Christ Over Politicization

“To think of everything as political..to place everything in the hands of the state…to subordinate problems of the individual to problems of the group….these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth” -Ellul, The Political Illusion

What Ellul is getting at in this work is that everything in our society (and by “our” I mean all first-world modern nation-states, “technocratic” states as he would argue) has become a part of “politics”, and I say that the Church in many places is taking the bait on this. I want to quote Ellul on how these ideas have been stolen by “politicization” and how much they oppose what Jesus Christ has revealed to us about human life. Listen to how “politicization” forms our ideas of “justice”, “community”, “freedom”, and “progress”:

Justice: “justice no longer exists as a personal virtue…must be endowed with some adjective, particularly “social”, i.e., it is ultimately regarded as political. It is up to the State to make justice prevail..the Christian affirmation that justice is the individual’s miraculous transformation by the grace of god [no longer makes sense]

Community: “We cannot conceive of society except as directed by a central omnipresent and omnipotent state…we can no longer conceive of a society with autonomous “in between” groups or diverging activities…Any attempt on the part of any enterprise, university, or charitable enterprise to remain independent of the state seems anachronistic to us. The state directly incarnates the public good” (is this not our hope in elections!)

Freedom: “[Freedom] in our eyes is negligible unless..incorporated in a regime, or the fruit of a constitution, or represented  by the participation of a citizen in state power…

Progress: “Man’s progress in today’s society consists in his participation in political affairs…women finally become human being because they receive ‘political rights’..A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person. To progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place. Progress is to read newspapers.”

Think about these ideas now from the perspective of scripture. Justice, according to Scripture, is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. There, we see an innocent man being crucified for others’ transgression! This point is buried in current discussions of justice. Let’s advocate for justice: Who will be the first to take-on the execution of another? Or, is it not obvious that the state cannot execute “justice”, but only “law”, retribution, punishment, coercion, when we are told to leave these things to God? (Rom. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Justice in God’s kingdom is infuriating until one follows Jesus, and accepts the truths at the heart of Christianity: that God has chosen to love the world through Christ, and love never fails (1 Corinthians 13).

Similarly, the vehicle for true community, a community that embraces all humanity, is no constitutional republic, no matter how much it borrows “Judaeo-Christian” values. The vehicle is the body of Christ, the “holy nation”. The “nation” that rejects the boundaries set-up by the nations of the world (1 Peter 2:9). Despite any appearance to the contrary, this nation will prevail, not by any sword, but by the “blood of the lamb” and the  “word of its’ testimony” (Rev. 7).

What of freedom? What do we say about the freedom that Christ gives us? “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36). “Free indeed”, Jesus says. He does not say “free in spirit”, or, what’s worse and often implied, “free eventually.” No. We are truly free, now. Here were see some practical, real-life, ramifications that these teachings had on the early disciples, as they had no stake in the “political illusion” of freedom.

The illusion of the particular worldly kingdoms set-up as “democracies” is that if we do not participate in the positive decisions (as opposed to work that is done to undo oppresive systems or laws, as I argued in favor of here) made about who will “represent” us, we are not really exercising our freedom. Christ and the disciples lived under the Roman empire: they had no political say in who their rulers were. I will say without any hesitation they were more free than most Christians in democratic nation-states. Why? Because as we see in Acts, they were “autonomous in-between groups” conducting “diverging activities”, such as sharing their possessions, sacrificially serving the poor and foreigners, and causing fairly serious chaos in cities because of how their faith led to the undoing of lucrative, idolatrous commerce (Acts 16:16-24). They did this without approval, representation, or advocates in the empire, and at the service of their king. They were free. Their freedom was not ‘aloof’ but tangible, with real consequences, and ultimately fatal to the state’s attempt to craft its’ own vision.

Finally, what progress is it that the world seeks? Is it the end seen in Isaiah 2:4?

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Or is it really to consolidate those swords into the hands of those who are “just”and “good”? Can any worldly nation even theoretically say that Isaiah 4 is their vision for humanity’s future without self-imploding?

These criticisms are all well-and-good, but what do we say “yes” to if we’re giving a firm “no” to politicization? First, as Ellul so forcefully emphasizes, we look to the people who we actually know, actually can love, and the family that God has adopted us into: the Church of Christ! We have a call to “hasten the day” together, as Peter says,that day prophesied in Isaiah 4, and frankly the nations of the world (as political structures, not as ethnicities, peoples, and communities of creativity) play no part in this progress. In fact, they are part and parcel of the problem.

The simplicity of this alternative is deceptive. It took over 40 days of prayer and instruction for the disciples (who had already spent three years with Christ) to even begin their ministry in earnest (Acts 1-2). Yet when they did, their ministry had more “social” impact than any political movement before or after in history. When we look back at the witness in scripture, we do not see a replicable formula in their story, but the spirit of God guiding real decisions in concrete situations, and expanding his kingdom through concrete transformations of everyday life in the culture of that day (as in Acts 16:16-24). When we turn our efforts to the kingdom of God, allow the Holy Spirit to lead our decisions, and refuse to allow the world to limit the scope of Christ’s redeeming work, we are free.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” “These things” include how the economy will affect the work we are able to find, how we will produce food, be clothed, and live our lives (realizing that life is “more than” this). These very things will be found in the pursuit of this kingdom, not in any amount of politicized notions of justice, freedom, community, or progress . Leave the illusions aside, and take this freedom offered!

Does God Suffer, pt. 2: Insight From Early Christian Martyrs

The next few posts on this topic will take a look at the Christian “Apologists” of the 2nd century, and their heirs. Did the early Church (specifically in the first three centuries after Christi) speak of God’s ability or inability, to suffer, and if so, what did they have to say about it?

In our earliest accounts of Christian martyrs, Christ is said to suffer with the martyr, and “gives the power to withstand torture”[1] Paul Gavrilyuk contrasts this with Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s description of God as a “fellow-sufferer who understands”, saying that Whitehead’s description is of a God who merely suffers with-us, but is powerless to do anything about this suffering. While this is a somewhat accurate implication of Whitehead’s philosophy, there is a synthesis of these two points that I think is worth spelling out. There is a Trinitarian involvement with the suffering of believers. As several passages in scripture point out, we are recipients of Christ’s resurrection as a corollary of our participation in his sufferings and death.[2] We experience unity with Christ in this process. The Holy Spirit fills us with power to endure, and one can imagine the strength experienced by martyrs, such as Felicitas, as the Father’s response to the suffering of one of his children.

Felicitas was a second century Christian martyred for her faith in what is now France during a local persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Before her gruesome death she is recorded as making the bold assertion: “another will be in me who will suffer for me”. Gavrilyuk, representing a more classical understanding that God does not suffer, interprets Felictas assertion this way:

“the early Christian theology of martyrdom offers the insight that Christ’s suffering (in the qualified sense of providing power to endure persecution to those who suffer for his sake) extends beyond…the incarnation…”[3](emphasis mine)

Howeer, that caveat in parentheses does not seem to do full justice to that bold assertion of Felicitas, or the testimony of the Sanctus, another early Christian martyr at Lyons, who claimed that “Christ, suffering in him, manifested his glory, delivering him from his adversary” (emphasis mine).[4] To suffer almost in no way naturally implies to provide power, unless we are flatly re-defining suffering. It seems more likely that these early Christians simply believed that Christ would take-on their suffering, and that He was able to do this without being overcome by it.

While I do not live under threat of death for my faith, there are large numbers of Christians in the world who do. The volatile embodiment of Islam in ISIS has reminded many Christians that religious toleration is not a permanent situation across the globe, and that organization’s attacks on modern democracies in Europe are clearly stoking fear (not altogether irrational) that we will soon be on the receiving end of this networks violence if our government does not act. I think a proper theology of God’s ability to suffer without being overcome can provide strength and courage for this country’s Christians. In the crucifixion, we are provided with the framework for understanding that the Son’s suffering will result in victory; and our own suffering for his name will do the same. The early martyrs seem to have an underlying assumption that while Christ called his disciples to take up their cross, it is only if He Himself carried the suffering that they would endure without recanting their faith.

[1] Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God, 73

[2] ibid., 71, footnote 27. Specifically Phil. 3:10, 2 Cor. 4:10

[3] ibid., 73

[4] Martyrs of Lyons. Coakley and Sterk, 26

C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books & Theology

Unknown C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius: “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, at that the amateurs should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Plato the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read “Symposium”…The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers fact to face…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism… This mistaken preference for modern books and shyness of the old ones is nowhere more prevalent than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are not studying St. Luke, or St. Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas… Now this seems to me topsy-turvy…If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said… Every age has its’ own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristics mistakes of our own period…None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… Not, of, course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us… To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”