What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (5) a dual approach to the state (long read)

So how does a kingdom-shaped approach to the world work out in the political sphere?

To try to answer this, I’m continuing to engage with John Nugent’s The Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the Church.

The third part of his book deals with applied theology – what does a kingdom-centred view look like in practice across themes like discipleship, leadership, fellowship, family, friendship, vocation (work), mission and politics.

So we are only engaging with the last of these, and again I’d recommend the book if you want to read about the others

1. To Recap

Within the kingdom of God, the church is called to be the better place within the world rather than, mistakenly, to attempt to make the world a better place. The church is a ‘showcase’ for justice (p. 166) rather than an organisation that demands justice from the world.

This calling is a gift, it is God’s initiative all the way down.

“Our job is to embrace the gift, display it, and proclaim its availability to others.” p. 166.

This where Anabaptism gets accused of quietism, an inward-looking withdrawal from the injustice and pain of the world. (As far I can see Nugent never uses the word ‘Anabaptist’ in the book, but it is clear where he is coming from).

It is a vision of world-involvement – just not one that believes it is the job of the church to attempt to shape society to its beliefs, even if it could. It is not about trying to pull levers of power in order to protect or advance the kingdom.

2. The Temptation of Christendom

In the modern period, the state has become humanity’s most potent form of organisational control. It governs the affairs of a particular group of people within a national boundary. It commands the right to use force to do so. It has at its disposal the ability to tax its citizens, and has forces like the law, the police, the army to rule and (hopefully) protect its citizens.  These are considerable powers – there are no greater human powers in our world. It is for good reason that many states are feared by their citizens when such power is misused.

So there is good reason why we are obsessed with the drama that is Brexit – it has sucked in the most powerful national institutions of the UK, Ireland and Europe into a morass from which, three years in, only promises to deepen in the years ahead – whatever Boris Johnston says about ‘getting it done’.

The great Christendom temptation for the church was to look upon such power and believe that if the right people (Christians, the church, politicians sharing some Christian values) were in power, then that power could be used to do significant good.

And so the church moved into partnership with the state – a marriage of convenience in which the state also benefitted from having ‘God on our side’ to legitimise and validate the state and its policies.

That way lies corruption of the church. It naively imagines that Christians, who are fallen human beings, will somehow be able to harness the power of the state for ‘pure’ ends. In Ireland we don’t have to look far to see how well that’s worked out.

3. The Kingdom of God versus the State

The Christendom temptation can’t be squared with the New Testament. Nugent has a compelling series of contrasts between the kingdom of God in the NT and the state. These are just some of them and I have organised them in table form. (The wording are quotes from Nugent pp. 184-85).

KINGDOM OF GOD THE STATE
God’s kingdom takes precedence over all other loyalties The state asks for allegiance and a willingness to kill and die for it
God’s kingdom flees from and repents of immorality The state tolerates most forms of immorality that don’t immediately hurt others
God’s kingdom shows equality to all people The state discriminates against citizens of other states, especially those with significantly different political philosophies
God’s kingdom loves without partiality The state favors the wealthy and influential
God’s kingdom seeks peace in all circumstances The state wages war whenever it’s politically and economically expedient
God’s kingdom welcomes the undeserving and unexpected The state considers them a problem to be dealt with and protected against
God’s kingdom assimilates the poor more easily than the wealthy The state esteems the accumulation of wealth and property as one of the highest ideals
God’s kingdom infiltrates the entire world The state is concerned primarily with its own territory and invests elsewhere only where positive returns are foreseeable
God’s kingdom is guided by God’s Spirit The state does not understand God’s Spirit and is guided by the power of the air and the spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:2)
God’s kingdom triumphs over persecution, bondage, suffering and death The state perpetrates these atrocities when individuals and groups stand in its way
God’s kingdom raises people to eternal life The state focuses exclusively on this life
God’s kingdom entails a restoration of this earth The state exploits the earth’s resources as much as public opinion will allow
God’s kingdom judges all powers and personalities counter to God’s kingdom The state is one of these powers and is destined for divine judgment

I haven’t put in all Nugent’s contrasts and I am sure nuances of some can be debated. Nor does this mean that the state does not have many positive functions. But the overall point, I think, is unassailable: God’s kingdom is of a fundamentally different character and nature to that of the state.

Jesus said that disciples are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.  This saying can be paralleled with his statement that disciples cannot serve both God and money. Both examples illustrate that disciples have one master to whom they are to be exclusively committed.

The Bible has a word for when God’s people commit their allegiance to anything alongside or above God – idolatry.

4. What then is a Christian attitude to the state?

Distance and Belonging

Now this may all sound like I’m advocating a hostile rejection of the state. Things are not so simple.

Maybe this image will help. In my book on evangelicalism and politics in Northern Ireland, I used the idea of ‘Distance and Belonging’ to describe a Christian attitude to the culture in which they live. This was developed from Miroslav Volf’s brilliant Exclusion and Embrace. It captures how Christians are to have a dual approach to their culture – of which the state is one expression.

BELONGING

The state has valuable God-given role, if one that is temporary and belonging to an old order which is passing away. The state is about ‘this world’, and a healthy state does a good job in organising practical aspects of life for its citizens – healthcare, local government, infrastructure, providing stability and justice and so on.

In this sense Christians ‘belong’ to the particular state in which they happen to live and recognise its God-given role. They should be praying for the state, especially that its considerable power is used for the good of all its citizens and not twisted to serve the agendas of the powerful.

At a local level, churches will be positively impacting wider society through good citizenship. This is influencing the world from the ‘bottom up’ rather than trying to control it from the ‘top down’. Nugent gives some examples:

  • Helping those in need within and around the local church. It was in meeting such needs rather than waiting for the state that the church was instrumental in starting hospitals and schools.
  • Keeping fellow citizens of the kingdom financially afloat and being less of a drain on the state
  • Being good citizens and employees in paying taxes, working, helping others and generally contributing to the common good.
  • In this sense the church exists for the world’s sake.

“This is part of what it means to be salt, light and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to it. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ has infused in us, and we trust in God to grow the seeds that we plant.” (p. 189).

DISTANCE

But, as I read the NT, its emphasis is more on ‘distance’ than belonging. Nugent calls this ‘respectful disentanglement’ (p. 186).

‘Distance’ is required in that, as we have just unpacked, the depth of the differences should mean that Christians have a profound caution about the state, especially the Christendom temptation to use the power and resources of the state to advance the kingdom of God.

Distance means that Christians are simply not convinced by the false promises of the state to deliver a future utopia. They belong to a different narrative – the unfolding story of God’s kingdom with Jesus as ruling King. It creates a different community to that of the state, organised by different values and shaped by a different eschatological goal.

We see distance at work in the NT in its overwhelming disregard for the power and relevance of the Roman empire.

For example, New Testament scholar John Barclay has convincingly argued that what is remarkable is just how insignificant the Roman Empire is in the thinking of Paul (Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 2016). For the first Christians, the might of Rome was simply not relevant to kingdom life within the community of the people of God. The politics of Empire pale into insignificance compared to presence of God made manifest in the world through his Son Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit who forms the new community of the king.

We see this in 1 Peter which most explicitly describes the pilgrim, exilic calling of the church in the world.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

In this vein Scot McKnight argues that the church is to be an ‘alternative politic’ to the politics of the world by being ‘a witness to the world of a new worship, a new law, a new king, a new social order, a new peace, a new justice, a new economics, and a new way of life’ (Kingdom Conspiracy, p. 101).

This means that the church’s calling is not to get entangled in the ‘top-down’ power politics of the world, as if it is the key to making this world a better place. Creating ‘distance’ means that Christians can bear witness from the ‘bottom up’ to a different kingdom that is present here and now within the world, and which will, one day, come in full.

It also means, the church should expect opposition from the state when there is a clash of kingdoms. After all, Christians follow a Messiah who was crucified by the state.

5. Back to Brexit

So this brings us (finally!) back to Brexit.

How are those who belong to a different kingdom to respond to the political dramas, Machiavellian plots, lies, fears, power-plays and complexity motives behind Brexit?

Here are some thoughts shaped around distance and belonging .. and these are very much an ongoing thought experiment, so please to feel welcome to add your own to the conversation.

DISTANCE

‘Distance’ means a healthy detachment and scepticism about the rhetoric and promises of Brexit. It means to trust in a very different kingdom.

1. Disbelief in empty promises

The power centres of Westminster, Dublin, Brussels (and Washington, Bejing or Moscow for that matter) are not where the future of the world will be decided. That future is already decided in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is the risen Lord.

Politicians like Boris Johnston, Leo Varadkar, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean Claude Juncker et al do not rule the world – thank God! If Brexit has shown us anything, it has revealed the powerlessness of politicians to deliver on grand promises of making the world a better place. I have lost count of the number of empty promises made about Brexit.

Those in power tend to believe their own hype that history revolves around them. It does not. As Nugent comments, this does not mean their rule is a complete sham, “but they control a diminishing realm with little future” (p. 190). Political power is on loan from God, it has limited power for a limited time.

2. Humble confidence rather than apocalyptic fears

Brexit has also been surrounded by apocalyptic language of a dark future.

On the pro-Brexit side, the future of the British state rests on a great reversal; liberation from the clutches of the EU that would lead to a utopian future in which control of borders would be regained, true British identity ‘restored’ and economic sovereignty reclaimed. This is a sort of ‘salvation narrative’ and would be a source of amusement if it was not so passionately believed. It is doomed to failure – even if a ‘clean’ Brexit were achieved it will never deliver what its proponents dream of.

On the anti-Brexit side, Brexit itself presages a xenophobic future of ethnic tension, narrow nationalism and economic stagnation. Defeating it becomes a mission of decisive significance.

Both visions come wrapped in fear and use language of ultimate purpose. Both talk in apocalyptic terms of what will happen if Brexit goes the wrong way. Both seek to mobilise their supporters to give their all for the cause.

This means what side you are on becomes a matter of great significance. Families are divided and friendships are destroyed.  

Citizens of the kingdom of God are called not be captured by such narratives of fear.

Their trust is in someone else, regardless of what European politics gets up to. I don’t say that glibly. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Major political instability may well lead to the break-up of the UK and Northern Ireland could easily erupt in violence.

But the church has always had to negotiate a precarious path of faith in Jesus within a violent and unjust world. Stability, security, comfort and certainty are hardly descriptions of the life of first Christians. Perhaps we have become so used to life within a stable Western democracy that we are especially shocked when our unexamined assumptions are suddenly challenged.

In such a climate of fear where politics becomes a game of ultimate significance, the Church needs to be preaching and teaching its message of hope, trust and humble confidence in God’s future.

I don’t know about you, but it is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘Brexit fear’ – you know those dinner table conversations that descend into gloomy incredulity about the stupidity and unnecessary destructiveness of British politics around Brexit. But fretting about the actions of politicians, their false promises and threats that may or may not materialise is not consistent with faith in a risen Messiah who holds the keys to all our futures.

Belonging: an alternative kingdom within the world

More positively, it seems to me that the calling of the church regarding Brexit looks more like this:

  • The church cannot and should not try to control or influence Brexit. It is not the church’s remit. Nor is it simple to say Leave or Remain is ‘the’ Christian position. As I said in the first post in this series, whether you agree with them or not Christian arguments can be made both ways for Leave and Remain.
  • The church’s calling is to be a new humanity in the midst of the old order, especially in how the kingdom of God is for all people, regardless of what ethnicity, passport or qualifications they have.
  • To reflect something of God’s radical impartiality for all, just as Israel was to love and care for the alien and the stranger in her midst because YHWH her God loved them first (Deut 10:18-19). The church recognises no national borders in who can enter the kingdom of God.
  • To be a place of unity in Christ where political affiliation and national identity is of relatively little importance.
  • To be kingdom communities that are not primarily concerned for ourselves (our own economic well-being, our own political self-determination, our own security, our own comfort) but in which love ‘spills over’ into our local communities.
  • To have a global perspective rather than obsessing over Brexit, borders and national identity by praying for, helping and learning from brothers and sisters across the world who are facing far greater threats and fears than we do.

So what do you think?

How useful or convincing to you find this Anabaptist framework for thinking about faith and politics? (And it may be worth looking back at post 2 at Anabaptist Core Convictions).

Do you see how it is distinct from a ‘world-centred’ perspective that tends to widen the church’s remit to be a better place into a general mission to transform this world?

What issues and questions are not being addressed?

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (3) problems with the world-centred view

Problems with the World-Centred View

In the last post we left off with John Nugent’s description of a ‘world-centred’ approach to Christian action and witness. It should sound familiar – it encompasses people like N T Wright (Surprised by Hope) and Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a New Earth).

Jesus has inaugurated a new creation in which God’s people are called to participate as image bearers, acting to bring God’s future world into this present one wherever and whenever possible (Nugent, p. 13). We cannot redeem the world, but our action in the present will point to and be ‘folded into God’s ultimate global redemption.’ (p. 13).

And the church itself is to be a foretaste of that new creation.

This all sounds good and right does it not? What’s not to like?

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have unhesitatingly affirmed this world-centred framework. It avoids the undue optimism of the human-centred view (that humans can transform the world along the lines of God’s kingdom) or the anti-worldly and often dualistic theology of a heaven-centred theology.

However, researching and writing The Message of Love reinforced something that I had felt but not fully worked out – that there is remarkably little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. And there is next to nothing about God’s people being called to transform the world.

But there is an overwhelming emphasis on the people of God living up to their calling to be a community of love and justice in the world.

It is this unique ecclesiological calling that tends to be blurred within the world-centred view. I use the word ‘blurred’ deliberately, because ‘loss of focus’ describes well what is going on.

The specific task and calling of the church to be the church is subtly widened to include making the world a place that better aligns with the kingdom of God. This happens when biblical commands aimed at the people of God are misinterpreted to become general endorsements to transform the world.

Nugent gives some examples:

  • OT prophetic denouncements of Israelite social injustices such as the rich exploiting the poor (Amos) is broadened into a mandate to denounce and fight against all injustices everywhere.
  • Mary’s Magnificat celebrating God’s rejection of the proud and powerful and choice of a humble peasant girl becomes an endorsement for political action to liberate the marginalised and oppressed in general.
  • Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community shifts to become a basis for political action to end global poverty (and we could add in Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ in Galatians 2:10 here).

Many more could be given but you see the pattern: the mission of the church, and Christians within it, becomes heavily invested in political activism. ‘Kingdom-work’ gets broadened to include all sorts of activity that loosely connects to themes of justice or social improvement.

Focus is lost on how, in both the OT and the NT, attention is on the integrity and communal life of the people of God. In the NT, it is the Spirit-formed body of Christ that is now being renewed and which represents God’s new-creation in the world.

Nugent puts it this way;

“… the world centered approach risks putting the cart before the horse. Even though the New Testament presumes and proclaims God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all things, it gives primacy to the new thing that has already begun among God’s people. What Christ has begun to do in the church is the core of what will be folded into his ultimate renovation of all things. The order of priority is first Christ, then his renewed people, and finally the redemption of our bodies and then of non-human creation.” (p. 18)

His conclusion is that

“God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns.” (p.20)

Quite radical implications follow

If political and social activism to make the world a better place becomes primary, then Nugent argues that this oversteps the church’s mission, eclipses part of the gospel and leads to neglect of believers’ true calling.

This challenges disciples to ask where are our energies, time and resources focused? Are they detached from the church into community and political activism?

Are all our energies and time and money invested in seeking to make the world a better place – whether in political lobbying, environmental protection, business development, social justice activism and so on?

Do we see ‘kingdom-work’ being engaged in any activity that is somehow making the world a better place?

And, returning to Brexit, are our emotions, worries, time and energies focused on the political drama unfolding in Westminster? If they are – what does this say about where we see real powers in the world at work? Are we obsessed with Brexit because we believe that human political power is where things are really at?

Rather than understanding that the future of the world lies elsewhere and that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to the one true God (Isaiah 40:15)

Again, this is not a call for pietistic retreat. It is not a heaven-centred ‘washing of hands’ concerning desperate needs within this broken world and a dualistic desire to ‘get out of here’.

What a kingdom-centred approach to life within the world is where we will go in the next post(s).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (2) Defining some terms

Picking up the discussion from the first post, if Brexit itself has meant all sorts of things to all sorts of people then what does Anabaptist mean?

For brevity, I’m going to refer to how some contemporary Anabaptists define themselves. The principles below are from the Anabaptist Network, a loose coalition of Anabaptist-minded Christians.

Anabaptist Mennonite Network Core Convictions


“Among the core convictions and commitments important to many of us are:

1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.

2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.

3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.

5. Churches are called to be committed communities for discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender, and baptism is for believers.

6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation and working for justice.

7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society and between nations.”

If you have read this blog over the years, you will see why I say I’m an Anabaptist at heart. It seems to me that these convictions are deeply, biblically right: Jesus-directed discipleship, kingdom-centred life, church as an alternative body politic to the state, a kingdom community that is wary of power, money and hierarchy, roles related to giftedness not gender, and a commitment to non-violence.

But how do such values work out in terms of engaging faith and politics? With Brexit as our case study.

Let’s drill down into kingdom / church and state a bit more in terms of answering our main question.

A way in to this is to using a recent book by John Nugent, Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the church. Nugent is an OT scholar (Politics of Yahweh) and also editor of the Yoder for Everyone series (although now personally discredited, Yoder was a giant of 20th century Anabaptism).

Nugent’s argument takes up central Anabaptist themes arguing for a kingdom-centred framework as opposed to what he calls heaven-centred, human-centred, or world-centred approaches to Christian life within the world.

These latter three need brief definition because what framework we use will profoundly shape our approach to faith and politics.  

It’s worth asking yourself which one most closely fits where you are at – whether you have worked that theological framework out consciously or whether it is more a case of instinctive feelings and gut assumptions. 

Heaven-centred

The main ethos here is rescuing people from the world. The church is a recruiting organisation, mission is about deliverance from the world and the Christian life is mainly about preparation for the future better-place of heaven. There is, consequently, little theological motive to get too involved in the world, and certainly not the fallen world of politics.

[Side comment here – this is what Anabaptism is often accused of, namely a pietistic spiritual withdrawal from the corrupt world into a community of holy pilgrims on the way to a better heavenly place. But such a charge is little more than caricature. I would argue that Anabaptism at its best is precisely the opposite – it is deeply engaged with the world, often at great cost (but we’ll come back to this in a moment).]

Human-Centered

Various political and religious views fit in here.

For example, atheists are often deeply concerned for world-betterment – after all this world is all there is so we’d better do our best to look after it. Since God is an illusion, we are the only hope of the world.

Climate change activism is obviously passionate about world-betterment – time is running out and humanity is its own (and the entire global ecosystem’s) worst enemy. Radical action is urgently required to save the world. Obviously there are many Christians involved in climate justice – as well as about protecting the natural world, it is an issue of justice for the poor. But the point I’m making is that within this view, the key to making the world a better place is human political action. 

Christians within this framework tend towards the view that the church’s job is to advance God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus has shown what radical social and economic justice looks like in practice, and the task of disciples today is to is to enact and apply Jesus’ kingdom-vision to contemporary social and political structures.

A critical theological move here is how Jesus’ focus on discipleship within the kingdom-community is widened out to become a blueprint for life within the world in general. This can lead, I suggest, to the elevation of the political – everything is political and the political is everything.

World-Centered:

There is a lot going for the world-centred view.

  • It rightly affirms God’s care for the world and his plan to redeem and renew it (not destroy it);
  • it sees how the trajectory of the Bible story is about the union of heaven and earth, not humanity’s escape from the world;
  • it is realistic to acknowledge that humans cannot bring about God’s kingdom come – only God can; it is shaped by a ‘now and not yet’ inaugurated kingdom theology where, since the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God is now actively at work in the world making this world a better place in the present;
  • it emphasises that our role in the world is to work for justice – to be active in seeking to make this world a little bit more in line with the kingdom of God. God’s people are called to participate with him in kingdom work, as a foretaste of the future consummated kingdom to come.

All of this is persuasive and makes the world-centred view increasingly popular as a more compelling framework that the human or heaven-centred views.

But, Nugent argues, and I agree with him, that the world centred approach has a fatal weakness. And this is critically important in shaping a theology of faith and politics.

So in the next post, we will consider his criticisms of the world-centred approach and what his articulation of what a kingdom-centred theology of faith and political action looks like.

In a further post or two, we will discuss what a kingdom-centred Anabaptist theological framework looks like when it comes to Brexit.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (28) Therapeutic Christianity

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post zones in on one issue raised within Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’ – the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

Rutledge addresses our propensity to want to downplay or get rid of judgement.

Is this your sense of things today? Is judgement rarely talked of? Is God’s love rejoiced in but rarely his righteousness (putting things right through the atonement)? Is God pictured more like a powerful friend than King and Lord of all? Is sin and atonement marginalised – and if so why?

In particular Rutledge explores modern discomfort with images of God as judge associated with the law court and forensic understandings of justice.

Why has there been so much resistance to the law-court motif in interpreting the atonement? … reaction against [judgemental preaching] coincided with the emerging sentimentality of popular late-nineteenth century American culture, with interesting theological results: God was no longer expressing judgement upon sin the sacrifice of his Son, but only love for sinners; no longer was God’s activity portrayed as onslaught, but rather as infiltration. Instead of an apocalyptic invasion, we got “gentle persuasion”. (317)

This is “therapeutic preaching” (317) that minimises God acting against Sin as well as for redemption.

The motive Rutledge identifies is that we don’t want to be judged by other people or by God, we want to be judged by ourselves. We want to be in charge of our own destinies, and, in line with various self-help philosophies, paper over the deep anxieties and conflicts that rage within us in the illusion that we can sort ourselves out.

Yet the good news is that we can’t! It is that God in Jesus Christ has ‘cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands … set [it] aside, nailing it to the cross.’ (318)

Other reactions against an over-emphasis on forensic imagery

Another related reason Rutledge explores is an over-emphasis on the atonement in forensic (legal) terms. This, she argues, sidelines the bigger picture of the cross as God’s apocalyptic ‘in-breaking’ of God into human history to effect a dramatic victory over Sin and Death and the Powers.

An overly legal / courtroom view of the cross tends to reduce its scope to that of judgement and often in individualistic terms. It will also, she argues, tend to focus on legal standing before God – of who is ‘in’ and ‘out’, of guilt and innocence, or moral standards. Yet those lines run through every person.

We need a bigger perspective that the cross is about

‘deliverance from hostile, enslaving powers that are waging war against God’s purposes.’ (320)

The apocalyptic way of seeing transcends an individualistic, pietistic, inward-looking ‘spirituality’ and opens up a horizon of political, social and cosmic implications that has everything to do with the state of our world today and our role as Christians in that world.

If we begin by talking about being acquitted in the courtroom, we are working from a diminished perspective. (319-20).

These are important and controversial proposals. If the gospel is only framed in legal terms there are unforeseen consequences.

If the preacher / pastor is stuck in the realm of the law court, the presentation of the gospel is likely to drift into a moralistic frame of reference. (320)

Forensic imagery if taken in isolation is inimical to the gospel – but not for the reasons that many critics think. The problem is not that we should get rid of the concept of judgment, which is a major theme of both Old and New Testaments. The problem is understanding judgement exclusively in terms of the metaphor of trial, verdict, and sentencing in a court of law. (320)

Rather, Rutledge concludes, the atonement as a courtroom verdict, must be located within the wider and broader apocalyptic framework of God’s deliverance.

My comments – within evangelical Protestantism it is the forensic image of the law court that has for centuries dominated thinking about the atonement. There are links here with what Rutledge is saying to criticisms of how justification by faith become virtually synonymous with ‘the gospel’, yet the two concepts are quite distinct, the former a consequence of the latter.

And how justification by faith, improperly understood, does result in a narrow, individualistic, ‘ledger balance’ understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. It can give the mistaken impression that the Christian faith is a ‘done deal’. ‘My sin problem’ is sorted out and so the Christian life and all that follows – a life in community, service, doing justice, prayer, and spiritual transformation is somewhat detached from ‘salvation’.

This misses the kingdom of God which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, and tends to marginalise the bigger purpose of God for his people to be a kingdom community in the world. It downplays the work of the Spirit and that a response to the gospel is only the beginning of a transformed life lived within the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom come and yet to be fulfilled.

Comments on this welcome!

When the guns went quiet

Had the privilege of preaching at MCC on Sunday. Since it was the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 it seemed appropriate to think of Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies (Luke 6:27-36).

end_of_the_warI finished the sermon with this picture and associated sound clip. The picture is of film onto which different microphones in the trenches were recording the sound intensity of enemy guns. Using triangulation, they could then pinpoint the location of those enemy guns.

The films were unearthed a while ago in the Imperial War Museum. The most dramatic one is of the 11th of November 1918, the day the guns went quiet. The film shifts from spikes of sound to the flat line of silence (above).

Clever people have reverse engineered the film to recreate the sound it first recorded. So, although there are no sound recordings of WW1, we can now hear the ending of the war and the first moments of peace after years of senseless slaughter.

Have a listen to the arrival of peace

The closing point I made in the sermon is that this is an image of Christian eschatological hope. Christians believe that one day the guns will go quiet for ever: no more war, no more mass shootings, no more violence, no more arms industry making billions from deaths of others. God’s kingdom will come, the Prince of Peace will rule, God will be ‘all in all’.

And in the here and now, it is the calling of those who belong to that King and his kingdom, to live lives of peace within this violent world. To lives that point to another kingdom to that of the world. A kingdom in which disciples refuse to take part in war, but follow the even harder calling of loving enemies.

Because this is what God is like – a God of kindness and mercy to the undeserving.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Putting the Golden Rule into Practice: Musings on Luke 6 and Queer Theology

Ok this post may stray into warmish waters but it is a sincere attempt to get at the cutting edge of what Jesus is saying in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. If there isn’t an edge to application from that radical Sermon then we’ve quite simply missed its core.

These are questions coming out of two areas of reading and teaching I am doing at the moment

  1. Love in Luke 6
  2. Queer Theology

This post has three parts.

  1. What is the core principle within the Golden Rule?
  2. What or who is a contemporary example of the ‘Other’?
  3. What does it mean to apply the Golden Rule in regard to Queer Theology?
  1. What is the Core Principle within the Golden Rule?

Luke 6 contains what has become known as the ‘Golden Rule’ –

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

In the verses that follow, Jesus repeats the phrase ‘what credit is that to you?’ three times. His point in each case revolves around the identity of those ‘Others’. The whole point is that ‘they’ are NOT like ‘us’.

There is no ‘credit’ in safe and easy love of those ‘like us’ – the people we feel comfortable around and like to hang out with.  You know, people who share our values, faith, sense of humour, probably of similar socio-economic background, education, likely skin colour, maybe age – and mostly likely heterosexuality.

Such ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ love costs us little. ‘Love for those that love us’ is just typical human behaviour; it is fairly unremarkable. This is Jesus’ point about ‘even sinners do that’. In other words, those outside the kingdom of God love like this, so there is nothing particularly credit worthy and exceptional if disciples love each other in this way. It is to be expected.

However, there is, it is implied, ‘credit’ in loving people NOT like us. That is distinctive and rare because it does not make ‘natural’ sense. This sort of love is not to be expected.

Given the context of the sermon, the ‘Other’ is not just different to ‘us’, but is opposed to us in some way (enemy love begins and closes the main part of the Sermon vv 27-36)

That opposition is not necessarily personal, but holds opposing beliefs and values that perhaps stand in sharp conflict with some of our own deepest commitments.

So – who is NOT like you? And is opposed to you in some way?

  1. Queer Theology as a contemporary example of the ‘Other’

The opposing ‘Other’ could take many forms. Bitter divisions of course exist around areas of political, racial and religious commitments and identities. But the area I’m focusing on in this post is sexual identity.

What does it mean to ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ where the ‘Other’ is articulating a theology of sex and identity that is deeply at odds with orthodox Christian teaching?

To be more specific – what does it mean for evangelical Christians (since this is the community to which I belong) to love the ‘Other’ where the ‘Other’ is committed to Queer Theology?  (I am deliberately focusing on a theology rather than a person. These are musings on general principles on how Jesus’ teaching applies in a contemporary situation. I don’t want to make it personal).

So a definition is needed at this point. What is Queer Theology?

Cheng Radical LoveAn entry route is Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: an introduction to Queer Theology. In it Cheng claims that

“Christian theology itself is a fundamentally queer enterprise because it . . . challenges and deconstructs—through radical love—all kinds of binary categories that on the surface seem fixed and unchangeable . . . but that ultimately are fluid and malleable.” (10)

This quote captures the essence of Queer Theology’s agenda. It is to shake up or ‘queer’ accepted ‘norms’, particularly around gender and sexuality. All sexual identities are constructed, nothing is fixed or ‘normal’. Whatever sexual identity someone has (and it can be fluid and changing) it is a ‘gift’ – to be welcomed, expressed and affirmed. ‘Radical Love’ is to accept this dissolving of boundaries.

Traditional religion, with its commitment to the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality is exclusionary and coercive and oppressive. Queer Theology is therefore a type of liberation theology, ‘on the side’ of the marginalised LGBT+ communities.

In his book, Cheng proposes a Queer Theology around systematic categories of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also talks of a queer reading of Scripture.

The results are very radical indeed:

  • The Bible is reinterpreted. For example, sin in Sodom and Gomorrah is ultimately about inhospitality to strangers
  • God the Father is understood as “coming out” in radical love that dissolves boundaries. Boundaries between sexual and non-sexual relationships; between marriage and queer sex.
  • Jesus is the ‘boundary-crosser extraordinaire’. Cheng even sees Jesus as physically male and genetically female as a result of the virgin birth.
  • The Spirit is the work of God in breaking down boundaries and effecting radical love. All sexual, erotic, and other boundaries that separate are overcome by his ministry of radical love.
  • Sin is redefined as human rejection of God’s radical love; of human rejection of God dissolving boundaries and divisions. Sin is holding on to divisive and judgemental ideas around heteronormativity.
  • The sacraments are reinterpreted as ‘coming out’ for LGBT people. This is expressed in baptism which signals a leaving behind of the old life in the closet and embracing a new life out in the open.

There is much more but this gives a flavour. For most Christians, Queer Theology’s novel and radical nature makes it an example of the ‘Other’. This is a theology that is ‘not like us’ and the people espousing it are most definitely opposed to traditional orthodox Christian teaching on sex and holiness (Obviously this is a broad statement, but there is a clear identifiable core agreed body of Christian teaching on sex, singleness and marriage).

So, in terms of theological response, here is an initial assessment of Queer Theology claims.

I’d argue that this sort of theology is not recognizably Christian in any meaningful sense. It is not even clear to me why Cheng and other Queer Theologians focus on the Bible and Christian faith at all. If there are no boundaries, why tie things to systematic Christian theological categories? Why not ‘queer’ things even more consistently and take any source you like? Why not just use the vast array of LGBT+ stories, poems and art as the source to support the boundary breaking vision of ‘radical love’?

It is also pretty clear to me that Queer Theology is profoundly unorthodox. It lies outside any recognisable Christian tradition. Indeed, it is effectively heretical in its doctrine of God, sin and salvation. It radically relativises the Bible and interprets it through the lens of sexual identity politics.

So that is a very negative response. Some might say such a reaction is judgemental and unloving. I’d say not necessarily. It is an assessment of specific theological ideas. Disagreeing in itself is not unloving. Whether it becomes unloving or not depends on how the next question is answered.

  1. What does it mean to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ in regard to Queer Theology?

Going by the Golden Rule, the question to ask next (and often isn’t) is How would I like to be treated by people who disagree profoundly with what I believe?’ ‘How, therefore, should I act toward those espousing Queer Theology?

Here are seven thoughts in response:

1. I would not want people to dismiss what I believe out of hand as so obviously wrong that it is not worth taking seriously. So I should not do the same to Queer Theologians.

2. I would not want people to misrepresent or caricature what I write or say in order to win an argument. So I should take time to understand and fairly state what Queer Theology is.

3. I would not want people to attack my character for daring to be different from them. So I should not do the same to people self-identifying as Queer.

4. I would not want people to assume that because I disagree with Queer Theology, that I am a homophobic bigot. I should therefore not assume that others’ motives are malign.

5. I would not want people to not bother to try to understand why I believe what I believe because they disagree with me – and see me as a sinner. So I should seek to understand and listen to why people hold to Queer Theology.

6. I would not want people to try to silence me by threats or coercion of any kind. Or refuse to talk to me because I am morally obnoxious in their eyes. So I should not do likewise.

7. I would not want people to pretend to be who they are not, or to ‘spin’ their real beliefs, in order to try to build an unreal sense of unity. So I should speak honestly about what I believe, but with grace and respect.

Comments, as ever, welcome (I think).