the strange political nature of christianity

America enjoys a unique place in the halls of history concerning the relationship of the church and the state. It rejected a formal relationship between church and state and embraced a pluralism that supposedly allowed persons of different denominations to worship according to their own conscious, or not to worship at all, since many of the founding fathers were deists and not Christians, all the while being a fervently religious country nonetheless and sharing, on the whole, an expectation that religiosity should be the norm for the citizenry.

Of the three major monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—Christianity is alone in assuming at its inception that it is not, and will not become, a geopolitical state. Judaism clearly assumes this. Israel is given the Law and the Land to that end. Islam assumes it should be a geopolitical reality as well, as the Quran gives laws and Islam seems to have assumed a theocratic identity from early on.

But Christianity gave no laws to covenant by. There is a reliance upon the Law of Moses—but not a strict carry-over, more like a re-appropriation of sorts, a sort of “updating.” In fact, that was an early dispute–just how much do Gentile converts need to take on the Jewish Law/Covenant in order to legitimately take on the Law/Covenant of Christ? In Acts 15:1-35, an “abbreviated version” was deemed appropriate. Instead Law, we have Jesus the Christ. We have baptism to initiate us and eucharist (or holy communion) to nourish us. The New Testament seems to say that we are saved into the kingdom of God by Christ and gifted & led by the Holy Spirit to be a community of new creation. 

But this does not seem to include any sort of geopolitical vision. In fact, Christianity from the gospels onward seems to conquer its enemies by converting them into not just friends but family! This is hardly an appoarch deemed effective by any nation-state, ancient or modern. The picture we get of the Christian community is one that assumes it will always be operating on the margins of earthly empires. Perhaps this is because Christianity’s moral teaching mostly assumes that its Good News is best experienced by those the earthly empires are marginalizing. 

Christianity is clearly political; Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of God that would (among other things) rewrite justice and it’s earliest creed seems to have been, “Jesus is Lord.” And as NT Wright and many others have been teaching us lately, anyone who heard that in the first century would have heard an unstated but crystal-clear follow-up clause, “and therefore Caesar is not.” (To get the effect of this, I’ve wondered lately if substituting “and therefore democracy is not” might be helpful. Since we are so distant from having a single ruler derived from either birthright or conquest, and because we seem to think that democracy is Lord, that is, sovereign and life-giving and appropriate to order all of life. We at least think it is the greatest need for humanity, since we are so zealous about spreading it as a sort of “good news” that could usher in “peace, and good will among men.” I’m certainly not saying that democracy or America are bad, and I’m not saying that more democracy wouldn’t be a good thing for the world, only that we seem to think and behave in such a way that substituting the word democracy for Caesar might have the same sort of offending power that the claim “Jesus is Lord” would have had in the first century.)

This is politics, but it is not a geopolitical state like Israel or Islam or Constantine or the Holy Roman Empire or the United States of America. We have geopolitical enemies that we find it impossible to behave lovingly toward as one geopolitical state to another; Christians find it difficult if not impossible to behave lovingly toward their enemies (in particular those who are enemies of their respective state), but Christianity does not find it difficult at all to expect it. Empires know political ideas (that is, ideas that speak to social relationships between identifiable groups) like those Jesus espoused do not work. As Homer Simpson once queried, “What’s that religion with lots of good sounding ideas that don’t work in real life? …oh yeah, Christianity.” 

Most of us are uncomfortable with how much we are functionally Homer Simpsons instead of Christians. This is especially true when it comes to our political ideologies–whether on the right or the left, the claim “Jesus is Lord” is, or ought to be, as disturbing to us as it is absurd to our world. Strictly speaking, we Christians have no Law written on tablets with words directly to “us.” Instead, we have a person, Jesus, to follow and imitate and apprentice ourselves to (to use the imagery of Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard). And we have a Spirit given within to animate and energize our engaging in this apprenticeship so that we have some chance of doing it faithfully and well. 

What about the politics? Whatever else having a person, and not a code, to follow means, it means that (1) our “Christian” political vision has to include the possibility of doing what Jesus does (going to all sorts of people in society we are appalled by or uncomfortable around, holding ambivalent attitudes towards wealth and power, being dogmatically insistent on some things that thereby force us to be radically welcoming and hospitable to unexpected persons, etc). It also means that (2) if our kingdom citizenship is primary, as the NT believes it is, then it will disallow our approval of activities that our earthly national citizenship may insist on our approval for. 

I’m very much on a journey of working all of this out, but there’s something about being claimed by the living Jesus that means being mastered by him… which is something that seems harder for a written code to accomplish, by the way.

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