A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Why The Church in America Cannot Speak Truth to Power

There are many political catch-phrases that have become useless in modern politics-- phrases like "the politics of fear," "the politicizing of whatever," "the culture of corruption." But perhaps the most useless political phrase of all is the high-sounding but irrelevant phraseology of "speaking truth to power."

Many years ago, philosopher Alasdair McIntyre wrote the wonderful book, Whose Justice, Which Rationality, in which he argued that all conceptions of justice and rationality presuppose a tradition that give them definition. Likewise, the notions of "truth" and "power" are not universal terms which everyone understands; rather they too presuppose a tradition, a context, a narrative, that make them intelligible.

So, why is it that the church in America today cannot speak truth to power? The reasons are two-fold: First, the vast majority of Christians in America have accepted the Constantinian notion that the primary political task of the church is to rule, to be in charge. What that means at the very least is that Christians are to play a prophetic role in the political court of Washington DC. Second, it means that most Christians have accepted the modern dichotomies of left/right, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican.

In accepting these two "truths" the problem becomes clear. As Christians, instead of identifying ourselves as primarily kingdom citizens, we see ourselves first and foremost as Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. The Sermon on the Mount gets eclipsed by the political platforms of the DNC and the RNC. We like to say that we transcend such earthly contrived political conventions, but we can point to very little evidence to show that this is indeed the case. James Dobson is clearly a conservative Republican and Jim Wallis is obviously a liberal Democrat. The only truth they speak to power is their own Republican or Democratic truth to the power of the other party. The criticism of their own is basically absent or woefully inadequate at best. It appears that both men desire to play the role of Nathan in David's court, but they find they only have influence in that court when "David" is part of their own party; and then their prophetic denunciations are reserved only for the opposition outside the court and not those who are in power. They have very little of a prophetic nature to say to the king from their own party whom they serve. In other words, the church cannot speak truth to power because the church itself is up to its armpits in power and, therefore, has a stake in such power.

In cosying up to the principalities and powers, Christians on the left and the right have chosen the politics of power over the politics of witness; indeed, they cannot even imagine, in spite of what they say, what the politics of the Kingdom of God might look like apart from the politics of left and right. Take the recent health care debate as an example-- Christians on the left argue that health care is a right and Christians on the right proffer that health care is a commodity-- and neither side bothers to consider the possibility that both "rights" and "commodities" are notions not found in Scripture and that both concepts are theologically problematic.

In accepting the above named two-fold presuppositions, Christians speak the same language as everyone else thus making it far from clear why Christianity even matters in the public sphere. And suggesting that what makes an argument Christian is that is shows concern for the poor and the outcast does not make an argument specifically Christian. For Christians to be concerned for the poor, the outcasts, and those on the fringes of society is a given. The problem is that it is not always clear how Christians should care for such persons. Christians are oriented in theology and ethics not in their concern for the poor, but in how the world has now been changed and redefined in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And therein is the heart of the problem. That most Christians in America believe that the church's primary role is to affect policy in Washington DC betrays the mistaken belief that the primary political action in this world is to be found in the White House and on Capitol Hill, when the New Testament clearly indicates that the primary agency of politics is located in nothing less than the community of faith known as the church. In order for the church to speak truth to power it must recover its unique polity apart from the earthly polity known as the nation state; for it is God and not the nations who rules the world.

My great concern is that when Christians in America want to play the role of prophet in Pharaoh's court, they end up looking, not like the wise sage, but the court jester that gets used by the king for his or her own comical and unsavory purposes.

The people of God have been co-opted; it is time for the church to recover the politics of witness.

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Cross-Posted at RedBlueChristian


Melissa Yosua-Davis said...

I found this post to be very thoughtful; you're right in that the New Testament isn't clear as to how the Kingdom of God should be manifested in our world. It's an issue that both "sides" (left/right or whatever people want to call them) struggle with and that often goes unnoticed.

Anonymous said...
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Michael said...

I struggle between politics and religion. Though these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it can be said that American Christians cannot ignore politics without ignoring the "last, least, and lost". Or can they? Whether we are fighting with or against the government in the matter of health care, for instance, does not preclude our obligation to tend to the sick ourselves, not relegate that awesome responsibility (read, 'opportunity') to another. It's sort of like excessively wealthy celebrities who own multiple homes in the US and abroad "fighting" for the homeless by demanding that government do more. I know this sounds libertarian, but it is the struggle with which I contend almost daily.

Politics is that certain reality in a representative government people of faith cannot ignore, and it is within this realm that we acknowledge the power of government (ie, the collective people) to help. At the same time, however, we also recognize the power of "Caesar" to overwhelm us to the point of bondage.


Allan R. Bevere said...

I have allowed anonymous comments on this blog as long as they do not include criticism.

But once criticism is leveled, not so much against me, but especially against someone else, I delete anonymous comments.

Courage demands that we put our names to criticism of someone else. I do not mind critique at all. The discussion necessary to discover the goods we all have in common (my definition of politics) requires constructive criticism and passionate, yet civil critique. And it requires that we know who the players are in the arena of discussion.

C.S. Lewis said that courage is required for the display of the virtues in one's life.

Anonymity and courage are mutually exclusive.

John Meunier said...


I am down with the Hauerwas (as popularized by Willimon) thesis. I understand their notion of the church as an alternative polis.

But working through political systems does not have to end up in confusing such work for the purpose of the church. It can, I know. But it does not have to.

Would - for instance - we argue that Wesley and Wilberforce should not have worked to end slavery through political means?

I think the problem of Constantinianism is not that using politcal tools is bad. The problem of Constantianism is that it no longer holds. Christians no longer have power and are not likely to get it back. Striving for it or acting like we do is a distraction from our primary work.

Of course, farming out the UMC as a subsidary of the Democratic party is a bad idea. But that is not the central issue as far as I can understand it.

Bruce Hitchcock said...

Speaking truth to power requires Christians to listen to the truth about themselves. Speaking the truth in love to power is really holding up a mirror to "power" to display the self delusion "power" maintains. Speaking requires that one be sent to speak the truth. Nathan was sent to speak a specific truth to a specific king by God. Who can speak to those who do not want to listen? Who can speak to one who may listen, and then dismiss the truth with a laugh? Allan you are correct in that most of us have bought into the government and false arguments of the right and the left.

Jim Bradshaw said...

We have not seen authentic and organic church that speaks forth the reality of the Kingdom of Christ on earth since the 1st century. But, it's coming... this century... the 21st century church will be reformed to reflect the boldness and truly Spirit-filled church of the first century. We will speak to nations as an apostolate armed with the apostles' doctrine reflecting one, holy, apostolic, catholic (universal) Church. I believe it. It is God's will. It is answer to prayer (Thy Kingdom come, they will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven).

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your thoughts. Some comments for your consideration.

Your comments demonstrate my point-- Christians are so caught up in Constantinianism they cannot comprehend how the church's mission might look different.

You ask if Christians should have opposed slavery? The answer is of course we should have, but do not forget that the slavery of America and England was the result of Christendom-- Christians who had a stake in the principalities and the powers and who, therefore, had to do something about it. You also fail to note that the politics of witness in this matter-- that Christians will not own slaves and contribute to the national economic machine is subersive is and of itself. It would be the church's way of saying to the state, "You will be a better empire if you do not enslave your people."

You mention that not all political tools are bad. Again you fall into the political/apolitical dichotomy; it is not a question of whether or not the church is political, but how it is political.

Jesus came to change the world through suffering and servanthood and Christians today seek to change the world by lobbying Washington.

All I ask you is to reconcile your views with that of the NT.

PamBG said...

In the UK, many people who call themselves Christians see the role of the Church as being the guardian of public morals and behavior. I think this is a common problem in many countries.

But the whole problem of conflating theology and politics (e.g. If you're a Republican, you must be an Evangelical) seems particularly problematic in the US and I have no idea why this should be the case. It does get particularly problematic when people start baptizing Democrat or Republican political stances as "What God wants". This aspect of American Christianity baffles the heck out of our brothers and sisters in other countries.

Rev. Ralph Howe said...

Brothers and Sisters: This is an interesting exchange. I would offer a side note: The engagement in the political arena is not only encumbered with our over-commitment to the power systems of the culture, but also to the replacement of faith with ideological thinking.
Ideology is a problem on the left and the right. It is, simply, the superpositioning of a concept, principle, fundamental value, or other element of intellectual construction as the key and core of reasoning, faith and action. Whether this idea is one of biblical derivation or social observation makes little difference. The problem lies in the fact that a living God, Christ Jesus, is not the heart, direction and aim of life in an ideology. We may take propositions about Christ and the christian life as the key to our experience and reason, but unless we are centered upon the true and living Christ, known to us through the Holy Spirit, we do not have a Christ-centered faith. Another way to look at this is to ask if Christ is necessary to the matter at hand as a living active engaged presence of God among us, or just a character in our panoply of secular and religious deities.
Once we acknowledge that ideology is not authentic Christian faith, but a form of idolatry, we have the opportunity to return to the political question from the perspective of those who live through Christ, with Christ and in Christ. Witness then reflects Christ in the world, rather than the politics of christendom.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I have heard the same thing from Christians in other countries. It is strange isn't it, particularly for a country that has formally enshrined the notion of separation of church and state.

PamBG said...

I suspect part of the problem is that many if us have been taught to worship our country so we have a hard time telling the difference. Witness the attempt in some circles to rewrite history in order to claim that the The Founding Fathers were almost all born again Christians.

Country Parson said...

What an interesting discussion. Thanks for initiating it. As one who spent nearly thirty years in politics, some as bureaucrat and more on the lobbying side, I find myself too deeply involved to take a disinterested view. What has affected my political involvement the most over the last twenty years or so has been my Christian faith, and I confess that, from a political standpoint, that faith has been deeply influenced by John Howard Yoder, et al., and the eighth century prophets. Having said that, I agree that the Constantinian Church model is the wrong one to lead us forward, and its been the wrong one for a long time. Maybe it was always wrong but we can't do anything about that. That is not the same thing as saying that Christians should refrain from political engagement, nor do I take that as your point.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I appreciate your thoughts.
Yes, we have been at this thing for a long time. My faith too has been deeply influenced by Yoder. You say, the whole Constantinian thing was wrong, but there is nothing we can do about that. (I think I am reading you correctly.) While I understand the great complexity of trying to do something about that, I am more and more thinking that we need to try.

I say this as one who is up to my armpits in Constantinian presumptions.

May God clear those assumptions out of my mind.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

"That most Christians in America believe that the church's primary role is to affect policy in Washington DC betrays the mistaken belief that the primary political action in this world is to be found in the White House and on Capitol Hill, when the New Testament clearly indicates that the primary agency of politics is located in nothing less than the community of faith known as the church."

Let that be etched in stone and put somewhere that lots and lots of people can see it.

Fantastic analysis.

Vicit agnus noster, eam sequamur.

Jim Bradshaw said...

Amen Andrew!

Allan R. Bevere said...

To translate Andrew's Latin for those who are not familiar, "Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow him."

Let it be so!

Ted M. Gossard said...

Excellent post. I agree! We must be those of the kingdom of God in Jesus, and if we're Demoncratic or Repulican or Independent, that should be secondary. It is good to have Daniels in the state, I would think. But the people of God must be the people of God, not beholden to the principalities, powers and kingdoms of this world.

I do believe it is good for us to try to make judgments and be engaged in the process in some way, as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But I agree, we in Jesus over here tend to lean to one party or the other, rather than trying to see everything in the light of God's kingdom come in Jesus.

Country Parson said...

Not to clutter up the discussion on your site, but only to clarify a point, when I said there was nothing we could do about the Constantinian Church I meant that there is nothing we can do to change the history of the church. It is what it was. We can only go forward from here bearing the legacy that is ours, both the good and the bad. That thought crossed my mind because of two people in my life. The first is a young very energetic priest in our diocese who gives the impression of wanting us old fogies to not only go back in time to undo all the ways we have fouled up the Church, and through it society in general, but also to find a way to undo the history of the Church that the younger leaders do not want to inherit. The other is my elderly arch-conservative friend who is convinced that it is Christianity and only Christianity that has brought civilization, democracy and capitalism to the world, and that anything said otherwise is not only heretical but unpatriotic and socialist as well. If Christians are not in charge of nations we are all doomed. For one, all the evil in the world is our fault. For the other, all the good in the world is our glory. I doubt that the two would know how to talk to each other.

Ben Simpson said...

I've been thinking about this post since reading it a couple of days ago. Thanks for your thoughts here, Allan. I know you mention MacIntyre directly, but the presence of Yoder, Bonhoeffer, and Hauerwas are clear in your argument, and I appreciate this.

I see that some who have commented read your remarks on the politics of witness as one of disengagement from the surrounding polis, which I have also encountered when making similar arguments. Being an alternative to the world, however, does not entail withdrawal, but requires a different type of engagement--a different way of presenting an alternative--what you have called, "witness." I think our task is to explain exactly what we mean by this.

John Meunier said...

It appears my last comment fell into a void somewhere.

My questions about the whole Yoder/Hauerwas "the church is a polis" argument are two-fold.

1) Does the OT witness (Joseph and Esther, for instance) tell us anything to guide our thinking?

2) Do the differences between Roman Empire and representative democracy have any impact on our thinking?

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for clarifying your comments.

You write of your two friends, "I doubt that the two would know how to talk to each other."

I think that is quite unfortunate and perhaps demonstrates my point.

I am certainly grateful that in the midst of our disagrements we are able to talk with each other.

May it never be any different.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your insightful thoughts. You are correct to hear Yoder, Bonhoeffer, and Hauerwas (my teacher) in my thinking.

And you are definitely correct that many read what I and others have written as a "politics of withdrawal." This is not true as you rightly note. Again, it is not a matter of whether or not the church will be political, but how the church is political.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for those important questions.

In reference to #1, the parallel to OT Israel is not the USA nor the UK nor any other nation state; it is the church. That make a big difference for how we read the OT.

#2-- You are quite correct to note the differences between Paul's situation and our own. Paul knew nothing of representative democracy. Nevertheless, the dynamics remain the same in that the church is the foretaste of the Kingdom and allegiance to that kingdom severely qualifies our allegiances to all earthly kingdoms.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Bevere,

Navigated to your blog from Scot McKnight's I will certainly return. Your article has succinctly stated what I have been trying to communicate to our community of faith as we have been recently discussing the health care issue. Thank you for your refreshing words that betray a singular commitment to one King and his kingdom.

John Meunier said...


I understand the Israel-church parallel, but I was thinking more of the specific stories such as Joseph and Esther. These are both stories of Jews in the courts of power - using that power to benefit the people of God.

Do you think those stories have any resonance for us and our polis?

Allan R. Bevere said...


I think they may be instructive for how Christians deal with difficult situations while living in the polis, but those narratives must be seen in the larger context of the narrative of Scripture; they must not be ripped out of the biblical narrative and used as instructive in that way or normative as they stand by themselves.

By the wsy, considering how the Book of Esther ends, we definitely need to think carefully about what we do with such texts.

PamBG said...

Another huge theological disconnect between British Christians and American Christians is one that I suspect many here would approve of:

Most British Christians think that God calls everyone in wider society - Christians and non-Christians alike - to mutual care and concern for one another and that it is A Good Thing and not A Bad Thing when this is expressed in the Civic arena.

The theology of those who think that the Christian community should be separate from wider civic life may be blindingly obvious to many Americans. I confess that not only is it not obvious to me, but that I can't even begin to conceive of the biblical narratives that call forth such a theology.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi, Pam:

I do not want to misinterpret you, so please correct me if I do, but when you say, "Most British Christians think that God calls everyone in wider society - Christians and non-Christians alike - to mutual care and concern for one another and that it is A Good Thing and not A Bad Thing when this is expressed in the Civic arena," I would not disagree.

I have not suggested that Christians separate themselves from wider civic life. I am insisting that the politics of witness, that we as the church reflect the character of Jesus Christ in our ecclesial communities, be the primary way Christians witness in the world.

And I am not sure that is a British vs. American issue. While I think N.T. Wright would take some issue with what I am saying, I think he would fundamentally understand my point. His thinking has influenced me as well.

PamBG said...

I am insisting that the politics of witness, that we as the church reflect the character of Jesus Christ in our ecclesial communities, be the primary way Christians witness in the world.

I think that this is the part that niggles with me, but maybe you are right that it's not so much cultural.

I don't think that the church as it exists today is at all capable of being a place of redemption, much less a place of "community".

I guess I also feel - and it may be my misunderstanding of US culture - that activities and values that express and represent true community to me are viewed by many US Christians - including some in the congregation I'm now worshiping with - as very bad and UnChristian activities.

There DOES seem to me to be a very big emphasis put on individuality in US culture. And the emphasis on money just smacks me in the face after 20 years away; at the moment I've not processed this enough to be able to articulate it. One example: If you tell someone in the UK you are unemployed, you are likely to get a reaction on the order of "Wow, bad luck, but these things happen to the best of us." In this locality at least, the reaction is more like "Unclean! Unclean!" (That's the best I can do at articulating it.) All in all, the US culture seems to be "Every person for himself" and US Christianity feels like this too to me.