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.
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).
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’ 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?