Tag Archives: Politics

Social Justice and Christian Faithfulness

alysia-harris2Our new little small group read “Justice is more than a political issue now—it’s a spiritual one.” Alysia Harris is an award-winning poet whose poems “come from a love for the world and from a desire to see it transformed” (from her web-page). She is also an educator, scholar, and activist. Until now, I had not heard of her, but some of the lines of poetry on her homepage are extraordinary:

Obese as the night sky is, its greed does not outweigh the first mouthful of dawn.

We ain’t no Medusas here but each one of us got a stare that could cut glass.

I like much of what Alysia has said, including her (very radical) commitment to reconciliation, and to acting locally and relationally, her recognition that the state is not our liberation, and her conviction that social justice must “be done” through a theological lens.

I would have liked to see more about the church, the community of Jesus, as the place where those commitments are to be realised – if we are to “turn again to” and follow the way of Jesus. And I cannot help but wonder if making Christian faith a subset of “my identity” will ultimately subvert the gospel – if “I” rather than Christ remains the centre of my identity and agency (see, e.g. Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21; 3:20).

There are important issues here, including the slippery relation between Christian faithfulness and progressive politics. (See my recent post on Relevance or Resilience).

American Evangelicals & Mr Trump

pew_trump_clinton_religionSince the election of Mr Trump last week, a number of news articles have appeared in the American press exploring the relation between his election and the evangelical vote. Reports indicate that over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Mr Trump. These articles explore why this was the case.

This first article by Emma Green (“The Evangelical Reckoning on Trump”) provides a general overview of evangelical leaders’ views regarding the relation between US evangelicalism and the Trump election.  She portrays an evangelicalism divided, especially along racial lines in the United States:

But a few predicted that this election could permanently damage attempts to create unity among evangelicals. “I spend most of my time in ministry talking and teaching about racial reconciliation,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, a “theologically traditional” coalition of black Christians and churches, as he described it. “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”

Olga Khazan (“Why Christians Overwhelmingly Backed Trump”) suggests that Evangelicals backed Mr Trump because they believed he would uphold their views on abortion, and perhaps even turn the clock back on abortion services:

Seven in 10 voters on Tuesday said the next president’s appointment of a new Supreme Court justice was an important factor—presumably because this judge could have a decisive vote in cases involving abortion and other social issues. Voters “were mobilized by what’s at stake & the clear contrast w/Hillary on life,”Family Research Council president Tony Perkins tweeted late Tuesday.

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, “believes evangelicals were motivated to vote in unprecedented numbers because of Hillary Clinton’s record on abortion,” according to the Huffington Post.

Carl Trueman (“A Tale of Two Marxisms”) rather glumly argues that Americans have received the politician they deserve: a perfect mirror of what American culture has become.

Cool chic and celebrity connections are now far more important than coherent policies and personal integrity. And Mr. Trump is surely no better. In many ways he is more representative of the moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age than Mrs. Clinton. He really is nothing more than an entertainer, the political equivalent of a foul-mouthed stand-up comic. Yet that is precisely what makes him the perfect politician for this present age. He is the great Hegelian synthesis of modern American culture: a perfect compound of know-nothing populism, undisciplined appetites, and vacuous entertainment. Do not waste time lamenting his advent. He was inevitable: He is the very embodiment of the World Spirit.

What Trueman does not discuss is the implication that American evangelicalism has largely become culturally assimilated to the “moral and intellectual vacuum of this present age.”  I suspect, however, that he may agree with this suggestion.

Darren Guerra (“Trump, Evangelicals, Religion & the 2016 Election Exit-Polls”) argues that evangelical support for Mr Trump only rose to the levels it did after the Presidential race was reduced to the two primary candidates. That is, their support was reserved. Nevertheless, that they did support him in the end was due, perhaps, to their playing a longer game: 70% of evangelical or religious voters voted with an eye to the Supreme Court.

Given the large gaps between plurality support for Trump in the primaries and majority support for him in the general election, evangelicals clearly needed time to warm up to Trump. Evangelical support for Trump, while robust, seems to have been driven by prudential judgment and fear of a Clinton presidency, rather than by blind acceptance. To the extent that this is true, evangelical support for Trump may very well be “contingent support” that could evaporate if Trump does not deliver as promised.

Two weeks before the election Russell D. Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gave the 29th Annual Erasmus Lecture with the (to my ears) somewhat dubious and uninspiring title, “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” Moore was a vocal advocate of not voting for Mr Trump in the months prior to the election. The lecture is well worth listening to. The video can be found here; the podcast here.

“As If Nothing Had Happened”

President Trump
I [will] endeavour to carry on theology, and only theology,
now as previously, and as if nothing had happened
(Karl Barth, Theological Existence Today, 9).

On June 24, 1933 Adolf Hitler intervened directly in the German Protestant churches to bring them under the control of the new National Socialist government. Many German Christians celebrated the ascendancy of Hitler, believing the Führer to be chosen and sent by God to aid Germany in her troubles. They willingly accepted the assimilation of the church into the Nazi programme. That evening Karl Barth sat down and wrote a missive entitled Theological Existence Today. He sent a copy to Hitler, and by the time the regime banned the treatise a year later, tens of thousands of copies had been distributed.

Barth’s famous—infamous—response has sometimes been read as a statement of withdrawal from the public sphere, of the isolation of theology from the great events of the day. Barth, however, was no political or ethical quietist. Barth was not advocating a focus on esoteric theological questions disconnected from the affairs of everyday life, nor yet pietistic escapism from the horrors and difficulties of the world. His stance was an act of theological rebellion, a refusal to violate the first commandment by giving any allegiance or comfort to a false god. His response to the crisis confronting the church is that the church return to its primary vocation, simply, to be the church—the church of the cross. Barth diagnosed the crisis as a theological and spiritual rather than political crisis, and so the church’s response to the crisis must be theological and spiritual.

When Barth speaks of theological existence, it can legitimately be interpreted as Christian existence, for all Christian existence is theological existence. When Barth spoke of practising theology and only theology he meant the proclamation of the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ, the reality of the kingdom of God, the rule of divine love, the promise and claim of the one God.

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death
(Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1).

Our situation today bears some similarities to that faced by Barth, though, one hopes, not nearly so sinister. This is not a time for Christians to wring hands in despair, to assail those too blind to see what they think they can see; let alone the time for Christians to place their hope in messiahs who cannot possibly lead them to the Promised Land. Rather, it is a time for Christians to be the church of the Word, the church under the cross.

It is the time for those who pray to continue to pray “as if nothing had happened.” For those who preach, to continue to preach “as if nothing had happened.” For those who serve in the name of Jesus Christ, who care for the poor, who seek justice, who make disciples, who practise love of neighbour, who reach out a helping hand, who act in the public square, who live virtuously, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who bend their ear and their heart to hear the Word of God—for those who do all this and more besides in the name of Jesus, to continue to do so “as if nothing had happened.”

The really momentous things happening in our world are not those things which consume the eyes and ears of the media and social media. Rather, when Christians bow in prayer, reach out in love, attend to Holy Scripture, hold forth the Word of Life—the kingdom of heaven is among you.

Jesus as Political Activist?

politics of JesusIn a class today exploring the ministry of Jesus and his kingdom-practice, I called upon R. T. France to say that Jesus was not a political activist, and that his kingdom is not an earthly-political system. The statement understandably raised questions. France characterises the kingdom of God as ‘divine government,’ and suggests that the coming of Jesus is tantamount to declaring, “The revolution is here!” Yet it is a peculiar kind of revolution:

God’s kingship will involve the overthrow of many aspects of the status quo, but it is remarkable that among those powers and values which it will challenge Jesus seems to have little interest in that aspect of the current situation which for many of his hearers was primary, the fact of Roman imperial government.[1]

More fundamental than political revolution is the spiritual revolution Jesus instituted as the ‘stronger man’ who overthrows the kingdom of Satan. In this view salvation is exorcism, the liberation of men and women from oppressive and dehumanising spiritual powers.

So a revolution against the rule of Satan is going to involve a revolution in the thinking of those who wish to come instead under God’s kingship. Their minds need to be liberated from Satan’s control. … And it is that sort of revolution, the overturning of accepted human attitudes and values, which Mark’s Gospel is designed to promote. … To follow Jesus demanded a complete reorientation.[2]

To say this, however, is not at all to suggest that Jesus’ message is apolitical in its implications. To the contrary, his message of the kingdom of God is deeply subversive with respect to the present ordering of life in the world. The community of God’s people would live in ways which challenge the false values and false gods of the surrounding culture. This, though, is different to direct political action. It is no doubt true that some are called to participate in direct political activity, especially in a liberal democracy. It is likewise true that genuine care for the vulnerable members of society may necessitate at times, direct intercession on their behalf to those who hold positions of power. It may even call for costly opposition to those in power because we choose to stand with the vulnerable.

Jesus, though, neither taught nor modelled direct political action. He did, however, call his followers to a primary allegiance which trumps all other allegiances. He did, however, model redemptive engagement with those who suffer, were outsiders, lowly or despised. He did command that we love our neighbour as ourselves. He did exemplify and commend the ways of peace. He did command that we neither value or pursue those things so highly valued in the world. Not so among you!

The temptation to have and exercise power is ever with us, for it seems that those who hold the levers of power are able to accomplish so much in the world. Nevertheless, it also seems that whenever the church has gained political power it has not gone well. Might it be that whenever we become enamoured with gaining, holding and exercising political power we betray our loss of confidence in the spirit and power of the gospel?

[1] R. T. France, Divine Government: God’s Kingship in the Gospel of Mark (Homebush West: Lanzer, 1990), 46.

[2] Ibid., 48.