Book Review

Christian Political Witness Edited by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee

Matthew J. Tuininga
George Kalantzis
Friday, August 29th 2014
Sep/Oct 2014

The church's witness is necessarily political, but in its political witness the church must first and foremost be the church. Faithfulness to the gospel mission trumps allegiance to any other political agenda. Such is the general consensus among the contributors to Christian Political Witness. Beyond that, when it comes to practical Christian political involvement, the contributors are all over the map.

Several of the other contributors follow Hauerwas's lead, viewing the church as a fundamentally political reality. Scot McKnight's essay is well summarized in its Latin title: extra ecclesiam nullum regnum (there is no kingdom outside the church). He rejects the classic Christian belief that civil government is authorized by Christ, even going so far as to insist that Jesus did not affirm Caesar's right to levy taxes but merely called Christians to tolerate it for pragmatic reasons.

Timothy G. Gombis emphasizes that the Apostle Paul's gospel is inherently political, by which he means that the apostle's mission was to shape communities under the cross that would witness to the coming kingdom of God in their teaching and practices. American evangelicals are discouraged by their loss of cultural power, Gombis observes, but "this might be a strategic moment for us to embrace our identity as God's wandering people among the nations" (88).

George Kalantzis describes the early church's witness to the nations as a "cooptation of power through passive resistance," one epitomized in Paul's declaration in Romans 8:36-27 that Christian martyrs are "more than conquerors through him who loved us" (106). Conforming to the life and witness of the cross, Christians rejected the Roman violent sacred world wholesale, including the state's use of coercive violence.

Refocusing the church on its mission is much needed in our time, and for that reason these essays are worth reading. Yet each of these authors, except perhaps Kalantzis, seems to reject any notion of Christ's rule extra ecclesiam (outside the church), a principle Luther and Calvin articulated in terms of their two-kingdom theology. In the end, Christ's lordship seems to be placed only in contrast to the sword-bearing civil government, with Christians left as bewildered as ever as to its positive practical implications for participatory citizenship in a liberal democracy.

In a somewhat different grain are the essays by Jana Marguerite Bennett, William T. Cavanaugh, and Daniel M. Bell Jr. Bennett rightly calls Christians to focus on a Savior and church that transcend the differentiation of life into various spheres or the dichotomy between public and private. But she flippantly dismisses liberal values of the individual, liberty, and limited government as the products of "an Enlightenment focus on individual choices and autonomy" (120) and a "concession to a modern Enlightenment-based culture" (126), underestimating the extent to which these values arise out of the Christian political theological tradition.

A similar critique can be brought against Cavanaugh and Bell. Cavanaugh offers a fascinating and challenging critique of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, arguing that it reduces American democracy to a zero-sum marketplace of ideas and preferences, thus undermining the genuine participation of all toward the telos of a common good. Yet his argument presupposes an unrealistically participatory model of democracy and a Marxist critique of the corporation as the embodiment of class conflict. Bell seeks to "recenter the Christian practice of just war in the church rather than in the state" (166), claiming that while "just war clearly is not a distinctively Christian practice" (163), Christians should understand it as a "distinctly Christian political witness" (166). He contrasts just war as Christian discipleship, with its "thick conception of the common good," with just war as public policy checklist, which he identifies with political liberalism and its "thinnest of common goods" (169). The former holds strictly to constraints that are possible only as the expression of the sort of character and virtue fostered in the church and its worship.

Each of these writers offers suggestions that sound utopian at best. Bennett recommends that Christians consider declining to vote, refusing to go to war, and deciding "to find ways to curtail participation in a global capitalist economy" (127). Cavanaugh proposes that to enact the love of Christ is "to build businesses and communities of true participation and solidarity" (146). And Bell declares that "just war as a Christian discipline is a matter of worship" (174) that requires "supernatural politics" (171). But why not offer serious reflection about the nature of Christian participation in the society in which we actually live, amid the institutions that have, for us, been established by God (Rom. 13)? Do we really want to abandon mainstream just war theory, liberal democracy, and the free market in the name of establishing the kingdom of God? To paraphrase one of my professors, "We should not make the (eschatologically) perfect the enemy of the (temporally) good."

Several authors take a more realistic perspective. I think Jennifer M. McBride gets it right when she argues that the relevant question of our time is, "How can the church remain faithful to that basic Christian proclamation that Jesus is Lord and also participate humbly in our pluralistic society? How may the church offer a non-triumphal witness to the lordship of Christ?" (181). Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that Jesus' mission was defined by solidarity with sinners. The church that is faithful, likewise, "will not wish to distinguish itself from others’to lift itself up as a model of moral righteousness and thus exonerate itself from present complicity in sin’but rather will want to be in solidarity with sinners through confession and repentance" (192). Yet David Gushee's chapter, a survey of his theologically informed political opinions, raises more doubts than it provides answers about the possibility of unified Christian politics; it is hard to see why Christians would feel the need to follow Gushee on any particular point. David Gitari offers thoughtful reflections based on his experiences as Archbishop of Kenya, highlighting as examples of appropriate pastoral involvement his public opposition to government-sponsored assassinations and election rigging.

The Reformed perspective is represented well by Peter J. Leithart and Mark Noll. Leithart's essay is refreshing in its refusal to abandon classic Christian convictions about temporal government's just use of the sword. Leithart defines violence as the "unjust and sinful use of force" (155), and he summarizes classic Christian political theology when he concludes that "Yahweh's war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God's avenging wrath" (154). Yet the final victory of Yahweh over violence takes place only through the work of Christ.

Noll gleans warnings about Christians' use of Scripture in politics from a set of fast day sermons preached in the United States on the eve of the Civil War. Protestants rightly claim that the Bible is "the ultimate authority for Christian political witness as for every other Christian activity" (37), but these sermons demonstrate that they should be as mindful of the damage done by misuses of Scripture as they are of its authority. Overwhelming confidence in Christians' ability to interpret Scripture unerringly and to evaluate and interpret the hand of providence did not lead antebellum pastors to consensus. On the contrary, it simply made their disputes all the more violent. Noll reminds us that Scripture cannot be simplistically applied across ages and circumstances, because biblical revelation is progressive revelation. It is not always easy to determine the precise political implications of "specific texts," not to mention "the biblical story as a whole" (52).

Friday, August 29th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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