We were once told by a friend that she would not consider joining our church because it would mean she would have to change her political affiliation. Thankfully, if that ever was true, it is no longer. Yet when some hear the phrase “Christian political witness” it conjures up ideas of church support of a particular political agenda of one of the major political parties or an effort to gain political leverage to impose an agenda on a dissenting public. For many, that is alienating and smacks of the polarized politics so many of us detest.
I found that this volume, consisting of a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference, explores a very different, and much more nuanced political engagement. Stanley Hauerwas’ opening paper set a tone for the volume challenging the church to think of itself neither as allied with the state in some form of re-constituted Christendom nor simply a marginalized, privatized community in a secular culture but rather its own polis that exists as a public, material witness to the Lordship of Jesus over and against all other powers. The collection returns to this theme at the end as former Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya, David Gitari, in his account of his own courageous witness confronting Daniel arap Moi, proposes an analogy between politics and fire. He writes,
“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”
In between these “bookends” ten other scholars explored various aspects of this topic. Mark Noll looks at the antebellum use of scripture around the issue of slavery as a warning about our use of scripture in political witness, including an example of a more careful hermeneutic. Scot McKnight explores the idea of the kingdom and comes down against popular fashion in arguing that the presence of the kingdom is most visibly expressed through the church. Timothy Gombis considers the political witness of Paul while George Kalantzis recounts the political engagement of the pre-Constantinian early church with Rome, particularly its refusal to engage in pagan sacrifice and of military service.
The following papers turned to more contemporary issues. Jana Marguerite Bennett suggests that the existence of the church challenges the public/private split and the relegation of family to the private sphere. William T. Cavanaugh explores the Citizens United decision that defines business corporations as persons. His objection to this decision is not the defining of corporations as “person” but the exclusive application of this to business, ignoring the long-standing idea of Christian communities seeing themselves as “bodies” in which individuals exist as part of a larger corporate whole. Peter Leithart turns to the often contested concerns about violence and God’s actions to destroy enemies, which he distinguishes from the unjust and sinful use of force, which he would define as violence.
The next two papers were, for me, the most thought-provoking. Daniel Bell gives us a fresh take on “just war” theory that moves beyond the “public policy checklist” approach to a “Christian discipleship” approach that considers the virtues the church nurtures related to just war criteria. Following this, Jennifer McBride challenges the triumphal and self-righteous approach often taken by churches with a repentance-based approach that acknowledges our own complicity in sin and invites others to join us in turning from it toward God.
The penultimate paper by David P. Gushee observes the absence in evangelicalism of a social teaching tradition similar to that found in Roman Catholicism or mainline Protestantism. He proposes a “social ethics of costly practical solidarity with the oppressed” and works out in brief form how this might apply to ten contemporary issues.
The question of how one engages or does not engage our political and power structures is unavoidable for any thoughtful citizen, believing or not. What ethic will inform that engagement? What ends will one pursue? The papers in this book provided helpful perspectives toward political engagements and structures that foster flourishing societies while resisting church or state tyranny and corruption.