In response to my post, “Toward an Understanding of the Church’s Role in Politics” on June 29, 2013, a friend offered the following questions and concerns. My response is below his remarks.
My death pastor friend, you are a blend of writing genius and thanatologist, along with a heavy dose of Theophilos.
I am curious, what factors cause you to accept as true that it is governmental factors that Jesus sought to change and confront? I think we all agree that Hitler’s power structure was destructive, but would you be willing to provide specific examples of Jesus or the apostles seeking to destroy the people who the church calls “government”? It would be wonderful to discuss particulars in casuistry.
Could it be more the established religious leaders who Jesus confronted? If that is the case, then our own hearts can be reached and touched in the metamorphosis to come. Your definition of culture dissecting removes church and religious power structures from view. Destroying government systems just sounds so little like Romans 13:1-7, while confronting established religious power structures seems like a steady theme throughout the gospels.
I fear that until the church gets its own house in order, it will have little light to shine into the lives of the people whom God has called to administer justice. I suspect that too often we fight the battle in our own power and for our own purposes.
Regarding Jesus’ confrontations of “governmental factors,” some would exclude any consideration of the Jewish socio-political system operating under Roman supervision, since that system comprises (again, by definitions I would challenge) “the established religious leaders” rather than a secular structure of power and authority. I would suggest that this is a false dichotomy, at least as it applies to the authority exercised by the Sanhedrin within Jerusalem. Still, there is much to be said about the particular attention Jesus paid to those religious leaders who stood between God’s people and the place and plan of worship to which He had called them. Leaving that for another occasion, then, let me focus on what I consider to be the direct statements and actions clearly applying to secular systems and structure, and their effects on persons. (Note: I differentiate governing institutions, organizations, systems, and/or structures not only from those affected by their actions, but from the individuals serving within them as well. More about that below.)
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus rises to speak in His hometown synagogue. There, He appropriates His Messianic mission statement from Isaiah. Exegetically, so far as identifying the actual content from Isaiah, I believe Luke gives us the reference point, not the entirety of the passage Jesus read. The topic continues through Isaiah 62:12, and it is likely that Jesus read the full section. Still, even if He limited His reading to just Isaiah 61:1-2a, those present could not help but recognize the claim He was making as the One coming to fulfill all that is envisioned in “the favorable year of the Lord” (indeed, well beyond the specifics of the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25:8-17). In doing so, and in both announcing and implementing His kingdom through His disciples, He was guilty of a number of offenses, not least against the Jewish authorities, but including clear offenses against Roman rule as well. For example, underlying most, if not all, of His teachings on the competing kingdoms: Jesus takes the position that Caesar had no claim over an individual living within the Roman structure (Matthew 22:15-22). Instead, He held that God ruled over the human person made in His image
Still, many do disconnect Jesus’ life and ministry (as well as that of His disciples) from direct socio-political action by the Church (or churches), and more so regarding the supra-political perspective I am trying to envision. My experience is that this disconnection is possible only by means of a solely-spiritualized good news which abandons the literal application of Jesus’ ministry to individuals in their immediate circumstances. Some do this by dualism, so that we are released from prison, blindness, and oppression only in an other-worldly sense, while we continue in the darkness of bondage and exploitation in this less-than-ideal shadow-existence. Others disconnect Jesus’ claims and promises from our experience through a dispensationalism in which Jesus may well have meant what He said and expected us to emulate what He did. Unfortunately, for some, Jesus failed to anticipate the interruption of His plans by the Jews’ rejection and the resulting Church-Age intervening between the announcement/demonstration of His kingdom and its actual arrival at some point in the future. This, then, appears to release some of His followers today from any sense of obligation toward actually pursuing a holistic deliverance spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically, and socially. Until He returns, this argument would hold, the widow, orphan, and alien in their distress are mostly on their own.
Some would modify their dispensationalism to account for the implementation of some of Jesus’ words and actions. Likewise, the dualism of offering only spiritualized deliverance does not entirely divorce Jesus’ example from these Christians’ experience. Imagining that Jesus meant for us to consider ourselves freed from darkness, oppression, and imprisonment in only a spiritualized sense (and perhaps an actual experience at some point following His return) can be fitted to the sacrificial, cruciform servanthood that has comprised the experience of faithful Christians for twenty centuries. But while I may gladly (or begrudgingly, for that matter) accept loss, imprisonment, or other more damaging acts against myself, I believe that a disciple of the Christ described in Isaiah 61-62 cannot tacitly stand idle while these are being inflicted upon anyone else. To do so would be the socio-political equivalent of the far-too-many well-speaking, perhaps well-meaning, but relationally aloof Christians criticized in James 2:15-16.
Another issue you raise is essential to rightly applying any of the above. There can be no acceptable justification “to destroy the people who the church calls ‘government.’” I am regularly appalled by the hateful venom spewing from presumably Christian sources toward individuals whom God loves, who are created to bear His image and likeness, and who are supposed to be the subjects of our most fervent prayers. But the primary influence in my desire to see the systems and structures of governing authority dismantled in certain cases, while maintaining respect for the dignity even of those we would otherwise deem “heinous,” is Hannah Arendt’s demonstration of “The Banality of Evil.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963) In short, were we to destroy Adolf Eichmann in the mid-1930s, there may have been some flagging devotion, lesser skill, and thus diminished logistical efficiency from whomever would have filled his post instead. But the system he served, its philosophical foundations, and its inexorable atrocity would have remained in place, and the work would have continued.
Regarding Romans 13 (along with I Peter 2:13-17), there is no question that we face an ethical quandary when members of the Church (or, again, the churches) are commanded by the state to disobey God, which is tantamount to being called by God to disobedience against the state. But I would note that the definitions of submission in both (and other) passages requires a more prayerful response than simple obedience to whatever the state may demand. Submission or subjection suggests that there is an implied alternative in any demand. The state may order us, “Do this or else.” A Christian should be prepared to respond, “I’ll take the ‘else.’” That means we must be prepared to accept also the negative consequences likely to result from even civil disobedience. As the structures and systems seek to perpetuate themselves (and I do ascribe to them a will), any detractors from their policies and processes will find themselves in the cross-hairs, even more so than those who are more routinely (and often acquiescently) oppressed and exploited.
Finally, regarding the implications of the Church’s own dysfunction, and especially our division: we should remember that it is not “our house” to get “in order.” The question seems to be, “Who are we to suggest to anyone else that they should change their self-interested self-promotion, even where widows, orphans, and aliens are being crushed?” In answer, we must surely admit: Selfish actions based on selfish motives do abound, of course, in the Church as well as within any human society. But for any portion of Christ’s body to deny its responsibilities on the basis of others’ disinterest or dysfunction is to accommodate rather than eradicate the sin that so easily besets us all. It is, as I understand scripture, God’s desire that the oppressed and exploited find others willing to subject themselves to the same risks and damages, to work toward justice and dignity with respect, and to entrust themselves to God alone for their provision and protection in doing so. In short, the answer to “Who are we to take action?” is that “God wants to see this accomplished, and we’re the only body He’s got.”