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,, 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, 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 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 President & the Prayer Breakfast: An Afterthought

I typically wait at least a week to post on a current event, it gives me a good feel for what others have been saying, and not to just regurgitate things I could just post a link for someone else to explain. After looking over posts from Catholic, Baptist, and Mainline Protestant authors, one things I did not notice was the simple question:

Why is the President invited to the prayer breakfast anyway?

Is the President an exemplary Christian? The historical comparison which came to mind for me was different than all the Crusades/Muslim conquest references, but rather this one, Constantine at the Council of Nicea:

As soon then as the imperial injunction was generally made known, all with the utmost willingness hastened there, as though they would outstrip one another in a race; for they were impelled by the anticipation of a happy result to the conference, by the hope of enjoying present peace, and the desire of beholding something new and strange in the person of so admirable an emperor…And a single house of prayer, as though divinely enlarged, sufficed to contain at once Syrians and Cilicians, Phœnicians and Arabians, delegates from Palestine, and others from Egypt (et. al.)…

…And now, all rising at the signal which indicated the emperor’s entrance, at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like someheavenly messenger of God…

…silence ensued, and all regarded the emperor with fixed attention; on which he looked serenely round on the assembly with a cheerful aspect, and, having collected his thoughts, in a calm and gentle tone gave utterance to the following words….

While I definitely have thoughts on the content of the President’s speech, where did we get the idea that a secular ruler has an automatic right to speak at a breakfast centered around Christ? Maybe the President is a Christian, but, if anything, Christ’s words should lead us to not automatically give those with outward power the best seat in the house.