The Church and (spiritually) radical politics

There’s an interesting discussion between journalist Roman Balmakov and Christian commentator Eric Metaxas here. They discuss Metaxas’s call to metaphorical arms to the American Church to rescue their nation from the rapidly escalating decline, on the basis that the Church is the only institution that has a coherent enough ideology not to have been completely captured by the various totalitarian tendencies with which we have all, apart from the most obtuse, become familiar since 2020.

Metaxas speaks as the son of an East German mother familiar with the way totalitarianism can so easily take hold of a country, but the discussion majors on the couple of years when the Nazi party first came to power, when the churches might have averted the all-too-predictable disaster, had they not in the main chosen to “keep out of politics and just do church.” He cites one of the rare exceptions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who founded the Confessing Church to resist Hitler, and later even became involved in an assassination attempt.

As one might expect, the mainstream reaction to such ideas has been to peddle scare stories about an oppressive witch-hunting theocracy imposing itself upon decent sado-masochists, paedophiles and so on. Such fears are also expressed by Christians, and are one reason for their staying firmly in their apolitical box. And to be fair, there are certain quasi-Christian groups (another shout-out to the New Apostolic Reformation!) espousing Dominionism, the belief that apostles and prophets (ie themselves) are destined to rule the nations by signs and wonders and prepare them for Christ’s return.

The big theological question, of course, is whether the biblical teaching supports political action of the radical kind needed to change the cultural suicide of a nation, and if so, what is its nature and what are its limits. On the face of it, the New Testament appears to have little in the way of a political agenda, and this is readily explained by the fact that the gospel speaks of a spiritual Kingdom reaching fulfillment only in the age to come, whereas the Old Testament’s concern is with the covenant theocracy of a nation-state, Israel.

Yet one can certainly see a continuation of this Old Testament theme in the whole ministry of Jesus, which has a strong political dimension, simply because the religious authorities he opposed, and who procured his judicial death at the hands of the Romans, were also political authorities. John the Baptist, it will be remembered, lost his life because of his condemnation of the nominally Jewish king Herod Antipas, for divorcing and marrying outside the permitted boundaries of Mosaic law. For Jesus to refer to Herod, later, as “that fox” was also an overtly political statement of defiance. Yet for all Herod’s cynicism, the fact that he was the head of state of Galilee, part of the Jewish territory of historical Israel, means that we cannot necessarily generalise Jesus and John’s approach to gentile Christians living in non-covenanted nations.

The Acts and the epistles certainly major on teaching that is most suitable for politically powerless churches simply holding their own and proclaiming the gospel in often hostile environments, whether Jewish or pagan. To a large extent, political doctrine is limited to teaching obedience to the authorities ordained by God, including the emperor, balanced with teaching on being willing to suffer punishment under such authorities rather than compromise on loyalty to Jesus as Lord and God. The New Testament was complete, of course, before Christians formed a majority anywhere, and certainly before they had any political power. In that sense, it can only provide pointers, not a template, for modern Christian politics.

No doubt it is this sitz im leben that persuades many Evangelicals that Christian involvement in politics should be limited to voting according to conscience. This attitude, though, is conditioned by the fact that modern democracy arose within predominantly Christian populations, whose party differences, though deep, were “in house” Christian disagreements on how to implement Christian teaching. Christians’ role in a society heading towards godless libertinism or authoritarianism, or both, is only slowly understood to be an entirely different matter. And so, it is supposed, the churches’ role is often limited to snatching brands from the fire by preaching repentance and forgiveness to individuals, and withdrawing from the messiness of politics altogether.

But perhaps there are hints in the New Testament that the Lord intended Christianity to be the salt and light of society at large, in a more political sense, as the gospel spread round the world, and not just dramatically on his return, or if you are a post-millennialist, leading up to his return. For a start we see Paul, in particular, coming before kings and other officials not just in Judaea, but in Philippi where he insisted on a public apology from the city officials who had mistreated imprisoned him as a Roman citizen, and in Ephesus where the mass-conversion of citizens was threatening the official cult of Artemis (remember that Roman religion was a political institution, not an individual matter of conscience).

Although we might see such episodes purely in terms of their establishment of the freedom to proclaim Christ, they were also a bold critique of corruption and injustice in political administrations, just as Paul’s criticism of the High Priest, who had ordered him, illegally and unjustly, to be struck at his trial, cast a spotlight on arbitrary government. It is self-evident that the higher the proportion of genuine Christians in a nation, the more challenges there must be to shady government.

But perhaps the clearest indicator that some form of Christian political involvement was always “in the plan” is the trajectory of the later chapters of the Book of Acts towards Paul reaching Rome, not simply to take the gospel to the seat of Empire (there was already a thriving church there), but to preach to Caesar himself. If we put to one side the hidden purposes of God, which in the event took Paul to Rome to be executed by Nero rather than convert him, what did the apostle have in mind as he perceived Jesus was directing him to proclaim him before Caesar?

Clearly, if it should come to be that the emperor himself, as close to an absolute ruler as matters, became a disciple of Christ, then that must affect the way the whole Roman Empire was governed. An immediate benefit would have been (as it was under Constantine centuries later) the official tolerance of Christianity. But a converted Nero, and perhaps his Christian successors, would also have been instructed in biblical principles of justice and stewardship – not only in the Mosaic law, but in the whole ethical outlook of Jesus.

From the earliest historical times, kings were seen as guardians of the cosmic moral order, however much that role became obscured by personal ambition, dynasty decadence and so on. It was the job of the king to set the ethical and religious tone, establish laws and execute judgements in a way that endorsed the will of the gods for order.

So can we imagine that a truly converted Emperor, who had previously governed by human standards of justice polluted by the corruption that power brings, would not do his utmost for the Lord’s sake to mitigate unnecessary cruelty, injustice, corruption and so on, despite facing the opposition of those with a vested interest in the status quo? The New Testament teaches that the role of governments is to wield the sword against evildoers, and to reward righteousness. Not only does this act as a guide to a godly ruler, but it teaches him the principle of limited government which American conservatives like Metaxas, reflecting the US Constitution, wish to see.

A Christian Roman Emperor would certainly not have had the power to create a monolithic Christian theocracy in a predominantly pagan society, even if that had been wise (an important consideration when passing historical judgement on Constantine). But if we believe, and such an emperor believed, that the biblical teaching on government is the best way of formulating a legal and political structure for human flourishing, it would have been remiss of him to acquiesce with a majority pagan elite in maintaining injustice. Politics always involves conflict between good and evil, not an alliance between them.

Nowadays we are seeing an increasing recognition that liberal democracy has failed to deliver the kind of society that most people want to live in. A surprising range of people, even before they acknowledge the spiritual source of Christian teaching, are coming round to a view of “Cultural Christianity” that recognises the achievements of politics under Christian influence over the last two millennia. In the past, the label “Cultural Christianity” was a way of claiming that society could be just as good by ditching the supernatural bits. Now that things are clearly not just as good, the mood is more one of “Christianity was pretty beneficial after all, though we’re not really ready to submit to its God yet.”

When someone as militantly atheistic as Richard Dawkins begins to identify as a “Cultural Christian,” then there is clearly something positive happening in politics with which the churches ought to align, whilst insisting that it can only work when its divine origin is acknowledged. More: to leave the struggle to reclaim such a Christian Culture to atheists or agnostics, who still fail to appreciate that Christian Culture worked only because it involved those committed to Christ, and not because it embodies freestanding good ideas, is to condemn society to another cycle of political failure. One might add that for Christians themselves to ignore their cultural heritage in favour of popular secularism is the worst thing of all.

I have already observed that modern democracy emerged only because the culture was Christian. All the discussions about the limits of magisterial power, and its dependence on the consent of a people created equal (an equality under God spelled out overtly in the US Constitution), in effect continues the concept of government embodied in the primordial doctrine of kingship. But it spreads the responsibility to the whole population, making them responsible for electing their rulers, and deposing them when they prove inadequate, even (in the US Constiution) by force if necessary.

In practice, in the tamed democracy we have seen in the West over the last century or two, the agendas of those who win elections get to decide the priorities of the nation. It is not considered a major problem that those who win elections do so, more often than not, with the votes of a minority of the country. In most states, apathy is permitted. Although the pretense has been that governments seek to please all the people, the reality is that they fight tooth and nail to impose their own agendas, and are only prevented from doing so fully by the checks and balances granted their opponents.

yet somehow, liberal progressives have persuaded Christians (including “Cultural Christians”) to abandon this truth in their own case. We have come to believe that to push for Christian values through the political system is somehow unchristian. We do not permit ourselves to assert that Christian values are good for all, and therefore worth struggling for politically. This is actually evidence that we have ceased to believe that God’s law is the best vehicle for policies that maximise human flourishing. In other words, we have bought into the libertarian view of liberty that contradicts the freedom that Jesus taught, the liberty that comes from aligning ourselves with the Father in heaven, “whose service is perfect freedom.”

In effect, from the political point of view we have apostasised from Christian teaching, and abdicated our secular responsibility as citizens to push for the wisest and most just governance of our nations. That requires repentance, first. But it also requires the courage to stand up for values consistent with the teachings of Christ the King, not only as Christian individuals but as local churches, whole denominations and, in fact, as national ecumenical structures.

What Christian action would have stopped Hitler’s destruction of Germany in 1934? Would violence have been justified, as Bonhoeffer concluded, or does Jesus’s teaching exclude that? The English Civil War overthrew arbitrary Stuart rule in England, and the American Revolution, which freed America from unjust British rule, also involved armed resistance. These examples require careful study, in the light both of their lasting benefits and because of the bloody history of revolutions since the French Revolution and, especially, during the last century. But civil disobedience does not necessarily entail revolutionary violence – just radical suffering, as in the case of Jesus himself.

Revolutionary activity or civil disobedience are not the only possibilities, though. When Rome was collapsing, the Church under Pope Gregory was the only group with enough social and moral cohesion to pull things together and restore a functioning city. The downside was that it sowed the seeds for the eventual Catholic theocracy of Europe, but such dangers can be avoided if attention is paid to history.

But ways and means are one thing. The need for involvement is another. What seems clear to me is that whilst Christians are a significant proportion of the population, they can still be an effective political voice for good if they choose, and to abdicate that role is not, despite superficial appearances, in line with the world-changing nature of Christ’s teaching, and the work of his Spirit since Pentecost. It is not loving to stand by and watch a train crash when some preventative action is possible.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The Church and (spiritually) radical politics

  1. Ben says:

    Tough one.

    What does Jesus’ apparent attitude to power (using it, in any case) mean for us? My reading is that power lies with God, and He’s the one who should be wielding it. (I’m thinking of his temptation, amongst other things).

    The bigger the entities get, the more power the person at the top accumulates, and (generally) the worse things get. So it’s perilous.

    I think at the very least, Christians absolutely have to be speaking truth to power. And even a Christian in power needs other Christians keeping him in line. That’s what the prophets did in the Old Testament (to the kings, who were desired by the people, not by God), though it often didn’t end very well for them. But is it a too political (or not political enough) reading of Jesus’ life that speaking the truth, and taking the consequences, is preferable to wielding power to conform others to our will?

    Then again, someone has to wield the sword. And it can be easy to hide simply being weak and ineffectual behind being ‘nice’ and ‘peace-loving’. You have to be ‘nasty’ to face up to evil. It’s no good saying “power is bad, power is bad”, and then squealing for help from those with power when the criminals turn up.

    I increasingly suspect that – whatever the political system we have – God gives us the leaders we deserve.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Ben.

      As you say, the circle to square is the clear teaching and example of Jesus that the power of God is shown through the weakness of the Cross, and the fact that evil doesn’t immediate capitulate. Sometimes the man with the machete will repent when he’s offered love – more often he’ll cut your throat, and then those of everyone else. Once all the Christians are executed or evicted from the Caliphate, there is no more sacrificial witness, and North Africa and the Middle East attest to this historically.

      The NT does speak to this, firstly in small things like church discipline, where social exclusion is intended to bring repentance, but if not is not rescinded. Being “nice” does not address evil (which is why, contra the Bethel School of Supernatural Doings, true prophecy is usually confrontational).

      But then Paul also speaks of the “magistrate” as an authority from God, rightly wielding the sword rather than diplomacy against evildoers. In my OP I was attempting to explore what that means once magistrates started to be Christians, and also once political systems arise in which we (as citizens) appoint the magistrate.

      And so this side of the parousia, there is a necessary place for “power” in the ordinary sense. It must be limited to the necessary and the lawful (all that Just War theory is not useless), and to the Christian the understanding must govern everything that it is wielded only under the authority of God, for the public good.

      And yes, I agree with you that in general we get the leaders we deserve, which at this time is an alarming truth.

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