An Anabaptist, a Presbyterian, and an Anglican walk into a bar…
Okay, wait, let’s start over. Every year, Wheaton College hosts a theology conference. This year, it was on Pentecostalism and the Holy Spirit, and in 2015 it will be on “The Image of God in an Image Driven Age.”
As I noted last year, while armchair theologians like me might not be able to justify making the evangelical hajj to Wheaton for the annual event, InterVarsity Press does its part to loop us in by publishing a compilation volume each year comprised of essays that began as presentations at the conference.
The most recent volume is Christian Political Witness, drawn from the 2013 conference. While packed with heavy-hitters, this compilation is remarkably accessible and engaging, even for the laymen and -women among us. And while the contributors span the theological—and yes, political—spectrum, I found that the project nonetheless hangs together fairly cohesively.
Presumably in keeping with the conference, the book is framed by a litany of big questions:
What might a distinctively Christian witness mean in an increasingly polarized climate where the immensity of the challenges governments face seems matched only by the partisanship of the political system? What is the proper Christian response to unending wars, burgeoning debt, disregard for civil liberties, attacks on the sanctity of life, and economic injustice, not to mention ongoing challenges to traditional understandings of sexuality and marriage? Are Christians anything more than an interest group, open to manipulation by those who most enticingly promise to preserve a certain way of life? And how will Christians respond to their increasingly marginalized status in the West, where Christendom is at least on the wane, if not, as some have suggested, proceeding to its slow and final death?
Depending on where you sit within evangelicalism, or within Christendom, for that matter, you’ll answer those questions differently—or at least your answers will reveal different nuances. But hearing how different sorts of folks grapple with these big, important questions while drawing upon the resources of their respective traditions can be a remarkably fruitful exercise. There are four essays that stood out to me in particular.
Church as Polis
Stanley Hauerwas, for his part, reiterates the Anabaptist vision of the church as polis that he and William Willimon laid out a quarter of a century ago in Resident Aliens. He writes, “Christians no longer believe that the church is an alternative politics of the world, which means they have lost any way to account for why Christians in the past thought they had a faith worth dying for.” He goes on to assert, in a feisty, quintessentially Hauerwasian way, that the confession “Jesus is Lord” isn’t simply a personal opinion. On the contrary, he says, “I take it to be a determinative political claim.”
Biblicism and Ethics
Meanwhile, the religious historian Mark Noll offers a measured analysis of biblicism as it pertains to Christian ethics and political witness. Here he covers a lot of the same ground he did in another book, which earlier this year prompted some reflections from me on the public consequences of haphazard theologies. “Biblical rhetoric can strengthen political speech, but there are great dangers in using such rhetoric,” he writes. “Reliance on Scripture is imperative, but naive biblicism is dangerous.” The Bible best serves “the healing of nations,” he continues, when believers see to it that its message is “appropriated contextually, culturally and theologically.”
I rightly expected the Anabaptists in these pages to make an unwavering case for nonviolence; I was surprised to find that the strongest such argument came from Peter Leithart, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). “One does not have to be a pacifist,” he writes, “to be alarmed at how much of our university research, our intellectual energy, our economic inventiveness and productivity, and our enormous material resources are devoted to keeping us on a war footing. If this is not the modern equivalent of ‘multiplying horses and chariots,’ I cannot imagine what is.”
Daring To Ask “Why?”
The book concludes with a winsome, pastoral letter from the late David Gitari, who was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Gitari emphasizes the key distinction between social work and social transformation—a distinction that essentially boils down to the willingness to ask why. “Those in authority welcome our humanitarian activities,” he writes, “but they do not like to hear the question ‘why,’ because that is a political question. So sometimes we need to go beyond social activities to transformation of societies to find where the root cause of the problem is—and this is taking political action. We cannot avoid social-political action when there is something that must be done.”
Those are just quick snippets from four of the book’s dozen essays, but they’re enough, I hope, to intrigue you. There’s a lot of chaos in this world, and speaking personally, it’s tough to know how to navigate the ethical and political quandaries I encounter. That’s why I’m grateful for these scholars and their careful, prayerful thoughts on the relationship between faith and ethics, between mission and politics, between church and state.
“Christians must remind themselves that the primary locus of Christian political activity is the church,” write the editors. “The shape of our corporate life should therefore reflect above all else fidelity to [Christ], and not just identity politics or pragmatic concerns.”
Header photo by Sergei Grits/AP via Huffington Post