June 01, 2004
God and Caesar, part 2
Someone I know said that Pentecost is the most political Christian holy day. Because that was when the Church stood up and proclaimed Christ to the world.

--from my pastor's Pentecost sermon

The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If the deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world.

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In spite of the urge to remain quiet when people proclaim other gospels, I will insist that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. I won't shout this in arrogance, nor qualify it as merely a private 'value' or one option among many, nor share it only with those who already know. Instead I will simply tell the good news of the Messiah's death and new life for our sake. It was not invented by Paul, nor wished into being by delusional disciples or the emotionally needy, nor written into corrupted scriptures, but was authored by God himself and given to all as the fundamental sign of his undeserved favor.

--Telford Work

Why can't some Christians just shut up already and stop trying to freak the heck out of everyone else?

--Kynn Bartlett

And so, I begin my promised sequel to my post on politics and Christianity, regarding whether you can be a political Christian without actually proselytizing.

I was thinking of this because in my email to Allen, I wondered why he was so interested in winning the favor of non-Christian progressives in the first place. He answered that he believes in tolerance and he believes in the progressive movement, which needs both Christians and non-Christians to succeed.

Allen, like many left-leaning Christians, finds himself in an odd position. He seems to believe that trying to actually convert people to Christianity would be intolerant of other religions (or non-religions). Yet he believes, as he said on his blog somewhere back when, that Christians' role in society is to be a "prophetic voice for the poor and powerless."

To some extent, you don't have to be a Christian to share many values with Christians. Many atheists and believers in other religions also believe in things like pacifism and helping the poor. But what, exactly, is the purpose of a "prophetic voice"? In the Bible, the prophets spoke for God, warning the Israelites they would pay for their unfaithfulness while also assuring them of God's eternal fidelity. They were talking to a people who all believed in the same God, and who all understood what their covenant was about.

If you're talking to people who don't subscribe to your version of God, however, you're in the weird position of telling them to change their behavior but not to change their beliefs. And I don't see how that's any more tolerant. If anything, it's more annoying to be told to do something for no particular reason. I should do it because this person said so? Because otherwise I'm a bad person? What?

When I posted about witnessing last summer, Telford left a comment that speaks to this:

That is another case I should have included: evangelism that fails to translate the message properly so that it can be understood. People do this all the time when they take over the judgment-language of the prophets of Israel, and shout it at those who aren't among the covenant people, who either don't know what these 'prophets' are talking about or misinterpret them. The prophets are talking to insiders, not outsiders. It would be like me chewing out someone else's kids when there is no relationship to provide the proper context of love.

I think that was what Kynn was complaining about in the post I mentioned above. Warnings of doom and judgment to nonbelievers aren't only annoying, they're not even biblical. The U.S. government didn't make a covenant with God to follow his rules, and despite what Jerry Falwell thinks, there's no reason to believe he's going to rain destruction on us because of our government's actions. But pushy right-wing proselytizers aren't the only ones who do this. When liberal Christians thunder about social justice without placing it in the context of their faith, it also comes across as just a lot of finger-wagging.

Another problem with this approach is that it brings up that old bogeyman for Protestants, works justification. Only some liberal Christians today seem to be taking it even farther that the Catholicism of Martin Luther, and going for a sort of Pelagian attitude that works are all that matter to God. (See this post from the Salty Vicar, for instance.)

I object to this not because I think people who don't believe oughta go to hell, but because expecting works without faith puts a great burden on the follower and almost obliterates the good news. Jennifer wrote about this last year:

I'm so glad to know that HEAVEN is powerless and it's my job to free the world!

Okay, I'll cut the sarcasm. And before you comment on how important it is for the church to work for social justice, let me emphasize that I agree with that one hundred percent. But any social worker or minister will tell you that the Jesus syndrome (thinking it's your responsibility to save the world) is dangerous. You’ll get burned out (very common in both professions), feel lonely, depressed, and probably act out by doing something stupid. This is how bad theology hurts you.

Hear the good news: the world has already been saved.

That last line is especially important. In the story of Stephen that I quoted in part 1, the vision of the Father and Son in heaven at the last moment is no accident. Because Stephen believes in Christus Victor, he has no need to fight for his survival and feels only compassion for the poor souls stoning him who don't see it yet.

I honestly don't understand how a person could do that sort of thing without that strength of faith. Buddhists and Jains may practice nonviolence for different reasons than Christians do, but they do have philosophies in which nonviolence makes sense. This is not one of those things where you can just say, "Do it!"

I am, however, more amenable to Bonhoeffer's idea that Christian good works can be a form of witness. That takes quite a leap of faith in the media age where it seems impossible to get noticed unless you make a lot of noise. But if you think of the Amish, for instance, they got famous not by manipulating the media but by being so different in their attempt to live out the Gospel.

I think the only drawback to all this is that, apart from the Amish, the distinction between who's inside and who's outside isn't perfectly clear. Most Americans profess Christianity, but in practice they're all over the place. And with the kazillion denominations and factions, you can't necessarily assume you can use insider talk even with a devout Christian. When Allen addresses President Bush, for instance, you get the feeling he might as well be talking to someone in a different religion.

Even this might have some precedence in the Bible, though, because the early Christians didn't see even pagans as being entirely outside God's domain. When Paul visits Athens in Acts 17, he is distressed by their idolatry, but, rather than threaten them with doom, praises their religiosity and promises them further enlightenment about what they already worship. This tactic is apparently still used by missionaries among pagans today, and it might even work among people whose gods are political.

So to answer my beginning question, I don't see how you can push Christian values without pushing Christianity itself. Rob asked below if this means reassessing the relationship between church and state. Since I've said enough here, that will have to await Part 3.

In the meantime, here are some good related posts/discussions:

Marvin Lindsay
Andi Young

Posted by Camassia at June 01, 2004 03:56 PM | TrackBack

You know, posts like this are almost enough to make me want to take up blogging again...almost!

Nice job!

Posted by: Peter Nixon on June 1, 2004 09:24 PM

I still don't really know what "Christian" values are... but as far as proselytizing is concerned, I am all over Bonhoeffer's ideas!

I would like to see Christians simply going about trying to live their lives as close as possible to the standards and wishes of Christ.

I have seriously been considering starting a new church myself. It would NOT be based on morals or rewards or anything of the sort. Rather it would be based soley on trying to ACT like Jesus - just for the sake of quietly making the world a little bit better of a place to be in while we're here!

Posted by: David on June 1, 2004 09:47 PM

This is a very good post. But I think that I must disagree. Your claim that one really can't "push Christian values without pushing Christianity itself" leaves us without a theologically grounded humanism. We are left finally incapable of expressing our beliefs that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and that human reason and understanding are themselves analogous to the wisdom of the Triune God.

You do make a very good point when you write that we simply can't preach "works without faith" without inadvertently distorting our faith into Pelagianism and alienating others with "finger-wagging." But there are other grounds for humanism.

David Hollenbach, SJ, has noted that one such ground is the Cross. "(The cross) unveils the mystery at the heart of the world as One who has utter compassion for all who suffer. The cross is the revelation of divine solidarity with every human whose experience is that of forsakeness and abandonment ... The sign of the cross, therefore, is an invitation to interpret the ultimate mystery surrounding the fragments and pieces of human history as the reality of compassionate friendship."

As an example of this sort of humanism, Hollenbach offer his martyred fellow Jesuit, Ignacio Ellacuria:

"Ellacuria was a philosopher and social thinkier of considerable sophistication. His humanistic commitment called him to use all the tools of reasoned reflection and social analysis at his disposal as a professor and university president. But at the same time his theologia crucis demanded that he use all these resources to enable him both to see the reality of human suffering more clearly and to respond to it effectively. In such a humanism, he wrote, 'Reason and faith merge, in confronting the reality of the poor. Reason must open its eyes to the fact of suffering. Faith, which is sometimes scandal to those without it, sees in the weak of this world the triumph of God, for we see in the poor what salvation must mean and the conversion to which we are called.' But Ellacuria was under no illusion that these intellectual resources put him and his fellow intellectuals at the University of Central America in a position to control events in El Salvador. Indeed he predicted that solidarity with the suffering of the world could lead to a fate like that of Jesus. Such a fate could be the outcome for anyone engaged in action that seeks to take the crucified people down from the cross. The prediction was brutally fulfilled in his own bloody death and the deaths of his companions. An ethic under the sign of the cross, therefore, calls us to open our eyes to the suffering of the world today, draws us into solidarity with those who suffer, and leads to action to alleviate this suffering and overcome its causes. It is the radicalization of the social ethical stance hinted at by Hume's sympathy, Rawls's difference principle, and Habermas's call for the inclusion of the voices of the marginalized in social discourse. It is prepared to take the risk of this kind of solidarity in action because, for those with eyes to see, the cross reveals the ultimate mystery surrounding life to be one of saving Friendship."

Thus, we can have a humanism based on the the "most particularistic of all Christian symbols." Through the cross, we can find common ground with non-Christians subject - like us - to affliction, even as we confront them with further questions and the full "shock of recognition."



Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 1, 2004 10:27 PM

Suppose that you interrupt whatever you have been doing in order to help a person whom you can see is in some way afflicted. As you are rendering the necessary help, the person asks, "Why are you doing this for me, a stranger?"
Do you say, "I am doing this because you are weak and our mutual enemy, who has done this to you is strong, and together we must prevail";
Do you say, "I am doing this because I love you";
Do you say, "I am doing this because our common humanity compels me to do so";
Do you say, "I am doing this in the reasoned expectation that if our situations were reversed, you would do the same for me";
Do you say, "I am doing this because I am a Christian"?
Or does the very fact of your act say all of these things--with the exception of the last? Is it important that the last thing, the profession of Christianity, be made explicit?

Posted by: Rob on June 2, 2004 05:17 AM

Regarding justification as a social-political event, there is a nice chapter in John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus that argues that justification was never about the individual's standing with God in regard to her own sin, but rather the social reconciliation of the community. Barth suggests much the same thing, though in a roundabout way, in the Dogmatics (mostly IV/1). To see all this summarized, and to read about twenty pages that should change your Christian life, look at Ch. 1 of Douglas Harink's Paul among the Postliberals.

With Telford down, somebody has to take up the religion professor slack, I suppose...

Posted by: Mark E. Gammon on June 2, 2004 06:08 AM

Dear Rob,

I suppose that your question(s) were directed towards me. I would say that we must acknowledge that the second, third, and fourth answers you give to "Why are you doing this for me, a stranger?" are positive insofar as they recognize that those suffering do have an authority that calls us to responsibility. They don't take part in the usual mythological evasions that "justify" suffering (as Girard writes, "The Dionysiac myths regard even the most horrible lynchings as legitimate") or the even more crass political evasions (the "I didn't really know," "I was only following orders," or "I tried to mitigate the worst" of Nuremberg).

But only the Christian explanation, it must be said, is a truly sufficient answer. Thus, the Christian can embrace the previous answers (e.g., "common humanity") as related to the eschatological vision of peace, while still attempting to radicalize them to a true theologia crucis.

I suspect that we can do this by walking alongside those who would give the previous answers while still questioning them - How do you remain honest before a concrete reality when it is so easy to fall prey before injustice (Rom 1.18)? How do you remain committed to mercy as the primary and ultimate human reaction (Lk 10.33ff)? How do you retain hope that there will be indeed be a deliverance from captivity (Is 45)? and so on.


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on June 2, 2004 03:44 PM

Thank you. My questions were actually not addressed specifically to you, but to any person who was thinking about the issue of the Christian response to the call of citizenship to participate in politics. To the extent that we participate in politics, how does our Christian orientation (which, it seems to me, must take precedence in any decision to act) enhance, or perhaps limit, that participation?
I think that the answers to the questions I asked above make it clear that one can act morally and charitably towards one's neighbors without professing Christ. A Buddhist might have given any of the answers I propose, as might the practitioner of most religious faiths. This would seem to weight justification in the direction of faith, as opposed to works.
My question then is: should a Christian, as his social, civic morality is informed by his Christianity, make his Christianity explicit as he acts, thus becoming, as a political agent, a de facto proselytizer within the political arena? Or should "church" and "state" be kept publicly discrete? Further, then, given that politics is always a game of compromise, is it possible to participate in politics-as-we-know-it without compromising faith, or it is a Christian duty to strive first to conform politics to faith?

Posted by: Rob on June 3, 2004 04:54 AM

I think that the Christian participates in acts of grace from different motivations than the secularists. And, as a Christian, I think those differences are important.

Christians are not motivated by the Pelagian idea that humanity can save itself. We feed the hungry, clothe the poor and visit those who are sick or in prison because Jesus told us to do so. Christians face the brokeness of humanity, and seek a higher power for healing.

Christians do not think that performing acts of mercy makes them "good people." They understand that altruism is impossible unless done in the name of a greater cause. The cause that drives them is the reconcilation of all people with God and one another. The acts of mercy are signs of this reconciliation; that my salvation is integrally wrapped up in yours.

Christians are not against war for political reasons. Christians are against war because Jesus taught us through his life that the way to break the cycle of violence in this world is the way of non-violent resistance.

Christians can certainly work with secularists towards common goals, but, personally, I think it is appropriate to speak up when it is assumed that they are driven by the same motives as their secular political allies. If that is seen as prostelyzing, so be it. If it is seen as being politically active, then let it be seen that way. A case can certainly be made that Jesus did not hesitate to wade into the realm of politics when necessary. As I've mentioned before, some, like Hauewas, suggest that Jesus was all about politics.

The current dilemma, at least from my perspective, is what the Christian response should be when a political leader wraps himself in the mantle of Christianity in order to justify acts that many Christians consider downright evil. I think we have a duty to speak out, and align ourselves with any force that will help us remove such a leader, not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of Christendom.

Excuse the long windedness...maybe I should us my own place for "preaching"?

Posted by: Jake on June 4, 2004 08:35 AM

Will my personal information be public if I post here?

Posted by: discrete on March 27, 2005 10:05 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?