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.

Christians & Muslims Worshipping the Same God

The suspension of a professor from Wheaton College for wearing a hijab, and stating online that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God”, generated a lot of news a few days ago, and, being my typical slow-to-read-the-news self, I’m just getting around to seeing exactly what is being said. So, I want to just offer one or two things that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and will provide a few links for others to read the full arguments I address here. But first, a quick caveat, since this whole conversation has been fused together with discussion of the politics of the “Christian Right”.

As a Christian, I believe that we are called to love our enemies. Further, my understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ makes it impossible to justify violence against any human being, for any reason, even (or especially, considering the cross) self-defense (sorry, not the place for me to nuance this). Politically, I’m neither liberal, nor conservative, and, being totally transparent, I probably fit in better with the politics of the Amish than any other social group (ok, slight exaggeration, but explaining this would be a whole other post!). So, this being said, my interest here has more to do with the theology being tossed around.

The big question being asked is whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Professor Larycia Hawkins, in the post which resulted in her suspension, linked people to this article on Christianity Today where Theologian Miroslav Volf discusses his work on just this question. In that article, many years old now, Dr. Volf actually explicitly says that “all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God”, but rather “Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.” What exactly this means is well elaborated on by Benjamin Corey on his blog:

describing an object differently doesn’t mean that two people are describing two totally different objects. For example, let’s say Jane and Henry both work for a guy named Jeff. Jane says that Jeff is a decent boss who treats people fairly. Henry on the other hand, describes Jeff as being lazy and unavailable. The two people may be describing Jeff differently, and one or both of them might be wrong in their understanding of Jeff, but they’re still attempting to describe the same object.

So far, so good. The issue, which I think Scot McKnight defines more clearly, is that Volf in his book does contend that Christians and Muslims actually do worship the same God, by way of the premise that “our worship reveals our God”, and that “to the extent that God’s commands express God’s character, Muslims and Christians worship the same God”. Volf lists six points of agreement and concludes that “When Christians and Muslims agree on the above six claims about God, then in their worship of God they refer to the same object” Those six points are:

1. There is only one God.
2. God is creator.
3. God is radically different.
4. God is good.
5. God commands we love God.
6. God commands we love others.

My additions to this discussion is relatively short, but I think poignant.

First, Volf’s entire purpose, much of his life’s work as a theologian, is done with a drive to promote peace and inter-religious dialogue, and to do that as a Christ-follower. By finding mutual ground, he hopes to discourage the kind of revengeful spirit in which Christians all too often reflect the values of our culture, and help Christians live faithfully in an age where religious pluralism is a fact of life. In this endeavor, he is to be commended. Yet, in the claim that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”, what may be sensed as lacking is that Christianity is not just worship, it is union with God. “Worship”, as it is being used in this discussion, is a human activity, and implies nothing about God’s responsiveness or attitude towards it.

To be a Christian is not simply to believe certain propositions about God, and then to conduct certain rituals to honor that God, and to live in a certain way.  As a “Neo-Anabaptist”, I certainly believe that it necessarily involves this. But, we do not rest on the degree to which we are theologically accurate; Christianity is thoroughly existential and relational, it presupposes that this God acts in the world, and towards individuals in such a way as to transform the inner life any who has put their trust in Him. This only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we receive the Holy Spirit only by faith in Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be in a dynamic relationship with the Trinity.

So, while I essentially agree with Volf’s purpose, and even the contours of his argument, what I would add is that this does not remove the need for evangelistic zeal, or the need for apologetic debate with Muslims. Nor does it imply that Jews and Muslims are in a saving relationship with the God of the universe. Some may be, but this blog post is already longer than anticipated so soteriology is not the direction I want to go right now. Perhaps that is what many in this discussion are also trying to correct, the misconception that Christians must necessarily believe that every individual since 33 AD who has followed Jesus Christ as Lord is destined for damnation. If so, I think there more theologically honest ways of clearing that up than the broad statement that all monotheists worship the “same” God.

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.

They make a desolation & call it peace

 “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” -Tacitus

I ran across this quote and thought it was a good description of how the leaders of modern nations act (including ours). A quick bit of digging through a wiki article (relax! not writing a research paper here) reminded me of how deceptive the Roman Empire was. It inscribed on its’ military’s medals “peace to the world“. How easy it is to be tricked into thinking that any military can achieve peace!

The irony of the quote is that it was given by another general, Calgacus, who lead a Scottish army into battle against the Roman Empire in the first century. This just highlights the deceptiveness of violence. It is so, so, appealing to us to think that some violence is justified, usually ours. Few stop to see from the bird’s-eye view of history: it all revolves, endlessly, as it has for millennia.

I thought the quote merited its’ own post. I’ll end it with another quote that reminds me of how following Jesus is a challenge to the claim empires make that they are the peacemakers of the world.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:19-20