- “Us” and “them” in political theology(published )
A few days ago, Steve Hamilton asked: If we were to explore it, what is the political theology or public theology of the Vineyard movement? I replied thus: It is probably no surprise that my initial response is to suggest that the word “the” is problematic in that question! But that just means that exploring it would be all the more interesting. :) With @Thomas John Creedy, it seems to me that focus on issues of the common good, justice, and poverty relief are likely to be central themes in any Vineyard political theology. Something I’ve often found myself wondering, though, is how much that takes the form of seeking to help “them/the world/society out there” and how much it takes the form of seeking to help “us/everyone/our society.” Oftentimes Christians speak of ourselves in contradistinction to those we seek to help, whether this be in terms of helping (those) poor people, providing prophetic/ethical/whatever guidance to the surrounding society (outside the church), or what have you. Other times we will speak in terms of identification with whatever and whoever we want to see the betterment of, so that the poor aren’t “them” but “us,” or that the society in need of justice is our society, etc. And sometimes we will try to do both at once by talking about solidarity with whomever. Now, both contradistinction and identification can be used well or badly in developing a political theology, so I’m not suggesting that one of these is good and the other is bad. Rather, it seems to me that each will produce its own sort of political theology with its own strengths and weaknesses. My curiosity is to learn what sorts of political theology are used in the Vineyard in which contexts, when, and by whom. Is there a difference between, say, the political theology of an inner-city Vineyard, a Vineyard in a prosperous small town, and a Vineyard in a struggling small town? What about the political theology articulated by an AVC’s national leadership in comparison to the political theologies articulated by local congregations? What about between AVC’s in different nations? How do the commonly shared values work out in these different contexts, what does that mean, and what does that imply for how we all (collectively and severally) ought to move forward in this area in the future?
- On Romans 13:1(published )
Romans 13:1 gets abused in one of two directions. On the one hand, some use it to legitimate whatever political power structure happens to be in force. This can be as blunt as the notion of “the divine right of kings” to the subtler (and more insidious) notion that one’s own nation’s constitution or whatever is an embodiment of “God-given universal principles.” In this version, the sinfulness of the ruler(s) is passed over in favour of the idea that they have been appointed by God. On the other hand, some use this verse to argue that the church ought to try to seize and wield political power in the service of God’s reign. This approach will acknowledge that existing power structures are imperfect and tainted by sin, but sees that as providing legitimation and motivation for one’s own political agenda (whatever that may be), on the grounds that what is really needed is some good, God-fearing ruler to set things right. Both of these approaches get it wrong, because both confuse God’s intentions with concrete reality. The best way to consider the meaning and import of Romans 13:1 is to step back and consider the political implications of the concept of (drum roll, please)… the kingdom of God. God made us to be social beings, and to have him as the actual, literal ruler of our universal social structure. So governance is good, as an inherent aspect of being social beings, which is good. But more specifically it is God’s governance that is the proper form. That appears to be the intention in Eden (although with only two humans it wasn’t yet very complex, and thus more resembles a parent-child relationship than a king-people one yet), God’s revealed will in Deuteronomy or again in 1 Samuel, and the way things are described in the eschatological and proto-eschatological promises, imagery, and visions in both OT and NT. Human self-governance (i.e. humans governing humans and claiming sovereignty for themselves), on the other hand, arises as a deformation of God’s intention. We have rebelled against God as our Lord and King. Nevertheless, we remain social creatures, and so we find ourselves needing to set up our own governments to fill in that role so that we can live and function as people groups. But our governments are created as part of and as a result of our rebellion against him, and so they are founded in sin. In their concrete reality, they are manifestations of our sin and rebellion. This is why Deuteronomy both says that God’s will is that he alone be their king and also does “damage control” by laying out rules for when the Israelites decide to have a human king while still making it clear that God does not think a human king is a good plan. Like all things human, our ways of existing as social beings together are good but fallen and sinful. To use a Calvinist term, total depravity really is “total” in its proper, intended sense of “all-encompassing” (as opposed to “utter,” as it is so commonly misunderstood) and includes our social existence within its compass. Thus, while social structure—and therefore governance—is good and intended by God, all social structures and governments we have made are malformed and shot through with sin. We therefore need our social structures to be redeemed and set right by the reassertion of God’s own rule—which will mean the end of our self-rule. One thing I find interesting is how it seems that every government in history has claimed to be founded on divine sanction—whether via deifying the emperor, or via claiming a “divine right of kings,” or via “inalienable rights” with which human beings are endowed, or via whatever else functions in a given culture as legitimation for its claims to sovereignty and power. Each one seeks to arrogate sovereign authority to itself by claiming that the Power(s) That Be (however conceived) have given the stamp of approval to said government. But every claim to sovereignty by humans is rebellion against God’s rule over all. And every government will face judgment when Christ returns. No claim to possess sovereign authority by any human leader, then, is legitimate. That God has decreed that there should be government of human social structures does not in any way mean that any human government that exists can claim divine approval, as though God was on their side. King David did better than King Saul only as long as and only insofar as he retained his sense of being merely the servant of Yahweh, obeying his commands. Whenever David stopped seeking God’s own commands and began to think of his kingdom and power as his own, he fell into trouble. For the same reason, when Rome occasionally threw the Christians to the lions, it wasn’t because Rome wildly misunderstood the Christian gospel’s sociopolitical implications. The early Christians and their Roman persecutors both understood this better than we modern Western Christians who over-spiritualize God’s kingdom—if Jesus is King, then Caesar is nothing more than a mere man holding a temporary position who is subject to being judged (and dethroned) according to his obedience to the will of Christ. And if we stop and think about it, that is precisely what the real import of Rom 13:1 is. In light of the inevitably sinful and fallen nature of our actually existing governments, it is incoherent to claim that they, in their concrete reality, enjoy any sort of divine endorsement or that they can be the instruments of God in any straightforward manner. It certainly is not possible for a Christian to coherently think that political victory within our sinful governmental systems could ever bring about God’s goals for the world. And it most certainly is not possible for a Christian to coherently believe that any actually existing government will enact God’s justice or even protect it. At best, it will enact and protect a warped and distorted version of it. This is, true enough, still better than for a government not even to try to do so. But woe to those who imagine that Caesar is a good and faithful servant of God, or that he will carry out properly the job his position entails, or that winning influence in his court will allow one to make the policies of the empire mirror the policies of God. Christians working in the political sphere can do some good, in a piecemeal fashion, when they chose qua politicians to act as obedient servants of God subject to his sovereignty. But when Christians allow themselves qua Christians to become a power block in the political machinery of the state, the only appropriate words are those of Rev. 18:4. (Don’t forget, after all, that Rom. 13 is not the only sort of statement about human governments that the Bible makes. The threat of judgement and wrath against them for their failures to follow God’s will and for the blasphemy of claiming their own sovereignty hangs over them.) When we become a political power bloc, we are then doing the opposite of what Jesus modelled in John 18:36, where he insisted that his royal authority had a fundamentally different source than any worldly power’s and therefore refused to let his kingdom become another vying faction within the political system.
- Against the notion of “left” and “right” in social and theological discourse, updated (published )
If I could, I would eradicate the entire “left–right” conceptual structure from public discourse (and theological discourse!). It is ridiculously reductionistic. Ridiculously. Stupidly. Crazily. Horrifyingly. It is my belief that the “left–right” metaphor is itself one of the worst causes of problems in Western social and theological discourse—a deeper problem than any “threat” posed by the ideas of “the other guys” (whomever that may be). This is because the left–right conceptual structure reduces all the diversity and complexity of human thought down to “positions.” The worst form occurs when “left” and “right” are understood as two camps into which all human beings must be categorized. In this conceptualization, it is typically assumed that camp allegiance will determine one’s views on everything. It is as though every question were reducible to “Which is your favourite colour, red or blue?!” When people want to take a more nuanced approach, they will switch to the metaphor of a spectrum, with “left” and “right” defining poles one can range between. The spectrum metaphor is something of an improvement over the camp metaphor, but still not actually very good. It lets us add the idea of moderate or centrist positions, but it still assumes that one’s views on everything will more or less coincide at one position along this spectrum. Occasionally one will encounter someone wanting to get really sophisticated by laying out a two-dimensional grid, where each axis is a left–right spectrum of its own. Maybe one is on the right regarding social mores but on the left regarding economic policy, for example. Again, this is a marginal improvement, but still inadequate. It is just thinking wrongly in higher resolution. We could continue to multiply the number of axes until we reached an n-dimensional grid to map everyone onto, where n is the number of possible questions people could take differing views on. This might seem like it would solve the problem, since the complexity would begin to approximate reality, but it actually wouldn’t. Aside from the fact that the heuristic value would decrease as the number of axes increased, this would not really address the fundamental problem inherent in the spectrum metaphor: people’s thoughts on anything can virtually never be accurately described as “positions” which could be arranged in a line. People think in dynamic, ongoing, complex, patterned processes involving multi-faceted interactions with a plethora of internal and external influences, related ideas, circumstances, and needs. Our ideas on any one question are organically linked to ideas we have about other things. This means tendencies can and do emerge, but it also means that our ideas are always on the move, always growing and changing, forever forming new connections and, when necessary, letting old, unhelpful connections die. Our ideas are contextual and environmentally conditioned. If we want to generalize from individual people’s ideas to larger trends in a population, the diverse, contextualized, complex ways we think are far more important than the “position” we happen to have at a given moment. It is the patterns and trajectories, in all their glorious diversity, that get to the heart of things, so we need to speak in terms of patterns and trajectories, not “positions.” Moreover, by defining people in terms of “positions” (i.e. their current answers to whatever question we are using as our criterion for categorizing them), we create labelled groups who can then, inevitably, be set over against each other as “Us vs. Them.” At that point, no one listens any more. We cut ourselves off from hearing how others think—that is, from learning about their way—because we are trained to believe that the answer they currently happen to hold regarding The Great Defining Question makes them anathema. So sure, ideological purists need to stop screaming that their end of the left–right dyad is the One Right Position. But merely setting up a centre position as a third contestant for the title of being the One Right Position won’t really do anything. Eliminate the dyad itself, and replace it with something more complex, more dynamic, and more interactive. Instead of camps, or spectrums, or multi-axis graphs, I suggest that we would do better to use another metaphor: the concept of a way. Different people follow different patterns of thought that carry them along certain trajectories. For one person, some thought-paths will be well-worn, some lightly travelled, some will be paved, some will be superhighways, and some will be unknown and uncrossed. For another, that unknown path will a well-travelled one, and that superhighway will be a trackless bog. Given these differences, when these two people set out to find answers to the same initial question, they are likely to use different ways of thinking to do so. They will follow different paths of reasoning, taking different turns based on different presuppositions and different notions of what a “good” answer should even be. Even in the case where they reach a mutually agreeable provisional answer (after all, all our answers are always provisional), they will have reached that answer for different reasons. On another question, the same patterns of reasoning may very well end up leading them to two very different answers. If we ever really want to understand one another, learn from one another, perhaps find ways to live even a modicum more peacefully and collaboratively with one another, we should stop trying to reduce one another’s thoughts down to “positions” that can be pegged as “left” or “right” or even “centrist.” Instead, we should start asking one another how we each think about the questions at hand and why we each draw the connections we do. That’s the path to understanding and wisdom.