Decomposition of Christian politics

October 25, 2008

church / emerging church / politics / theology

Continuing my series concerning the death and decomposition of movements in the church, I want to look at the ebbs and flows of Christian engagement in politics. By this, I mean the ways in which Christians engage with the State, which is of course a broader issue than just voting, or running for office, etc.

In light of this topic, I want to bring up again the reason for this series: a poll that indicates that almost 60% of white evangelicals in the South believe that torture is often or sometimes justified. Again, this is more than the percentage (48%) of the general public who believe the same.

History of Christian politics

An exhaustive history of Christian politics is beyond the point of this post, and is better expressed in book form. Understand that this is necessarily brief, and will leave out important things like the historical roots that Hebraic thought gives to a proper understanding of the relationship between the people of God and the State.

The message of Jesus is inherently political. Many of the words he used and encouraged others to use of himself are full of political meaning that we, removed from imperial Rome by 2000 years, fail to see. His message itself (called the gospel) is a mockery of the pronouncements of Roman emperors, his teachings clearly set up a different kingdom (though with different rules and a different way of gaining and exercising its power), many of his signs and wonders are direct metaphors against the State, and even his crucifixion follows the pattern of an imperial coronation.

In light of this, his initial followers lived and wrote in such a way that it was clear that they lived under a different kingdom, and that this new kingdom was in direct confrontation with the old one. This is clear throughout the New Testament, in the letters as well as the Gospels themselves. These confrontations cost many of these followers their lives, and continued to do so for newer generations.

Christians, even those who were Roman citizens (like the apostle Paul) refused to fight in the Roman army. Soldiers who came to know Jesus left the army. Politicians did likewise. These positions that worked in the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of the sword were seen as similar to tax collectors, workers in pagan temples, and so on. Hence, they were welcome to hang out with Jesus and hang out with his followers after his time, but subversive life, and pacifism as part of that subversive life, were seen as normative parts of a genuine spiritual experience.

In 312 C.E., the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to a twisted version of Christianity based on military victory, and the following year made it an officially sanctioned religion. Later, he essentially brought an end to Christian pacifism by leading the first war of Christians against Christians.

Theologians and church leaders had to learn how to adjust to this new form of Christianity. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, created the lasting legacy of this shift by developing the still-popular Just War theory, which allows Christians to support and fight in wars if they meet his criteria. Naturally, these criteria have almost always been used to support wars, from the Crusades to the current war in Iraq, though almost no wars have actually met this criteria from an objective point of view. The point, though, is that these criteria were developed to justify this shift.

Since this time, we have had several movements discern and try to recover from this combination of the kingdom of the Cross with the kingdom of the state, from some of the monastic movements, to the Quaker and Anabaptist movements of the Reformation, to some of the parts of the Second Great Awakening in the United States, to the early 20th century beginnings of the Pentecostal movement.

Some of these movements, notably the Pentecostal movement, were unable to maintain this subversive nature. Pentecostals refused to fight in World War I, for example, though by the present day some American churches and groups were among the staunchest supporters of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These that could not remain subversive have found themselves joining forces with other movements, such as the fundamentalist and evangelical movements in the case of the Pentecostals, with horrible consequences (the right wing of evangelicalism still cannot see the consequences of its blind allegiance to conservative politics).

Do you see the decomposition, both on a large, global scale as well as a movement and denominational scale, that we have allowed to happen? We have gone, as a global church and as individual churches and individual believers, from pacifists who believed in actively resisting violence and loving our enemies, to people who believe that torture of our enemies is acceptable.

To develop a true politic of Jesus

If we seek to develop a true view of the “politics of Jesus”, it is essential to understand how far we have strayed, and the reasons we have done this. We have, as I have written before, been willing on a consistent basis to trade the power and life of the Spirit for the power and life of the State.

The voices of those who have resisted this trade over the centuries are being recovered by many within the emerging church. From the monastics to the Anabaptists to the (especially early) Pentecostals, we are seeking voices that teach us how to live out a different kingdom, using the power of love to subvert the empire we live within.

Yes. I said empire. The United States, with the help of most of the church, has established itself as an empire, and it lives by that story. Tony Jones disagrees in this fascinating article, but as many of the comments indicate the matter is open to discussion.

For further study

I have glossed over a lot of history and a lot of complex issues. This is a blog post. But please, if you are interested in these matters consider some of the following works that I see as relevant to these kind of thoughts. Certainly they do not all agree, but they are all willing to look at the issues.