I have referred to this as a (not so) modest proposal because what I suggest is, I think, very basic. But given the permeating nature of Christendom in the church, it is a proposal that will be difficult to embrace. This proposal is a sketch. I am not laying out anything in detail; I put it forth for further discussion.
First, I propose that the politics of witness will only work if the church at large and Christians as individuals live a simpler lifestyle. Materialism has all but destroyed the church's ability to witness politically in this world. It is not so much that the church lacks resources to fulfill its mission in this world, as it has too much of its resources tied up in things that will, as Jesus himself said, "rot away" (Matthew 6:19). Churches are dumping resources into old run-down buildings, and individual Christians are in just as much debt as the average American. The problem is not that we lack financial resources; it's rather that they are tied up as a result of greed and an indistinguishable way of life. We cannot witness to the world by doing good to those of the household of faith if we cannot afford to assist those of the household of faith. Individual congregations need to live simply in order to take care of their sisters and brothers in need.
There should be no more generous people than the followers of Jesus. The politics of witness will only be effective when the church commits itself to living a simpler and more generous way of life. It is true that the church's resources are not unlimited, but it is just as true that the church is sitting on a gold mine of financial resources that cannot be used because the mine has caved in from massive debt and misplaced priorities.
Second, for the politics of witness to be effective Christians must not align themselves with political parties. To do so continues to undermine the politics of the kingdom and gives normative status to the false modern political distinctions of left and right, conservative and liberal. Many years ago I heard George Hunter say that both the Democratic and Republican Parties needed to have Christians to hold both accountable. At one time I agreed with Hunter, but no longer. I have come to see that the only people that Christians in the Democratic Party want to hold accountable are Republicans. And the only persons that Christians in the Republican Party put under scrutiny are the Democrats. Thus, what indeed happens is exactly the opposite of what Hunter desires-- Christians who identify with the Democratic Party identify more with nonchristians who share their politics than with Christians who don't. The same, of course, is true with those Christians on the Republican side of the political aisle. Indeed, for those of us who spend any time reading Christian blogs where politics is discussed, the posts and subsequent comments do not concern the politics of the Kingdom per se, but the politics of left and right. Indeed, as one reads through the discussion, one wonders what is specifically Christian about the debate. Even posts specifically on the politics of the kingdom often move exclusively to the politics of right and left.
I have come to believe that as long as we believers identify and line up too closely with one side or the other, with either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, Christians will unintentionally eclipse the politics of the God's kingdom and our prophetic voice and witness as the church will be undermined if not completely muted. Hunter's suggestion that Christians should join both political parties to hold them accountable sounds good, but in the final analysis those Christian individuals who do so, while well-meaning and sincerely motivated for the good, end up being the tools of the party they have joined. The politics of God's kingdom must know nothing of political parties.
The only way out of this conundrum is for Christians to distance themselves from such political group think. For those Christians who may involve themselves in the politics of the nation (and I believe there is a place for that), one would argue that lack of political party affiliation will all but destroy any Christian's chances of getting elect. Perhaps that is true, but the ends never justifies the means. And if a church's movement away from political parties were to gain serious momentum, who knows what is possible? But even if Christians with no major party affiliation find the nation state political drama to be a difficult climb uphill, it must be remembered that the church is where God's political kingdom action resides. The community of the cross is God's politics in this world.
Third, a Christian's call to the politics of the nation must be confirmed by the church just as much the call to ordained ministry. The politics of witness does not deny that God may call individuals to be a witness in the halls of Congress. For those who think such involvement is important, why would they trivialize the politics of the nation by not testing a Christian's call to such politics? There isn't a church denomination that would simply ordain someone to ministry who felt called without resorting to a process of discernment to affirm or deny that call. And yet, we think nothing of the kind when it comes to a Christian's call to nation state politics. Politics is a dangerous and seductive business. The church has a stake in discerning whether or not certain individuals have the gifts and graces for such work, including the moral fortitude. For the church to confirm the call to nation state politics would also be a reminder that the church's authority is determinative and central for the believer and not the state.
Fourth, the politics of witness can probably only begin to happen in small enclaves of Christians who desire to be such a faithful remnant. It is true that where the church is growing in the world, its growth is primarily in the house church. I am not suggesting that Christians leave their large congregations to form smaller ones (though in some instances that might be appropriate), but I am saying that it is quite unlikely that any established congregation will be willing and therefore able to undertake such a (not so) modest proposal. We mainline Protestants like to think that we embrace the radical gospel of Jesus, but in reality we are into Christendom up to our ecclesiological armpits. For those individuals who find themselves in such a context and who desire to live out in their lives the politics of witness, they may have to find a remnant of faithful mainliners who will live out that witness in a small community setting while remaining faithful to their denominational church. Such a group would not only bear witness to the nation, but to the church so lost in Christendom that it doesn't even know it.
This list is not complete, and what has been mentioned needs further explication, but it is a start. I am sure that some who are reading this are probably wondering what the politics of witness has to do with the gospel. Isn't the first task of the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ? The short answer is yes, and we should be singularly focused on that task. But we will have a hard time convincing others of the truth of the gospel when Christians live a way of life that looks no different from anyone else and when we engage in the status quo politics of the nations of the world and refuse to live lives of simplicity in order to be extravagantly generous toward the true needs of others.
This is not withdrawal from the world, nor is it the promotion of a sectarian ecclesiology. Such conclusions continue to assume that the nations of the world are calling the shots and the main political action takes place in the nations' capitals. But the politics of witness puts the church at the center of the action because it is God and not the nations who rules the world. And Christians that put the nation state at the center of politics are the true sectarians, even though they are in the majority.
We are Jesus' witnesses in this world. It's about time the church recovered its true politics.
1. The Politics of Witness: Introduction
2. The Politics of Witness: What It Is Not
3. The Politics of Witness: The Church as Nation
4. The Politics of Witness: The Christendom Addiction
5. The Politics of Witness: Surrendering to Christendom Is Not Inevitable
Allan R. Bevere, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.
James D. Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.
Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.
John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church.
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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)