Ordinarily, I write a piece on Tuesdays about being thankful. Today, however, I am adding a new category called “special feature” in which I write a one-time blog post interrupting the normal rhythm of the blog. I expect we will be back to the normal blogging schedule tomorrow.
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There is a common line in The West Wing: decisions are made by those who show up.
This line usually occurs in the show at a time in which one of the characters (White House staffers) run up against cynicism regarding government. The sentiment being, of course, that sitting around complaining about the government isn’t very persuasive—get involved.
I pretty much agree.
Or, rather, I think refusing to make use of the state as an instrument of good in society is like shooting oneself in the foot.
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Seth Bouchelle, a friend of mine, blogged yesterday about Rendering Unto Washington. In his piece, he wrote:
I do not vote. I feel morally compelled not to vote. I have serious doubts that the men and women who serve in Washington, noble and pure though their intentions may be, will be able to form a state which serves the interests of the Kingdom of God. This is not to suggest that I think that the government is therefore not responsible for creating better lives for its citizens. This is not to suggest that the laws and institutions of our society should not be shaped by anything less than the highest ethics and values which its people might aspire to. I would simply like to suggest that my loyalties are to the larger global body of God’s church and the interests of the Kingdom of God and this, for me, prevents certain loyalties and allegiances to the state in which I was born.
Seth then goes on to argue that the church’s reliance on the state is a capitulation to the powers and principalities. He casts a vision of the church that cares for the poor and hungry, the stranger, and the scared, pregnant teenager. He envisions a church that adopts so no one has to abort. In short, he envisions a church that acts over and against the state by living the way of Jesus in the world.
It’s a beautiful vision.
Seth’s position is a pretty common one in circles that I run in. While Seth has articulated one argument for Christian withdrawal from the halls of power, others include the following:
–The state is inherently violent. It exists by the use of coercive force. Working with or through the state is a participation in its natural violence, violence that is antithetical to the Kingdom of God. I think here of David Lipscomb.
–Allegiance to the state is idolatry. Our first, last, and only allegiance is to Jesus, our crucified savior. The banner of this Kingdom is the slaughtered lamb, not a triumphant Caesar. I think here of Shane Claiborne.
–The state of politics is one of deception, power, saving face, and selfishness. It is not the place for a crucified people. The church belongs on the margins of society, not in the halls of power. The church loses its prophetic witness when allies itself with power.
The general line of logic goes that the church was doing what it was supposed to do until Constantine came to power. Then, to the detriment of the Christian witness, the faith became allied with power. Ever since, we have been battling our Constantinian cataracts, as Lee Camp would call it, –a condition in which the church is blinded by its lust for power. The church thus loses its Divine Imagination, as Seth has called it, and is unable to envision caring for the world outside of the way government works. When everything is politicized, when everything is broken down into liberal or conservative, then no action can be taken.
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I agree that we have idolized the state here in America. I agree that many Christians (including the Social Gospel people of the early 20th Century and the Religious Right people beginning in the late 20th Century) have seen the state as the means by which the Kingdom of God would be realized—as the vehicle of the Eschaton.
Nevertheless, as I have articulated before, I disagree that all of this means that the people of God should not engage with the state.
First, and most important for me, is that we need to realize our historical context. We live in a Republic (however controlled by moneyed interests it might be) that, at least nominally, is controlled by popular sovereignty. Incidentally, I am well aware of how not democratic our society is. Among other things, members of congress come from the top 6% of the income earners in America. Congress is far more white, male, and Christian than the society it supposedly represents. Nevertheless, America together with the European Union (the West) is the most equal, healthy, and free civilization the world has ever known. I am not disillusioned about the power that our binary political party system holds in society, either. I spent the election season blogging about it and endorsing the Green Party.
As a citizen of the United States of America, I have the political right to participate in the running of my country (something that was not the case in the Roman Empire). My true citizenship, however, is in the Kingdom of God. Jesus made it clear in the parable of the Shrewd Manager: use whatever temporal resources are at your disposal for the sake of the Kingdom. Since the coming Kingdom is one of peace, mercy, and justice, I ought to use whatever tools are at my disposal to bring about those aims, knowing full well they won’t be totally realized until Jesus returns. By refusing to participate in the running of the state, we tacitly permit whatever injustice the state gets around to endorsing, allowing, or causing. I believe with all my heart that Jesus took the sword out of the hands of his followers. If the state were a totalitarian regime with little care for its people, I would not advocate armed rebellion. I would advocate civil disobedience, peaceful resistance, and creative responses to oppression. But the American state can be changed, influenced, and prodded by people without violence. In our rush to be like the early church, we should not manufacture a situation in which the American state is so oppressive that we cannot cooperate with it even as we call it out. The state is fallen, not evil.
Second, forming societies and cooperative communities is a natural product of the human impulse to associate. Robert Nozick and John Rawls, in particular, have done work which has helped shore up by belief in the legitimacy of the state.
Or, as Walter Rauschenbusch wrote in Christianity and the Social Crisis:
The Good Samaritan did not go after the robbers with a shot gun, but looked after the wounded and helpless man by the wayside. But if hundreds of Good Samaritans traveling the same road should find thousands of bruised men groaning to them, they would not be such Good Samaritans if they did not organize a vigilance committee to stop the manufacturing of wounded men. If they did not, presumably then the asses who had to lug the wounded to the tavern would have the wisdom to inquire into the causes of their extra work.
St. Paul maintains that the state is ordained by God for the governing of a just and good society. Of course, Seth stresses that he thinks government still has an obligation to care for its citizens, even if he doesn’t owe it loyalty. Fair enough, but the state (especially in the modern West) is a cooperative for our collective welfare, not an evil other. Depriving Christians of a sense of solidarity with others in society be insisting that the state—the governing body of that society—is off limits means that, especially in our pluralistic society, the Christian witness won’t get much air time. Of course, the church still has the prerogative to yell from the sidelines that the state isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing, but I should think that yelling from the sidelines a “prophetic witness”, and then refusing to get involved when offered, means that the church’s credibility may get used up pretty quick. Now, I know that Seth isn’t advocating that the church do nothing, just that the state isn’t the means to do it. Fine, but that position becomes contradictory and untenable.
So, third, I get that the state is an easy target. Nevertheless, the same applies to institutions that the church has no choice to participate in. Do you have a bank account? Do you buy anything? Have you ever called the police? The fire department? Ever had a family member on medicare, medicaid, or food stamps? What about traveling? Ever applied for or gotten a passport? Ever used it? Are you licensed to drive a car? If so, you are participating in fallen institutions. You rely in some way on something other than the church. And that is a good thing, because the church needs to wake up and realize that it is part of a society that is far bigger than itself. The church does not have exclusive claims to goodness, righteousness, holiness, justice, or freedom. By stressing that the church should avoid the state and try to do social welfare work without the cooperation of the rest of society heightens, not lessens, the arrogance by which the church is perceived.
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The church should do all of that work—and more—that Seth has proposed. The church should also bear prophetic witness against the Powers and Principalities, including the state and economy and military and supranational institutions and corporations. And the church should drink a heavy dose of humility, abandon cynicism—that failure of the Christian imagination—and work with whatever actors, including the state, are interested in building a systemically just society.
I’m a social democrat because I believe that social democracy is the best model for a just society this side of Christ’s second advent. That belief, and acting upon it, does not compromise my allegiance to the Way of Jesus, my ability to work with other Christians to care for the least of these, or my prophetic witness against the state and the other Powers.