Category Archives: Political Engagement
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
I Samuel 8:4-18
In this text, God sees a human king as a rival, a false god. The king will claim divine prerogatives for himself. Notice that the problem here isn’t exactly that the king will institute a tax, but that the tax is, overtly, presented in the language of a tithe. He wants a tenth, and he wants the best that the fields produce. But the best is supposed to go to God! The people will have to choose–who gets our best now, God or the government? Your sons will be caught up in the military-industrial complex, and your daughters will be perfumers and cooks and bakers for the king–the same kinds of servants that the demigod Pharaoh was surrounded by.
I know that the force of this text is somewhat ameliorated when David comes along and is the apple of God’s eye. But we shouldn’t let the force of this critique slip away from us too easily. This is God’s initial reaction to the idea of human governance. And he says people won’t be able to serve both him and a king. It’s a long way from here to the current evangelical position, which is that serving government and serving God are almost always the same thing.
At what point does participation and support of government become idolatry? Or do we think that isn’t possible any more? After all, in the West, we are democratic. The people themselves hold the reigns (in theory). And we would never set ourselves up as gods, would we?
From Greg Boyd’s blog:
I am passionately convinced that if Mennonites will hold fast to (and in some cases, return to) their historic vision of a non-violent, self-sacrificial, counter-cultural Kingdom that transcends nationalism and politics, and if they are willing to become very flexible with their distinctive cultural traditions, Mennonites are positioned to provide a home for the increasing number of people such as myself who are discovering this vision of a beautiful Kingdom and who therefore are repudiating “Christendom” (the traditional “church militant and triumphant”). Many of us want to be rooted in a historic tradition and fellowship that espouses this vision, and this makes becoming a Mennonite very appealing.
I only know one Mennonite–a local pastor in town who was raised in a different denomination (Baptist, I think) and wanted to be part of a church that would understand and support his vocal pacifism. He found that among the Mennonites. We had lunch a while back and I was telling him about the peace tradition in Churches of Christ, folks like James Harding and David Lipscomb in the 1800’s who believed that human government was inherently corrupt, and worse, idolatrous. They knew that the tendency of government–any government–was to exalt itself to rival God, and demand blood sacrifice. Governments would send their young men to die and to kill others.
Lipscomb wrote things like this:
The children of God are so mixed and mingled with the kingdoms of the world, that God cannot destroy the wicked kingdoms, without destroying his own children. Hence the call of God is:
“Come out of her my people that ye be not partakers of
her sins and that ye receive not of her plagues.” (Rev.
This is spoken of the Babylon of human government. We cannot find one word of ground, in all the New Testament, for the children of God participating in the kingdoms of the evil one. The practice weakens the church of God; deprives it of the service, the talent, time and devotion of its children, gives its strength to the building up of what God proposes to destroy. It brings the spirit of the world kingdoms into the church of God, corrupts the church, drives out the spirit of God, destroys the sense of dependence upon God, causes the children of God to depend upon their own wisdom and devices, and the arm of violence, and the institutions of earth rather than upon God and his appointments; weans them from trust and faith in God, and from service in his kingdom, diverts their minds, means and service from the church to the kingdoms of the world, and so defiles and corrupts the church that God cannot bless that church.
I know about this, and at one point, a bunch of people did. And they respected it. There’s a university named for Lipscomb in Tennessee, and one named for Harding in Arkansas. These guys weren’t outliers, they were in the mainstream of our movement.
I’m not enough of a historian to know when those views lost currency. When I was growing up, I never even heard of non-government involvement and pacifism as faithful options. Good Christians were supposed to vote Republican and support the troops. I suspect it was World War II that sounded the death knell for the radical kingdom of God versus kingdom of the world theology in Churches of Christ. I’ve aligned myself with that strain of our tradition, but as a movement we’re so far away from our pacifist roots that it’s like I’m speaking a foreign language when I try to talk about this stuff.
Which is a real shame. I would like for Churches of Christ to be appealing for a guy like Greg Boyd, but most people aren’t going to think of Churches of Christ the same way they think of Mennonites. Because that’s just not us anymore. Maybe we’ll recapture the pacifist tradition. I know some younger people who are attracted to that posture. But most of them are on their way to a different denomination. I don’t know if they’ll stay among us long enough to help us change.
Which is fine. We’re far from the only outpost of the kingdom. Peace be unto them.
A side note: a couple of weeks ago the associate minister at our church asked for suggestions for what message to put on the church marquee. I recommended “Praying for the Peace of Iran.” He thought that would be controversial. Which is right. But that’s wrong.
How many times did Jesus tell us to pray for our enemies? How often do we?
How many times did Jesus tell us to pray for our troops?
Here’s a picture that appeared in the Kansas City Star:
This is another example of a proof-texted verse that whose use is refuted by that larger context. Here’s Galatians 6.7:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
The folks at Spirit One Christian Center, who make their pro-life politics a centerpiece of their identity, seem to think that this verse means that God was ultimately responsible for George Tiller’s murder. He sowed murder and therefore reaped it. Of course, you get a different sense when you read a bit more:
1Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5for each one should carry his own load.
6Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
7Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
So, I should restore sinners gently, bear other’s burdens, not compare myself to anyone, do good to everyone (especially, but not exclusively Christians) and gun down doctors who perform abortions. Or, at least, applaud those who do as God’s servants. Something about that just doesn’t hang together for me.
I am theologically pro-life across the board, meaning that I can’t reconcile war, euthanasia, or abortion with the eschatological vision of Christ. Self-sacrifice is the only meritorious form of death in the kingdom of God. But (as you know already if you’ve been following this blog), and am also opposed to Christians using political power to force their agenda on others. As Jesus said:
25Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20)
It just doesn’t do to amass political power in the name of Jesus. That’s inherently self-contradictory. I’m very concerned that Christians have spent enormous energy on trying to curtail abortion through political actions–a misguided approach that has garnered no results except to hurt our credibility and make a lot of enemies unnecessarily. What would it look like to approach the abortion question while shunning power and claiming humble self-sacrifice as our highest value? I think it would mean widespread adopting underprivileged children, housing young mothers-to-be, and making sure that pre-natal care is available to everyone. How would it change the conversation in America if evangelicals were widely known as the folks who put their money where their mouth is on this topic, making sure that there is not a single abortion that is deemed necessary due to economic hardship or lack of emotional support? Isn’t something like that what it must mean to be fathers (and mothers) to the fatherless in this age?
Yeah, I know–a fair number of Christians are doing just that. But not with nearly the visibility or numbers as the believers who are tackling this one almost exclusively in terms of political power.
Note: When I write “Fundy” or “Fundies” as a shorthand for “Fundamentalists” I do it because I’m a slow typist, not because I want to denigrate my Fundy friends. For them, in spite of our disagreements, I have “all the love in the world,” as Dr. Wilson says.
I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.
Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.
Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.
I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.
I think this is spot-on. I’ve often remarked that it’s a pretty thin line between atheism and Fundamentalism. Both are essentially Enlightenment postures that deny mystery and seek a purely rational foundation. That’s why the leading claims of the Fundies are claims about the Bible, primarily the claim of innerrancy, which is foreign to the scriptures themselves. This is the great Fundamentalist irony–they simultaneously claim that the Bible is perfect and all-sufficient, and that you begin by believing one thing that the Bible never says. Having asserted this view of the scriptures, everything else proceeds from there. I think this is bad theology, of course, but it also has a huge practical consequence–any Fundamentalist who begins to notice that the Bible sometimes contradicts itself or wrestles with competing views doesn’t have to just rethink his understanding of the scriptures, he has to rethink his entire faith. It was all predicated on a bad assertion. This isn’t my idea–Fundies set themselves up for this all the time when defending their notion of inerrancy. When I started really wrestling with the Bible, I must have been told dozens of times, “If there is a single mistake in the Bible, then how do you know what parts of it you can trust? It’s either perfect or useless.” I was in essence told that if I came to believe that Genesis 1-11, for example, was not straight history, or that it’s unlikely that there were two Philistine giants named Goliath, one killed by David and one by Elhanan (a contradiction that the Chronicler tries to make go away) I had only one choice–reject the Bible outright and become an atheist. Which is, for a time, exactly what I did. Online, I encounter other people on the same trajectory with surprising regularity. It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.
In Churches of Christ, inerracy was paired with the view that all miracles ceased when the Bible was completed (because who needs a Holy Spirit when somewhere in the world the ink is drying on the book of Revelation?) I remember a sermon when I was a child that claimed that when the New Testament says “Holy Spirit” what it means is the Bible. The Bible leads us into all truth; the Bible comforts us; Jesus said it was better for him to depart so that we could receive the Bible. Bibliolatry is not too strong a word for this view. And it’s ultimately a very lonely theology. God used to do interesting things, but quit a long time ago, so I can’t expect anything from him. Jesus is up in heaven, quietly interceding but not interacting. The Holy Spirit is the Bible, and there is no magisterium, no creed or tradition to help me make sense of it. It’s up to me and my rationality, and the stakes if I mis-interpret are eternal hell. This, among some people, counts as good news.
I think Father Freeman is right that this theology is going to tend toward gaining political power. After all, God isn’t going to fix this world. I can’t trust the Holy Spirit to change people’s hearts. What I should do is get more right-thinking people into office so that we can claim some power and privilege in order to safeguard our rights and enforce Biblical morality. That is diametrically opposed to the servant pathway of Jesus, but, on the other hand, Jesus believed that God was still at work.
There’s a further consequence in this system: having established the Republican party as the torch-bearers for goodness and faith, the Democratic party is inevitably demonized. Sometimes this is overt, as in the insistence that Obama is a closet Muslim, if not the anti-Christ, but often I see it among as disheartening number of my friends who believe that no matter what a Democrat says, there’s some other agenda lurking underneath. The insistence that Obama is a socialist because he wants to repeal Bush’s tax cuts and offer an optional government sponsored health insurance plan is one manifestation. On the other hand, no matter what Bush did, it was vital to “support the President and our troops” (an unseemly blend of faith and militarism). So we get a phenomenon of conservative Christians who don’t bat an eye at torture, secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, optional wars, outing covert CIA operatives, etc., etc., etc., but are deeply convinced that the new guy is an authoritarian. This requires an astonishing amount of denial.
Which goes back to why I gave up voting: It’s nigh unto impossible to pick a side without beginning to view them as unalloyed forced for goodness and the other team as pure evil. I eventually decided that if I was going to believe in a living God who was King of All, that didn’t leave me a lot of reason to try to enact my agenda through political means. Let other people grapple over who the President is, I’ll look a bit higher. This does not, though, rule out prophetic critiques of those in power. In fact, I think in some ways critique is strengthed by a refusal to pick a team.
I wrote this last Halloween on the eve of the election.
People are calling this the most important election of our lifetime. That’s a pretty bold statement, but given the economic and military issues on hand, it could well be true. America is in a recession and may be in danger of a depression. The war in Iraq has been raging for four and a half years, and our involvement in Afghanistan has gone on even longer. Prices of basic necessities are going up, and our healthcare system is badly broken. Not only that, but there are some fundamental concerns about the role of the president and vice-president, and the weakening of our constitutional system of checks and balances. Don’t forget the perpetual issues of social morality: abortion, marriage, religious expression. There’s something to catch the concern of nearly everyone.
I’m a politics junkie. I say this by way of confession. There is no good reason for me to know all the trivia I know about the current political game. I really should find another hobby. But my remote control tends to gravitate toward C-Span, and wonky blogs keep loading on my web browser. Poll numbers, significant Senate races, potential Cabinet appointments for either side, tax and policy proposals—I sift through all these things on a regular basis. That friend of yours who know waaaaay to much about baseball? That’s me with politics. It’s an engrossing game, and it’s always in season.
I have a favorite team this year, too. Well, that’s not quite right, but there is definitely one team that I would like to lose. That’s no secret. But explaining why I think one option is markedly less acceptable than the other isn’t really the point of this note. The point is this. I’ve been gradually shifting into a more Mennonite/Anabaptist/neo-Stoneite/David Lipscomb-esque theological posture regarding political engagement, and I think it’s time for me to give up voting.
For at least four or five years now I’ve occasionally preached sermons on the dangers of political involvement. Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world. The only price was to bow to Satan. He said no. I suspect the reason that Matthew and Luke record this temptation is that it wasn’t going to be unique to Jesus. The church would be offered the same bargain. Political recognition in exchange for a little bit of idolatry. As in: “Maintain good standing as a Roman citizen—just offer a little incense to this statue of Caesar.” Or, “Have a shot at ending abortion—just form political action committees to consolidate wealth and influence. Get in good with the right candidates.” Or, at its most base, “If you vote for me, I’ll send more money your way through earmarks, entitlements or lower taxes.” Money is a kind of god, too—the one that Jesus seems to feel is the biggest competition. That’s why he said we had to choose.
It’s so easy to vote against our own spiritual interests. Jesus teaches that having more money is a spiritual impediment, and that we shouldn’t store up treasure on Earth. His people vote for lower taxes and more financial security. “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” But I want someone to help me get into a house. “Love your enemies,” he said. But his people will vote in droves for our enemies to be carpet-bombed, detained without trial, tortured until they break.
I’m thinking that the lesser of two evils is still pretty darn evil. And I don’t want anything to do with it. I don’t want to be seduced by power, even the somewhat minimal power of casting a ballot. I don’t want to comprise with worldly powers. I don’t want to be tempted to “Lord it over people like the Gentiles do.” And if I’m concerned about food or clothes—the basics I need—Jesus’ answer was pretty clear: stop worrying, seek the Kingdom and justice. God will provide.
I have a King and a kingdom. I am a citizen of heaven and I eagerly await a savior from there. What can any political figure do to trump that?
I’m afraid that we’ve fallen for the notion that worldly kinds of power-grabbing are the way to get things done in the world. If we believe that there is a Father God, an interceding Son and an indwelling Spirit, if we believe he has a mission and a church and in his name alone can peace and salvation be found—really, why would I waste my time supporting a mere human?
I know—almost no one thinks this way anymore. But it used to be a powerful strain of Christian thought, and still is among peace churches like the Mennonites. And it was huge in my background, the Churches of Christ. Barton Stone, Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb—powerful preachers, writers, and educators, all warned about the dangers of coercive political power. Many in our churches shunned voting, refused to run for political office, rejected military careers and avoided jury duty out of a basic refusal to compromise with the world. They wanted to be in it, but not of it, and it was hard to see how they could do any of those things and not be “of the world.”
Yeah, I’m a ball of contradictions on this. But I’m thinking about what the better path is for my own spiritual development, and for the integrity of the church. And I’d rather we just wash our hands of the whole matter.
These thoughts have been coalescing recently. Every day since early voting opened in North Carolina, I’ve thought about slipping out on my lunch break to cast a ballot. But I keep holding back. I think with a little prayer and willpower, I can resist the temptation all the way to election day. I know I’ll be almost alone in my conscientious objection to the ballot, but that’s good for me, too. I just think of it as voting for Jesus.
I can’t promise not to stay up ‘til 1:00 a.m. watching the returns next Tuesday, though. Some habits die hard.