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Posts Tagged ‘Political theology’

If you’ve clicked over here from the Rabbit Room, where my essay Lent Against a Million Faustian Bargains appeared today, welcome. This piece is a companion piece to that one, so having seen that one first, you’re ready to read this one.

If you haven’t yet read that essay, and have some interest in the subject of “Lenten politics” — what the political philosophy of Jesus Christ might look like, so far as we can trace it from His teaching and action in the canonical Gospels [1] — then I suggest you go read that first, and then come back here [2].

Okay, done? Very good. On to the miscellanies:

1. Jesus of Nazareth was not exactly a “political philosopher” — he was foremost a man of action — but his actions in the world proceeded from a deep and peculiar political philosophy. That political philosophy was unique, and remains so even to this day. It was and is so unique that His disciples often have failed to grasp it, erring either on the side of non-engagement with the political world, or engaging it by means Jesus forbade: coercion by threats or force, building political coalitions by lies and stirring up fear, etc.;

2. The political philosophy of Jesus, like all other political philosophies, has to do with glory. The modus operandi of the politicians of the world is to seek glory for themselves — to burnish “legacies,” to vindicate themselves and their political parties, etc. Jesus refused to seek glory for Himself, or to trade illegitimate worship for political glory when the Devil offered him “the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” We should not look at Jesus’s refusal as apolitical, but as a personal challenge to every man, woman and child, and a challenge to every political system corporately;

3. The platitudes and falsehoods characteristic of contemporary political discourse are symptoms of wanton glory-lust. They are designed not to frame real debates constructively, but to motivate the members of particular voting blocs to get the polls — either by bribes, or by fear, or by anger;

4. If that weren’t bad enough, contemporary political talking points have the disastrous side-effect of alienating real neighbors, friends, and family members. And, while there are undoubtedly real and important arguments afoot, they do not justify sacrificing real relationships. We know the people; most national-level political arguments concern matters that are beyond the actual capacity of any human being to understand. I may know my neighbor. I do not know — no human really can know — whether a law binding upon three hundred and fifty million people will help their collective fortunes;

5. Finally, the Rabbit Room essay is not about keeping aloof from politics. It is meant, rather, as encouragement to regard political arguments and talking-points with healthy skepticism, our own arguments with modesty. Privilege the things you know, and the people you know and love, over those things you do not and could not know. In the words of one of His disciples, Jesus of Nazareth “went about doing good” — personally doing good by deeds tailored to uphold the real dignity and heal the peculiar brokenness of particular people, on a scale that local communities could see and understand. He commissioned His disciples to go and do likewise. If you cannot see that that has political implications enough, you cannot see.

[1] Only the canonical Gospels imply any kind of political philosophy. The non-canonical Gnostic gospels, in addition to being written much later and having far less historical value than the canonical ones, firmly divide the world of spirit from the material world in such a way that real-world political engagement becomes nonsensical.

[2] If you’re unfamiliar with the Rabbit Room, then you should make yourself familiar with it — particularly if you’re a fan of good music, good literature, and good art.

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Lent is neither therapeutic nor pietistic. It is political. God became King in Christ, the strong Shepherd and deliverer of His people, by means of fasting, temptation, agony and passion, and by way of the wilderness and Cross. We do not share in the Father’s Kingdom — which we daily ask Him to establish on earth as in heaven — except by sharing in His means for establishing the Kingdom.

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Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 (AV).

Once upon a time I set out to publish a series of biblical meditations on public theology. I hadn’t gotten past that first post. Until today.

Since I’m posting this on the day of a major national election in my home country, I should say two things right at the top of this post. One is a reassurance, and one is an exhortation. First, the reassurance: I have not chosen a national election day to publish a bit of special pleading about why you should vote for a particular candidate, or the candidates of a particular party. If you fear that, read on without fear. Second, the exhortation: If you are registered to vote, and you haven’t yet voted, go vote. Christians are charged always to pray for civil authorities so that, as St Paul says, “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2). Today, in addition to praying thus for those in civil authority, we get to love our neighbors by voting for those candidates who, in our best judgment, would best allow everyone to lead quiet and peaceable lives, in godliness and honesty.

With that as prologue, I move on to the political implications of the passage above. St Paul wrote the words to the church at Philippi some nineteen and a half centuries ago, but they’re every bit as timely today as they were then.

Paul exhorts his readers to humility, to esteem others as more important than themselves, and to mind the needs of their neighbors before their own needs. Paul does this, not by twisting their arms or appealing to their sense of guilt, but by pointing to the Lord Jesus. In so doing, he makes two startling political declarations. Taking these in reverse order:

  • Paul proclaims, in the strongest possible terms, the absolute Lordship of Jesus over every created being (vv. 10-11); and
  • Paul sets forth the means by which the man Jesus of Nazareth attained that Lordship — by emptying Himself of His divine prerogatives at His incarnation, and then by humbling Himself to submit to death on a cross (vv. 6-8).

I. King Jesus, rightful heir of a royal, global theocracy

If you read the Old Testament, you’ll see that Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets repeatedly emphasize a few basic characteristics to mark the God who had covenanted with them as utterly unique and absolutely supreme. Most importantly, He created all things; and, nearly as important, He is sovereign over all things. He may have covenanted with a tribe, but He was never a tribal deity.

So of the lordship of Israel’s God over all the world, the prophet Isaiah records:

I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.

The passage is one of the most triumphal declarations of the kingship of God over the world and all its creatures, and one of the clearest declarations of high monotheism in a very high monotheistic book. So it is remarkable that St Paul chooses this passage to describe the kingship of Jesus. Jesus, says Paul, bears the authority of God; He is the word that goes out of the mouth of God in righteousness; His name is the divine name that every tongue shall confess, and at which every knee will bend. Jesus is not only a King, He is a divine King; and His divinity is of the same order as that of the God who created the world and covenanted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, since there is only one God, Jesus is the human embodiment, the incarnation, of the one God, and holds all the power and authority that that identity implies. The government will be on His shoulder, and of the increase of His theocracy and of peace there shall be no end.

II. The character of the theos in the theocracy

You may have noticed that I just used a word, theocracy, that makes a lot of people nervous. Concentrated authority — especially in a divine being — conjures images of abuses. I use theocracy anyway, to raise an important question: are those worrisome images of abuses justified? The answer to that question depends crucially on the nature and character of the theos in the theocracy.

In the Christian theocracy, the Lord Jesus comes into His kingdom by way of the mystery of His holy Incarnation, His agony and bloody sweat, His Cross and Passion, His precious Death and burial (1). In short, though prior to His Incarnation He existed “in the form of God,” He did not, as He could have done, simply lord it over His people. Rather, He emptied Himself for them, became their servant, and died for them. And St Paul says (v. 9) that it was precisely for that reason that He was made King. The Gentile kings lord it over their subjects, either because they have no god above them, or because their idols do the same. In Jesus, we see that God is not too proud to accept a thorny crown, or the indignity of being exalted by way of a Roman cross.

III. So what?

Having followed St Paul’s hymn to Christ from end to beginning, I now conclude where St Paul started: on the question of application. If it is true (and it is) that in the present age God rules the world by means of delegated authorities — ecclesiastical and civil — how ought those authorities exercise the authority they’re given?

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.

After following Paul’s train of thought to its end and then back to its beginning, we see that this is not mainly an exhortation to servants and subjects to obey masters. It is an exhortation to those in authority — who ought already to have received their authority in this way — now to exercise authority in this way, and not in the usual way.

By now our nation is well on the way to deciding who is going to bear the sundry measures of authority that God delegates, respectively, to our various civil authorities. However those who questions are decided (and this is no denial that those questions have importance), we are to keep calm and carry on in humility, esteeming our neighbors more important than ourselves, looking out for them in love. For a crown of thorns sits at the top of the “keep calm and carry on” banner of King Jesus.

(1) Adapted from the Litany. See the Book of Common Prayer 55 (1928). The Litany here follows Philippians 2:6-8 quite closely.

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Today I commence a series of posts on the intersection of those two things no one is supposed to discuss in polite society: religion and politics. Specifically, I take up the question of how to be a Christian in public, what the Christian’s Book has to say about the matter.

This is hardly a unique undertaking in our time. There has been no shortage of articles and books, popular and scholarly, on the subject of public theology, by whole bunch of people from all over the political and theological spectrum, the past decade. The prominence of the “religious right” in American politics in the eighties and nineties provoked a lot of thought, and writing, on the public implications of theology.  And then, when one kind of theology drastically altered the New York City skyline and crashed into the Pentagon, the volume of writing on the subject increased by several orders of magnitude over again. So I’m well aware that I’m talking into an already noisy area of the public square.

Nor is this series a unique undertaking historically. The great writers of the tradition in which I stand — the Christian tradition — include many who have made constructive contributions on this very subject.  So why should I — not a great thinker, not an “expert,” but a simple lawyer living in a small town in a relatively rural part of the world — think I could possibly say something about this subject that hasn’t already been said better by someone else?

The answer is simple: I don’t.  On this matter I’m an amateur — a student, not an expert.  But so are most people.  That means I can compare notes with my fellow amateurs in a way that experts cannot; I am hopeful that, as a result, some lights will go on.

Moreover, I plan to address the subject in a way I’ve not really seen done before: simply by selecting some pertinent biblical passages and then writing a series of essays on them. Every other treatment of public theology that I’ve seen has either presupposed, constructed, attacked or defended some overarching theory of how to be public theologians. While I am not without my own sympathies and presuppositions (which will become manifest enough over the course of the series), my hope is that keeping my comments firmly and plainly anchored in the common Book of the Church universal, readers will be able to appreciate afresh the riches of the Bible for public discourse, and interact with these posts a way that one can’t interact with a scholarly monograph.

We have indeed a profound need for a basic understanding of the public implications of biblical texts, which has not infrequently been exposed of late. To take one example from a recent Republican presidential debate: Byron York’s question to Michele Bachmann about submitting to her husband. Bachmann, not so deftly, skirted the issue, stating that she respected her husband, as he did her.  Much could be (and already has been) said about the propriety of York’s question and Bachmann’s answer, but for now I’ll register a simple hurrah to the question and a “meh” to Bachmann’s dodge and note one of the early responses to the whole dustup: Stephen Prothero’s list of five biblical passages on which he’d like to hear commentary from Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry.  I found Prothero’s post noteworthy, not because it’s unique but precisely because it follows a trend: Any time a publicly evangelical politician publicly dodges a question about a biblical text, these kinds of posts start popping up like mushrooms.  To the extent that those of us who call ourselves Christians cannot respond intelligently to the questions posed by the people who write posts like Prothero’s, we confess that we have not carefully read or bothered to understand our common Book.  And we give the impression to the watching world that we really are just another set of partisan hacks, content to “pound” our Book while shouting across the cultural divide, and less than eager to read, learn, mark and inwardly digest what it has to say about matters of political concern.

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