A Review of Christian Political Witness (Part 2)

A Review of Christian Political Witness (Part 2) May 6, 2014

Christian Political Witness (Part 2)In the last post, I reviewed the first few chapters of Christian Political Witness. The authors lay the solid theological foundation for the essays that follow. They all argue that being biblical necessarily entails being political in a more comprehensive sense than most people think.

What does this look like practically? This is the subject of chapters 5–12 in CPW.

In the coming weeks, I will look at a few of these essays in detail, applying them to the situation in China as it relates to the Chinese church.

Being Political is Practical

Theology is inherently political; this is why it is practical.

George Kalantzis (ch. 5) explores the social (i.e. political) significance of civil disobedience and suffering, especially martyrdom, as evidence by the early church. Jana Bennett (ch. 6) argues that family is far more political than people typically assume. Intriguingly, the sharp distinction between family and public life makes an idol of the individual and compromises the church’s witness. William Cavanaugh’s brilliant analysis in ch. 7 shows how emphasizing economic freedom over political equality subtly creates a class system in contradistinction to the gospel.

Peter Leithart (ch. 8) and Daniel Bell (ch. 9) challenge the reader to rethink what (s)he means by terms like “violence” and “justice.”

According to Leithart, we should distinguish “power” from “violence.” The most common use of force/violence appears where power is absent or is threatened. Thus, violence is not to be identified with power (158–59).

This misunderstanding about power and violence leads people to misunderstand the church’s political nature.

According to Bell, the way one talks about war exposes how far we veer from biblical thinking.

People tend to go through a list of criteria to decide whether a war is “just.” In addition, “just wars” typically concern the defense of national interests. Yet, Bell warns, unjust people cannot fight just wars. Rather than looking for reasons why “we” shouldn’t kill the enemy (traditional “just war” theory), why aren’t Christians more concerned with helping our enemies?

Being Practical is Costly

How does the church distinguish itself from the state? In what sense can Christians say “we” when talking about the actions of their country, e.g. “We went to war” or “We won’t get involved in that conflict.” Who is the “we”?

If “we” is the church, Jennifer McBride (ch. 10) suggests that “we” should repent of the various ways we have been complicit in social problems and apathetic to political injustices. When Christians forget that they fundamentally are citizens of God’s kingdom, not the national-state, then they become arrogant or presumptuous in political matters.

Even when we are not directly to blame for some social injustice, the church should follow the example of Christ, who took responsibility for the world’s sin, despite the fact that Christ was sinless.political issues (Kurtis Garbutt flickr)Finally, David Gushee (ch. 11) and David Gitaritt (ch. 12), each in his own way, provide sober reminders that gospel ministry is costly in more ways that some think. Gushee’s dizzying survey of contemporary social-political debates is sure to offend everyone; for that, we should be thankful. His provocative essay should push readers to consider why they (dis)agree and how they plan to solve the problem.

Gitaritt’s chapter is a testimony that a Christian political witness is not a theoretical issue. It is costly. His struggle against various injustices in Africa illustrates one way that one man has tried to practice what he preaches.

Theology without Politics is Theoretical

Some readers will find these chapters difficult.

At one level, some topics like “just war” and “injustice in Africa” will seem theoretical and far removed from daily life. In addition, others will consistently want to insert a “but . . . ” in the middle of a paragraph to counterbalance a writer’s argument.

At another level, however, these chapters demonstrate afresh that theology should be concrete. If, for example, our theology does not compel people to confront evil in the world and solve problems in society, then we must question whether our theology is Christian. None of the authors ever minimize evangelism; they in fact affirm the necessity of preaching the gospel. However, they recognize a fact often overlooked:

Evangelism is an inherently political action. Why? The gospel . . .

. . . calls people to give ultimate allegiance to King Jesus, not the nation-state.

. . . creates a distinct, holy people who shine as lights in a dark world, exposing its demons and corruption.

. . . proclaims a kingdom that spans the entire world.

. . . transcends ethnicity, culture, gender, economics, and political affiliation.

 I would offer this advice to those who read the book (which I recommend people do). Do not expect the authors to tell you exactly how to apply each point to your context. That is too much to ask of one book.

That is why I will be following up these posts with an entire series that gives a “practical review” of select essays. I will focus on implications for the church in China.

Finally, I hasten to add that the authors consistently make “positive” arguments. They do not simply rail against “the West.” Neither do they campaign for a particular political party.

What else is needed?

Though I have been long on praise for the book, I will note a few potential drawbacks. Admittedly, books cannot do everything.

If I could have added a chapter, I would have liked to see more concentrated attention given to the topic of evangelism specifically. To be clear, the authors certainly affirm the importance of evangelism. However, I would like to see more than simply arguing for a both-and relationship between evangelism and social action (cf. Gitaritt’s chapter). I think readers would find it helpful to see how the authors reconceive or reframe the topic of evangelism.

In my opinion, a few essays lack in clarity to match the profound points they make. For instance, I would like to have seen Bennett and McBride develop their line of thought a bit more so that readers will not miss their valuable contributions. As they are, I had to give considerably more time to understanding their reasoning.

Even so, it was worth the labor.



Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt/flickr

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  • I think the answer I read into people’s answers of the question, ‘Why aren’t Christians more concerned with helping their enemies?’ is that they are more concerned with ‘loving victims’. If a someone is raping another, Christians I’ve encounter rightly emphasis concern for the victim but perhaps wrongly at the expense of loving ‘the enemy’. How do we love the rapist as well as the one being raped?

    • Of course, I could only give a nod at a full answer to your question.
      First, I would affirm that some sort of corrective/disciplinary/penal action would be required as an acts of love for others and them.

      Second, I think we should seek to bring about some sort of corrective counseling/training such that they might have a change of mind and heart. Our hope should certainly be that they see and hate their wrong (though of course we ourselves can’t change hearts).

      A third aspect may belong to the second: address the many layered issues that have led to that sort of deplorable behavior.

      Fourth, assuming such a person could be restored to normal life in society, we should try to equip that person with skills that will benefit society and his or her family. It honors no one to through someone back into society with little hope to bring about good in the world from that point forward.