Category: Political Theology

calendar October 29, 2010

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SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #5: Oliver O'Donovan

“Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands . . . . What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.”

“We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.”

Oliver O’Donovan is Professor of Chrisitan Ethics and Practical Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh.  He taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Wyclife College, Toronto; and at Oxford University from 1982-2006, serving as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Canon of Christ Church.

He has held a host of distinguished visiting positions at institutions including Cambridge, Durham, Fuller Seminary, Gregorian University in Rome, McMaster University, and the University of Hong Kong.

He and his wife (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan) wrote two books on the history of Christian political thought, and his Resurrection and Moral Order: an Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1985) and The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1999) are widely regarded as very important texts on their respective topics.

1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

OO’D: I cannot claim to have made a personal contribution to the discussion of this question, but to have tried to recall the contributions which were made in Christian tradition and suggested that they may shed some light on our situation. On the distinction between the individual Christian and the Church I make some remarks below, which I shall not anticipate. So what about the State? The important thing to grasp is that this is a modern construct, and not a wholly clear one at that, since there are conflicting concepts of the State in the English-speaking political tradition and that common to continental Europe. What Christian Scripture and tradition has taught about is the significance of the activity of government, a human function serving a human need, which has taken many historical forms of which our modern State structures are only one, and which assures an order of civility and neighbourhood. They have spoken of the preparatory character of this function in history, its significance as a foreshadowing of the ordered and ruled community of redeemed mankind under God and his Christ. They have spoken of its provisional character, preserving society from violence and self-destruction until the ultimate questions of worship and obedience to God have been brought to the point of decision. And they have spoken of its potentially idolatrous character as a focus of human pride and rebellion. It is important to see that this idolatrous pretention is not a monopoly of the immediate agents of government, “the State” as we describe them; it is a temptation which pervades the whole sphere of politically ordered society.

2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?

OO’D: Which individual believers? Those with a vocation to take part actively in political organisations, to run for office, and so on? Certainly, the Church as a whole has no corporate responsibility for the way they fulfil their vocations, any more than it does for the way its teachers teach or its surgeons make incisions. This does not mean that the Church has no interest in its members’ vocations, especially where moral issues arise within them. It undertakes to uphold its members in their vocations with pastoral support, and to give such moral counsel as may be relevant to their tasks; yet the vocation is theirs, not the Church’s. But it is not responsible directly for the way this vocation is fulfilled. But I am wary of a suggestion (if it is intended) that all believers, as individuals, have political responsibilities which the Church as such cannot share. There is voting, of course, which the constitutional arrangements of a democratic polity assign uniquely to individuals and not to corporations – though a polity is perfectly imaginable in which political office-holders would be selected by corporations, including the church, so that this distinction is not a matter of theological principle. The Church may have political opinions, and discuss them, as individuals may; and the Church is bound to obey the law – where it is lawful law – as individuals are. The Church is Christians approaching and fulfilling their tasks together in common worship and mutual help; Christians are the Body of Christ distributed in its members’ lives. Any further distinction than that would savour, I think, of an institutional definition of the Church that is too closed off against the catholic life of the Body of Christ and perhaps too clerical. It may be indicative that the theologians mentioned here are both from the Reformed tradition; my response is, perhaps, a characteristically Anglican one.

3. Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

OO’D: Serious thinkers can very rarely be dismissed in toto, for even when misguided they have something worthwhile to teach us, while superficial thinkers are not worth drawing attention to. So I excuse myself the task of adducing a negative example! On positive influences I could go on a long time. I had my first introduction to Christian political thought through the teaching of the American ethicist Paul Ramsey, whose work on the morality of war remains for me a landmark. From him I found my way back to the thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which was a high period of Christian political thought, and among these I treasure especially the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius. A millennium earlier, Augustine, of course, on this as on so much else, posed the questions in ways that the Western tradition has sometimes forgotten but never been able to escape. My wife and I spent five years collecting Christian texts on politics from the beginning to the middle of the seventeenth century, and published them in a book called From Irenaeus to Grotius. Our interest was not antiquarian. Their authors, we believed, could refresh contemporary Christian political service.

I am also reluctant to name a political concept which I respond positively or negatively. It is too easy to reduce the concept to the word, and putting buzz-words and boo-words into common currency is not something any thinker can contemplate with satisfaction. The essence of the concept always lies in the reasoning that it generates. I have written a great deal, however, about “judgment”, and engaged in some controversy as to whether the Christian content of this notion is adequately captured and expressed in contemporary language about “rights”.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

OO’D: The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary. To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult. It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others. It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind. It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide. I should mention, perhaps, that the medieval political theologian, John Wyclif, stated at the beginning of his massive work “On Lordship” that any discussion of political relations must begin from 1 Corinthians 13, where everything essential was to be found.

The “average American in the pew” seems not uncommonly to be told (or so it appears to us as we listen in across the Atlantic Ocean) that she or he has much larger political responsibilities than this: to make the Gospel heard in public life, to bring in the Kingdom of God and to make a better world, and so on. Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political. Some are political, but not tasks of the Church so much as promises of the work of the Spirit of God, for which we must pray and wait – while fulfilling our mission and doing the work that comes to our hand – humbly and without pompous pretensions. We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.

There is, of course, such a thing as a specific vocation to serve in politics. But the question did not ask about. Indeed, none of the questions have asked about that. And that, perhaps, is one of the things that most strike the European onlooker about the way American Christians think about politics: the “professional” politician, though always present in the background, is never a topic of discussion. Is there, we sometimes wonder, a condition of general denial in the USA about the professionalisation of modern politics?

5. How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

OO’D: I am always struck by the spareness and sharpness of focus of the description of “the authority” in Romans 13, in which the role of government is made to focus wholly upon judgment. Nothing is said about political identity, nothing about territory and nothing about political community, great and dominant themes in ancient political discourse as well as in our own. Even the concept of power is only indirectly present behind the notion of authority. There are plenty of commentators, of course, who are quick to pull aside the veil of Paul’s reticence and supply what they suppose he must have meant to say, or suggest, about all these topics. But I tend not to get round to them! I am too fascinated by the words themselves, and by what they say and do not say. So the first limit I detect in Romans 13 is not a limit on the church and/or the individual believer, but a limit on the authority itself, which is better conceived as a focus that defines its task.

And the limit that that imposes on the rest of us – not only the church and the Christian but all members of society, is to be “subject” (yes, notice Paul’s term! Americans, I find, are prone to be distressed by it!) to the operations of this ordered and lawful maintenance of justice, and to maintain it cheerfully with our taxes. Order is no kind of slavery. It is a way of being free, but one which requires us to adapt ourselves consciously to it.

Within a Western Christian tradition this subjection has become largely depersonalised and a matter of obeying laws. There are enormous benefits in that, the chief of which is that the reasons for laws can be understood, and obedience can be intelligent and thoughtful, not unthinking and slavish. But there are also problems, not least with what has become of the institution of law in later modernity, the ease with which laws are made and unmade, challenged and set aside. I expect Christians who have meditated on the implications of Romans 13 to be supportive of the rule of law, but also to understand the difference between deep lawfulness and shallow legality. Subjection to the law must be subjection to the purpose and the intention of law, and conscientious refusal, should that unhappy case ever arise, must be because it is the only way left to us of offering that critical support which the principle of law demands of us.

6. How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

OO’D: Kierkegaard famously argued that St. Paul did not have authority in the church because he was the most profound or original thinker – or, he added, the best upholsterer of tents! – but because he was Christ’s apostle. Deuteronomy and Proverbs, similarly, demand our attention not because they are highly original and distinctive in their Near-Eastern context, but because they are the voice of ancient Israel, the elect people through whom the Holy Spirit spoke to the world.

Let me concentrate on Deuteronomy. This book, too, is law – and to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through it, we must understand what law is, how it is made, how it relates to the society which it serves, and so on. Law is a political artefact, and we don’t have to search for politics in it – because law is politics in itself. But further, Deuteronomy is an act of legislative consolidation and publication; its own self-commentary, which is very elaborate, tells us of its ambitions in making Israel a society that lives under law. To learn from it, we have to grasp what it can reveal to us of the society it addressed, its problems and needs. Only if we use our historical imaginations in this way can we see what much of it hopes to attain.

Can we understand God’s perspectives on politics from it? God’s perspective on ancient Israel’s politics, certainly. But to understand that is to be willing to stand back from our urgent demand for something “political” in the modern sense. Deuteronomy is from first to last political, yet its historical setting doesn’t fit in with our ideas of what the political should be like. Nonsensical traditions of commentary about the “ideal” character of the debt law in Dt. 15 or the “anti-monarchical” character of the law of the king in Dt. 17, for example, illustrate how difficult it is for readers to take the text as they find it rather than try to squeeze modern lessons out of it. So the question we are left with is: are we capable of being instructed by God out of a political project which belongs essentially to the ancient world and its conditions?

7. Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

OO’D: I am uncomfortable at the distinctions that this observation implies – suggesting that service, critique and a sense of divine judgment are all rather different postures, which may perhaps be combined or perhaps represented separately.

I am uncomfortable, in the first place, at the idea of a Christian political critique that is something other than the message of divine judgment. Do we have either the authority or ability to frame political critique on a purely immanent, secular basis? May I approach a tyrant and tell him that killing his opponents is ultimately an inefficient way of making his writ run, or tell big business that care for the welfare of employees is profitable? And then add something about God’s judgment as an afterthought? Any warning I can take on my lips I must have learned by listening to the word of God pronounced against sinners. There is no other place to stand.

I am uncomfortable, in the second place, at the idea of a “service” that did not have a critical perspective within it. Criticism means careful evaluation, not simple opposition. Opposition is an accident that may befall criticism, but not the heart of the matter. To serve at all one must be able to assess how one may be of service; one must know the difference between true service and mere acquiescence.

Let me try to rephrase what I think these theologians may discern in the narratives of Daniel’s role in Babylon. The path of political action has to be discovered at the point where recognition and affirmation of the political good that God will do through government is thoroughly tempered by a recognition of the moral dangers that befall every exercise of human power. The path of political action is always a narrow one, always liable in a moment to be cut off by human stupidity and cruelty, always to be received afresh, and on new terms, from God.

8. If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

OO’D: Preachers ought not, I think, constantly to be preaching on political topics. As a student at an American University during the troubled Presidency of Richard Nixon, I recall a University chaplain who repeatedly made use of the pulpit for personal attacks upon the President. I don’t know what effect this had on the congregation in general; on me it merely created a disposition (unjustified, as it turned out) to give the President the benefit of the doubt. It also instilled in me a strong distrust of political preaching as such, and for the first ten years of my ministry I never once undertook it. When, however, I found myself in a position responsible for teaching Christian political thought, I judged that it was not possible to make the kind of separation between the classroom and the pulpit that this entailed, and must be prepared sometimes to venture further. Looking back over the last quarter-century now, I am astonished how often I have made political references, sometimes merely glancing and allusive, more rarely at the centre of a sermon. I have sometimes done it well, sometimes badly. I think I have learned the do’s and dont’s. To start with, here are three dont’s:

(i) Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands. It is more than probable that a congregation will contain some who are better informed and have better judgment than their clergy. It is ridiculous for a minister to assume the role of pundit, making pronouncements on what is really going on like a journalist with an inside source. What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.

(ii) Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

(iii) The preacher who expects to say something in Christ’s name about politics had better master a few basic concepts of Christian political thought. Few Christian interventions into political debate display any kind of conceptual sophistication. They sound naïve – not in the sense of being too idealistic, but simply by using words without appreciating their meaning. Every political term carries a complex freight: “rights”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “the state”, “law”, and so on. Such an elementary blunder as using “democratic” to mean “fair” betrays a level of incompetence that disqualifies the speaker as a guide to others. No preacher can introduce such ideas effectively without a basic sense of their relation to each other and to the Gospel: how does civil freedom relate to evangelical freedom? how do human rights relate to the righteousness of God? Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words.

With these warnings in mind, how may we preach on politics? The pulpit may only rightly be used for addressing the church’s own concerns. Those concerns are the truth of the Gospel and all that follows from it for Christian action. The justification for preaching on politics is exactly the same as that for preaching on the family or on money or on any secular concern: it assists Christians to bring an evangelical mind to bear on their responsibilities. Political deliberation is a responsibility of the members of the church inasmuch as they participate in a political society. But how one speaks will be determined by what is in view, which is to assist authentic Christian deliberation. One should not go on as though one were a statesman oneself, trying to get a certain decision taken, using every argument in its favour, good or bad, that might appeal to somebody: “the measure the government has brought forward is required by simple justice, is highly advantageous economically, and anyone who opposes it is hand in glove with right-wing extremism” etc. etc. The whole point is that the argument should be a Christian one that commends itself to any Christian conscience.

It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason. When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question. Usually I do not bother to indicate my own view; it will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised. Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrst, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.

I do not trouble you with the useless advice that you should not be partisan. That says too much and too little. The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully. The whole emphasis has to fall on articulating the truths at issue. If there are no issues of truth, if it all comes down to which party will (let us say) manage the economy more skilfully, then there is no call for the church’s ministers to address the question in the first place. But if there is an issue of truth, it must be faced squarely. Truth demands partisanship; there is no impartiality between the claims of truth and error. Our success will depend on isolating the question of truth that demands our partisanship, and not confusing it with matters on which differing opinions are possible. To do this, we must avoid prejudging who is a friend of error, who a friend of truth. We must not assume that the truth is the privileged possession of one party. Truth is liberation for all, and demands repentance of all. It must be commended as available at once to the poor and to the tax collector. Its demand must not be addressed in one direction only – as though one party needed to do all the repenting, while the other could watch – and decide when they had done enough!
The authority of the prophet derives from a discernment of the concern which the Spirit lays upon the church at that moment. There is no reason to suppose that this concern will often be political, in the narrower sense of that word. (More broadly, it will always be political, since the church’s own life is the founding political reality.) But there is no reason to be alarmed if, on any occasion, the concern of the church opens into a critical perspective on secular political events. “To convince of sin, righteousness and judgment” is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which must sometimes, surely, take the form of defining a position in relation to such evils as abortion, nuclear deterrence, unemployment, North-South inequities and so on. We would be less than faithful preachers of the Gospel if we made our minds never to venture onto such terrain. But to do it usefully we have to risk controversy. We will be of little use to the Holy Spirit if we save our denunciations for those evils on which we can be sure there will be little difference of opinion among our hearers. Controversy may be healthy or unhealthy. It will be unhealthy if we announce our conclusions and declare, “Take them or leave them!” It will be healthy if we lead the church through the task of Christian deliberation from first principles, so helping those who differ to find the Christian ground on which they stand and building up the church’s unity in the Gospel. In that way the judgment of the Spirit proves itself authentic, drawing the line between the Gospel and despair, between belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and lighting the way for the confession of Christ in the centre of each new situation.

9. What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?

OO’D: Anyone who thinks of getting away with a single article or a single book, had better think again. Politics is a discussion. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!” As for where to start, that depends on where one happens to be. Nobody starts from nowhere. But, at the risk of being too insistent on the past, let me suggest: wherever you are, wherever you have come from, the next piece of reading could very profitably be the nineteenth book of Augustine’s City of God.

calendar October 29, 2010

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SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #5: Oliver O’Donovan

“Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands . . . . What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.”

“We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.”

Oliver O’Donovan is Professor of Chrisitan Ethics and Practical Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh.  He taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Wyclife College, Toronto; and at Oxford University from 1982-2006, serving as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Canon of Christ Church.

He has held a host of distinguished visiting positions at institutions including Cambridge, Durham, Fuller Seminary, Gregorian University in Rome, McMaster University, and the University of Hong Kong.

He and his wife (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan) wrote two books on the history of Christian political thought, and his Resurrection and Moral Order: an Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1985) and The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1999) are widely regarded as very important texts on their respective topics.

1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

OO’D: I cannot claim to have made a personal contribution to the discussion of this question, but to have tried to recall the contributions which were made in Christian tradition and suggested that they may shed some light on our situation. On the distinction between the individual Christian and the Church I make some remarks below, which I shall not anticipate. So what about the State? The important thing to grasp is that this is a modern construct, and not a wholly clear one at that, since there are conflicting concepts of the State in the English-speaking political tradition and that common to continental Europe. What Christian Scripture and tradition has taught about is the significance of the activity of government, a human function serving a human need, which has taken many historical forms of which our modern State structures are only one, and which assures an order of civility and neighbourhood. They have spoken of the preparatory character of this function in history, its significance as a foreshadowing of the ordered and ruled community of redeemed mankind under God and his Christ. They have spoken of its provisional character, preserving society from violence and self-destruction until the ultimate questions of worship and obedience to God have been brought to the point of decision. And they have spoken of its potentially idolatrous character as a focus of human pride and rebellion. It is important to see that this idolatrous pretention is not a monopoly of the immediate agents of government, “the State” as we describe them; it is a temptation which pervades the whole sphere of politically ordered society.

2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?

OO’D: Which individual believers? Those with a vocation to take part actively in political organisations, to run for office, and so on? Certainly, the Church as a whole has no corporate responsibility for the way they fulfil their vocations, any more than it does for the way its teachers teach or its surgeons make incisions. This does not mean that the Church has no interest in its members’ vocations, especially where moral issues arise within them. It undertakes to uphold its members in their vocations with pastoral support, and to give such moral counsel as may be relevant to their tasks; yet the vocation is theirs, not the Church’s. But it is not responsible directly for the way this vocation is fulfilled. But I am wary of a suggestion (if it is intended) that all believers, as individuals, have political responsibilities which the Church as such cannot share. There is voting, of course, which the constitutional arrangements of a democratic polity assign uniquely to individuals and not to corporations – though a polity is perfectly imaginable in which political office-holders would be selected by corporations, including the church, so that this distinction is not a matter of theological principle. The Church may have political opinions, and discuss them, as individuals may; and the Church is bound to obey the law – where it is lawful law – as individuals are. The Church is Christians approaching and fulfilling their tasks together in common worship and mutual help; Christians are the Body of Christ distributed in its members’ lives. Any further distinction than that would savour, I think, of an institutional definition of the Church that is too closed off against the catholic life of the Body of Christ and perhaps too clerical. It may be indicative that the theologians mentioned here are both from the Reformed tradition; my response is, perhaps, a characteristically Anglican one.

3. Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

OO’D: Serious thinkers can very rarely be dismissed in toto, for even when misguided they have something worthwhile to teach us, while superficial thinkers are not worth drawing attention to. So I excuse myself the task of adducing a negative example! On positive influences I could go on a long time. I had my first introduction to Christian political thought through the teaching of the American ethicist Paul Ramsey, whose work on the morality of war remains for me a landmark. From him I found my way back to the thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which was a high period of Christian political thought, and among these I treasure especially the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius. A millennium earlier, Augustine, of course, on this as on so much else, posed the questions in ways that the Western tradition has sometimes forgotten but never been able to escape. My wife and I spent five years collecting Christian texts on politics from the beginning to the middle of the seventeenth century, and published them in a book called From Irenaeus to Grotius. Our interest was not antiquarian. Their authors, we believed, could refresh contemporary Christian political service.

I am also reluctant to name a political concept which I respond positively or negatively. It is too easy to reduce the concept to the word, and putting buzz-words and boo-words into common currency is not something any thinker can contemplate with satisfaction. The essence of the concept always lies in the reasoning that it generates. I have written a great deal, however, about “judgment”, and engaged in some controversy as to whether the Christian content of this notion is adequately captured and expressed in contemporary language about “rights”.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

OO’D: The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary. To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult. It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others. It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind. It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide. I should mention, perhaps, that the medieval political theologian, John Wyclif, stated at the beginning of his massive work “On Lordship” that any discussion of political relations must begin from 1 Corinthians 13, where everything essential was to be found.

The “average American in the pew” seems not uncommonly to be told (or so it appears to us as we listen in across the Atlantic Ocean) that she or he has much larger political responsibilities than this: to make the Gospel heard in public life, to bring in the Kingdom of God and to make a better world, and so on. Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political. Some are political, but not tasks of the Church so much as promises of the work of the Spirit of God, for which we must pray and wait – while fulfilling our mission and doing the work that comes to our hand – humbly and without pompous pretensions. We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.

There is, of course, such a thing as a specific vocation to serve in politics. But the question did not ask about. Indeed, none of the questions have asked about that. And that, perhaps, is one of the things that most strike the European onlooker about the way American Christians think about politics: the “professional” politician, though always present in the background, is never a topic of discussion. Is there, we sometimes wonder, a condition of general denial in the USA about the professionalisation of modern politics?

5. How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

OO’D: I am always struck by the spareness and sharpness of focus of the description of “the authority” in Romans 13, in which the role of government is made to focus wholly upon judgment. Nothing is said about political identity, nothing about territory and nothing about political community, great and dominant themes in ancient political discourse as well as in our own. Even the concept of power is only indirectly present behind the notion of authority. There are plenty of commentators, of course, who are quick to pull aside the veil of Paul’s reticence and supply what they suppose he must have meant to say, or suggest, about all these topics. But I tend not to get round to them! I am too fascinated by the words themselves, and by what they say and do not say. So the first limit I detect in Romans 13 is not a limit on the church and/or the individual believer, but a limit on the authority itself, which is better conceived as a focus that defines its task.

And the limit that that imposes on the rest of us – not only the church and the Christian but all members of society, is to be “subject” (yes, notice Paul’s term! Americans, I find, are prone to be distressed by it!) to the operations of this ordered and lawful maintenance of justice, and to maintain it cheerfully with our taxes. Order is no kind of slavery. It is a way of being free, but one which requires us to adapt ourselves consciously to it.

Within a Western Christian tradition this subjection has become largely depersonalised and a matter of obeying laws. There are enormous benefits in that, the chief of which is that the reasons for laws can be understood, and obedience can be intelligent and thoughtful, not unthinking and slavish. But there are also problems, not least with what has become of the institution of law in later modernity, the ease with which laws are made and unmade, challenged and set aside. I expect Christians who have meditated on the implications of Romans 13 to be supportive of the rule of law, but also to understand the difference between deep lawfulness and shallow legality. Subjection to the law must be subjection to the purpose and the intention of law, and conscientious refusal, should that unhappy case ever arise, must be because it is the only way left to us of offering that critical support which the principle of law demands of us.

6. How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

OO’D: Kierkegaard famously argued that St. Paul did not have authority in the church because he was the most profound or original thinker – or, he added, the best upholsterer of tents! – but because he was Christ’s apostle. Deuteronomy and Proverbs, similarly, demand our attention not because they are highly original and distinctive in their Near-Eastern context, but because they are the voice of ancient Israel, the elect people through whom the Holy Spirit spoke to the world.

Let me concentrate on Deuteronomy. This book, too, is law – and to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through it, we must understand what law is, how it is made, how it relates to the society which it serves, and so on. Law is a political artefact, and we don’t have to search for politics in it – because law is politics in itself. But further, Deuteronomy is an act of legislative consolidation and publication; its own self-commentary, which is very elaborate, tells us of its ambitions in making Israel a society that lives under law. To learn from it, we have to grasp what it can reveal to us of the society it addressed, its problems and needs. Only if we use our historical imaginations in this way can we see what much of it hopes to attain.

Can we understand God’s perspectives on politics from it? God’s perspective on ancient Israel’s politics, certainly. But to understand that is to be willing to stand back from our urgent demand for something “political” in the modern sense. Deuteronomy is from first to last political, yet its historical setting doesn’t fit in with our ideas of what the political should be like. Nonsensical traditions of commentary about the “ideal” character of the debt law in Dt. 15 or the “anti-monarchical” character of the law of the king in Dt. 17, for example, illustrate how difficult it is for readers to take the text as they find it rather than try to squeeze modern lessons out of it. So the question we are left with is: are we capable of being instructed by God out of a political project which belongs essentially to the ancient world and its conditions?

7. Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

OO’D: I am uncomfortable at the distinctions that this observation implies – suggesting that service, critique and a sense of divine judgment are all rather different postures, which may perhaps be combined or perhaps represented separately.

I am uncomfortable, in the first place, at the idea of a Christian political critique that is something other than the message of divine judgment. Do we have either the authority or ability to frame political critique on a purely immanent, secular basis? May I approach a tyrant and tell him that killing his opponents is ultimately an inefficient way of making his writ run, or tell big business that care for the welfare of employees is profitable? And then add something about God’s judgment as an afterthought? Any warning I can take on my lips I must have learned by listening to the word of God pronounced against sinners. There is no other place to stand.

I am uncomfortable, in the second place, at the idea of a “service” that did not have a critical perspective within it. Criticism means careful evaluation, not simple opposition. Opposition is an accident that may befall criticism, but not the heart of the matter. To serve at all one must be able to assess how one may be of service; one must know the difference between true service and mere acquiescence.

Let me try to rephrase what I think these theologians may discern in the narratives of Daniel’s role in Babylon. The path of political action has to be discovered at the point where recognition and affirmation of the political good that God will do through government is thoroughly tempered by a recognition of the moral dangers that befall every exercise of human power. The path of political action is always a narrow one, always liable in a moment to be cut off by human stupidity and cruelty, always to be received afresh, and on new terms, from God.

8. If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

OO’D: Preachers ought not, I think, constantly to be preaching on political topics. As a student at an American University during the troubled Presidency of Richard Nixon, I recall a University chaplain who repeatedly made use of the pulpit for personal attacks upon the President. I don’t know what effect this had on the congregation in general; on me it merely created a disposition (unjustified, as it turned out) to give the President the benefit of the doubt. It also instilled in me a strong distrust of political preaching as such, and for the first ten years of my ministry I never once undertook it. When, however, I found myself in a position responsible for teaching Christian political thought, I judged that it was not possible to make the kind of separation between the classroom and the pulpit that this entailed, and must be prepared sometimes to venture further. Looking back over the last quarter-century now, I am astonished how often I have made political references, sometimes merely glancing and allusive, more rarely at the centre of a sermon. I have sometimes done it well, sometimes badly. I think I have learned the do’s and dont’s. To start with, here are three dont’s:

(i) Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands. It is more than probable that a congregation will contain some who are better informed and have better judgment than their clergy. It is ridiculous for a minister to assume the role of pundit, making pronouncements on what is really going on like a journalist with an inside source. What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.

(ii) Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

(iii) The preacher who expects to say something in Christ’s name about politics had better master a few basic concepts of Christian political thought. Few Christian interventions into political debate display any kind of conceptual sophistication. They sound naïve – not in the sense of being too idealistic, but simply by using words without appreciating their meaning. Every political term carries a complex freight: “rights”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “the state”, “law”, and so on. Such an elementary blunder as using “democratic” to mean “fair” betrays a level of incompetence that disqualifies the speaker as a guide to others. No preacher can introduce such ideas effectively without a basic sense of their relation to each other and to the Gospel: how does civil freedom relate to evangelical freedom? how do human rights relate to the righteousness of God? Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words.

With these warnings in mind, how may we preach on politics? The pulpit may only rightly be used for addressing the church’s own concerns. Those concerns are the truth of the Gospel and all that follows from it for Christian action. The justification for preaching on politics is exactly the same as that for preaching on the family or on money or on any secular concern: it assists Christians to bring an evangelical mind to bear on their responsibilities. Political deliberation is a responsibility of the members of the church inasmuch as they participate in a political society. But how one speaks will be determined by what is in view, which is to assist authentic Christian deliberation. One should not go on as though one were a statesman oneself, trying to get a certain decision taken, using every argument in its favour, good or bad, that might appeal to somebody: “the measure the government has brought forward is required by simple justice, is highly advantageous economically, and anyone who opposes it is hand in glove with right-wing extremism” etc. etc. The whole point is that the argument should be a Christian one that commends itself to any Christian conscience.

It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason. When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question. Usually I do not bother to indicate my own view; it will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised. Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrst, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.

I do not trouble you with the useless advice that you should not be partisan. That says too much and too little. The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully. The whole emphasis has to fall on articulating the truths at issue. If there are no issues of truth, if it all comes down to which party will (let us say) manage the economy more skilfully, then there is no call for the church’s ministers to address the question in the first place. But if there is an issue of truth, it must be faced squarely. Truth demands partisanship; there is no impartiality between the claims of truth and error. Our success will depend on isolating the question of truth that demands our partisanship, and not confusing it with matters on which differing opinions are possible. To do this, we must avoid prejudging who is a friend of error, who a friend of truth. We must not assume that the truth is the privileged possession of one party. Truth is liberation for all, and demands repentance of all. It must be commended as available at once to the poor and to the tax collector. Its demand must not be addressed in one direction only – as though one party needed to do all the repenting, while the other could watch – and decide when they had done enough!
The authority of the prophet derives from a discernment of the concern which the Spirit lays upon the church at that moment. There is no reason to suppose that this concern will often be political, in the narrower sense of that word. (More broadly, it will always be political, since the church’s own life is the founding political reality.) But there is no reason to be alarmed if, on any occasion, the concern of the church opens into a critical perspective on secular political events. “To convince of sin, righteousness and judgment” is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which must sometimes, surely, take the form of defining a position in relation to such evils as abortion, nuclear deterrence, unemployment, North-South inequities and so on. We would be less than faithful preachers of the Gospel if we made our minds never to venture onto such terrain. But to do it usefully we have to risk controversy. We will be of little use to the Holy Spirit if we save our denunciations for those evils on which we can be sure there will be little difference of opinion among our hearers. Controversy may be healthy or unhealthy. It will be unhealthy if we announce our conclusions and declare, “Take them or leave them!” It will be healthy if we lead the church through the task of Christian deliberation from first principles, so helping those who differ to find the Christian ground on which they stand and building up the church’s unity in the Gospel. In that way the judgment of the Spirit proves itself authentic, drawing the line between the Gospel and despair, between belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and lighting the way for the confession of Christ in the centre of each new situation.

9. What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?

OO’D: Anyone who thinks of getting away with a single article or a single book, had better think again. Politics is a discussion. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!” As for where to start, that depends on where one happens to be. Nobody starts from nowhere. But, at the risk of being too insistent on the past, let me suggest: wherever you are, wherever you have come from, the next piece of reading could very profitably be the nineteenth book of Augustine’s City of God.

calendar October 27, 2010

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SAET Interviews on Politics and Theology #1: James Skillen

I am critical of those (whether Christian or not) who work largely within a liberal/conservative framework of individual autonomy as the foundation/source of political authority, and of those who see the “Church” as a counter-”polis” or alternative political community over against the state, thought of as outside Christian identity because it is recognized as legitimately using political force.

Our first SAET Interview on Politics and Theology is with James Skillen, a co-founder of the Center for Public Justice and its executive director from 1981 to 2000 and president from 2000 to his retirement in September 2009, and a long-time respected voice among Christians involved in politics.  (Incidentally, while our interviews are not posted in any particular order, Skillen is an appropriate starting point given that several of our respondents have connections with CPJ, which includes in its board members and advisors right-leaning and left-leaning evangelicals and Roman Catholics.)  A bibliography of Skillen’s works, many of which touch on politics and theology, can be found by clicking here, and there are many weblinks to his work at that site.

1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

JS: My view of the Church is the broader one of the New Testament—that it is the body of Christ, the people of God, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, etc. I do not view “individual Christians” as existing except as part of the body of Christ, and thus it is as that body that they need to decide how to fulfill civic responsibility, familial responsibility, educational responsibility, economic responsibility, etc.  The modern state (in which most people live today) is one of many institutional arenas of human responsibility in which the people of God exercise a distinct type of responsibility, which must be in accord with their discipleship in allegiance to Christ.

2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

JS: Mouw and Henry, I think you are suggesting, refer to the “church” as an institution that is separate from (not coterminus with) other institutions and organizations (such as family, school, state, business enterprise).  If that is what you mean, then I agree with them.  But I would not phrase the distinction as one of “the church” over against “individual believers.”  I would distinguish organized church congregations (and larger conglomerates of congregations) from the other institutions and organizations of which Christians as the body of Christ are members/participants.

3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

JS:  I am positively sympathetic to the tradition fostered by Abraham Kuyper and the distinctions of various “spheres of responsibility,” among which is civic responsibility in political community.  I am critical of those (whether Christian or not) who work largely within a liberal/conservative framework of individual autonomy as the foundation/source of political authority, and of those who see the “Church” as a counter-”polis” or alternative political community over against the state, thought of as outside Christian identity because it is recognized as legitimately using political force.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

JS:  The Body of Christ in any age, living in any kind of political community (or anti-community) bears full civic responsibility, which is one that calls for the nurturing and promotion of political/public justice.  That means more than simply voting and paying taxes, but for some people in some societies it may be impossible for them to do even that.

Where possible, some members of the Body of Christ ought to be pursuing political/governmental work full time as legislators, mayors, judges, policy developers, public servants in diverse agencies, etc., etc.  The vision for that kind of public service may be weak or strong in different societies and communities.

But if Christians are not exercising and promoting that kind of service among their members when it is possible to do so, they are failing to fulfill some of the obligations entailed in serving God with all our hearts, souls, strengths, and minds, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

JS:  Romans 13 must be read in its full context (at least beginning with chapter 12 and continuing to the end of 13) as Paul’s explanation of an important dimension of the love command.  I do not see the biblical text placing limits on us that would restrain the fulfillment of the love command in the direction of fulfilling civic responsibility, which includes giving honor to whom honor is due, paying taxes to whom taxes are do, etc., etc., and both recognizing and seeking to promote the exercise of just governance, which belongs to political authorities by divine ordination.  The passage does not say much about what that entails (encouraging the good and punishing the evil doer), but that is what we have to work out in the arenas of our current civic obligations, just as spouses need to work out in their marriages the meaning of the great love command for husbands and wives.

6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

JS: Deuteronomy needs to be read in its full covenantal context of God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, and Proverbs and other wisdom-literature texts need to be mined for how those who fear God will seek to be good stewards of one another and their neighbors in God’s world.  Israel did not exist in a vacuum and there is a great amount offered in the whole of the bible about how God is dealing with all nations and how he is holding them accountable.  The Old Testament is highly relevant to our contemporary lives as long as we read it in the context of the whole Bible (including the New Testament) and do not read it anachronistically.

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

JS: The word “implemented” is the stumbling block in this question.  Daniel was called to serve God in the context of Israel’s judgment by god and exile in Babylon.  There was a particular setting in which he did what God called, and allowed, him to do. among other things, God enabled him to become the “prime minister” of Babylon.  Those were not actions of service or critique that any believer can simply decide or intend to do.  But we can learn much from how Daniel conducted himself to illumine the distinctive paths on which we walk today—some of us as preachers, some as teachers, some as public officials, some as providers of hospitality, and all of us as citizens.

8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

JS:  If what the young “planter” means is that he/she should not (in that capacity) be trying to direct  a community of believers in all of their family responsibilities, all of their educational (and business, and political, etc.) responsibilities, then I am sympathetic with the statement.

But if he/she means that in order to focus on the gospel it is necessary not to let the Bible speak to the full social/political/economic/cultural context in which those believers function, then the statement is an ungodly, extra-biblical decision to ignore the word of God and to decide how he/she best thinks should be done to nurture belief (which will undoubtedly be a belief contrary to the good news of Christ).

9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or politicaltheology?  The best book?

JS:  I cannot suggest a single best article or book.  Sorry.

calendar September 24, 2010

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Political Theology: Things to Click

Continuing to tease about a forthcoming series where we interview theological figures on politics and Scripture, here are a few notable links:

James K. A. Smith interviews James Davison Hunter after reviewing Hunter’s book, To Change the World in considerable detail.

Doug Wilson, who in some respects represents Hunter’s prey, responds without resorting to camouflage.

Finally, an interesting perspective from Robert Joustra in Canada (“The Economic Social Justice Ship: Full Steam Ahead or Teetering Titanic?”), who puts a Kuyperian spin on economics.  His opening line:  “Saying that Christ claims every square inch is not the same as saying that your church tradition has authority to pronounce on all those inches.”

calendar September 23, 2010

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Deuteronomy and Politics

First, a teaser:  we’re about to announce what I trust will be an exciting series of interviews on politics and theology, featuring interviews with a variety of thinkers.

I was preparing for some OT lectures recently and came across some commentary on politics in Gordon McConville’s commentary on Deuteronomy (from pages 42-50).

McConville notes that “prophetic critique of the abuse of power,” is a built-in feature of the way in which Deuteronomy subordinates authority to Torah, God’s spoken word, not least by creating a vision of an ideal order functioning as an alternative (“cultural critique, or counter-culture”) to what is on offer among the nations.  It is this vision by which Israel, her king, and even the nations may be judged as idolatrous or tyrannical.

The paradox of the book is that it aims to regulate the life of communities in reality, yet ever directs the attention of hearer and reader to an ideal that exposes the faults of the status quo.  This is the lasting contribution of the book.  It is capable of informing practical thinking about the organization of societies, while maintaining a vision of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom is now and not yet.

It is instructive to note the way in which McConville has interpreted Deuteronomy not just as Law, but as something close to wisdom literature:  “The book offers training in the right way to live, and in this respect is closer to Proverbs than to anything else.”  Neither book is as wooden in its interpretation of the good life as sometimes thought, as they articulate the vision that “what is right is also useful, because of the claim that there is order in the universe, moral as well as natural.”  “[P]eople are called to be trained in what is right, not merely to avoid retribution, but because a full and joyful human experience depends on the acknowledgment that life is a gift to God.”

Thus Deuteronomy becomes a vital arrow in the prophet’s quiver, capable of piercing idolatrous and tyrannical social, political, and economic structures.  (The connection to wisdom has been particularly intriguing as I’ve had discussions on this topic with his former students, and as I’ve tried to distill their brilliance for myself and laity.  For a start, see pages 43-45 in McConville.)

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