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)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Politics of Witness: Surrendering to Christendom Is Not Inevitable

By way of reminder, I begin this fifth post with the last major paragraph of the fourth post.

I think the reason that the politics of witness is so difficult for many Christians to engage with and understand is because for many centuries now the church in the West has been immersed in the Christendom context, where the mission of the church is conflated into the responsibilities of the state. In other words, church and state have been wedded together for so long that Christians have no idea how to think about politics apart from the nation. Thus, when I assert my position I am told I support withdrawal from the political realm, which s simply not the case. Whether it is a Constantinianism that seeks to enlist the state directly in fulfilling its agenda or a deceptive Enlightenment understanding of the separation of church and state that seeks to define religion as nothing more than a means for commending status quo morality that makes for good citizens, Christians in the West have been in this Christendom context for so long it is hard to think of the church's politics as something with its own integrity apart from the nations of the world.

Nowhere have I found this to be so obvious in the responses I receive when I put forward this robust political ecclesiology. The first response I hear is something along the lines of "Well, the church has by and large failed in its mission, and so we must rely on the state to achieve the necessary goals of justice and fairness and to provide for basic needs."

My response to this is two-fold. First, it's never been the church's place to provide for the needs of everyone. Christians are to do good to all, to be sure, but to think that the church's task is to meet everyone’s basic needs is to lose the mission of the church Jesus gave to it. Of course, that the mission of the church has been lost should not be surprising in a Christendom context where the politics of witness has been seriously compromised.

We must not forget Paul's words to the Galatians, "So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith" (6:10). Paul is not suggesting that we ignore those outside of the Christian community. When he admonishes the Galatians to do good especially to those in the church, he is providing the means by which the church can provide a witness to the world and the nations what God expects of them. It undermines the church's witness when Christians get so sucked into the nation state political process and support backroom deals behind closed doors on Capitol Hill and special exemptions in the form of payoffs to secure votes for this or that legislation. Because Christians are immersed in Christendom, they think nothing of resorting to utilitarian arguments in order to support questionable moral behavior in achieving a just end. Just as St. Augustine and Eusebius in the fifth century did, Christians appealed to the ethic of pagans to justify or minimize the bad behavior of Christian politicians. This is just wrong. Jesus' upside down kingdom ethic goes by the wayside.

Second, the response that the church's "failure" is an excuse to embrace Christendom is tantamount to saying that the modern church can no longer follow the ecclesiology put forth by the writers of the New Testament and therefore its claims are no longer authoritative for us. Many years ago Reinhold Niebuhr argued that The Sermon on the Mount was an irrelevant ethic for a modern world with nation states in which Christians now had a stake in maintaining (Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics). I would suggest that those who embrace Christendom as the best workable solution in the twenty-first century are saying the same thing in reference to the ecclesiology of the New Testament writers. They are suggesting that Paul's view of the church (and the other New Testament writers as well) is great if we could have listened, but since we have had seventeen centuries doing church another way in concert with the nations, it is best to leave the New Testament behind on this one and try to be the church as best as we can in our context. Our situation is simply too complex for the quaint theological musings of the New Testament. The religious right and the religious left place the first century church in the same category as Niebuhr did with Jesus-- the category of irrelevance. They don't need the church when it comes to politics. The nation is their church.

I think another reason many Christians struggle with the politics of witness is that ultimately they like the idea of having power to make a difference. I am not suggesting by this that the religious right and the religious left have nefarious motives. These persons truly desire to affect positive change in their communities and in the world. But in their embracing of Christendom, they clearly run into conflict with the New Testament witness of Jesus and the upside down kingdom (Mark 10:35-45) and of Paul's commendations on the imitation of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11). It's not that the religious right and the religious left overtly reject these teachings, but they must reinterpret them to refer to how individual Christians must relate to one another or how the church should conduct its board meetings. No thought can be given to the possibility that in such passages we have a model for how the church must relate to the nations. Anyone familiar with the politics of the world knows that those with the power are not at the bottom, nor will humility and looking to the interests of others (and not those of one's constituency) bring much exaltation from others. In Christendom, Christian politics on the left and on the right looks no different from the politics of any old atheist.

We must recover the politics of witness.

How might the politics of witness look? That is the subject of my next and last post.
Previous Posts

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
Further Reading

Allan R. Bevere, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.

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