Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Politics
Last night, as part of our church’s monthly film discussion group, we watched the superb HBO documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, in coordination with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Our church was one of a thousand churches watching this movie in an attempt to bring political discussion into the church community. For too long, the Christian churches in America have sat idly by while policies of major historical significance have been carried out. Last night’s film group was an attempt to change this by bringing politics into the life of the church.
One of the major stains on the witness of the Christian church in America is the glaring silence of the church on the issue of torture. This is not a new problem. The German Lutheran Church was silent during the time of Hitler. The Catholic Church in Chile was silent during the tyrannical rule of Pinochet. Moreover, American churches have been consistently late in their participation in (or even absent altogether from) social change, including, for example, the Civil Rights Movement. Today we face a situation fraught with serious moral significance, and instead of a church ready to speak truth to power and confront evil no matter where it occurs, we have an impotent church incapable of and/or unwilling to be a voice of truth in an age of political pettifogging and chicanery. The case of Gregory Boyd is worth noting here. After witnessing an idolatrous July 4 church service, Boyd decided to preach against Christian involvement in right-wing politics. But his answer was not to rethink our politics; his answer was for the church to disassociate itself from politics altogether. Rather than proclaim the political implications of the gospel, whatever those might be, Boyd decided to abandon the political sphere. In seeking to avoid idolatry, he chose silence instead. But in choosing silence, Boyd inevitably renders the gospel impotent and irrelevant to a world that desperately needs to hear the Word of God proclaimed in and to the concrete political situation in which we find ourselves today.
My point here is not to debate the details of torture, the war in Iraq, or the so-called “war on terror.” I am, instead, interested in the problem of political discourse within the church. What enables or inhibits churches in the process of engaging in honest dialogue about the issues that define us—issues like terrorism, imperialism, torture, democracy, and fundamentalism? Should pastors talk frankly about the social and political issues of our time? Is it right to speak about the events in the newspaper, or should preaching only focus on Scripture and leave historical events to the “pundits”? Where do we draw the line between proclaiming the gospel and advertising a political ideology? On a more fundamental level, what is the church’s proper relationship to contemporary politics? What can and should the church say about (or to) Washington?
These are some of the basic questions of our time. These are the kinds of questions that pastors need to be able to answer or at least seek to answer. We must not become “good German Christians” who, in their silence, endorse a political machine that claims to be working in the best interest of the nation. We must not become idle spectators of the political drama occurring all around us. We must not allow ourselves to become detached from the world in which we live, the world which we as a community of believers are called to engage in the mission of reconciliation. We have to learn again how to translate the gospel into the concrete context in which we exist. We have to learn what it means to exist as the covenantal people of God who are called to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Toward that end, I wish to offer a few thoughts on the church’s relationship to the state and what it might mean to “be political” again in such a divisive and ideologically driven political environment.
1. The relation between church and state is dialectical. We often hear about the transition from a church at the “center” (Constantinianism) to a church at the “margins” (church-state separation). A lot of good has come from separating the church from the centers of political power. While the church certainly flourished in a Constantinian framework, such flourishing was often at the expense of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. Today we face a unique situation: the separation between church and state in the United States has resulted in a strange paradox. On the one hand, the “two kingdoms” approach has left churches entirely unwilling to discuss political issues, because they belong to a different “sphere”; the church is concerned with “spiritual” matters, not political ones. As a result, many pastors refuse to discuss sociopolitical issues at all; their ecclesiastical position is one of silence. On the other hand, this same “two kingdoms” framework, which places the work of the church in a strictly “spiritual” sphere, has made it possible for the Religious Right to flourish. Such open politicizing of the gospel is possible because the gospel itself has been neutered of all radical political import. When the gospel of Jesus Christ loses its revolutionary character, then one can easily wed it to whatever reigning political ideology is presently available. The gospel becomes the friend of ideology, rather than the supreme defense against it. This is the purest form of “natural theology”: a theology in which the gospel is manipulated to conform to a particular ideology.
I argue instead that the church needs to adopt a dialectical approach to the nation-state. The relationship is dialectical in that the church is not either at the center or in the margins, but is rather both at the center and in the margins. The church, we might say, works from the margins but towards the center. That is, the church’s primary role is to care for those who are marginalized by power, but in its mission to the “invisible ones” in society, the church does not ignore the center. The church of Jesus Christ witnesses to the truth of the gospel in the centers of power. Such witness is subversive and radical, but it is also loving and gracious—it testifies to the state’s true calling to be the “beloved community.” It proclaims that the state is part of the “order of grace” (Barth) and thus belongs to Jesus Christ. Furthermore, to say that the church is dialectically related to the state is to say that the work of the church is both related and unrelated to the work of the state. The work of the church is thus both political and non-political. It is not partly political and partly non-political; it is wholly both. All this is to say that the work of the church in confessing Jesus Christ is already political in nature. We need not identify an additional work of the church which is specifically “political” in nature, as if the church’s mission does not already have deep sociopolitical significance. To miss or suppress the political implications of the gospel is to undermine the dialectical character of the church.
2. The relation between church and state is covenantal. The relationship between church and state is covenantal in a twofold sense: (1) the covenant of grace means that there are not “two kingdoms” but rather only “one kingdom” under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Barth); and (2) the covenant of grace means that the church itself is, as Peter says, “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation.” Such terms quite intentionally unite both sacerdotal and political imagery. One might say that the church is both spiritual and political, but this is not dialectical enough: as I said above, we need to see the spiritual as itself political in nature, and the political does not exist autonomously without the spiritual. As Barth rightly states, “The state [like the church] . . . is an order of grace relating to sin.” The church is the covenantal community of Jesus Christ in fellowship with the reconciling triune God and with the world reconciled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19).
3. The relation between church and state is dialogical. God addresses humanity in the word of the cross. This word interrupts us in our present existence and redefines us in accordance with the gospel of justification in Jesus Christ. We are dialogically disrupted by the word of grace and so made to correspond to God, first, through an ontological change into God’s dialogical partners by way of Jesus Christ in the event of the cross, and second through a dialogical response to God in invocation and praise by way of the Spirit in the event of Pentecost.
The dialogical relation between God and the church overflows into a dialogical relation between the church and the world. The church’s being-in-act is a being-in-dialogue-with-God which is at the same time a being-in-dialogue-with-the-world. The church’s dialogue with the world, in particular with the local culture in which the community exists, is a dialogue centered around witness and proclamation. The dialogue is a true dialogue: it is not a one-way declaration of the church “from on high.” The church can only dialogue by entering concretely into the life of the broader community. In other words, dialogue only occurs among neighbors, whom we must get to know. And since Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, such dialogue presupposes a love of this world which mirrors the love that God has for the world as revealed in the incarnation of the Son for us and our salvation (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10). To summarize, the missio dei is a divine mission of dialogue with the world and for the world, and thus the missio communionis is an ecclesial mission of dialogue with the world and for the world in light of what the missio dei accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
4. Conclusion: What are the implications of the foregoing theses for a church that is struggling to remain faithful in a politically divisive climate? (1) First, the church cannot be silent on social and political issues. The church’s being-in-act is a being-in-dialogue, and therefore silence on political questions is ruled out in the same way that silence about God is ruled out: we are a people called to bear witness, and that means we are called to speak. (2) Second, the church’s speech cannot help but be political, since there are not two spheres of engagement but, in fact, only one sphere, one kingdom, one reign of Jesus Christ. We are forbidden from the start from creating a dichotomy between physical/political and spiritual/religious. We must realize that the gospel has radical political implications, and we must learn to be faithful to this gospel (and its implications) even if that means radically readjusting our relation to contemporary politics. (3) Third, we must be steadfastly opposed to all ideological manipulation of the gospel. We can guard against such manipulation through a more consistent emphasis upon the dialectical character of the church and its knowledge of God. The church does not “possess” anything—including, even, its very being. The gospel is not in the hands of the church; the church is rather in the hands of God. The possibility of manipulation is ruled out by the fact that we are never the masters of the gospel. Instead, Jesus Christ is our sole master. The early church confessed, in an act of clear political subversion, that Jesus Christ alone is Lord, which means that Caesar is not.
Finally, the church’s being-in-dialogue is a being-in-love. Modern political dialogue is inherently violent because it is rooted in a capitalistic climate of competitiveness. In order for the church to engage the world politically, it must find a way to establish a dialogue rooted in love. We can learn something from Paul’s discourse on love in 1 Cor. 13. The church needs to learn to interpret this passage as a guide to political dialogue. Here are some brief thoughts toward that end.
- Love is patient. Political dialogue needs to be patient in seeking change. We often want change immediately, but love demands patience. Of course, patience is not complacency, nor does it ignore incompetency. Love demands action, but it is patient in its demands.
Love is kind. Political dialogue must be generous, gentle, and considerate.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. The political implications of this statement are obvious. Political dialogue must not assert oneself over against the Other; rather, dialogue must be humble.
Love does not insist on its own way. This is especially difficult. Dialogue rooted in love should not demand that others conform to one’s own particular views. Dialogue thus engages with others and seeks to affirm the ways of others. It does not say, “my way or the highway.” This means empathizing with our interlocutors without compromising or manipulating the gospel of truth.
Love is not irritable or resentful. Since not everyone gets his or her own way in a dialogue, political discourse must not be easily annoyed or angered, nor should it express bitterness or hold on to grudges.
Love rejoices in the truth. Political dialogue must be grounded in the truth. Dialogue thus exposes lies and seeks truth in every dimension of life, including the secretive world of power politics. Political dialogue rooted in love demands openness and sincerity, honesty and truthfulness. Dialogue based on assumptions and half-truths only undermines the world community.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Dialogue must have the “same mind . . . that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). In other words, true dialogue requires each person to endure hardship, bear each other’s burdens, to believe steadfastly in the truth, and to hope wholeheartedly in the God who binds us all together in perfect unity in Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 3:14).
Love never ends. Dialogue never ends; it continues by the grace and mercy of God.