Christian Politics: Civil Disobedience

In the last post, we talked a bit about Bonhoeffer’s essay on the Divine Mandates of Church, Government, Work/Culture, and Marriage/Family.  The basic idea is that each of these mandates represent institutions that together cover all of human life, and are instituted by God with their own purposes: each allows us to live out the commandment of God in our lives – namely, to live as human beings before God.  Each of these mandates function in tension with each other, serving to both facilitate and limit the other mandates, and when this tension is disrupted they cease to function as Divine Mandates and become the Powers and Principalities of this world.

You may recall a few months ago we talked about John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.  In it, he identified the “powers and principalities” that the New Testament says we fight against: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).  Yoder says that these powers are institutions that, when in rebellion against God’s intention for them, control us and destroy human freedom.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to identify these powers as Bonhoeffer’s Divine Mandates.

So Yoder says that it is cultural concepts and institutions that we fight against, and Bonhoeffer describes the balance between the Mandates that, when disrupted, causes them to fail in their specific functions.  The function of the government is to bring order and peace, safeguarding creation in a sense; when government rebels against God, it does not govern justly but instead enslaves people, uses violence, and inevitably degenerates into chaos. Justice is replaced by arbitrariness, order is replaced by oppression, truth is replaced by propaganda, and peace is achieved through violent suppression of dissent.

The function of the Church, on the other hand, is to call all other mandates to account by witnessing to the truth of Jesus Christ, which exposes the rebellion of the other mandates.  The Church is in rebellion against God when it fails to perform this task.  In Bonhoeffer’s day, the Church largely allied itself with the Nazi Party, or else ignored the issue altogether, while only a very few spoke out against the regime by becoming members of the Confessing Church.  Even the Confessing Church, however, said little about the Nazi policies that did not affect the practice of religion; those who spoke out against the Nazi policies too vehemently, even in veiled references like Bonhoeffer, paid with their lives.

But that is precisely what we must do: pay with our lives.  This is the cost of discipleship, that we take up our crosses and follow Jesus to death.  Yoder talks about how Jesus, in his very death, exposed the Roman regime and the institutions of Pharisaism and the Temple as being in rebellion against God.  All of these institutions controlled the people of Jesus’ day through the moral authority of their offices: Jesus exposed them as being morally deficient, and thus without any authority at all.  Pilate’s authority, he reminded him, came from God; but when Pilate put to death an innocent man (Jesus) – and that at the request of the representatives of Pharisaism and the Temple – the authority of these institutions evaporated, as they were revealed to be governing unjustly.  After he rose from the grave, Jesus told his disciples “all authority has been given to me” (Matthew 28), and then called them to spread that message to the entire world: the Church was born, and given its task of calling the other mandates to account by reminding them of the superior authority of Christ.

Does this mean that we should have a Christian lobby that tries to influence the laws of our nations?  Look at what that has done so far: such lobbies have served to judge all those who do not live according to certain understandings of scripture.  The Christian lobby is the new Pharisees.  It has power over those who already see adherence to the Law as central to life, but does absolutely nothing for those who disagree.  It has enough power to get some attention from the government, but not enough power to actually change anything, and certainly not enough to actually help anybody; in fact, it’s not at all interested in actually helping people, but only with enforcing the Law of the Bible (as opposed to the law of the land).  In so doing, it alienates those who disagree with it, heaps condemnation on those who need its help, and irritates the political process due to the conflict between the Law of the Bible and the law of the land.  If you recall from a few weeks back, it judges rather than acts.

Christ didn’t waste time judging.  He acted, and the judging took care of itself; by his action (submitting to an unjust death) he judged the powers and authorities of his day, exposed their rebellion, and showed people that true authority, even the authority of a government, is given by God.  It’s no coincidence that he died this way, nor is it a coincidence that he told his disciples that they would have to do likewise.  The mandate of the Church is to call on the other mandates to perform their purposes properly – e.g. to call on the government to govern justly.  Jesus did this by dying at the hands of an unjust government, and told us to do likewise.  Our place in politics, then, becomes more clear.

If the Christian lobby is not a good way for the Church to interact with politics, then what is?  How do we “fight the powers that be”?  Like Bonhoeffer, we can take part in assassination plots – only God can judge him for that, because I can’t say for sure what I would do in that situation and he acted out of deepest conviction and in line with what he heard from scripture – but that’s not the path that Jesus himself took.  Instead, he proclaimed the truth quite openly, and in so doing exposed the propaganda of the powers to be false.  This brought him into conflict with the regime, and he went peacefully to his death.  Rather than Bonhoeffer’s example (though again, I cannot condemn it from my ivory tower), perhaps the student protesters in Tienanmen Square (pictured above) serve as contemporary examples of Christian political action (though I don’t know if they were even Christians!).  Mahatma Gandhi is another example of someone who used peaceful protest and civil disobedience to expose the injustice of a regime and bring about change.  Nelson Mandela went to prison for using violence to try to bring about change in an unjust regime; it was not his imprisonment (which was deserved), but the unjust way in which he was imprisoned for a disproportionate period of time without a proper trial simply because he was an opposing voice that held power with the people, that exposed the regime – just as for Bonhoeffer it was not his imprisonment (as he was actually guilty of attempted murder) but the way in which he was censored and the real reason behind his execution that vindicated his critiques of the Nazis.

So, for a Christian to be politically active, what can they do?  Voting based on the faith claims of the candidate is obviously fallacious, because every candidate claims a faith and they are supposed to represent their constituents regardless of faith.  The Christian lobby, as we have seen, is the new Pharisaism, and helps nobody.  And using unjust means to expose an unjust regime just doesn’t work; being executed by an unjust regime for just reasons does nothing to expose their injustice.  Instead, we must speak truth to expose lies; live justly to expose injustice; live peacefully to expose violent regimes; all of these things expose the arbitrariness and injustice of government.

The Christian politic, then, is peaceful civil disobedience: to do the right thing, even when it’s against the law, even (and perhaps especially) when it leads to death.  This is the politics of Jesus, the ultimate fulfillment of the Divine Mandate of the Church (at least when it comes to governments), allowing or enabling people to live as human beings before God.

Bonhoeffer and the Divine Mandates

For those who read the previous post, which was my final paper for Christian Ethics class, thank you.  I got it back yesterday, and I’m quite pleased with the result.  By the grace of God, I believe a “Booyah!” is in order.

For our last class, we discussed Bonhoeffer’s final manuscript – that is, it was on his desk when he was arrested by the Nazis, and was thus quite incomplete.  It’s a sad thing, to read an incomplete work and know that it was kept from completion by imprisonment and death.  That being said, its content is just as fascinating as his other manuscripts.  It was said that this is perhaps his most Lutheran manuscript; apparently Barth once wondered if there was a hint of German patriarchy present within it.  Perhaps that would have come out more if he had been able to progress further in the manuscript.

There are Divine Mandates in this world, through which God’s Commandment (as revealed in Jesus Christ) is expressed.  The commandment is: to live as a human being before God.  I guess this is Bonhoeffer’s sum of the Gospel.  The mandates are: marriage and the family; government; Church; and work.  Sometimes Culture is added to this list, sometimes it replaces work and sometimes both are present, all depending on the paper in which he discusses these mandates (as this is certainly not the only place it comes up in Bonhoeffer’s works).  My understanding of the mandates is that they are divinely authorized institutions, the sum of which make up all of life – and therefore, that they are the setting for and the mediation of God’s Commandment as revealed in Jesus Christ, namely to live as a human being before God.

We must recognize that government is a divine institution: government is instituted by God.  He appoints and authorizes it, as an institution.  This does not mean that he approves of governments that are in rebellion against him; God did not appoint Hitler to be Chancellor of Germany, nor did he approve of the genocide that occurred under the Nazi party.  In fact, Bonhoeffer uses the Nazi party as a prime example of a government that has rebelled against God and appointed itself as primary among the mandates or orders, and thus has deified itself.

These mandates exist in tension and union with one another, each with specific roles and all under the authority of God and carrying and communicating that authority in their own ways.  They all carry an authority that is divinely instituted; that is, there is an “above and below” that is inherent to them.  The mandate of government carries an authority over the citizens, as the government is above the citizens; the citizens, on the other hand, hold the key to the “above” of the government, as they allow that authority by the very act of being “below”.  When the people are no longer content with their position of being “below”, the “above” of the government also disappears, and we’re left with chaos and anarchy – at least temporarily.  God does not desire anarchy, but order; thus, the government must take seriously its “above”, and we citizens must take seriously our “below”, or it ceases to function as a divine mandate.  The Church employs a similar above and below, namely that the pastor is above and the congregation is below.  The pastor has been charged by God with the preaching of the Word, and the  congregation is not to usurp that position or undercut it, lest the Church cease to function as a divine mandate.  All of the mandates carry some type of authority or hierarchy.

These mandates all serve to simultaneously support and limit one another.  You work to support your family, but your work limits your family time – and at the same time, your time at work is limited by your role in your family, as you must leave work in order to spend time with your family.  The government creates an environment in which you are able to work and spend time with your family, but also serves to limit the ways you can work and interact with your family – and your values of work and family serve to limit your support of the government as they affect the way you vote (though Bonhoeffer wasn’t influenced as much by democracy as we are, and these mandates obviously existed long before democracy).  The Church is called to proclaim Christ to all of the other mandates: to call on the government to govern justly; to proclaim a culture that exalts Christ; to proclaim God’s providence and thus limit the demands of work; to proclaim a greater vision of family as the family of God.  That doesn’t mean that the Church is above these other mandates, but only that it has a distinct role to play.  In the same way, the government need not be a “Christian” government, but only that it functions in line with the divine mandate that it is and in support of and tension with the other mandates.

Nazi Germany sought to bring all of the other mandates in line under the mandate of government, and thus the government stopped functioning as a divine mandate.  It ceased to be government as God instituted government, because it deified itself and set itself above everything else that God had ordained.  At the same time, much of the Church in Nazi Germany also ceased to function as it was mandated to do, instead going along with the corrupted government rather than calling on it to govern justly.  When the family became a part of the government, with people informing against their relatives and acknowledging the government as the greater family (rather than the greater family of God), it ceased to be family as God intended.  When culture was limited by the government, it ceased to be culture.  Nazi Germany is an example of a complete disintegration  into total rebellion against God and his created order.  Nothing was as it should have been.

That’s not at all to say that only Nazis have messed it up.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that our own society lacks balance between mandates.  The purposes of culture and government are being made to overlap in many ways, work increasingly edges out family and overpowers government (corporations, anyone?), and in many ways the Church has stopped functioning as mandated altogether as it is merged with culture and becomes just another worldview.  The inherent authority structure within the mandates is challenged or even reversed in many cases: governments cater to people and businesses rather than making real or just decisions; children order parents around, and are placated by subservient parents with food and toys; unions go beyond arguing for the rights of workers and hold employers hostage with extended strikes; corporations fund lobbies that serve to subvert justice in the government…we could go on.

The point is, we must recognize that all of these things are mandated by God, and as such are good when they do what they’re supposed to do – and we must also recognize that all of these things get their authority from God.  When they cease to function in accordance with their mandate, they become those “powers and principalities” that we, the Church, fight against.  It is our mandated purpose to judge – by our actions, mind you, not our snobby words and attitudes – the other mandates, and bring them in accordance with their God-given purose: namely, to allow people to live as human beings before God.  So practice justice, so that the injustice of the government will be exposed.  Practice generosity, so the greed associated with work will be exposed and kept in check.  Practice love, to show the world what family can really be.  Be expressive and socially active, and add something beautiful to your culture.  Live your life, as a human being before God; it covers all of the above.