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Friday, January 1, 2016

"Five Views on the Church and Politics" (various contributors)

TITLE: Five Views on the Church and Politics (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
AUTHOR: J. Brian Benestad; Robert Benne; Bruce L. Fields; Thomas W. Heilke; James K.A. Smith; Amy E. Black; Stanley Gundry
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (240 pages).

Should Christians participate in politics? If it is no, is it a responsible way to live in this world? If yes, how should Christians relate to the political leaders of the land? What about the separation of Church and state? What does it mean? If a Church totally abandon all forms of involvement, what happens when the government makes decisions that negatively impact the Church? While most believers will tend to walk the middle way, to be involved only when absolutely necessary, Christians in general are split right down the middle generally, and at least five ways theologically. In this book, we learn of five such ways in the relationship between Church and state. In fact, when we read the gospels, we see how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with the question of whether the Jews ought to pay tax to the Romans. Either way, Jesus would be trapped. If Jesus answered 'yes,' the Jews would be unhappy. If he said 'no,' the Romans would come after him.  Life nowadays are a lot more different than the first century. Moreover, Christians living in the modern world now have the benefit of hundreds of years of theological reflection. This book distills five different points of view surrounding relationship between Church and state. Editor Amy Black calls it the five historic traditions of Anabaptist, Lutheran, Black Church, Reformed, and Catholic. Five contributors have been invited to this discussion and after one proposition, there would be four other responses. This gives readers multiple dimensions of each proposition and alternative viewpoints. Each political thought begins with a historical background of the denomination and how they arrive at the current political thought. The names of key founders and significant leaders are mentioned, together with the unique circumstances they face. Then comes the theological distinctivenesses and how these shape their interactions with politics. Each contributor would then propose their model of political engagement and their specific concerns. They all deal with the common case of poverty. This would be followed by four respondents from the other schools of political thought.

1) The Anabaptist Political Thought (Separationist)

Due to the past history of resisting violence, Anabaptists have generally advocated complete separation of government and Church, preferring not to engage but to build alternative communities. Their focus is to build the Church to embody gospel truths, and engaging with government agencies and politics are usually avoided. Thomas Heilke, associate dean of graduate studies and professor of political science at UBC (Okanagan) highlights the ills and problems of direct political engagement and proposes a new community made up of like-minded believers to develop a new mode of engagement with the outside.

2) Lutheran (Two Kingdoms)

It is largely based on the "two-kingdoms doctrine" in which there is a "kingdom of creation" and a "kingdom of redemption." As a Church, Lutherans largely emphasize the latter, the preach the gospel, administer sacraments, and generally refrain from direct involvement. As an individual, Christians are encouraged to participate in their personal capacity where appropriate. Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor Emeritus and research associate at Roanoke College, and he argues that the "wise church will hesitate to engage in direct action." He gives a case study of his strategy on how to care for the poor. Any engagement with the outside must have strategies that are aimed strategically at the "lost, last, and least." Laity involvement is encouraged as it is seen as an "indirect role" of the Church. The direct role of the Church is the primary task of preaching the gospel. Benne summarizes the Lutheran way as "vigorous ministry of Word and Sacrament, of worship and teaching, of modeling and practicing" that leads to love and justice.

3) The Black Church (Prophetic)

This political thought is somewhere midway between the Anabaptist/Lutheran, and the Reformed/Catholic. As a people who had endured much oppression and persecution from white people, they will get involved especially when matters deal with "liberation, justice, and reconciliation." For the Blacks, the community is more important than the individual. Bruce Fields is associate professor of biblical and systematic theology and chair of the biblical and systematic theology department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He shares about the Black Church being one always in tension with the "already and the not yet" idea. They preach God as the God of comfort and long for the new creation to come. Due to their checkered history with the government, many blacks have mixed views of how churches should engage with government. That is one reason why there are no "official position" of the Church with regards to politics. The issue of poverty is especially poignant, given that there are many within the black community who have experienced or are still experiencing it.

4) Reformed (Transformationist)

Beginning with the 16th Century Protestant Reformation leaders such as Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox, Christians are tasked with being "agents of renewal and restoration." Thus, working with the government is a good thing and symbolizes obedience to God. Christians should do their utmost to be such peacemaker agents so as to influence the powers to be for the good of society. Explaining the Reformed view is James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview. He goes back to the magisterial Reformation that brings out the five common reformed themes: a) Sanctification of ordinary life; b) Faithful revolutions in politics with human culture; c) Recognizing the structural and systemic nature of sin; d) Anticipating the coming of the Kingdom; e) Diversity and Development in creation. One reason why the Reformed are generally more open to working with government is due to the broader "theology of culture" that believes that the government is part of the good order of creation. On poverty, Smith goes back to Abraham Kuyper who blames the problem of the "rule of money" that has corrupted governments. Due to programs that often reflect prevailing social attitudes, the Church need to be involved in influencing the social strategies by overthrowing the place of mammon in such places.

5) Catholic (In Tension)

This is the school of political thought that is most opposite of the Anabaptists. If the Anabaptists preach total separation, the Catholics would participate actively with government and politics as long as they adhere to the seven central themes: a) the dignity of human life; b) to support families, communities; c) respect rights and responsibilities; d) preferential care for the poor and needy; e) dignity of work; f) solidarity; g) caring for God's creation. It is important to understand that while there is a strong push toward working together, it does not mean union of Church and state. Relying heavily on the teachings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas More, J. Brian Benestad, A'Amour Professor of Catholic Thought at Assumption College shows us on the centrality of church teaching and grace that would first influence individual souls who would then venture out to bring about justice and mercy in the public spheres. The Church plays its role by equipping members to do works to assist the needy in society.

So What?
The issues of society are far more complex and nuanced than any one school of theological thought can manage. That is why it is far better to let the five views in this book share their different approaches to the very important matters of social concerns. With each position and the four responses given, we can the interactions provide four modified ways of practicing each particular view. That gives us 20 different positions, at least. Just like the many different tools available in a toolbox, this book gives readers a very unique position to appreciate these positions, and to see them applied to the issue of poverty. Moreover, it can be said that we cannot overgeneralize each of these approaches. They can give us a rough trajectory of the movement but ultimately, the way it is described is the responsibility of each advocate. Each of them would have their personal thoughts and applications of their denomination of choice. The more complex the environment, the more we need to learn how to share our resources and not be easily split by theological differences. After all, Christ has given us diversity to cherish and to love. We should let our differences become opportunities to seek to understand one another better.

Politics in itself is even more complex when compared to the issue of poverty. I would not be surprised that what the authors advocate for the political environment in North America and the West will be drastically modified if we consider global contexts. What about places of immense corruption and bribery? What about a tyrant sitting on the throne? What about racial and religious sensitivities that prevent the normal execution of social work? How will our approaches be changed over time? These issues show us that the five views mentioned in this book only address the tip of the iceberg of the world we live in.

I appreciate Amy Black's summary as follows:

"As the contributors to this volume have demonstrated, Christians throughout the centuries have debated the extent to which church and government should interact and have wrestled with divisive political issues Each of the five views represented in this book introduces con­cepts and vocabulary useful for discussing the proper role of government, the place of political participation, and the purposes and foundations of the law Interaction with these rich theological traditions can help guide those seeking to think more deeply about their Christian witness in politics."

With the US elections coming in the year 2016, this book is well placed to help us be better informed theologically and better prepared spiritually. Perhaps, choose your leaders not according to your own preferences, not even according to some humanistic form of the greater good. Choose according to what best brings glory to God. May the interactions demonstrated in this book move us further along this path.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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