Tag Archives: Politics

The Political Protest of the Church

In my previous post, I reviewed Esau McCaulley’s approach to finding the meaning of the Scriptures through the lens of the “black ecclesial tradition.” Here we see the fruit that this approach bears when considering the political witness of the church

In chapter 3 McCaulley asks the question “What does the New Testament have to say about the political witness of the church in response to the oppressive tendencies of the state?” (50) 

McCaulley asks this question primarily concerning political protest, in particular, the long tradition of African American protest in the Civil Rights movement and today. However, this topic has relevance, to any situations where “those in authority stand in the way of us living as free Christians.” (52)

McCaulley surveys several passages in the New Testament to answer the question. We’ll look at his interpretation of three of those passages: Luke 13:31-33, Galatians 1:3-4, and Matthew 5:3-12.

Jesus and Herod: Luke 13:31-33

“At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

Luke 13:31-33

Why was Herod trying to kill Jesus? Why did Herod see Jesus as a threat? While Herod did not fear God he understood that the populace saw Jesus’ healing ministry “as a sign of the in-breaking reign of God.” (55) He would have known that “the possibility that the advent of God’s reign through Jesus might upset his own,” (55) if not through divine power then through popular uprising.[1] 

Jesus responds by calling Herod a fox. Jesus meant this as a critique of the cunning and deceit he used to gain power. Herod used his power only to make himself appear great, not use it for the good of the people. By calling Herod a “fox” Jesus offers a “description of his political activity as it relates to the inevitable suffering of the people.” (55)

After that, Jesus refers to his prophetic identity. Jesus stands in continuity with the prophets of the Old Testament who combined a religious critique with a political one. McCaulley uses Isaiah as a case study to show that prophets “offer a criticism of Israel both for its failure to follow the one true God and for its oppression of the poor.” (57) For examples see Isaiah 5:81:4, and 1:17. Isaiah saw that failures of righteousness and justice are linked. “Israel’s oppression of the poor in his day betrayed a practical apostasy” (58) and the prophets called out both the apostasy and oppression of Israel’s rulers.

Jesus and the prophets gave a political critique to those who practiced injustice and oppression.  

Paul and the Rulers: Galatians 1:3-4

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”

Galatians 1:3-4

McCaulley identifies the “present evil age” as the world held under the domain of spiritual powers. These “powers and authorities” (Ephesians 6:12) influence earthly rulers and their political, economic, and social policies. In Rome, this would have included “the demonic evil of slavery… and economic exploitation of the populace… both of which existed because of the policies of Roman leadership as dictated by spiritual forces.” (60)

How, then, does Jesus rescue us from this present evil age? We could interpret this passage by saying that Paul is only referring to “spiritual enslavement.” Or, we could interpret Paul as calling the church to establish God’s kingdom on earth in the present. 

In contrast to these interpretations, McCaulley says that “Jesus saves us from our sins, and he also calls us into a kingdom that treats people better than the way Rome treats its citizens.” (61). Jesus rescues us from this present evil age by freeing us to live as free people while we await his return. As free people, we may with Paul call oppressive systems in this world evil. 

McCaulley concludes from Paul: “Protest is not unbiblical; it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s word and vision for the future.” (62) The church stands as a continual truth-telling beacon, embodying the freedom of Jesus, in a dark world.

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3-12

Finally, we turn to the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). McCaulley reflects on three: Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice[2], and blessed are the peacemakers. 

Blessed are those who mourn: Those who mourn do so because they sense that something is wrong in the world. A theology of mourning keeps us from apathy. It causes us to hunger for something better. Mourning forms the basis of our protest.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: We need to do more than mourn what is wrong with the world, but be armed with a better way. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God gives us that better world to long for. “Hungering and thirsting for justice is nothing less than the continued longing for God to come and set things right.” (66)

Blessed are the peacemakers: Mourning over the fallenness of our world, combined with a hunger to see things set right, leads us to pursue peace, to be peacemakers. The bible gives us a robust picture of peacemaking. Peacemaking involves more than just the cessation of external conflict, it involves truth-telling, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships. Biblical peacemaking can be both corporate (ethnic/national) and personal. 

What do these reflections have to do with the church’s political witness? While the beatitudes certainly have a personal application, in the messianic context, a context in which Jesus is announcing himself as the new King with a new rule (see note 1 below), they are “unavoidably political.” In this context, “Jesus asks us to see the brokenness in society and to articulate an alternative vision for how we might live.” (66) and then to pursue that vision through peacemaking. 

Conclusion: 

McCaulley does not offer us a systematic theology of political engagement. Instead, through this collection of texts (and more that I have left out[3]), he demonstrates a pattern in Scripture that shows us that the systems of this world are corrupt (a present evil age) and that Christians have a role in identifying that corruption. He uses phrases like “bearing witness” and “articulate an alternative vision” to show that the New Testament doesn’t speak of using coercive power, but of showing a better way forward.

I believe his key points are as follows: 

  1. Christ-followers have a role to play in calling out the evil of the present age embodied in unjust rulers and systems (political protest). In so doing, we follow the examples of Jesus and the prophets
  2. Christ frees us from this present evil age and that freedom enables us to live in such a way that bears witness to his coming kingdom (church as an alternate political reality)
  3. God calls us to seek the goodness of his kingdom, not as though we can construct it, but because we hunger and thirst for the justice that comes along with Christ’s reign. We do this through telling the truth, righting wrongs, and restoring relationships (advocacy, justice, reconciliation)  

As we wait for the final coming of God’s kingdom at Christ’s return “He calls us to enter into this work of actualizing the transformation that he has already begun in the death and resurrection of his Son… [which] includes bearing witness to a different and better way of ordering our societies in a world whose default instinct is oppression.” (70)

[1] We face an interesting dilemma right off that bat. Was Jesus a political figure and did he threaten Herod’s reign? He answers this in John 18:36 saying, “my kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus is the King who, in an ultimate and eschatological sense, undermines all of the world’s kings and kingdoms. Yet, his kingship and kingdom do not derive from worldly power. Herod was right to be threatened by Jesus, but he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that threat, just as Jesus’ disciples were right that he came to bring in a new kingdom, but fundamentally misunderstood the nature of that kingdom. 

[2] Throughout this chapter, McCaulley translates Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” instead of the more common righteousness. I wish he had explained this move since it may distract his readers. I believe McCaulley’s translation to be valid for two reasons. First, the Greek word carries with it a sense of justice. Second, as noted in the discussion of Isaiah, Scripture closely links righteousness (personal) with justice (public, social). 

[3] Of particular note here is the book of Revelation, which stands as a critique of Roman power and oppression.

Four Alternative Political Gospels from The Liturgy of Politics

In The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of our Neighbor, Kaitlyn Schiess observes that:

We all live in light of some gospel or another – the good news that while we suffer from a fundamental problem with the world, salvation is possible if we submit to a new ruler of our lives and become part of a new people. Our gospels each have their own creation or origin stories, a “fall” where evil enters those stories, and the promise of salvation in someone or something.

While any number of these “gospels” may exist in the world (Alisa Childers creates her own/different list in Another Gospel? unique to Progressive Christianity), Schiess draws out four specifically American political gospels: Prosperity, Patriotism, Security, and White Supremacy.

To show how these ideologies can form a different gospel I will highlight each one’s creation story (or the Edenic ideal to which we strive), it’s fall (or the nature of sin/what is wrong with the world), it’s view of salvation (who saves and how we enter into/respond to salvation), and it’s liturgies (the practices that form us in its teaching).

Prosperity Gospel

Creation: Schiess has something different in mind than those “health and wealth” preachers who go around promising prosperity if you “sow a seed of faith” by giving them money, though she does, obviously, condemn these charlatans. Schiess is referring to something she calls the “gospel of the free market.”

While this gospel does not have a clear creation story, the “creation ideal” could be called the American Dream of economic prosperity.

Fall: The story assumes that we can control our financial lives by playing by the rules of the free market system. The “righteous” get wealthy and the “unrighteous” fall into poverty. Economic status gets tied to moral status. Those who live in economic squalor, also live in “moral squalor.” Sin gets equated with (or immediately linked to) poverty.

Salvation: We’re saved out of poverty by trusting the free market and following its meritocratic rules: ingenuity and hard work. “Opportunities for success and wealth are available to all and guaranteed to the righteous.”

Liturgies: We get discipled into the prosperity gospel through rags to riches stories, advertisements, and TV shows (such as Shark Tank).

Patriotic Gospel

Creation: The patriotic gospel has a clear creation myth: The founding of the nation. In this mythology, the founding becomes “salvific history.” Adherents baptize America’s past, wiping it clean of acts of injustice. They refer to America as God’s “chosen nation” with a special mission imbued by God, borrowing covenant language from Scripture used in reference to Israel.

Fall: If the founding represents Eden then breaking from that founding constitutes a Fall. Sin happens when we fail to give America (or a particular version of her) our undivided allegiance.

Salvation: America’s strength, power, and global supremacy save us from our insecurities, discomforts, and fears. We respond to this salvation by uncritically accepting all that she does as good.

Schiess asks these diagnostic questions: “When we think of sin, do we think of that which conflicts with American values? When we think of salvation, do we think of American victory?”

Liturgies: Of all the gospels here, this one has the most obvious liturgies. This civil religion has symbols, ceremonies, songs, rituals, statues, flags, and a pledge of allegiance. Through these liturgies we remember and enter into our creation and salvation stories and renew our commitment and loyalty.

Security Gospel

Creation: “Eden” in the security gospel might be a safe neighborhood where kids were free to roam, protected by threats from within (criminals) and threats from without (America’s enemies).

Fall: According to this gospel, insecurity is the main problem with the world. That may come in the form of violent crime, external wars, or injustice. Like in the prosperity gospel which assumes we control our economic outcome, this one assumes that we can control our own safety. As a result, this myth tends to assume that victims of crime have brought it on themselves.

Salvation: In this gospel we’re largely in charge of our own salvation, which comes in the form of security. “If the ‘sin problem’ in this gospel is insecurity, then the salvific solution is to protect yourself.” This gospel lives at both the individual (micro) level and the national (macro) level. At the macro level it takes the form of national security and the belief that security must be won at all costs.

Schiess observes that by shielding ourselves so fully from insecurity and danger, we can unwittingly just push that danger onto other people.

As [Andy] Crouch explains [in Strong and Weak], when humans try to rid themselves of vulnerability, they inevitably offload it on someone else and take authority that doesn’t belong to them.

Liturgies: The liturgies of this gospel come in the form of political discourse when we frame every conversation through the lens of personal and national security.

Gospel of White Supremacy

The gospel of white supremacy thrives on secrecy. It is, by far, the least socially acceptable of the gospels. It exists in more implicit than explicit forms, but it still shapes our way of living in the world.

Creation: Schiess doesn’t assign the gospel of white supremacy a creation myth, but in the American context of the other gospels it could be tied closely to the patriotic gospel by those who would view our founding in idealistic ways, specifically ways that hide or excuse the early injustices of slavery and the extermination of indigenous people.

Fall: The “fall” for this gospel is the presence different people, who would be perceived as being dangerous to “our” way of life.

Salvation: While this would never (or rarely) be explicitly stated, “salvation” looks like white superiority.

Again, Schiess points out that this ideology “thrives on going unnoticed. We probably don’t consciously believe that the ‘sin problem’ is people of color, or the salvific solution is white dominance, but it’s a flawed logic we’ve been immersed in.”

Liturgies: The practices that make this gospel possible are common in the daily life in most parts of the country: segregated communities, schools, media, and the presence of racially homogenous groups (like churches).

On Liturgies

Earlier in the book Schiess goes into detail describing what she means by political liturgies. Liturgies are regular practices, habits, and ways of living with other people that form our hearts and minds.

We need to be careful not to confuse these habits with the false gospels themselves. For instance, one can be inspired by a rags to riches tale without buying into the prosperity gospel. One can sing a patriotic song without believing that salvation comes from America’s military might. One can lock her door at night without thinking that she can control her own safety. One can attend a racially homogenous church without buying into white supremacy. It would be a logical fallacy, then, to assume someone is guilty of adopting a false gospel because of the presence of these liturgies in their lives.

However, we shouldn’t then assume that these behaviors are neutral or that they have no impact on what we grow to love and believe. The point of Schiess’s book is to critically examine these liturgies in light of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pastors and Politics

Should pastors just “stick to preaching the gospel” and not address politics?

How can pastors address politics in a way that continues to put the gospel first?

What does the Lord of the Rings teach us about living through turbulent times?

I want to invite you to check out my conversation with Pastor Steve Surine. We’re not experts on these matters, but I hope the conversation draws out the tensions for pastors living in our partisan age as they try to keep the gospel central and also show how the gospel applies to every area of life.

Click here to listen.

Also, you can help!

I hope to have more of these conversations. If you would like to nominate someone for me to interview, please let me know. I’d be especially interested in interviewing people who would be willing to share about interesting books and articles they have read, who would be able to address topics from an informed and nuanced perspective.