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.

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2 thoughts on “Christian Politics: Civil Disobedience

  1. ” A government that does not recognize any power or authority higher than itself abrogates its authority.” The book of Daniel, the Psalms, and Revelation teach that there are demonic spirit powers behind the earthly governments and rulers. These are to be resisted by the written Word of God, prayer, and obedience to our Lord above all else. A godly government does not fear Christ or his followers because Christians support benign governments. Bonhoeffer’s book “Ethiks(sic) shows how Christians can follow Christ in the midst of social and moral chaos and when the government is pure Evil. It is a fascinating read and counter intuitive perhaps. Bonhoeffer’s bona fides was his life. He lived his Christian testimony.

    • Thanks Richard!

      This post was inspired by Bonhoeffer’s Ethics (and The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder), and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

      You may also be interested in many of my more recent posts, which as specifically about the Powers. I’ve just finished my MA thesis on the subject, comparing the thoughts of Walter Wink and Gregory Boyd on the subject. I’m more convinced than ever that Christian politics must have a robust theology of the Powers if we are to have a faithful and effective public life and ethic.

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