Christian Political Witness
Reviewed by Fred Van Geest, Political Science, Bethel University
The essays in Christian Political Witness were presented at the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College in Illinois. Of the twelve contributors, eleven have a background in theology and one is an historian (Mark Noll). Not surprisingly, the essays are largely theological in nature and most devote considerable time to Scripture, the early church, and the role of the church in the world. The title of the book is somewhat misleading because with the exception of a couple of essays, most do not deal with politics, at least as it is traditionally defined and understood.
In the introductory chapter, the editors say the book is a chance to “consider afresh” a variety of questions and issues such as what a distinctive Christian witness looks like in a polarized climate with “unending wars, burgeoning debt, disregard for civil liberties, attacks on the sanctity of life…economic injustice…challenges to traditional understandings of sexuality and marriage” and the manipulation and marginalized status of Christians (11). While most of the authors do explore what Christian witness means in a general way, there is scant attention paid to the other subjects mentioned. Although almost all of the authors explicitly argue that a Christian political witness involves a commitment to non-violence, none of them specifically address “unending wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other place. Civil liberties are not substantively addressed as a main theme by any of the authors as a constitutional or legal matter. And, only a couple authors devote a paragraph or two to sanctity of life issues, or contemporary debates about marriage and sexuality. Aside from David Gushee’s essay (“Toward an Evangelical Tradition”) in which he writes briefly about ten contemporary political issues, none of the essays delves substantially into active, concrete situations of Christian political witness today.
As the editors seem to acknowledge, the primary purpose of the book is to examine the role of the church in relation to society. In the introductory chapter, George Kalantzis and Gregory Lee say the common theme of the book is that “Christians must remind themselves that the primary locus of Christian political activity is the church” (11). This is indeed the main focus for most of the authors. The title of Stanley Hauerwas’ essay, “The Church Matters,” more or less sums up the perspective taken by most of the authors in the collection. Unfortunately, Hauerwas and some of the other authors struggle to say exactly how it matters to politics beyond the argument that the church embodies a different way of life for the world to witness, and we should love our neighbors. For example, Scott McNight says the kingdom of God is the church and should be understood as a “redeemed community under Jesus” (59). He says Christians should operate out of self-sacrificial love for others and they should love their enemies, reject violence, and pay taxes for pragmatic reasons. Timothy G. Gombis says when Paul talks about the church “he is elaborating a political vision” (76). However, Gombis identifies Christian values and practices like mutual care, servanthood, humility, and economic sharing. He does not speak of things like foreign policy, immigration reform, economic policy, or social policy. He says “when it comes to politics, Christian people ought to think first of their church” and we should be “communities of shalom and justice and self-giving love” (89). So, for Gombis and many of the other authors in this book, politics has to be redefined for this to make sense. Christian political witness is primarily about the church being the church.
Occasionally, some of the essays offer some insights with more political implications, at least as politics is usually understood. For example, Jennifer McBride (“Repentance as Political Witness”) effectively explores the value of confession, repentance, and general Christian humility from a theological perspective. Very briefly, she draws out the implications of this approach for the posture that Christians sometimes take in the political arena. She is critical of both the Christian Right and a progressive evangelical like Jim Wallis for claiming to be the guardians of morality in public life and not sufficiently acknowledging their own weaknesses and limitations. However, she does not address issues like truth and reconciliation commissions, public (government) reparations, repentance for specific historical actions, or the role Christians might play in facilitating these activities.
Jana Marguerite Bennett’s essay (“Not So Private”) also has potential for exploring more concrete political implications. She persuasively argues that Christians should reject the Enlightenment-based distinction between the public and the private but does not say much about the political implications of it except that “Christians should not merely acquiesce to the perceived cultural boundaries of public and private” and “the family cannot be turned in on itself” (126). Bennett might have considered the implications of this stance for various issues such as daycare, family leave policies, protections for domestic and child abuse, housing policies, and so on.
A few of the essays do engage in more substantive political discussion. In addition to Gushee’s discussion of ten contemporary political issues, Daniel M. Bell Jr. examines just war thinking. However, rather than apply it to a particular contemporary or historical situation, he advocates for something he calls “Just War as Christian Discipleship” and develops the idea that just war thinking should be “an expression of the character of the Christian community” (167). In this view, just war theory is not a checklist of criteria to review at a moment’s notice, but entails a set of character traits or virtues that the church must embody. At times what he means by this is not entirely clear, such as when he talks about just war as a Christian discipline that is a matter of worship.
There are two other essays that stand out from the rest, perhaps because of the unique background of the authors. One is the essay by Mark Noll, the only non-theologian author. Noll examines a set of ten sermons in a collection published in 1861. The sermons are notable for their contradictory claims about slavery made by different preachers. Noll focuses on the significance of biblical rhetoric in public debate in the mid nineteenth century and how equally devout and respected public intellectuals could use Scripture so differently in their public statements about slavery. Noll does an excellent job highlighting the implications of this for historical and contemporary Christian political witness. He says,
Biblical rhetoric can strengthen political speech, but there are great dangers in using such rhetoric. Reliance on Scripture is imperative, but naïve Biblicism is dangerous. It is a Christian injunction to love one’s country, but an evil to treat any modern nation as if it were Israel of old. Christians in political life must guard against the lingering effects of fallen human nature. (54)
The final essay in the book is written by David Gitari, who at the time of the conference at Wheaton was the third Primate and Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya and Bishop of the Diocese of Nairobi. Aside from the obvious international perspective this essay gives to the book, Gitari describes in a compelling way from his own experience how Christians, and the church, can and should confront corrupt powers, even when it is done with great risk to their own safety. As a church official Gitari regularly and persistently spoke against matters like assassinations and rigged elections in Kenya. For Gitari, and all others in this book, it is essential for the church to maintain independence from political powers in order to act and speak prophetically against political powers effectively.
If the reader is looking for an in-depth theological discussion of the church’s general relationship to the world, this book will be a good read. However, it will be disappointing to those who are looking for discussion and insights on how Christians as individuals, groups, or the church as a corporate institution can and should engage in contemporary public policy debates. The authors do make some important general claims about Christian political witness. They maintain it should be non-violent and non-coercive and should reflect the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross. They say that it should be non-partisan, independent, and based on primary loyalty to God rather than to nation-state. Above all, they say it should be an integral part of the church’s identity. However, only in defining politics in a very broad way do they say much about actual Christian political witness. Most of the authors do not say much or anything about political parties, interest groups, structures of government, campaigns, criminal justice, social, economic, or foreign policies, or any number of important public issues that Christians consider important today. In focusing exclusively on the church, they do not have anything to say about the Christian political witness that occurs through individual Christian political action, or through other Christian institutions like Christian public interest groups (Christian Democratic Parties throughout the world are ignored). Nor do the essays do much to acknowledge that political authority, institutions, and structures themselves are a distinct area of life under the lordship of Jesus Christ where Christians belong. In saying the “primary locus of Christian political activity is the church,” the authors in this collection ignore a great deal of Christian political witness, unless both the church and politics are defined very broadly beyond their traditional meanings.