Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (9)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Yes, God’s people are to love, even love their enemies, because that is the character of God himself, but since God is also a righteous and holy God that wants justice amongst his people and in the world, it seems to me that while love is not a social program in the Bible, nonetheless, it is a viewed, perhaps as a byproduct, as a means to change society for the better. Yes we love the marginalized because God loves them, but that love has no concreteness to it if we are not trying to improve their living conditions etc. Jesus after all told us we need to be feeding, clothing, and visiting the least of these in prison. That sounds like a social program to me, even if it’s motivated by love. Comments?

PATRICK: I agree. Love is tangible action for the good of another. I conclude chapter 2 on Deuteronomy 10 with an appeal for Christian integral mission based on loving others in need as we have been loved by God. In regard to the global refugee crisis, for example, I say

“One thing is sure: our hard-edged capitalist culture has no room for those who are not contributing to its ruthless system of acquisition and consumption. The church’s vocation is to provide, with generosity and love, that room for those forcibly displaced” (p.41).

As you know, the history of evangelicalism during the 20th century was marked by major divisions over the relationship between the gospel and social action. It was John Stott and Billy Graham who had a key role in Lausanne 1974 in helping the evangelical movement recover from an unbiblical split of the two that had characterized 20th century fundamentalism. I’m certainly not wanting to go down that fundamentalist path of retreat from social action. My critique is of a hermeneutical jump where the New Testament’s overwhelming emphasis on love within God’s new covenant community is uncritically broadened to apply to the world in general. For example, where Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community subtly shifts to become a basis for political action to end all poverty.

BEN: Let’s talk about the Shema for a moment (pp. 56ff.). As you rightly stress, ahav is the word here for love, which is a more generic term used for the love of all sorts of things and people in the OT. It even is used for the love of mundane things— like Esau’s soup! And as you rightly stress, loving God involves cognitive as well as affective and behavioral love. My issue with the Shema is— how in the world was hard-hearted Israel supposed to love in the total way described in the text when they did not yet have the ongoing internal presence of the Holy Spirit in them and in their community? This sounds like the Don Quixote song ‘To dream the impossible dream’ or like Thomas More’s Utopia. Even Christians who are full of the Holy Spirit have trouble loving God with all they are and have. So how should we view incredibly demanding exhortations like this without trivializing them as just dramatic hyperbole?

PATRICK: I guess that question could apply to all of the OT in comparison to the NT. As you know much better than me, 2 Corinthians 3 is probably the most explicit text in the NT in terms of comparing the ministry of the Spirit Old to New. It is with Christ and the gift of the Spirit that God’s people now have the ‘veil removed’ and are able to ‘see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror’ (2 Cor 3:18). In regard to love, I see it like this: human love for God in Deuteronomy is obviously real. God doesn’t give intentionally impossible commands. But in the NT, humans can enter into a deeper transformative relationship of love with God through the Spirit of Jesus. The Old foreshadows fulfillment in the New. (And we should say, present new covenant experience of love in turn foreshadows perfection of love to come in the new creation – 1 Cor. 13).

As an aside, this relates to wider theological debates about love within the Christian tradition which I could only mention in passing in the book. Luther’s theology of love is particularly interesting and significant. He distinguished between divine love (amor Dei) and human love (amor hominis). Humans have genuine capacity to love, but this love is marred by sin. God’s love alone is perfect; it loves what is sinful (humanity) in order to make it good. We are not loved for our innate lovability, but out of God’s grace. It is being united to Christ through faith, that we are enabled to love both God and fellow humans aright. In other words, justification by faith leads to participation in God’s love. A couple of quotes from Luther illustrate the point:

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts” (Table Talk, 1533). “[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (8)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook

 

BEN: Let’s talk about the circumcision of the heart, an important idea in both the OT (p. 37) and the NT. On the face of it, the text of Deut. 10.16ff. indicates that God’s people must circumcise their own hearts— they must repent, not be hard-hearted etc. and turn back to God and thus be able to love God. But in the NT this act of internal circumcision seems to be the work of the Spirit. It seems to be something humans can’t do for themselves or to themselves, at least not without divine help. How do you view this matter? Where should the emphasis lie?

PATRICK: That’s a very interesting question. I think there are strong continuities here OT to NT. In both cases the great good news is God’s prior love which elicits a human response of love in return.

The chapter on Deuteronomy 10 is called ‘God’s love for the outsider’. Love is a major theme in Deuteronomy (think the Shema of 6:4-5) and in chapter 10 Israel is told to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19). Verse 19 is paired with verse 16, “ Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Their love of the ‘Other’ does not come naturally, it requires repentance and a turning of their hearts (the seat of identity) to God. What ‘circumcision of the heart’ seems to mean here is internalizing the generous and indiscriminate love of Yahweh himself who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18) and remembering how they themselves were beneficiaries of such life-saving love.

There is a strong continuity here with Paul’s talk about true circumcision being a matter of the heart, a spiritual response to God not merely an external physical act (Rom 2:28-29). In both cases circumcision of the heart has to do with appropriate human response to God’s prior love. Yet it is not all dependent on human will. Deuteronomy 30:6 locates heart circumcision with God: “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” In the NT, it seems to me, this promise is fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit whose fruit is primarily love. Again, there is both continuity and discontinuity – the Spirit enables believers to love and be in relationship with God and one another in a way that was not available in the OT.

BEN: There is a strong emphasis in your book on the church being the church, and you see the social side of the Gospel as a sort of overflow to local communities, but not a matter of a direct focus on the world and changing the world (p.283 especially). I was thinking about the Salvation Army while reading this, and thinking they at least would strongly disagree with some of this, with the church focusing on itself and loving itself, and simply being an alternative witness, rather than having a direct prophetic ministry in the culture, and a reaching out to better the culture quite apart from evangelism. John Wesley once said there is no spiritual holiness without social holiness, and he went about prodding Wilberforce to get the abolition legislation passed in Parliament to the day he died. He went about founding orphanages, and poor houses, which is eventually where General Booth got the idea. I know you are not talking about the church becoming like the Amish, and withdrawing from culture and society, but could you articulate for us what you do mean to say a bit more clearly?

PATRICK: One theme that was continually reinforced for me in researching chapters on the Old Testament and the New, is how the Bible’s overwhelming emphasis is on the spiritual authenticity of the community of the people of God, called to obey and imitate their God in every aspect of their lives together. And love is what that life together looks like. I say on the page you mention that “There is virtually no focus, Old Testament or New, on transforming the world outside the covenant community.” Love for God and each other is the missional task of the Church.

Now, as your question suggests, that sounds like a pretty insular thing to say! If seems to fly in the face of a lot of evangelical social and political activism, but I think we need to take seriously how uniform Scripture is on this theme. I believe that the primary calling of the church is to be the church – a foretaste of God’s kingdom and justice in the present. I worry when I see Christians ‘leaving the church behind’ and becoming consumed with making this world a better place through social and political action. I wonder if this turn to politics is in part a disillusionment with the church and a lack of confidence in the gospel – as if persuading those in power to do the right thing will advance the kingdom. In contrast, I’m struck by Jesus’ and the New Testament’s rather magnificent disinterest in the affairs of Empire. The real king of the world is the risen Lord.

This is not to say Christians in their individual lives, and local churches in their communities, should not be busy showing God’s love and justice with those in need around them (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12). This is a ‘bottom up’ witness to the world, not a Christendom ‘top-down’ attempt to control levers of power. I could start to comment on (some) evangelicals in your part of the world Ben and their apparently uncritical support of a certain President in order to advance Christian values through profoundly unchristian means – but I’ve probably said too much already!

BEN: Interesting that you brought that up, your fellow resident of Dublin, who is certainly a Christian, by whom I mean Bono, would disagree with your reading of the material rather strongly. But I don’t disagree that the primary mission is for us to be the church in the world and fulfill the great commandment as well as the great commission. Nor do I disagree with your critique of things in America where the civic and Christian religion are syncretized in unhelpful and unBiblical ways.

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

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.