr. David Gill, the Director of the Mockler Center and Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is an expert in organizational ethics, helping businesses as an ethics consultant and trainer through EthixBiz, and is President of the International Jacques Ellul Society. Dr. Gill is the author of seven books, and you can find out more about all of his work at his website, davidwgill.org. I started with asking about Gill’s scholarly work on Sociologist Jacques Ellul, especially since Ellul held some radical views which, I think, should have more of an ear for Christians who take their faith seriously.

You’re the foremost scholar on Jacques Ellul’s work, and his writings on anarchy have been really interesting to me. For the sake of any reader’s not familiar with how that word could mean anything positive, how does Ellul define anarchy?

Ellul believes that the nation-state has become an idol, a false god to which people look for just about everything.  He believes that in the east and west, no matter what the ideology (Communist, Capitalist, Muslim, etc.) this is the case.  Thus “anarchism” — meaning resistance to the growth of the state (any state) — is the only serious position.   Most political activity is an “illusion” because it is all heat and no light, all propaganda but no real change in direction or daily life.   He is not an anarchist of the type wo believes in unshackling naturally “good” human beings.  No, people are sinful so there can be no naïve anarchist “Eden.”  He is a “realist”, not a utopian.  It is a strategic position, not an ideological one.   I think he has some good points but is too pessimistic.  The growth of the state is required by the growth of corporate economic and political power; a big state is needed to stand up to predatory capitalism.  But the big state is corrupted as well.

What connection does this idea have to Christian scripture?

Ellul thinks that the Bible counsels resistance to the authority of the earthly state in calling for absolute loyalty to the kingdom of God.

Does this idea inform your own perspective on politics? If so, how?

Yes.  I especially like to see local communities empowered to manage their own affairs.  Community policing, rejection of national educational standards etc. Most of what I consider my political life is in my neighborhood and local organization.  Still, unlike Ellul, I do vote.  I don’t expect much to change as a result but I am a voter sent by God into the world as it is, not as I would like it to be.  I try to vote for candidates and laws that care for my fellow citizens.  I do not have a politics of illusion, or fear, or violence.

As this presidential election cycle heats up, the typical perspectives among Christians on politics inevitably surface. Some think that we should launch ourselves headlong into the foray, others simply disengage, how do you think Christians should engage with elections in particular?

Jacques Ellul thought that it was inevitable and even in some ways desirable that Christians would be in all political movements and parties — but that we should always be there not as their “Amen corner” but as representatives of the Kingdom of God.  I agree.

I came across an essay you wrote in 2008 on “Political Illusions and Realities“, where you said “the actual directions of our society and world are set by…deeper forces of technique, bureaucratization, the globalizing-technological-corporate economic order, the desperate search for survival, social order, and meaning by Islamic societies, and so on.” Which of these forces do you see most at the forefront in America today? 

I think American politics are almost entirely captured by big money expressed in campaign contributions and propaganda playing on people’s fear and ignorance.

How does that play into the way Christians engage with elections (if at all)?

Resist candidates who want to keep the status quo on campaign finance and gerrymandered districts. Read widely and deeply, not just the propaganda machines of particular candidates.

Besides elections, how can, or should, Christians engage with the political process?

(By) Local initiatives and organization for economic development, education, etc.  Also we should constantly teach the value system of the Bible.

That idea that we should “teach the value system of the Bible”, could be taken to endorse wildly different candidates and values. What do you see as essential values that should inform Christian engagement?

I mean to teach the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12-13 — three very comprehensive frameworks.  I discuss the ethics of the Decalogue in my book Doing Right. Of course we also learn from the didactic teaching, the wisdom literature the prophets, etc the parables.  My concern is that it is not just a different CONTENT that comes in Scripture but a different process and framework than that coming from the European Enlightenment.

As we engage in this way, what is your perspective on the ultimate end of human society, what theologians might call “Eschatology”? Are Christians trying to preserve society from self-destruction until Christ’s return? Are we hoping to “usher-in” an actual society under God’s rule before that, or something else?

I believe in the literal, imminent return of Christ.  I am agnostic about most of the other details.   I believe our ethics should be eschatological in the sense that we live “as in the day” as much as possible (Rom 13:11-14).

Many of the Christian circles I’m acquainted with, what I would broadly call “Neo-Evangelicals”, have abandoned the idea of “endorsing” candidates from the pulpit. What role does the church have to play in elections?  

I am appalled at the way so many white evangelicals have come out for the neo-Fascist Trump, the political ignorant Carson, and the obstructionist Cruz.  Carson and Cruz are Christians though I do not admire or share much of there political position.  Trump is a sleezy, self-centered, pagan oaf whose business career is not a success story.  But no, I do not like it when Black churches welcome candidates into their pulpits and endorse them.  The church should stick to biblically expressed values and prayer — and challenge the congregation to study, discuss, and pray to decide on their votes and actions.

 

The Weak, Seek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared the story of my conversion with several people, and it reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. My conversion came at the lowest point of my life, and as such it exemplifies certain negative stereotypes which people have of religion in general, whether it’s faith in Jesus or something else. The one I want to address here is the idea that religious belief in general is a “crutch” for those of us who are just too weak to face the struggles of life alone.

The prejudice runs something like this: Few people are able to stare the meaninglessness of life in the face and create their own destiny, become gods, but those who do are truly strong. A more spiritual version of this is the idea that one can simply find “within oneself” the resources to sustain one’s life, and that there’s a sort of divine power which we need to access, and we will not be seeking resources to live from outside of ourselves. For those who turn to reliance on a power outside themselves or others, well, they’re just a little weak. The conclusion to be drawn is that, if that last sentence is true, then it somehow should count as negative evidence against these beliefs.

Now, I can only address this from the perspective of a disciple of Christ, but the general response is the same: the conditions under which people come to see something as true has little bearing on whether it is true, or not. For example, it may be only while I am watching a graphic film about factory farming that I conclude the industry’s practices are immoral, but just because I was queasy when I came to the conclusion doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This must be assessed on other grounds. Similarly, individuals coming to faith in times of duress is a circumstantial piece of information that does not determing whether their belief is true.

For Christians however, these observations are meant to confirm our faith. They are not meant as evidence for those who do not believe, but their existence is given robust explanation in scripture. There are two ways that I have been thinking of this.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)

The first is that Jesus Christ’s most famous sermon states in no uncertain terms that God specifically blesses those who the rest of the world would consider “unfortunate” or “weak”, in the exact kind of ways which many “weak” believers would hope. Consider the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spiritfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousnessfor they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the mercifulfor they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heartfor they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakersfor they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousnessfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of meRejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heavenfor they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6:24-26, we see another sermon (or perhaps the rest of this one) combined to contrast Jesus’ attitude towards those whose assurance that they are living well rests on their level of comfort:

But woe to you who are richfor you have received your comfort alreadyWoe to you who are well satisfied with food nowfor you will be hungryWoe to you who laugh nowfor you will mourn and weepWoe to you when all people speak well of youfor their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

In other words, all of the observations used against faith birthed out of suffering, were acknowledged by a Jewish Rabbi over 2,000 years ago, and his followers have always known this is how the world seems to work.

The second way in which this counts as further confirmation for the Christian faith is that the entire New Testament unambiguously declares that the world is under the influence of the spiritual enemies of God, and that their rule (called the “kingdom of darkness”, or “kingdom of the world”) is one of deception. Specifically, a theme for Jesus is the deception of riches. It seems as though the fact that the world’s well-of seem to feel less in-need of God is an intentional ploy by the enemies of God. Here are just a few more passages to confirm this:

1 John 5:19 “We know that we are from Godand the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

Matthew 13:22 “The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the wordbut worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the wordso it produces nothing.”

Luke 12:19-21 (Here Jesus is finishing a parable) “And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many yearsrelaxeatdrinkcelebrate!”’ But God said to him‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from youbut who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himselfbut is not rich toward God.”

1 Timothy 6:7-10 “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out eitherBut if we have food and shelterwe will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be richhowever, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of every type of evilsSome people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”

So, my final word is to those who may find themselves in weakness, in suffering, in poverty, and like Job are asking “Why do the wicked go on living, grow old, even increase in power?”

The reality of suffering and injustice were forever placed into the experience of God’s own life, and He knows what it is like.  “For we do not have high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses“, the author of Hebrews says. Jesus’ death puts on display the reality that the world is simply not just. The beautiful hope which we recently celebrated on Easter is that God is making all things new. In light of the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, we have assurance that he is able to resurrect us. This world’s order is passing away, and this short life will not be our last. When we awake, it will be to a reign of peace and love “for the former things have ceased to exist.” Today, I encourage you to take his words to heart:

“In the world you have trouble and sufferingbut take courage – I have conquered the world.”

Palm Sunday Reflection: True Kingdom, True King

Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)
Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)

This past Sunday my church community had a service centered around the Triumphal Entry and Mark’s account in Mark 11. I was really blessed by the sermon and the worship centered around Jesus as our King, the Messiah delivering all humanity from its’ own rebellion, from death itself and the devil. A question which I think we should think deeply about is “How were the Jewish expectations of the Messiah wrong, and how were they right?” Of course, different sects of Judaism would have different expectations: Zealots would be expecting an outright revolt, and with some speed! Perhaps others expected an organized, but slow movement towards full-scale war against Rome. I’m no Jewish scholar, just extrapolating. I want to offer one specific way that I think Jewish expectations were right, and another specific way (connected to it) that was wrong. Both of these have deep implications for followers of Jesus today, and we might be ignoring their logical conclusions.

One way in which I think their expectations were right, is that the Messiah would be political. What I mean is that prophecies about the Messiah were intimately connected to the throne of David, and the Messiah would change the power structures of the world in drastic ways. More specifically, the Messiah was to do something that would permanently establish freedom for Israel. As seen in Mark 11:10, the crowds were calling out about Jesus:

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David

In connection to this, Christians rightly point out that Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world”, as he would say to Pilate several days later. But, we shouldn’t leverage this statement beyond its’ intention. It does not imply that Jesus’ kingdom is not supposed to have political ramifications! Jesus himself would quote deeply political prophecies, and one story in particular connects to the way in which I think Jewish expectations were wrong. In Luke 4:18-30, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon mebecause he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poorHe has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blindto set free those who are oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is all that Jesus quotes, but look at the rest of the passage! I highlighted the words which are tangible and almost impossible to simply interpret as “spiritual”.

They will rebuild the perpetual ruins and restore the places that were desolatethey will reestablish the ruined citiesthe places that have been desolate since ancient times. “Foreigners will take care of your sheepforeigners will work in your fields and vineyardsYou will be called‘the Lord’s priests, servants of our God.’ You will enjoy the wealth of nations and boast about the riches you receive from themInstead of shameyou will get a double portion; instead of humiliationthey will rejoice over the land they receive. Yes, they will possess a double portion in their land and experience lasting joyFor Ithe Lord, love justice and hate robbery and sin. I will repay them because of my faithfulnessI will make a permanent covenant with themTheir descendants will be known among the nations, their offspring among the peoplesAll who see them will recognize that the Lord has blessed them.”

Jesus goes on to say that this prophecy is about Him, and everyone there is shocked, because he’s a hometown boy! It’s Jesus’ response to their unbelief that he is the Messiah, and their response to him, that really enlightens the Jewish attitudes about this “Son of David”:

“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elishayet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard thisall the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got upforced him out of the townand brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was builtso that they could throw him down the cliff.

Woah there, maybe an over-reaction no? The Jews were rightfully expecting a political Messiah, but they were wrongfully expecting a political Messiah only for the Jews. Because Jesus was here explicitly approving the behavior of Gentiles, and judging the behavior of Jews, he caused a riot and was almost killed! It is unlike other kingdoms in that it is transnational. 

Lastly, I mentioned how Jesus’ statement “My kingdom is not of this world” can be stretched to imply that his kingdom is not relevant for politics, for how human societies organize themselves. Another mistake is to forget about the second-half of that statement

If my kingdom were from this worldmy servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is,my kingdom is not from here.

So, it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom is deeply political, but not of this world. It’s political in the sense that it is the formation of a new community of people, a new “nation”, unrestricted by national borders and operating together in every sense that all other “nations” operate. The kingdom of God is in the world, but, it is not of the world, because the way it operates does not look anything like how “normal” governments operate, specifically by the fact that we do not use violence. The Kingdom of God should be a catalyst for forming peaceful, alternative, transnational political systems. It involves land, justice, forgiveness, peace, and good news for the poor.

The Crown of Thorns & Worldly Power

The Crowning with Thorns (Caravaggio 1602-1607, click for source)
The Crowning with Thorns (Caravaggio 1602-1607, click for source)

“So the soldiers led him into the palace (that isthe governor’s residence) and called together the whole cohort. They put a purple cloak on him and after braiding crown ofthornsthey put it on himThey began to salute him: “Hailking of the Jews!” Mark 15:16-18

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s book “The Meaning of the City” and a footnote on the significance of “thorns” in Isaiah struck me. Referencing Isaiah 10:16-19, he says

Isaiah here uses a traditional and well-known symbolism when he represents the army by a forest and military power by thorns and briers. The figure is to be found frequently in his book.

I immediately thought about the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head in the Gospels. A footnote in the NET bible about the crown of thorns in Mark 15:17 says:

 Their purpose would have been to mock Jesus’ claim to be a king; the crown of thorns would have represented the “radiant corona” portrayed on the heads of rulers on coins and other artifacts in the 1st century.

I think that the soldier’s intention could have been that. However, as brother Jason Storbakken reminded me recently, we should always be comparing scripture-with-scripture, and the fact that thorns are frequently symbols of military power is not insignificant. Not only were the centurion’s mocking Christ, they are providing us with a symbol of the conflict between our Lord, and the military might of the world’s kingdoms. The overwhelming beauty here, is that Jesus chooses to suffer at the hands of these powers, to rescue humanity from their grip. I did a little digging to find other places in the Bible where thorns are used this way, and there are lots. But here are just a few examples:

Isaiah 27:4 “I am not angry. I wish I could confront some thorns and briersThen I would march against them for battleI would set them all on fire,”. Here, God is “marching against” thorns and briers, implying that they represent armies, militaries which would be marched against.

Isaiah 33:12 The nations will be burned to asheslike thorn bushes that have been cut downthey will be set on fire.”

Ezekiel also uses the language to refer to nations: “No longer will Israel suffer from the sharp briers or painful thorns of all who surroundand scorn them. Then they will know that I am the sovereign Lord.” – Ez. 28:24

Hosea uses “thorns” to represent the occupying nations of Israel Look! Even if they flee from the destructionEgypt will take hold of them, and Memphis will bury them. The weeds will inherit the silver they treasure –thorn bushes will occupy their homes.” -Hos. 9:6

A quick search for “thorns” in the Old Testament will yield many more results. So, I think that the obvious mockery which the soldiers were carrying out against Jesus had a double-meaning which they did not realize, but which God certainly intentioned and used. The nations, with their military might and war-enforced-peace, are always in this relationship with God, they refuse His authority, and are a cause for His shed blood. They are thorns, and God will overcome their differences and schemes to establish his kingdom in the world. What is perhaps jaw-droopingly beautiful, is that Christ bleeds for the nations, for their peace. While their current structures and violent rule will be overthrown by Him, their existence will remain and somehow be transformed.

In the meantime, I hope to keep modeling God’s love for all, refusing to take up the sword, refusing to retaliate, refusing to play the power-games of politics and nations, and to see His kingdom spread.

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.

The Kingdom, Sword, & Pope

Pope Boniface VIII
Pope Boniface VIII, click for image source

This is an edited excerpt from an essay I wrote for a Church History course. It specifically highlights the three doctrinal features of Roman Catholicism which combine to make what I call a “dangerous tapestry”. Three current events spurred me to post it. One is the enormous popularity of the pope, especially among young evangelicals and those involved with ecumenical discussions *1. The second is the current crisis in the Middle East, and the revival of talks about “Christian civilization” in the face of ISIL. The third was the President’s talk at the prayer breakfast, and all the varying reactions to it. I think that this portion of my essay is very relevant for all three of these things.

The first doctrinal feature is the belief that the “kingdom of God”, the very purpose of Christ’s work and the end of history, are political realities (though not exclusively political realities). They are “political” in the sense that God is concerned with the structuring and nurturing of human life. This involves the spiritual state of individual humans, but also humanity’s redeemed life with one another. The “new Jerusalem” of Revelation is a society, now fully re-created in Christ. In Roman Catholicism, this political reality is affirmed, and differs from the “separation of church and state” idea, which is more popular in Protestantism. So, in this view, it is not true that the “government’s role” and “the church’s role” and non-overlapping spheres; the church is more responsible for lives of its’ people than the government, and the church (at its’ best) should be executing all of the functions necessary for human life. Personally, I am closer to this view than the belief in the “separation of church and state”, but the kind of “church”, and the kind of “state” that Catholic doctrine would form is, I believe, anti-Christian, as we’ll see by the next two doctrinal features.

The supremacy of the Roman bishop is the doctrinal feature which I have the most aversion to and the doctrine to which I have even stronger aversions to after my study of its’ development. It is in my opinion a religious form of absolutism, and indicative of deeper theological, philosophical, and political beliefs which Roman Catholicism adopted early on unofficially, and later on overtly. The error of absolutism in connection with the papacy is unique in Roman Catholicism because of its’ dogmatic character. What I mean by that is although leaders can function as absolutist in almost any setting, the Catholic church has made this functionality an explicit teaching. It is most obvious in the title “Vicar of Christ”, which is still the second title of the Pope after “Bishop of Rome”, and the pope claims this title for himself alone. The most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered (emphasis mine) *2.

This supreme power is by not checked by the body of bishops, as is evident in the next statement of the Catechism:

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head” *3.

The implications of this teaching are far-reaching and contradict the essence of Christian leadership as displayed in the New Testament. This absolute authority of the Pope has caused egregious defamations to the name of Christ, especially when combined with the final aspect of Roman Catholicism that I highlight below. I also find it surprising that some Protestant Christians are so disposed to compliment Pope Francis’ individual acts, and not truly engage with the institutional problem of his very existence. This is even more surprising to me because it seems as though those Christians more attracted to ecumenical discussions are also more aware of institutions in-general, and the need to correct institutions which lead to injustice.

The final thing I want to highlight is the Roman Catholic church’s endorsement of violence. This is where the converging doctrines of Catholic ecclesiology repel me the most, though the sanctioning of violence on the part of worldly governments is a sad reality among almost all of the church. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that “Secular power is subject to the spiritual power as the body is subject to the soul” *4. In my course on church history, the interesting realization I had was that I do not theoretically disagree that the church is supposed to govern the whole life of the community of saints. Where I disagree, is that the church’s form of governance should be so conducive to tyranny and violence.

A quote from Boniface VIII perfectly illustrates the dangerous tapestry formed by these threads:

..in this church and in her power there are two swords, a spiritual one and a temporal one…Certainly anyone who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not paid heed to the words of the Lord when he said, “Put up thy sword into its sheath”.*5

This is the justification for the use of force by the Roman Catholic Church, and while the current Pope condemns violence in-general, it is still the official position of the church to condone it, especially when done for the advancement of the Church or causes it thinks are good. Recent historical examples are the revolutionary politics created by Liberation Theology in Latin America, whose features would be far more attractive if it were not for their endorsement of violence.

It is the convergence of 1) a church governance structure enabling/condoning autocratic power, 2) the true affirmations that the kingdom of God is both “not of this world” and “within/among us”, resulting in the belief that the church’s responsibilities encompass the same spheres as the governments of the world, and 3) the acceptance of worldly methods to enforce this rule, that make it impossible for me to ever become Catholic myself.

I think it will be important as this century goes on for Christians who believe that peace is central to the Gospel to see the structural dangers to this witness that are inherent in Catholicism, even as we continue global ecumenical discussions. It is also important to confront the lie that Western civilization in its’ current form is “Christian civilization”. Christian civilization looks like Christ, dying for its’ enemies, showing self-sacrificial love, living lives of holiness. Such a society may sound “utopian”, or “naive”, since, some may say, such a society would just be conquered and enslaved. The appropriate response to this doubt is to point us to the resurrection, where our Lord’s own self-sacrifice, love, and holiness, resulted in ultimate victory. If we believe this, it is no longer a stretch to believe that we are called to do the same, and that He can accomplish it!

*1 I myself have a strong ecumenical bent, but am simultaneously very averse to pursuing institutional unity with churches whose structures create the kind of dangers that Roman Catholicism’s does.

*2 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2A.HTM , loc.

*3 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2A.HTM , loc. 883

*4 John W. Robbins, Ecclesiastical Megalomania, pp. 130. 1999. United States of America: The  Trinity Foundation. Although I am using Robbins book as a source for specific statements of popes, I want to explicitly say that I believe Robbins was an extremist with regards to both his theological stances and perspective on political philosophy. Also, Robbins believed the corrective to the Catholic church’s teachings involves Reformed understandings of scripture and salvation, while I believe the error lies more in their endorsement of violence. That being the case, his work raises valid concerns with regards to the Catholic Church’s own words about its’ authority and ends.

*5 Robbins, 124. An often overlooked part of this passage is that Christ is telling Peter to not use the sword.

An observation on “Gospel”

Some time ago I spent a few days doing a small “word study” on “gospel”, just looking for where the word was used in scripture and what it meant in those places. I was motivated to do this because many of my understandings about salvation have been shifting, further and further away from a “legal view” in which the good news of God is primarily about my forgiveness, and in which the news stops at Christ’s death for my sins.

Now, this is an observation, not a robust explanation or argument, but one passage in particular stuck out to me during this word study:

After Jesus called the twelve togetherhe gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 9:2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick….Then they departed and went throughout the villagesproclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. Luke 9:1-2, 6 (NETbible.org, emphasis mine)

The word for “proclaiming the good news” is  ευαγγελιζο, and the same verb is used also in:
Acts 8:12, 8:35, 10:36, 11:20, 14:7, 14:21, 16:10, and several other places in Acts.

The intriguing part to me is that Jesus is said to have sent the disciples out, and they are said to have proclaimed the good news, but Jesus had not yet died, nor did any of them even know that he was the Son of God. It is later in this chapter that Peter states that Jesus is the “Christ of God”, not even “Son of God”.

Obviously, a word can mean different things in different places. But, I think that many Christians would read Luke 9:1-6 and assume the words “proclaiming the gospel” mean the same thing they do later in the New Testament, when some of the same disciples are doing the same thing. To me, this is an indication that while Christ’s death and resurrection re-framed the apostles’ understanding of God’s mission, the fact that the good news could be proclaimed prior to Christ’s saving work on the cross means we should be able to understand his mission within a larger context, and that this larger context is most fundamental to the Gospel. Jesus said:

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is nearRepent and believe the gospel!

Jesus gave us a pretty clear indication of what the gospel is all about, “the kingdom of God is near”. It seems even less likely that Jesus would have been referring to his own atoning work here with the word gospelThe apostles were preaching the gospel before Christ was resurrected, because it was obvious to them that Jesus was ushering in a new kingdom by his very life and miracles, and they had faith in God, that the old order of sin and death was passing away. While we now must speak about Christ’s death and resurrection when telling people the good news, we must be careful not to forget that this good news is the overarching reality that God’s kingdom is near, among us, within us. Our confidence of this is rooted in the reality of Christ’s death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit living in us.

Carrying a Cross

Not able to make time and finish the last three posts with a conclusion, I read a quote on a different topic that I thought was worth sharing.

Followers of Jesus often talk about “carrying our cross”, and, the quote below argues, we often confuse what Jesus meant by that.We can mistakenly call every difficulty we go through as “our cross”, anything from our car not working to being annoyed with a co-worker is given a highly doubtful significance. In doing this we belittle the real sacrifice that Jesus calls his disciples to make, and are unable to make that sacrifice ourselves because of our lesser substitutes.

That’s not to say that God is not walking with us through the everyday ups and downs of life, but there is a distinction between this and “taking up our cross“.  We can see this in Jesus’ life. He faced a multitude of difficulties in his life, but they were not all “carrying his cross”. Jesus carried his cross as the result of the kind of life He lived, and called his disciples to that same kind of life, which would result in the same kind of treatment. The quote below is from “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder:

The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross must be, like his Lord’s, the price of his social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not, like Luther’s or Thomas Muntzer’s or Zinzerdorf’s or Kierkegaard’s cross or ‘Afechtung’, and inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come. The word “The servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me they will persecute you” is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.

Representing as he did the divine order now at hand, accessible; renouncing as he did the legitimate use of violence and the accrediting of the existing authorities; renouncing as well the ritual purity of noninvolvement, his people will encounter in ways analogous to his own the hostility of the old order.”