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 Worldview of American Sniper

I got around to watching American Sniper yesterday. What struck me most were some words of the main character’s father, Wayne Kyle, speaking to his son Chris after a fight where he was protecting his younger brother in elementary school. Chris would grow up to be the most lethal sniper in US history, and the movie is about his four tours in Iraq. Putting aside the complexities of why any specific person joins the military, the worldview that Wayne Kyle presents his children undergirds the whole movie, it helps us to sympathize with Chris’ efforts, and the film does a good job at that. What I want to highlight is how un-Christianun-Christlike, and unbiblical that worldview really is. While this does address what I would say about Chris’ life and “purpose”, I would have loved to meet Chris, to talk about his experiences, maybe even talk about this worldview and how it goes against things said in the Bible which he carried around with him all four tours. Here are Wayne Kyle’s words:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.

The first sentence doesn’t communicate anything off-kilter. It reminds me a bit about this passage from Acts 20:28-29

Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseersto shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock

The next two sentences start to lead us away from a biblical worldview. Wayne states in the film that sheep”prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world”. But, who does Jesus say are the sheep?

I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolvesso be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” -Matthew 10:16

Another relevant passage referring to all Christians as sheep would be Romans 8:35-36

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or dangeror sword? As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

So, really, anyone who is a disciple of Christ is a sheep, and a disciple of Christ has no illusions about evil not existing. The wolves are certainly real. The last portion of Wayne Kyle’s statement is about the “sheepdog”, and how it is blessed with “the gift of aggression”. In the film, it is bluntly obvious that this is not just an attitude but specifically violent aggression that is the key characteristic of the sheepdog. Here again though, we should ask ourselves, how does scripture say Christians are to respond to evil?

Do not avenge yourselvesdear friendsbut give place to God’s wrathfor it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Ratherif your enemy is hungry, feed himif he is thirstygive him a drinkfor in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good – Romans 12:19-21

For this finds God’s favorif because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endurethis finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was malignedhe did not answer backwhen he sufferedhe threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:19-23

Christians are called to “follow in his steps”, meaning Jesus’ steps, who did not have the “gift of aggression”, and yet, is the ultimate conqueror over all evil and death. The last thing I will add to this is that in the New Testament there are very strong words about people who harm others within the community of Christians, especially when talking about psychological and social harm. In the first few centuries of Christianity, to be part of “the Church” meant that you most likely shared meals several times a week, shared some possessions, and formed intimate economic and social ties with those people. Thus, instructions such as these were given to leaders if they encountered someone who was wreaking havoc in the community:

Reject divisive person after one or two warnings. You know that such a person is twisted by sin and is conscious of it himself – Titus 3:10-11

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoralor greedyor an idolateror verbally abusive, or a drunkardor a swindlerDo not even eat with such a person. For what do I have to do with judging those outside? Are you not to judge those inside? But God will judge those outsideRemove the evil person from among you. – 1 Co. 5:11-13

While these instructions may not apply equally to a modern church in the US because of the more isolated and autonomous existence of its’ members, it just goes to show that the sheep are not ignorant of evil. The “removing” is not “exterminating”. All in all, the sheep have a better idea at how to stop evil once and for all! We follow the example of Jesus.

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”. 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”.

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