Political controversies

I’ve been frustrated for years by political controversies. I decided a few weeks ago it’s time to start working out what I think for real.

My first avenue of attack is to decide how I think the discussion should proceed. I want to work out the rules I think are essential for a productive dialogue, and then let that guide me to the people I trust to show me how to think about political things.

One of the first moments of clarity for me came after listening to this iTunes U philosophy lecture.  The one I have in mind is #7, “Understand Skepticism About Climate Change”.

I describe the whole lecture over here. This was my conclusion:

Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal.That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about how this would work in the case of scientific creationism / evolution, or the question of who was to blame in Ferguson, or the question of whether Obamacare was a good idea.


Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State

Book review: Protestant Concepts of Church and State, Thomas G. Sanders

This book was published in 1964. It looks at the various ways that Protestants have tried to make sense of the connection between church and state from the 1500s all the way up to the mid 1900s. It distinguishes five major strands:

  • A theocentric view (e.g., Lutheran tradition) – There are two realms. God works through the church according to the principles of grace. He works through the state according to the principles of law. Christians can be in politics, but if so they should use the principles of conduct that God intended to apply to the state, not those intended to apply to the church.
  • A sectarian view (e.g., Mennonite tradition) – Christians are to be separate from the world. Christians may need to withdraw from political involvement if to get politically involved would cause them to compromise their Christian principles. For example, many early Mennonites felt that it was wrong for Christians to get involved in politics at all, because to be in government was to use force, and to use force was a violation of Christian principles.
  • A pacifist view (e.g., Quaker tradition) – The state tends to use war and violence, which are against Christian teaching. However, the church shouldn’t withdraw: it should work to transform the way the state functions to be in line with Christian principles. This differs from the sectarian view in that it expects the church to be constantly trying to change the direction of the government and make it more pacifist.
  • A separationist view (e.g., American ideal of wall of separation) – The church and the state need to keep a strict wall of separation between them.
  • A transformationist view (e.g., Reformed tradition) – The church and state need a moderate amount of separation between them, but the church should also work to influence the state in more godly directions.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about what the idea church/state relationship would be, especially in a truly pluralistic society. I’m frustrated that while we have a whirlwind of activism today around the issue of how much the church should influence the state, we have very little reflection on what the ideal would be.

When I learned several years ago that that the church/state question was historically important to early Protestant churches, I decided I wanted to learn more, but I haven’t found many resources about it easily available to a layman.

I picked this book up hoping it would help, and it did. The things I most appreciated learning from it were a) the division into five traditions mentioned above, b) the degree to which early Protestants struggled with the whole idea of Christians being in government at all, and c) the degree to which Baptists and similar denominations spent the early part of the 1900s fighting for a lot more separation between church and state. The last point astonished me because we spend so much time today arguing against too much separation, as though that was always what we’ve believed. (Apparently our earlier passion to build the wall of separation as high as possible was motivated by a fear of Roman Catholicism getting too much influence.)

The one disappointing thing about the book is how old it is. So much has changed since the early 1960s! I’d love to have heard the author’s take on today’s church/state furor.

Would I recommend it? It’s a little dry, and probably impossible to find now, but I suppose, yes, I would, to anyone who is curious about the same stuff.

Would I reread it? Maybe. I think I already got most of the ideas I need from it, though.

How would I rate it? 5/10, maybe. Interesting, worth the read. It didn’t blow me away.

Praying for our nation

My quiet time verses yesterday morning were the concluding paragraph of 2 Chronicles.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia — in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah — the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also[put it] in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!'”  (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

First, some background. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles tell of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel. In the last chapter, just before these verses, the nation of Israel was wiped out, its leaders were killed, its capital was burned down, and the temple was destroyed. The chapter makes it really clear that all this was not because God had failed them but because He was judging them.

These two verses hold out a sliver of hope for Israel. It’s the end of the book, but not the end of the story. It shows that God still has some measure of mercy for Israel. Who knows whether He may restore them more fully in the future?

It’s really important that Cyrus acknowledges that all His power, including that over Israel, comes from “the LORD”. When the word LORD is capitalized that way, it means that it is a translation of the Hebrew word Yahweh. In other words, Cyrus is calling Israel’s God “the God of heaven” and giving Him credit for his power.

As I read these verses, it reminded me of the general discouragement that a lot of conservative Christians are feeling about our nation these days. Most of my Christian friends these days feel as though they are under a constant barrage from secularism in politics and in the culture.  I agree with them about this general sense of being under attack. It’s a hard world in which to live as a Christian.

(I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on persecution. I think it’s also a hard world for atheists and gay rights activists and feminists and all sorts of groups that feel like they are battling the status quo. There’s more than enough hostility to go around. More on that some other time, perhaps.)

Anyway, today is the National Day of Prayer. The verses above remind me that even in hostile territory God is in charge. They remind me that even in the middle of judgment God can show a measure of mercy and restoration. They remind me that even leaders who worship other gods can be led to show favor to Yahweh’s people. It encourages me to know that today a lot of us will be crying out to God together for our nation.

Politics and kindness

I love this:


I love the quote above. I love almost all the other quotes on the same web page.

It distresses me that we are sometimes so vicious in our politics, and particularly distresses me when Christians get sucked in to the same viciousness.

I like that Christians get involved in politics. I think that when we do so we have to be really careful not to adopt the world’s viewpoint of how to be politically effective. Matthew 5:1-10 and Matthew 20:25-28 should describe the way we engage in the culture war. I don’t think that they usually do.

Jacques Ellul

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, and finding it really fascinating. It’s a study of the way that the city in Scripture stands for the pride of man as he attempts to live without God (like a smaller version of “the world”). Babylon, especially, tends to signify this, all the way from the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) to the fall of Babylon near the end of Revelation.

In the most recent chapter, Ellul was talking about how we are called to live in the city as Christians and seek its welfare without adopting its values or worldview (like being “in the world but not of the world”). I’ve been feeling more and more in recent years that God is calling me to do the best I can in my secular job – teaching at a community college – and have been sorting out how to do this without getting tangled up in world-centeredness. Ellul’s ideas have made it a lot easier for me to think clearly about that question.

Ellul has also been emphasizing the judgment God has already pronounced upon the city (and the world), and that Christians wait for that judgment. That’s something else that resonates with me because in the last few years I’ve become aware how much the expectation that Jesus was coming back to earth one day was an important part of the gospel for the first-century Christians. In our day, we’ve replaced it by the hope of going to heaven, which means we’ve made the gospel something relevant only to individuals. We don’t see Jesus as the Lord and eventual Redeemer of society as well.

Ellul closed the chapter I just finished reading by emphasizing that even though we are waiting for judgment to fall, we should also be praying for mercy and revival, praying that it won’t fall yet. That’s an important corrective for some of the things I’ve been struggling with as I sort out our political duties as Christians.

Finally, Ellul’s approach to interpreting Scripture is one I find really valuable, although I was keenly aware as I was reading that most Christians would say it was bad interpretation. That’s got me reconsidering and expanding my views of what it means to interpret Scripture. I think we have sometimes been too narrow in our understanding of what the right kind interpretation must look like.

Political hubris

Here’s another interesting quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Discussing political activity, she says:

[T]he old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence, just as the political temptation par excellence is indeed hubris … and not  the will to power, as we are inclined to believe.

This is really important, I think. We assume the primary danger comes from people who are power-hungry, who do what they want from selfish motives. In fact, the greater danger comes from those who think they know how to legislate for everyone else, for their own good. It happens on both the left and the right. Politicians on both sides want to pass laws to save people from themselves, and it never occurs to them all the unintended consequences their well-meaning control might have.

The biggest problem is that when someone is doing this, he knows he is acting from unselfish motives. He is not power-hungry like so many others. Consequently, he will not listen to objections because he is confident there can be none from anyone who really gets it. His political purity in his own eyes makes him immune to counter-arguments.

That is one of the most important downsides of the political polarization in our country: not just that it produces incivility or unpleasantness, but that it cultivates this kind of hubris. It insulates each side from having to take the other side’s beliefs seriously.

Do we have enemies (part 3)

In part 1, I argued that we may have both personal enemies and enemies of the gospel. In part 2, I argued that we may have personal battles to fight, in addition to the spiritual battle mentioned in Ephesians 6.  At the end, I said that the really important thing is:

Keeping The Battles Straight

There are those who are enemies of the gospel, and there are those who are our enemies. There are battles we fight in because of our earthly citizenship, and there is the spiritual battle. I think the really important thing is not to mix them up.

In Old Testament times, there was a sense in which Israel’s wars were God’s wars and Israel’s enemies were God’s enemies. As Americans we cannot make the same claim. Israel was the people of God; America is not.

Soldiers in World War II 70 years ago or in Afghanistan today may have been doing their Christian duty but the same would have been true for Christians fighting against the US troops in the same wars. Christian citizens on either side had the opportunity to honor Christ by their patriotism, courage, and self-sacrifice.

What about the church? Isn’t it the kingdom of God? Yes, but only in a restricted sense. We believers are citizens of God’s kingdom, but that kingdom hasn’t come to earth in its fullness yet. Until it does, we are like foreign ambassadors, waiting for our Commander in Chief to arrive. Perhaps when he does we will fight. Until then, our role is to suffer and love and share the gospel.

That’s why the Bible mentions that our enemies are spiritual enemies and our weapons are spiritual weapons. God never intended the church – as opposed to Israel– to use military force to extend the kingdom.

We have to be careful not to talk as though our wars are God’s wars, or use God’s name to endorse our side of an earthly conflict. My concern is that whenever the US has faced enemies – whether the Nazis, the Communist threat, Muslim terrorists, or even, depending on your point of view, political liberals – we have tended to use the rhetoric of holy war to recruit for our side. As a loyal American, you may feel you need to fight a war on terrorism. Go ahead – just don’t call it God’s war. Doing that is a kind of blasphemy, a way of taking God’s name in vain.

It isn’t just the US that does this, of course. Most countries are guilty of it.

What about metaphorical battles?

We aren’t supposed to use military force to fight for the kingdom of God, but what about fighting socially or politically for what we believe? Can that be a legitimate way to wage war for God?

I don’t know if it’s wrong to wage a culture war in the name of Christ. Maybe it’s perfectly OK. After all, it’s not a real war; that’s just a metaphor. We don’t really intend to hurt or kill anyone, we just want to win votes and influence public opinion.

It’s still really easy to mix up our agenda with God’s, though. Even if our opinions are Biblically based, it doesn’t automatically mean God is fighting with us for control of our society.

Sometimes I think we forget that we are supposed to give God what is his, and leave to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s – and when Jesus said that, I don’t think he meant just taxes, but the whole agenda of fighting for our economic, political and social rights in a world that is hostile to God.

So I guess I would answer Pastormac’s question:

I understand in a big view that the devil is always the enemy, but are you saying that people are never the enemy? Was Hitler an enemy? Was Osama Bin Laden an enemy? Is it ever appropriate to treat flesh and blood people as enemies?

by saying that

  • While another person may be an enemy, he or she is never the enemy.
  • If we are fighting against people in a literal sense, we are fighting our own battle, and not God’s.
  • It’s not necessarily wrong to be fighting our own battle, as long as we keep in mind whose battle it is.
  • If we are in a culture or political struggle against someone, we can perhaps consider them to really be our enemies, but we should not consider the struggle against them to be really a (literal) battle. “Battle” is only a metaphor in their case.

Do we have enemies (part 2)

In the first part, I noted that as Christians, or simply as people living in the world, we can have enemies.

My original statement, though, said this:

None of the people around us — whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, whether Democrat or Republican – are the enemy.

Notice I didn’t say none of the people around us is an enemy, I said none of them is the enemy.  I said the enemy because I was referring to the battle, the one mentioned in Ephesians 6:12

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

In this particular struggle, human beings are not the enemy; Satan is.

So instead of asking, Do we have enemies, let me ask:

Do we have battles?

Answer: As before, the answer is that of course we do. Ephesians 6:12 mentions the spiritual battle to which we are all called. But just as there can be a) enemies for the sake of the gospel and b) personal enemies, so we can be involved a) in the battle against Satan and b) in other more physical battles.

If you are a Christian in the US military in Afghanistan, then as an American soldier, you have battles to fight. Literal, physical, human battles, against, literal, physical, human enemies.

Can one fight in these battles, trying to kill other people, and still live a life of obedience to Christ?

In the Old Testament, God called various leaders in Israel to take military action. In the New Testament, John the Baptist, asked by a soldier what repentance consisted of, told him how to be a more honest soldier, rather than telling him to quit his job. Romans 13 says that God gives governments the right to use the sword, which can perhaps be taken to include war against other governments.

At the same time, Jesus said that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). And when David wanted to build a temple for God, here is what he was told:

You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to My name, because you have shed so much blood on the earth before Me.
2 Chronicles 22:8

There’s a kind of paradox here. God condoned and even blessed David’s warfare. Yet when it came to building the temple, God didn’t want His name associated with war.  It seems to me that God condones war and bloodshed as being at times the necessary human response to our enemies (for instance, in World War II, to stop Hitler). At the same time, He wants to make it clear that such bloodshed is a product of the fall, not a reflection of the heart and character of God Himself.

So I think it’s complicated. Still, even though there are lots of thoughtful Christians who believe that the teachings of Jesus require that we be pacifist, I am not convinced. As far as I can see, it is possible to be a committed follower of Jesus, even at the same time that you are trying your hardest to kill someone on the field of battle.

In the meantime, what is clear is that we need to keep our battles straight.

I’ll leave that to part 3.

Do we have enemies (part 1)

In my very first blog I wrote about the culture war in America, and said this:

[W]e fight not “against flesh and blood” but “against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  None of the people around us — whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, whether Democrat or Republican – are the enemy.

We are not called to conquer in Jesus’ name politically.

Pastormac (my brother and good friend) asked:

 I do have a question about this statement: “None of the people around us — whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, whether Democrat or Republican – are the enemy.”

I understand in a big view that the devil is always the enemy, but are you saying that people are never the enemy? Was Hitler an enemy? Was Osama Bin Laden an enemy? Is it ever appropriate to treat flesh and blood people as enemies? Please, note that I am not specifically stating how one should treat an enemy, just questioning what you mean when you say “none of the people around us” are enemies.

The more I thought about this, the more I liked the question.  Here are my thoughts so far. As always, all Bible quotes are from the NASB.

Do we have enemies?

Yes, of course. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says “love your enemies”, which presupposes that we will sometimes have them.

Saying someone is my enemy can mean two different things. Someone can be my enemy because they hate me, or because I hate them (or both.)  In Matthew 5:44 Jesus must have the first sense in mind. I love someone who is opposed to me, and he continues to be my enemy because of his attitude toward me. It has nothing to do with whether I am against him or not. This is what Pastormac means by his question, because he added

Please, note that I am not specifically stating how one should treat an enemy, just questioning what you mean when you say “none of the people around us” are enemies.

Is it ever appropriate for me, as a follower of Christ to show hostility to someone else? Can I do that and love them at the same time? I’ll consider that question briefly in the next part.

Anyway, one reason we can have enemies is because of our walk with Christ.

Sometimes, of course, I may say people are enemies because of my faith, but it’s really my own fault. I act obnoxiously or self-righteously in the name of Christ; someone else gets offended and lashes out at me; I react by feeling persecuted and concluding that he is an enemy of Jesus. He isn’t necessarily, of course – he just doesn’t like me much! Proverbs 16:7 seems apropos:

When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD,
He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.

If we are really living as Christ wants us to, then we will be generally hard to hate.

On the other hand, sometimes people really are enemies of the gospel.

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ.
Paul, Philippians 3:18

Such people will oppose us more strongly the more we follow Christ.

There is a third case: sometimes people will hate us for reasons completely unrelated to our faith. If you are African-American, some people will hate you just because of your race. If you are American, some people will hate you just because of your nationality. If you are a Muslim, some people will hate you just because of your religion. If you are a Hatfield, the McCoys will hate you just because of your last name.

So yes, we have enemies. In the next part I’ll consider whether we have battles.

Wake-up call

I’ve been invited to participate, with the rest of my conservative evangelical church, in a simulcast tomorrow night on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. I’m in conflict about whether to go or not. I don’t know whether the event will encourage me in my faith or just make me angry.

On the positive side, one of the speakers is Anne Graham Lotz, about whom I have heard good things. Furthermore, the web site for the simulcast says this, “Join us as we consider the times in which we live, refocus on Jesus as our Hope for the future, and ask God to re-ignite such an intense longing for His return that we live the rest of our lives with no regrets.” That sounds promising. The Bible warns us repeatedly against “worldliness”, which has to do with adopting the values and goals of the world around us as our own. One of the signs of worldliness in the American church, in my opinion, is our being so easily caught up in the culture war taking place in the U.S.

Now, I agree with most of my fellow evangelicals that some important spiritual truths have been repeatedly attacked in our country during the last few decades. I also agree that there is hostility toward the West and toward Christianity from many different groups around the globe. The attack on the Twin Towers was a part of this; the current political turmoil reflects it as well. I also agree that we have every right as citizens of the U.S. to exercise our political rights by voting, by campaigning for those who will support our views, and by speaking out for what is important to us.

What is wrong, though, is to lose sight of God’s eternal purposes and resources because we are so focused on winning victories here. What is wrong is to forget that we fight not “against flesh and blood” but “against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  None of the people around us — whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist, whether Democrat or Republican – are the enemy.

We are not called to conquer in Jesus’ name politically. We are called to speak truth, to serve people, and to do it all in meekness and love. We are called to demonstrate that ultimately all our hope is fixed on the kingdom yet to come.

That’s why I hope the simulcast will do what it says it will: focus us on Jesus – not the Christian right – as our Hope for the future, and ask God to re-ignite a longing for His return – not merely the return of the worldview of 18th century America – that makes us better people.

The reasons I worry about the event tomorrow night are twofold. First, one of our church leaders encouraged us to come to the simulcast because we need to “take America back”. I’m just not convinced that’s a battle we need to be fighting. I wonder if perhaps we need to wake up and repent of even trying to take America back. Yes, we should speak out for the unborn and warn people about hell, and yes, we should try to change our country’s laws and influence its media for the better, but we should be doing these things only because they point people to something beyond our country and its welfare. Does it really matter who wins the culture war? What matters is extending the kingdom of God, and that is not at all the same thing as extending the influence of the Christian worldview in society.

The second reason I worry about tomorrow night has to do with the tagline on the posters, the one that reads “a wake-up call for God’s people”. My concern is that it won’t turn out to be a wake-up call to God’s people.

The reason I worry about that is because I’ve seen how easy it is for events like this to go subtly wrong.  We interpret the wake-up call as applying to all those other  Christians out there – the ones who aren’t attending church faithfully, or who aren’t standing firm for the central doctrines of the faith, or who aren’t all that committed to Christian living. We want them to come back to the fold. We want to recruit them to fight alongside us.

Perhaps we apply the wake-up call to ourselves as well, but only in the sense of recommitting ourselves to the battle. We know that for some reason God hasn’t blessed what we are doing so far, and we figure that if we can just try harder, He’ll come through for us. It never occurs to us to ask whether we might be working hard to do the wrong things. We dedicate ourselves without reflection, but with a renewed sense of righteous indignation, to the goals we’ve set for ourselves.  We confirm each other’s spiritual blind spots rather than exposing them.

I am at much at risk of doing this tomorrow as anyone else. I could easily respond to tomorrow night’s broadcast in spiritual pride, letting myself get frustrated that the believers around me are not open to their own need to repent, while patting myself on the back that I am seeing things clearly. Part of my struggle is how to approach tomorrow night, if I go, with a combination of discernment and humility. Even as I write this, I’m struck by how much easier it is for me to worry about tomorrow night going wrong than it is to simply pray for it!

In fact, it is quite possible that I am being too pessimistic anyway. Tomorrow night could be wonderful, especially if it has been put together prayerfully and discerningly and spiritually by people who are listening very closely to God. My purpose in writing this wasn’t to “complain in advance”. It was because these things were making me restless somehow, and the best way I could sort through them was to analyze them and write them down clearly. Having done so, I’d love to discover tomorrow night that all my concerns were needless.