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On faith and politics in Post-Christendom…

February 15, 2009

A movement that proclaimed grace and practiced justice, a faith that had at its center a crucified man as the hope of human and cosmic transformation, could not have been converted to a religious civilization like any other without serious damage to its very essence.

-Vinoth Ramachandra, Gods that Fail:  Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission

Perhaps the best way for me to engage with Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom, is to offer an excerpt from a recent email exchange between myselfpost-christendom1 and another Christian.  The email exchange began when I was invited to a discussion on Obama and abortion.  My conversation partner could not understand how Christians could not see the inconsistency between supporting Obama (given his stance on abortion) and their Christian faith.  As the conversation has developed, it has become evident that we bring significantly different assumptions regarding what it means to be a Christian and how that commitment informs our politics.

First, here are some of the ways Murray summarizes the  Christendom-shift which emerges in the 4th century with the decision of Constantine to make Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire.  (This shift provides the dominant view for the social order until it is challenged by “believers church” movements during the Protestant Reformation):

  • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of city, state or Empire (Constantine, Theodosius, Augustine)
  • Movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society.
  • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christian by birth.
  • The development of a ‘sacral society’, corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and political power was divinely authenticated.
  • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (though normally Old Testament morality was applied).
  • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
  • The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism.
  • Two-tier ethics, with higher standards of discipleship expected of clergy and those in religious orders.
  • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations
  • Division of the globe into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’ and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
  • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
  • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.

“The foundation of Christendom was a theocratic understanding of society and a close partnership between church and state, the two main pillars of society.”  (Murray 84)

So here than is the third of three emails engaged in a discussion on how a Christian could possibly support Obama given his political stance on abortion…

politics-of-jesus-button1It seems to me that we have come to an important point in our discussion about abortion.  It has to do with how we understand the Kingdom of God.  It has to do with  whether or not we see the life and teachings of Jesus as normative for our behavior in this world.  It has to do with how we see the Kingdom of Jesus coming on earth as it is in heaven.  It has to do with how the cross is understood as we engage the powers of sin and death (i.e.  Is the cross just the way Jesus disarms the powers, but we are permitted/justified in bringing about his Kingdom through coercive power, not through crosses of our own?).

Christendom appropriates the symbol of the cross in a way that dramatically departs from the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.

No longer a sign of self-sacrifice and love, it was now a rallying point for armies shedding the blood of others, albeit in the name of the one who shed his own blood on the original cross.  No longer a private spiritual defensive gesture, the cross was now a public military offensive symbol.  ‘Taking up the cross’ now implied readiness not to die but to kill.

This was a massive, and largely uncontested, symbolic change that emptied the cross of its challenge, transformed it from a sign of shame and weakness into an insignia of honour, wealth and coercive power, and made possible the blessing of weapons in the name of Christ and the waging of war on behalf of the Christian Empire. (Murray 92, 94)

Your way of framing sin (on a spectrum from having less consequences to more consequeces) makes sense from a rationale standpoint.  I question, however, whether reason is the primary lens through which we read and interpret God (theology).  Does God understand/measure sin and its consequences using the metrics of human reason?  How do we know God’s perspective on sin and how has God acted to defeat the power of sin in the human condition?  I would say that the starting point for answering those questions should not be reason.  From beginning to end Christian faith defies the categories of reason.  The Christian “worldview” is not based on reason.  I’m not saying reason doesn’t have it’s place–I just don’t think it is the primary grid through which we make sense of God, the Gospel, and our calling as Christians.  Creation, Incarnation, the cross, resurrection, the call of discipleship all require us to step beyond reason to embrace mystery, grace and love as alternative premises for understanding and interpreting God.  I submit this as background for the discussion on how our faith in Christ informs our politics.

Your previous email made a case for government involvement in restraining “sin” at a certain breaking point where “sin” has direct consequences in the social order.  I don’t disagree with the notion that government should establish a legal framework that restrains certain behaviors that negatively impact the social order/the common good.  However, your position seems to presume that our witness and worldview must be given expression/validated through civil government (a Christendom assumption).  I do not share this view.  I do not believe government is the primary instrument through which God brings about the healing and transformation of society.  At a minimum, I would invite you to consider that a vote for Obama is not necessarily inconsistent with a radical commitment to Jesus Christ and the kingdom he calls us to seek.  I will attempt to present how this perspective is not inconsistent with scripture.  In order to consider that assertion, however, we must be willing to examine the political vision (physical/spiritual implications) of Jesus’ kingdom.  We must also consider how our allegiance to Jesus shapes our engagement with this world from an alternative locus of identity–the Church understood as believers who are seeking to follow the way of Jesus.

When we attend fully to Jesus (his words and actions) we see that Jesus is inherently subversive of the powers of the age that seek to provide security, prosperity and freedom (morality) from a different ideological foundation (i.e. Christendom ideology, rationalistic humanism).  The Gospel of the Kingdom is subversive through and through because it requires a cross.  It was so for Jesus.  It is so for all who seek to follow Jesus (see below).  We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot claim to follow the one who rejects power over as the way to usher in his kingdom and bring about the transformation of society through civil authority.  This was, in fact, one of the temptations in the wilderness.  Satan promised to give him all the kingdoms of this world if he would bow and worship him.  This is the temptation of Empire–to think that we can (and should) bring about God’s kingdom through mechanisms of power.  This is the Christendom model (Constantine through America–late 20th century).

Among the innovations of Christendom were:

  • Introducing the principle of arbitrary predestination that consigned most of humanity to eternal punishment.
  • Theological justification of oppression and coercion of religious opponents.
  • Receiving as converts those who yielded to force or bribery rather than persuasion.
  • The first clear statement of the principle that ‘error has no rights’ upon which Christians have based the imposition of ‘truth.’

(Murray 76)

Jesus rejects this approach to bringing about his kingdom and the transformation of society.  His kingdom does not come through a sword, tank or legislation.  It comes through a cross.  It comes from a position of weakness.  It comes from taking the sin of others upon ourselves as we continue the ministry of Christ which is one of kenosis–sacrificial love (your attitude should be the same as that of Christ who took the form of a servant).  It does not mean we will not speak truth to power, but our witness will not be isolated to particular issues (slavery, abortion, the death penalty, war, environment, tax cuts…)–because the scope of what Jesus is about in his kingdom is much larger.

This has direct implications for how we engage in politics.  First of all, it should at least make space for all Christians to acknowledge that God is neither Democrat nor Republican.  The Kingdom of God was not on the ballot this last November.  Secondly, we cannot compartmentalize which issues require us to take up our cross and which ones do not.  Dealing with the root causes of sin in individual lives and society requires a language and modus operendi that the government doesn’t have.  It is the language of faith–of discipleship.  It  is the language of the church.  This is our first language as Kingdom citizens.  We will use language and means that are alien to the ways of thinking of this world (Jesus calls us to love our enemies–I have yet to see a nation-state who seeks to express God’s love in this way).  Our primary identity and witness come from our baptism into a community (the body of Christ) which speaks from a different framework and with different assumptions.

This framework and assumptions cannot be imposed in a free democratic society which claims separation of church and state and makes room for pluralism.  We cannot presume that politicians (or the nation-state) have been baptized into Christ, which is a prerequisite for embracing a Gospel orientation to transforming society and engaging the powers.  Despite this impossibility, we have imagined the possibility of a de facto civil religion which bears a resemblance to Christianity, but does not in fact proclaim Jesus as Lord.  The civil religion expressed in the American context has often claimed a certain moral and ethical framework which emerges out of scripture, but rejected the more radical aspects of the gospel Jesus proclaims and enacts.  This has produced a false sense of the U.S. as a Christian nation.  This is a myth.  The Gospel is an all or nothing proposition (count the cost).  We cannot presume to embrace some of the requisites of Jesus’ message, while rejecting others.  This inherently denies that the Lordship of Jesus means something for our life in this world.  His teachings are just not practical for the “real world.”

It was not that Reformers lacked a sense of mission, but they understood mission in the Christendom sense of imposing beliefs, legislating morality, controlling culture, monitoring behavior, enforcing church attendance, encouraging loyalty to the state and pursuing dissenters.  Mission was top-down and essentially coercive.  (Murray 159)

So how shall we seek the shalom of the city in which we live?  How shall we witness to the civil order?  Again, it has to do with how we see the mission of the church and the role of government in regards to sin.  We see that sin is organically connected to all layers of bodily life in this world.  Sin is not just a spiritual reality, it is expressed in the material realm of life.  This is important, if we are going to catch the scope of how Jesus seeks to transform the sinful situation of the world.  The sinful condition of humanity is an organic whole.  The gospel of the Kingdom is good news to the sinful broken realities of this world.  The politics of that kingdom is nothing short of the redemption and restoration of all things in Christ Jesus.  This is an integrated (physical/spiritual…personal/communal) view of sin, salvation, and the kingdom of God.

Sadly, we see much that is fruit of a gnostic gospel in Western Christianity–the separation of spirit and matter.  We see the rupture of the whole gospel into either the social gospel or a spiritual one.  This dualism is a misreading of the gospels.  One expression of this is to spiritualize Jesus and make his life and the gospel of the kingdom primarily about the spiritual realm.  The spiritualized version of Jesus has little to say about how the life and teachings of Jesus is normative for the life of his followers in this world.  The gospel of the kingdom which Jesus proclaims and embodies is comprehensive/integrated (spirit and matter).  It is Good News which stakes out the redemption and reconciliation of all things (for God so loved the cosmos).  Your Kingdom come, your will be done today (as it is in heaven), not just in the future.  In both the spiritual and physical dimensions of the world (these are not two separate realms!)  In the West (particularly in evangelical Christianity), we have reduced the scope of that message to private salvation for individuals.  This is not surprising giving the bias of individualism that arises in the West post-Enlightenment.  Thus, salvation, is understood as an enterprise almost exclusively focused on getting individuals saved.  Any social dimension of God’s kingdom is construed as of secondary importance.  This is a gross distortion of the gospel as we see it embodied and proclaimed in Jesus Christ.

So how might we begin from a different starting point than rational foundationalism?  I submit to you for consideration that we must center our conversation around the life and teachings of Christ, because if that isn’t the norm, than I’m not sure we are talking about the same Gospel.  As we look at Jesus Christ, we should ask ourselves what was the significance of his life and his message for our discussion about politics.  That is, what kind of a kingdom was Jesus proclaiming and ushering in?  What are the politics of Jesus?  We cannot address these questions fully here, but let me sketch in a few crucial points:

What conclusions can we draw from how God enters the human order, and engages the political powers…?

1.  Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55)/the birth of Jesus…

What is the significance of how God enters the human order?  (a virgin, peasant stock, stable birth, shepherd visitors, “outsiders” from the East)
Why does Herod call for the slaughter of innocents if the birth of Jesus had no implications for the political order?

2.  Jesus rejects earthly authority as the path to transforming the social order (Luke 4:5-6)

He did not seek to transform the Roman Empire to more effectively insure that the laws (powers) were aligned with his Kingdom!
If Jesus does not engage the political realm in that way, why do we imagine that we are called to that strategy today?

3.  Jesus’ inaugural sermon (Luke 4:18-21)  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor…”

What are the politics of this “Good News to the poor” message?

4.  Sermon on the Mount–the most extensive corpus of the words of Jesus in the gospels (Matthew 5-7)

“May your Kingdom come soon.  May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in heaven.”

If this is how we are to pray, should we not make the connection that the teachings in this sermon are a mandate for those who desire to see the Kingdom of God come on earth?

5.  The supremacy of Christ (over earthly kingdoms) and the role of the Church (Matt 16:13-20; Colossians 1:15-29) as understood through the Cross

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ (Matt 16:13)
This text is significant as we seek to understand how Jesus envisioned his Kingdom coming in relation to the political powers.  Caesarea Philippi is a seat of power within the Roman Empire.  Gates of Hades significant political meaning.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Matt 16:24)
“Christ is the head of the church, which is his body.”  (the church then becomes the primary agent through which Christ brings transformation) “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am completing what remains of Christ’s sufferings for his body, the church.”  (v. 24)
How does a theology of the cross inform our politics and the way we witness to Christ in a world where “might makes right.”
4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2009 8:49 am

    I still like to think about how to get the anti-abortion movement thinking and engaging. I understand the Christendom model problem as seen in Murrey’s writing but what is the action to support. In pluralism I sense a desire to hear direction in areas like abortion. Many still see it as horific. Can we re-adress the energy to something else that is bottom-up? In other words, the abortion issue is a great case study. (side-note: Abortions increased each year from 2001-2007)

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    February 16, 2009 9:22 am

    Your question is essentially what I tried to address in my second email (that was part of the exchange). Here is what I said:

    So far it seems that we have established that we both agree that abortion is a heinous violation of human life–sin. Most of your response seems to make a case for something that I am not disagreeing with. I think some points on which we might focus our discussion might be these:

    1. What are all the sin issues (personal AND structural) that contribute to actual abortions?
    2. What areas of brokenness in our world contribute to circumstances in which young women choose to have an abortion?
    3. What other factors impact the statistics on abortion? For example, why might it be that a disproportionate percentage of the abortions that happen in this country take place in the African-American community? Are African-American women just individually more prone to sinful behavior than other populations? Or, are there historical-social factors that play into this data? How might these social factors represent things that Jesus wants to address, heal and transform? What might the politics that contribute to this kind of transformation look like? Is it possible that such transformation and healing goes deeper than legislation (i.e. reversing Roe v. Wade)?

    You say:

    “I am persuaded that there is no greater violation of these Kingdom principles than legal abortion (legal willful murder of the defenseless).”

    I would observe that this involves a value judgment on your part. If abortion is indeed the greatest violation of Kingdom principles–What other “agenda” in the message that Jesus proclaims and embodies concerning the kingdom of God are you judging to have lesser importance than abortion? I would be open to hearing how you make that value judgment given the whole of scriptures–paying special attention to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. I am persuaded based on a reading of the gospels that Jesus is also concerned about other issues which equally represent the fallen, sinful realities of our world. Realities that directly contribute to the situations in which young women decide to have abortions.

    No young woman is an island. Abortions don’t happen in a social vacuum. She comes to this point because of many other mediating factors. I am not saying individuals (woman) have no responsibility for what happens to their bodies (getting pregnant…having an abortion), but I am asking us to name the fact that woman’s lives are shaped by many environmental factors–social realities which also reflect the brokenness of sin. Sin is not just represented in the (personal) decision to have an abortion, there are many structural sins that contribute to this choice.

    Lest you think I am representing a pro-choice position, let me be clear on how my stance could be viewed as a possible third-way alternative to the polemical way many in the Christian community have framed this issue. I believe the church fails to model an alternative vision of life when it becomes politicized by adopting the power tactics of any other lobby (i.e. you are either pro-life or pro-choice narrowly understood). The cross of Christ, who renounced traditional forms of political power by making himself vulnerable, models such a way. I am not suggesting that the church withdraw form politics. But what would happen if the church were to model an alternative nonviolent politics of solidarity with the weak and the marginalized that still respects the dignity and the humanity of those in positions of power who violate the weak?

    How would such a model look if, in responding to the issue of abortion, the church were motivated less by the abstraction “right to life” and more by its identification with the unborn as well as with the often isolated and vulnerable women who seek abortions? How can the church minister and serve out of a deep compassion for the vulnerability and plight of prospective mothers who cannot see how to care for a child, whether because of poverty, physical danger to their lives, pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or feeling abandoned and alone with no one to care for and nurture a child?

    Such a church would be an alternative to secularized individualism, which reduces life to the slogan “freedom to choose” anything and everything within the limits of the law. The church must find an alternative to relativism and an ethic of tolerance based on an appeal to individual freedom. Such an ethic lacks a transcendent frame of reference to guide us in what we should choose, an ethic grounded in a vision of the good beyond ourselves. An ethic of self-interest, in which individual well-being is the ultimate value, undermines communities that nurture cooperation and the larger corporate goods and values.

    Perhaps that is enough to keep the conversation going. I hope we can engage with the points of difference in our perspectives rather than just talking past each other. I think the primary difference in what is shaping our views and how we bring our Christian witness to politics is not whether abortion is sin or not. We agree on this. We do, I believe, have a profoundly different understanding of how sin impacts the human condition and what it will take to bring redemption, healing and transformation. No need to continue to establish how graphically wrong abortion is. I think we can agree that sin in all its expressions leads to death. I would rather examine how sin impacts the human condition. I think it would be helpful to ground this conversation around the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

  3. February 19, 2009 10:04 pm

    Great post, Brian. I agree with your description of Western Christianity’s gospel-“gnostic” is not too strong of a word for it. It amazes me to consider how this happened, being that gnosticism was opposed, yet it still found it’s way deep into the Western expression of Christianity (especially the “evangelical” branch). It was essentially Greek philosophy affecting theology. Was it a case of culture being the stronger influence? A few years ago my eyes were opened to this sort of thing through study of the Lord’s Prayer and a deeper exploration of Jesus’ Jewish context. Perhaps some conversations on the idea of “incarnation” would be helpful in recovering what gospel is all about?

  4. February 21, 2009 9:17 pm


    I read through your most recent posts on your blog. I tried to leave comments, but I guess only WordPress bloggers can comment? Anyway, I appreciated your reflections and summaries of your readings. Sound like a really interesting class!!!

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