Saturday, October 29, 2011

Election 2011: 1) Is Christianity Political?

What has Christianity to do with politics? Some Christians see Christianity is apolitical. Some reject Christian engagement in politics. Some imagine that Jesus is about spiritual transformation, not engagement in the messy world of politics. There was a time when I kind of thought this. However, now I see a deeper story.

In Genesis the world was created and humanity given dominion—right from the start, a political idea. They were to fill the world and rule over it (Gen 1:28)—again, political. Of course they were also to care for it as they did as Genesis 2 makes clear—that is, there were limits to political rule, it is not domination and plundering the world—sadly, this is not what has played out. To rule is a political idea.

After the Fall of humanity in Gen 3, as human society formed, it was politically corrupt from the start—even Adam and Eve contended for power in the home. Contention filled God's world with people across its every part contending for power and authority. This is the corruption of world politics. They built cities (in Greek, polis from which politics comes). Kings built empires and dynasties dominating through military force; people like Nimrod in Gen 10, Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar etc. The story of the nations is people vying for power with governments coming and going. The story of the world is empires, nations with their armies and religious systems contending to rule over each other.

Israel was chosen by God from among the nations and he was their king ruling over it. They signed an agreement to this effect, the covenant. Initially they had a political system with them living in tribes with leaders under God as king. This broke down as we read in Judges. Israel cried out for a king like the nations and God allowed them one, warning them through Samuel that they would go the way of the nations with the King taking the good looking young women for his harem, and the young men for his armies. They relied on armies rather than God. God became a pawn in their quests for power. This played out with David establishing peace, the golden age of Solomon, and then division and decline. Israel and its political leaders were like all the nations, corrupted. After the political division of 1 Kings 12, they became swept up in world politics, they were destroyed and exiled by Assyria in the north and Babylon in the south and came under foreign political rule.

The Persians then smashed the Babylonians and Judah returned home, and rebuilt the nation. This time they had no king. For 300 years or so they were under Persian and then Greek rule. In the Maccabean period, they broke free for a period, and were ruled by the leaders of the rebellion. However, then the Romans came and conquered the world. By the time of Jesus, Rome ruled with force and by giving a certain autonomy to the nations. In Israel a puppet King Herod had some sway on behalf of Rome, as did priests (Sanhedrin) and Pharisees. The dream of a different world grew, with a leader of Israel (Messiah, Christ, anointed one) who would come and establish God's reign. There were different conceptions of this figure, some very political, some more spiritual.

Jesus entered into this world declaring, "the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the Good news." To cry out "the Kingdom of God is near" is very political. It declares that God has entered time to assume control. Jesus was misunderstood by his followers in this regard, they expecting him to assume military and political control, first over the nation, and then leading them to political dominance of the world. Jesus' teaching and approach however was political, but in an utterly different sense to what was expected. He taught of and demonstrated an approach to politics that revolved around subversion and service. His people would certainly be involved at every level of life, but would not resort to corrupt approaches to gain political power—deceit, manipulation, corruption, bribery, force, violence, etc. His approach did not require people to try and take over Israel or Rome, they would work within the systems of the world inviting people into this kingdom, and transforming by the Kingdoms values which revolved around love, compassion, justice and service.

The vision of Jesus and God is then a new world political system under Christ's reign planted in the world and infiltrating it over time. In this vision, subjects of God the King go to serve the world, giving leadership not with political force as we see it in the political mess of many parts of our world, but through engaging in every part of God's work in Christ's way—service, humility, persuasion, goodness, justice, grace, mercy, compassion, resistance of evil and so on. As we look over the last 2000 years we can see the infiltration of this political dream across many parts of God's world. While there are many nations which look like the world of colliding empires Jesus entered where despots and dynasties justified by religious constructs, we also see many nations which have been influenced by the Kingdom of God with safeguards against the rise of such systems. Not that Christians are immune from political corruption—the period of Christendom saw God's political way terribly corrupted as the "Christian" faith become a justification for political force and violence. Some Christians today still cannot shed this kind of theocratic imperialism—it is flawed! Yet, in many parts of the world we see the influence of both Greek democratic ideas and Judeo-Christian egalitarianism and values. No system is perfect, but the Kingdom of God has helped in many instances shape a better world.

Paul has this sort of vision for the world. He called the Kingdom a politeuma (from the Greek polis), with its centre in heaven, from where Jesus came to establish God's commonwealth, and from where he will return (Phil 3:20). Christians are to live as citizens (politeuomai) of heaven on earth in the context of the nations e.g. Rome, the US, or NZ (Phil 1:27). They are to engage with the world for its transformation. This will involve politics, engaging with the structures of the world from politics of a family, the smallest club (e.g. a rugby club), to the governments of the world. As they engage in God's way led by God's Spirit, God transforms. They are to be involved, not only trying to win people to God, but to be 'political' in a transformative sense by the Spirit. There are clearly limits on the use of power in this engagement—no deceit, corruption, bribery, violent force, and domination from these Christians at a personal level. But this does not mean we can't be actively engaged. It means we have to work with people who are not believers and do not have the restraint of the gospel and that will be difficult at times. It will lead to persecution, suffering and marginalisation at times. It will also lead to transformation at others.

The thing is that Christianity is about the restoration of Gen 1:28. Christians are co-heirs with Christ. We are being transformed into his image. We are going to rule the world to come. Some Christians imagine we sit back and wait for Jesus to return before getting into this. However, this is not the mission. We are to be transformed, and then engage for the transformation of the world. We are to take our position as God's image bearers 'ruling' over his world, but with the ethics of the gospel—this was the original plan of God anyway. We are to function out of service, love, justice, mercy and so on.

So, Christianity in a sense is apolitical—we reject the corrupt politics of the world. At another level it is very very political! There is no dualism as if we are about spiritual things, and the world political. Where two or three are gathered in the world, there is politics. We are not to shirk this but engage. We are to be involved given opportunity by God according to our own call. Some will become 'politicians' within the structures. Others will give leadership to God's people, a kind of commonwealth on earth, the 'politics' of the church. Most will be in the hurly burly of life, being 'political' at their level, leading, working with others, serving, taking their part in the glorious story of 'Ho Theos who made a world.'

So, as we come to the election, let's not be naive as if Christianity is apolitical—it is not, it about a King, a Kingdom, and subjects of the King working in his world with the people of the world for its transformation. The key thing is that we do it God's way at every level.


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