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Both religion and politics are concerned with how we should organize societies. Yet the tendency for Christians has often been to begin with the politics and work backwards to find religious rationale for our political beliefs. As a result, most people read the Bible not to challenge our deeply held beliefs, but to affirm the decisions we’ve already made with our lives.
If you tend toward the political right you might say the chief political concern of the Scriptures has as much to do with smaller government, lower taxes, individual freedoms and gun rights as any explicit Christian concept. If you tend toward the political left you might believe the chief political concern of the Scriptures has more to do with reproductive rights, religious pluralism, big government and labor unions. Too often the ideologies of the secular right or the political left have been allowed set the terms for religious Christians. Secular political ideologies on both sides of the spectrum have provided the primary vision for American Christian political involvement, while the chief political concerns of the Scripture have been muted, distorted and curbed to fit the designs of those in power.
What if we were to reverse the flow? What if we would begin with the Scriptures and work our way forward to the politics? What does the Bible tell us about how we are supposed to organize our common life together so that we can actually bear the image of God to all creation?
I put this question to some of the world’s foremost theological minds. The following respondents are all heavyweights who live and work at the top of their fields in biblical studies, theology and Christian ethics. Perhaps their words will help us all to begin our political discourse with these sorts of ideas as our first assumptions.
I asked each expert to respond briefly to one question: “What is the chief political concern of the Bible?”
N.T. Wright, New Testament Scholar at University of St. Andrews
“The chief political concern of the Scriptures is for God’s wise and loving ordering of his world to be operative through humans who will share his priorities, especially his concern for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. This concern was embodied by Jesus in his inauguration of ‘God’s kingdom’ through his public career and especially his self-giving death, which together set the pattern for a radically redefined notion of power.”
William Cavanaugh, Theologian specializing in Political theology at DePaul
“Jesus’ chief political concern was clearly for more tax cuts for the rich. ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ is an obvious reference to cutting or eliminating capital gains taxes. This is the only way of explaining why hedge fund managers were so close to his heart.”
John Milbank, Theologian specializing in Politics and ethics at the University of Nottingham
“It is identical with the main concern of the Scriptures as such: the restoration of the glory of God through the repair and fulfillment, and so harmonization of the cosmos, including, centrally, the human order.”
Stanley Hauerwas, Theologian and ethicist at Duke Divinity School
“The chief political concern of the Bible is to worship God truly.”
Brent Strawn, Old Testament Scholar, Candler School of Theology at Emory University
“The chief political concern of the Bible is the restoration of God’s shalom
on the entire world: human and nonhuman, animate or inanimate. That encompasses all aspects of the human polis and thus politics but also the entirety of creation so that nothing is left outside this primal ‘political’ concern.”
Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Scholar, Columbia Theological Seminary
“I believe that the central political question is the management of public power in order that there should be an economically viable life for all members of the community. Thus justice is front and center and some texts, especially in Deuteronomy, are for the distribution of wealth in order that all may be viable. Obviously such justice is marked by mercy, compassion and generosity. The purpose is to create a genuine neighborhood for all the neighbors.”
James K.A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy and Congregational ministry, Calvin College
“Shalom — the well-ordered flourishing that God desires for all of creation, and that brings God glory.”
Ellen T. Charry, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary
“I am persuaded that the chief political concern of the Older Testament is the cultivation of healthy societies, that is communities that adhere to divine guidance. The chief political concern of the Younger Testament is the revisioning of community in order better to meet the goal of stated above.”
Miroslav Volf, Systematic Theology, Yale Divinity School
“The vision of the city of God is the goal. We work for it not by forcing it down from heaven to earth, but by treading in the footsteps of the crucified and resurrected Christ.”
Brian McLaren, Author and theologian
“God’s solidarity with the poor, oppressed, outcast and forgotten.”
Sarah Coakley, Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University
“The reign of God is of much more consistent concern than justice (pace Wolterstorff). This is of course construing ‘political’ broadly.”