A Theology of Green Politics

It seems like forever since I’ve written anything here; I’ve been busy writing on Canadian politics over at the Green Party Provencher page (I’m the Green candidate for the federal riding of Provencher). But while my thoughts have been on sustainability and public policy, I still see the world theologically, so I’ve been thinking about the theological justification for a Christian entering the political arena and promoting sustainable policies.

Some people think that it’s inappropriate for Christians to be involved in politics because we may be tempted to make decisions for everyone based on our own faith, which may not be shared by those we represent. Government is secular, and therefore safe from the variety of competing religious claims that diverse Canadians may hold to. While I think it’s impossible to be non-political, or to compartmentalize faith so that we behave differently in public than in private (we need to maintain integrity), I think there is a point here. I also think that it’s a point that fits well within Christian theology, and goes all the way back to Genesis.

The Role of Christians in Society

We’re sometimes tempted to make laws and policies that reflect Christian character. Why wouldn’t we? After all, Christ taught us to love one another, and only forbade things that were harmful to us all, personally and collectively. The trouble is, you can’t legislate love. Laws and policies are blunt instruments that are only able to limit the damage of our sin, not make us better people. That’s why Christ challenged his followers to exceed the law.

Let’s think about that a little bit more. Jesus said “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and gave several examples of how to do so by exceeding the requirements of the law. The law says not to murder; Christ says not to hate. The law says not to commit adultery; Christ says not to lust. We often read this as Christ instituting a new law, but that’s not what he said: the law remained as it was, and he called people to a way of life that involved intentionally and self-sacrificially exceeding the requirements of the law. He was very open about the fact that this way of life wasn’t for everyone, even though he thought the law was for everyone.

As followers of Christ, then, we have a role to play in society, but it’s not to enshrine the way of Christ into law. It’s to intentionally and self-sacrificially exceed the requirements of the laws we live under. Another way of looking at it might be to out-government the government by offering our own social structures and supports to society. Christians have traditionally done this by funding hospitals, running soup kitchens, and providing sanctuary in their churches; or by inviting their neighbours in for a meal, or sending an anonymous donation to the family down the street who’s struggling financially. We’re not called to undermine the other social structures that exist (unless they are unjust), but rather to consistently embody generosity and care in a way that raises the bar for public institutions and society.

So it’s not right or helpful for Christians to push legislation that would legally hold everyone to the standard of Christ. So on what basis does a person of faith interact with politics?

Humans First, Israelites Second

God chose Israel from among the nations, formed it from the offspring of a long line of barren women in order to be his special, chosen people. Then he gave them a code of laws that would govern them as God’s people. These were the laws that Jesus was talking about when he urged his disciples to go even further, but these laws didn’t apply to most of the world. These laws were God’s way of asking Israel to go further than the people around them, to stand out by the extent of their holiness and generosity just as the disciples of Jesus did in his day and still do today. These are not the kind of laws that govern any nation today (not even the modern nation of Israel). These are precisely the type of laws that are inappropriate in a diverse society like Canada.

So what other laws were there? If we go back a little bit further to Genesis 9:5-6 we see the passage that some scholars refer to as the founding of human government:

And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

This is the most basic law in Scripture, complete with a punishment. It implies a basic prohibition (not to kill humans), and applies to everyone, human and animal. This is the kind of law that governments can enforce, even in a pluralistic society like ours. Israel had many laws like this, which were also very similar to the Code of Hammurabi (which predates the 10 Commandments), and an Israelite probably would have expected any foreigner to fulfill this kind of law; but they would never have expected a foreigner to fulfill Israelite purity laws. Some laws are universal, and some are articles of faith and devotion; a modern secular society maintains the former, not the latter.

In this regard, then, I don’t see any reason why a Christian shouldn’t serve in a political office that requires them to represent non-Christians. The type of laws we write and uphold in Canada are universal and enforceable, applicable to human beings in general and not the product of a call to exceed the basic law that governs us all. But let’s go another step backward.

Human Purpose: A Biblical-Theological Argument for Secular Green Politics

While the covenant with Noah is often seen as the beginning of human government, it’s not the first time humans are told how to live. If we go back to the beginning of Genesis we see God creating the world, including human beings. Everything that is created is good, but humans are the only things created with an explicit purpose:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

-Genesis 1:26-27

If the Noahic Covenant (above) brings us a universal law against killing people, the Adamic Covenant here gives us something that is beyond a law, but is also not a voluntary way of life that only applies to certain people. The way of Christ exceeds the laws of Israel, which themselves exceed the universal laws of other humans; but this thing is foundational, both to the laws and the call to exceed those laws. This thing is more than just vocation, or what we’re called to – that’s what Christ offers us. This thing is created purpose, or our inherent reason for existing. It’s foundational, universal, and departure from it does a type of violence to ourselves and everyone around us.

The passage above has been used in the past to justify humans using the whole earth for our pleasure, but that’s not a good reading of it. “Rule over” doesn’t need to mean exploiting, plundering, or abusing. Key to interpreting this is to look at the words “image” and “likeness.” In the Ancient Near East a ruler would erect a statue of themselves in cities far from the capital to remind people of what the king looked like – this was an image, or likeness. The other use for these words was to refer to idols, which were made from the ground (clay) and the spirit of a god would be “breathed” into them. The description of the creation of Adam in the next chapter very deliberately follows this formula. Humans were created to be a representation of God’s rule over creation, and to be a physical host for his spiritual presence. What this means, then, is that our relationship to all of creation is to be as stewards or representatives of God; or more powerfully, as co-creators with God, the physical presence of a spiritual God. This means that we should treat the creation as if it is our own precious creation, nurturing and tending it as God does.

Because this relationship to the rest of creation is the reason humans exist, it is at the core of our human identity and forms the foundation for all of our interactions with the rest of creation and each other. When we depart from it – i.e., when we act destructively toward the world – we cause incredible suffering, not just for animals and ecosystems, but also for other humans, ourselves, and even society. A government that writes and enforces laws that abuse the natural world is an unjust government that harms its people (even if only indirectly) and an unwise government that fails to plan for the best interests of its people.

Conclusion

So my theology does not allow me to impose my own Christianity on others through legislation, even if that would work. The basis of national laws is universal rather than being limited to a particular faith or ethical commitment, and my own faith and ethical commitment spur me to personally exceed the basic requirements of the universal laws while only requiring that others adhere to those laws rather than exceed them. But at the core of my faith commitment and my very humanness is my relationship to the rest of creation. Because of that, I am compelled to care about the environment and sustainability, and governments are compelled (as an aspect of serving their people if nothing else) to write and enforce laws and policies that limit negative interactions with the natural world and facilitate the kind of cohesive and caring relationship with the natural world that fulfills our created purpose as humans. We can’t force people to be Christians, or to love each other, or to care for the environment, but we can collectively agree to limit the damage that we as individuals and as a society would otherwise cause, and in so doing create space for the self-sacrificial generosity and care of Christ to raise the bar for all of us.

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Corporations Are People Too

Since 2010, I’ve been one of the many people frustrated by the idea, protected by law in the USA, that a corporation is a person. The Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 not only reinforced that corporations are people, but also that they are people with free speech. Since the US Supreme Court sees spending money as a form of speech, corporations are thus free to spend as much money as they like on elections. That this is an incredible distortion of democracy is obvious, but that’s only one reason why so many of us are frustrated by it. The book and documentary film The Corporation asks the question “If a corporation is a person, what kind of a person is it?” and ultimately concludes that a business corporation is a sociopath. Considering that our greatest societal protections are offered to persons, and corporations are potentially dangerous sociopaths who lack the features of persons we would normally protect (e.g., humanness, biological life, etc.), it seems that applying the term “person” to them is a categorical misstep: they get many of the benefits of society with none of the responsibilities, with “corporate responsibility” often serving as little more than a marketing ploy. As such I’ve long been of the opinion that “person” is entirely too good of a title for a corporation, giving them too much power and distorting the relationship between personhood and humanity.

But personhood is not necessarily identical to humanity, though it has long been held by many to be the same thing. The abortion debate centres around the definition of personhood, with the prevailing view being that a fetus, in spite of being human, is not a person until it is physically born. Given the huge variation in the time that a baby can be safely born, the actual moment of birth seems a harshly arbitrary distinction on which to hang the right to life, and our stinginess with the title of “person” in this respect makes the notion of a business corporation as a person rankle even more.

Animals are people too. At least, that’s what I always used to tell my parents when they barred my pets from, say, eating at the dinner table with us or sleeping on my bed. But there is a growing movement to recognize specific animals (e.g., dolphins, whales), and even the natural systems of the planet as a whole, as people. Recognizing the environment as a whole as a morally significant stakeholder is recognizing a form of corporate personhood.

For all of these reasons I’ve been mistaken about railing against corporate personhood in general, but I didn’t recognize it until I read William Cavanaugh’s “Are Corporations People?” in Christian Political Witness. Cavanaugh makes the point that “corporate personhood is central to Christianity” (129), and that the alternative view to corporate personhood is individualism and the competition of the market in both the business and political spheres. He traces the view of corporate personhood from Genesis (Adam is often translated as “humankind”, and God interacts with humans in a corporate fashion throughout the Bible), to the corporate personhood of the Church in the New Testament and Church Fathers, to the corporate personhood of the nation state (which still appears in the form of nationalism), through to the rise of market economies which had the effect of “liberalizing” us from corporate personhood to become individuals who “deal with each other on the basis of contract…rather than as members of a social body” (138). He points out that there is no essential relationship between democracy and free markets: they’re both encouraged by liberalism, but markets do not require democracy to function, with the implication that a market-dominated society is not necessarily free and certainly not necessarily equal. So the absence of corporate personhood in our system actually removes our sense of belonging to a common body, and individualism feeds the competitive market-based systems that exacerbate inequality in society. “If we do not see each other as members or potential members of the same body, we cannot begin to see the political process as a healing process for the weakest of our members” (144). So the problem, then, is not that we might see corporations as people (i.e., moral actors with the ability to speak), but rather that the Citizens United decision privileges business corporations over others (such as the Church, unions, clubs and societies, etc).

What Cavanaugh didn’t touch on at all is the spiritual aspect of corporate people. This is the biggest reason I’m surprised I didn’t catch on to the importance of seeing corporations as people: I’ve been talking about it in other contexts for years! The New Testament notion of Powers and Principalities states that corporations such as churches, governments, and even business corporations, have a spiritual or inner aspect as well as an outward or physical aspect. By attributing a spiritual aspect to a corporate body we affirm it as a spiritual being – a status that many of us probably wouldn’t assign to individual animals even if we were willing to grant them another level of personhood. If corporate bodies are spiritual beings, how can they not be people?

The Church is a corporate person: together, Christians form the body of Christ. We believe that we actually embody Christ in the world, and that we do so more completely and powerfully in a corporate sense than we ever could individually. Cavanaugh refers to patristic thought and quotes Zizioulas to make the point that Christian identity and personhood is actually dependent upon our oneness in Christ, so that “the Eucharist ‘is the reality which makes it possible for us to exist at all’” (134, emphasis original). For Christians, corporate personhood and identity is primary; individual personhood and identity is secondary (at least, ideally). This sets the terms by which the Church interacts with the rest of society (i.e., our politics): “The church’s goal in society is to speak as a corporate person on behalf of the poor, to promote organizations of true social solidarity and also to encourage businesses to pursue legitimate profit within the telos of an economy of love” (145). The Church is to represent a different type of corporation in the world that models legitimate and healthy corporate personhood (as opposed to the sociopathic nature of the modern business corporation) and in so doing to include those excluded by other corporate persons and provide limits on, or redirect, the ambitions and power of other corporate persons.

Gaza and the Failure of the Church

In David P. Gushee’s In The Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013, there are two essays back to back about genocide. First published in 2002, “The Church, the Nazis, and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration” examines the roles of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Europe in the Nazi era to see how they could have failed so spectacularly to thoroughly denounce and subvert the Holocaust. He points out that even the Confessing Church, that thorn in Hitler’s side with leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke out primarily against the Nazi attempts to control the church, not against the Nazis’ plan for the Jews, and very few leaders (with Bonhoeffer being an exception) connected these two issues. At the same time, the debate between historians of the Catholic church during that period on whether or not Pope Pius XII did enough, or anything at all, to stop the Holocaust is still fierce, but it’s clear that the Vatican’s political role hampered his ability to denounce and work against the Nazis.

Right next to this is an essay, first published in 2004, called “Remembering Rwanda: Lessons from the Church’s Complicity in Genocide,” which points out that 90% of Rwandans self-identified as Christian at the time of the Rwandan genocide. I had no idea, and that number stuns me.

There are a number of reasons, in both cases, for the inaction of the church; and it occurred to me as I read these essays that those same reasons likely still stand today in the church’s response to the conflict in Israel. I want to be clear at the beginning: in spite of claims on both sides, neither side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is carrying out genocide. Genocide is, according to Dictionary.com, the “deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” The word was invented to describe the Holocaust, and is very applicable to what happened in Rwanda. Hamas has killing Jews as part of its charter and states it in such a way that genocide is implied, but this charter was written in 1988 and has since been declared irrelevant and outdated by Hamas leadership – nor is Hamas in a position to actually carry out a genocide even if they still wanted to. Israel, on the other hand, has all of the means to carry out a genocide, and could have done so a hundred times over if they chose to; charges of genocide against Israel are naive at best, but are consistently used to undermine Israel and those who support Israel in the eyes of the international community.

So no matter which way you slice it, this is not a genocide. But that doesn’t mean that the church has done a good job of responding to it, and I think we’ve been failing for the same reasons that we failed in Germany and Rwanda. So let’s look at a few of them now, instead of in hindsight.

1. Political entanglements.

In Nazi Germany, the church was state-sanctioned. The Nazis were able to control the Protestant church through its association with the state: pastors were paid by the state, and the mainline Protestant church was quickly co-opted into a state church that assimilated Christianity into Nazism. The Protestants who resisted the Nazis were so busy fighting for their independence from the state that they lacked the social capital to actually speak out against the treatment of the Jews, and those who finally did (with notable exceptions) waited way too long: it doesn’t seem quite enough to speak out about the mistreatment of an entire people group only at the point of them being corralled for killing. And even then, most were silent, or worse, more directly complicit. On the Catholic side, the Pope tried to maintain neutrality during the war, not only to act as an intermediary for diplomatic solutions but also to keep the Vatican from being a military target; because the Pope was both a religious leader and a political leader (Vatican City is a mini-nation), he had a conflict of interest, and his role as a political leader won out over his religious mandate to care for the oppressed.

I don’t know much about the status of the church in Rwanda, but Gushee mentions that it had a very cozy relationship with government, to the point where its interests were intertwined with the government’s interests and it was unable to speak out against government actions.

The nation of Israel was founded by Western governments (Britain) and is still supported by Western governments (USA, Canada, etc.), but there has always been an element of Christian Zionism in the founding and support of Israel. Some people claim that it was and is the primary element of support for Israel; this isn’t true, but the role of Christian Zionism isn’t unimportant, and I mention it here because it is the way that the church is tied up with politics. The word Zionism is used to describe the position of supporting a Jewish state in Israel, but religious Zionism – including Christian Zionism – is the belief that the existence of a Jewish state fulfills biblical prophecies and is one of the signs of, or will even bring about, the imminent coming/return of the Messiah. Jewish Zionists in Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, believing that they are accomplishing God’s promise of giving them the land as in the book of Joshua; Christian Zionists support Israel, believing that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is one of the signs of the second coming of Christ; and the government of Israel, which is always a coalition, hangs on the swing-vote of the Zionists and therefore generally can’t risk stopping the settlements, which are the most contentious issue in peace talks. Obama has taken a fairly hard line against settlements in the US’s latest attempts at getting peace talks started again, but faces tremendous pressure from Zionist Christians and Jews in the US because of it. So even though Zionist Christians are relatively few in number, their religiously-motivated support for Israel undercuts the entire peace process, as well as the voice of the church against the atrocities being committed on both sides of this conflict.

2. Political theology.

There is a passage in Romans that says that Christians should obey the government. This passage, and the rest of Scripture, puts some pretty major limits on such obedience, but historically it hasn’t been interpreted that way. The German church during WWII soundly believed that the state was God-ordained, and that obedience to the state was a Christian duty and virtue, to the point where they would proudly enlist to fight a war that they couldn’t help but believe in. One of Bonhoeffer’s biggest challenges was that many of his seminary students willingly enlisted, or didn’t utilize their exemption from the draft as pastors.

This misinterpretation of Romans has led to an inherent church complicity in the actions of the state. I can only imagine that some version of this was true in Rwanda, and it’s certainly true in Israel. This misinterpretation is also at the heart of just war theory at its worst, legitimizing anything the government does in war and stopping the church from speaking out against it. Many Christians, even those who aren’t Zionists, have difficulty thinking of a government as unjust, even if it’s committing atrocities.

There’s also a general lack of awareness of the nature of the Powers and Principalities of this world, or what becomes of governments treated as idols. A revival in this theology came about after WWII, as a way of attempting to explain the Holocaust on a spiritual/theological/social/psychological level. Walter Wink has recently been the biggest voice in this area of theology, and points out that we’re all complicit in systems of violence, and that we’re all also victims of such systems of violence. The Domination System takes on a life of its own, and its power is greater than that of any political or religious leader. It takes collective action and resistance to overturn such a system, but the church has neglected its purpose as the nexus of such resistance, leaving those who are being killed by this system to form their own resistance – which of course only feeds the conflict further.

3. Racism

The church was actively antisemitic for way, way too long. Gushee points out that there was nothing the Nazis said about the Jews that the church hadn’t already been saying for years. It’s absolutely shameful, and it fed the antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and that same antisemitism and lies about the Jewish people are still used in many Arab countries today.

The church in Rwanda was part of the colonial system that set up arbitrary and racist social systems in Rwanda.

The church today is party to antisemitism, even among the Zionists. Christian Zionism is, effectively, Christians supporting the Jews as a means to an end. Christian Zionism tends to come from the same churches that believe in dispensationalism, which is a doctrine that holds that the age of the Jews is over and that they have been replaced by the Church. Many Zionists love Jews as a way to convert them, or as a way to bring Jesus back, but not for their own sake. This is not true of all Christian Zionists, but there’s an uncritical assumption among many Christian Zionists about the reasons they support Israel, and it’s subtly antisemitic. To put it another way, it objectifies Jewish people. And of course there are still those out there, Christians included, who are still just openly antisemitic. The church in general is not speaking out about antisemitism.

But more obviously, the church today is party to Islamophobia. Groups like ISIS only reinforce this, but we’re responsible for the way that we reduce all Muslims to a single, homogenous group in the way we think and talk about them. There are about a billion Muslims in the world, and we imply that most of them are terrorists in the way that we talk about them. Many Christians in the West have no idea that there are Arab Christians in Palestine; we assume that Arabs are all Muslim, and Muslims are all bent on genocide of non-Muslims. The church has done little or nothing to combat this racist, Islamophobic attitude.

________________________

So there’s my quick analysis of how the church, in general, is failing. I’m happy to commend Pope Francis for his subtle yet obvious criticisms of both sides of the conflict on his recent trip to the Holy Land, but the rest of us need to get on top of this. I’ll end with a quote from Gushee:

To oppose Nazism with unmitigated passion as a vicious idolatry; to weep with sorrow over the humiliation and then the destruction of the Jews of Europe; to disobey Nazi laws and risk everything to “rescue those being led away to death” — these were the passions and the actions that the times demanded of the Christian churches from 1933 to 1945. We know that now. A very few knew it then. What will be known in 2050 about what we should have known and done in 2002? – Gushee, In the Fray, 51.

Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

I hate Evangelicalism. Or, at least, I think I do. Except that I’m pretty sure that I’m an Evangelical.

It’s complicated.

For anyone coming to BTS lunch this coming semester, we’ll probably be talking about what Evangelicalism is. Like most self-identifying Evangelicals, I’m unable to accurately define it. Is it a theological tradition? Well, yes and no: it’s not a denomination, and seems to draw from a wide variety of denominations and traditions, but its lineage can still be traced back to certain theological thinkers and groups. Is it a culture? Certainly, but it’s not a distinctly national culture, with there being Evangelicals around the world; and it’s not simply a subculture in each of the cultures it can be found, as those who claim it would often prioritize it over any other distinctives of their culture. Plus all of that theology stuff takes it beyond being merely cultural. Is it a political group? Sadly, yes; but not so sadly, it’s actually a major part of many different political groups on both sides of the spectrum. In short, it doesn’t fit any particular category very well.

So how can we define it? Theologically? As I said, its theological lineage can be traced to specific people and groups…but how many Evangelicals are even aware of this theological heritage? So do we define it by where it comes from (historically) if a very significant portion of those who claim the title are ignorant of its history and may even largely disagree with its founders? Perhaps. There are a lot of people (on all sides of the political spectrum) who claim to be American patriots and love to quote their constitution in ways that would make its writers shudder and weep, but that certainly doesn’t make them less American at heart, whether or not they actually live there.

So do we define it by those who claim it? Such a wide variety of people claim the title Evangelical, and they vary not just in culture (coming from around the world), politics (from across the political spectrum), or theology (Calvinists and Arminians and Open Theists; High church and Low church; just war theorists and pacifists; etc.), but also in their own definition of what Evangelical means. I’d wager that most Evangelicals have a very vague notion of what it means, and that most of us have always assumed the title uncritically. So the conventional wisdom of simply asking an Evangelical what Evangelicalism is might not get us very far.

These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this semester, but as I’ve been preparing for the discussion I must admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in frustration. I hate Evangelicalism (which is not to say I hate Evangelicals), not least because I don’t know what it is and because I am one. This is a bit of an identity crisis for me in that sense. It’s good to be self-critical, or critical of our own traditions, but I can never tell if I’m being self-critical or simply pissed off about bad theology, rotten politics, and regressive culture. All of those things are part of the label “Evangelical”, and the people I’m irritated with often do those irritating things in the name of Evangelicalism (sometimes not even in the name of God, though that’s bad enough!).

It’s kind of posh to be a disaffected Evangelical these days. It’s sort of a Christian hipster thing. Christian bloggers talk about their experience coming out of conservative Evangelicalism and its culture, politics, and theology, and how they rediscovered Jesus and connected with progressive churches and all sorts of genuinely awesome things. I’m not talking trash about them – I love them, read them, and sometimes try to emulate them – but I’m starting to get the impression that every Evangelical in my age category and younger is just like me and Rachel Held Evans. In fact, I assume this to be true, and I’m quite skeptical when I’m told that Evangelicalism is actually a theological tradition that is still alive today. I catch myself assuming that people who claim the title of Evangelical are either ignorantly snared into American fundamentalism (which exists here in Canada, too), or else they’re courageously trying to redeem the word by bringing some theological nuance and weight to it. And then I hate myself for hating Evangelicalism, because I recognize how badly I’m reacting to something. Something I can’t even define.

Do I really hate Evangelicalism? Not really. I don’t hate it as a theological tradition (though I’m not sure how much I agree with the distinctive views of its historical leaders). I hate it when bad theology is legitimized by having the term Evangelical slapped onto it though, and I hate the fact that the term itself legitimizes anything, and I hate the fact that so many people buy into bad theology because of it. Do I hate the culture? Well, it’s hardly a uniform culture, but there are certain aspects of the culture that I’m not a big fan of. I don’t like the so-called Evangelical approaches to sin (we tend to focus on it rather than on grace), sexuality (we tend to focus on shame and spiritual existence rather than on living in the fullness of the bodily existence for which we were created), art (we tend to have bare walls in our churches, and our cultural expression is usually limited to inane Christianized facsimiles of more original “secular” art), and so forth. But how much of those emphases are distinctly Evangelical, and how many of them are more narrowly Conservative or Fundamentalist or American?

Ultimately, I hate the way my religion is abused. I hate when the pretenders, the ignorant, and the misguided use my religion and my people as a shield for their own actions, views, and goals. I hate when something as important as an idea gets corrupted, and I hate it even more when that corrupted idea spreads faster than the truth it’s based upon. That’s folk religion: when what people believe and do differs from the actual religion they claim, and they don’t even know it. Evangelicalism, because of its varied and difficult-to-define nature, is the catch-all for all American folk religion. It’s the label for every non-denominational church that lacks affiliation as a way of lacking accountability; every church of the cult of nationalism; every health-and-wealth swindler (though they claim “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” too, but those also fall under the umbrella of Evangelicalism all too often); every cultural Christian who knows very little about what they believe but will enforce that belief on others with impunity (and often with disastrous consequences); every political group that wants to gain support from Christians of nearly every stripe (because nearly every type of Christian in North America can claim the title Evangelical for some reason or other); and so on. These types of Christianity often have very little to do with Christ, and they bear his name in vain. I hate that, very deeply. What I hate more is that most of the people involved in folk religion are completely ignorant of the fact, but that some of them know all too well, or should know better.

So, for a lot of reasons, I think we should get rid of the term Evangelical altogether. It’s nearly impossible to define, and the lack of a clear definition leaves it wide open for abuse. Let’s stop trying to renew it or reform it, because we’re only prolonging the life of numerous folk religions that do violence to more legitimate uses of the term, as well as to the people who follow them. If we absolutely must have a broad-reaching term for followers of Jesus, I propose we stick with the old classic: Christian. Let’s be Christians, and make it very clear who we’re named after. Once we have that down, we can identify particular theological traditions and cultural expressions and political affiliations. I have a feeling that not all of us will get that far, and that we’ll be much happier trying to look like Jesus rather than spending our time defining our niche.

If there are no Evangelicals, then we’re simply left with Christians. Those people aren’t hard to figure out, and pretty easy to identify with and love.

Authority, Politics, and Power

Last night as I was falling asleep I couldn’t stop thinking about authority in its different senses. Of course, when falling asleep my thoughts tend to be basic, half-formed, and repetitive, but I still had a sense that it was an important thought to work through, even though I’m sure I’ve worked through it before. Sorry for any repetition.

There are two main views on authority, that I know of. One is dominant in discussions of theology, and it has to do with correspondence to truth: a view or a witness is authoritative because they correspond with reality, or they are true. The Bible is authoritative because it gives true representation of God, but also because it is believed to be given by God, who himself is trustworthy and true.

The second view of authority is a sociological view, in which authority is something that the people who are under authority bestow upon those in authority. We obey our leaders because they are our leaders, but they are our leaders because we have collectively agreed to obey them. Children grant authority to just about anyone who’s older than them, agreeing that these older and wiser people can tell them what to do; teenagers refuse to grant authority even to those who may have a legitimate claim to it, such as their parents.

Authority in both senses tends to create positions in which that authority is held. Nobles became nobles because they led people through times of trial, and the people granted authority to them; being entrusted with this authority, they took on a role as leader and protector of the people, and passed that role on to their children. Many of those children had no such leadership skills, and flouted their responsibility, but the role or position of lord maintained authority, and people continued to invest authority into that position even if they disagreed with how one particular lord fulfilled the duties of that position (or failed to do so). In the same way, the Office of the Prime Minister began in Canada as the PM’s secretary, and the PM was just the first among peers in the House of Commons; but during wartime, we granted the Prime Minister the ability to give special powers to other MPs and form a Cabinet to help with wartime decision making, as well as expand the staff in his Office. Now the PMO has over 100 people in it, and there are 39 members of the Cabinet, all of whom have more power than a regular Member of Parliament; every successive government has grown the size of these institutions, investing more authority in them in spite of the fact that Canada hasn’t been in active combat for most of its history, and is not currently so. The position remains, and the authority of that position remains, so long as we continue to agree to grant authority to those positions (the sociological definition of authority). We will continue to do so until it has been proven to us that these positions are arbitrary and incorrect – until the positions themselves have lost any sense of correspondence to truth or reality (the correspondence sense of authority).

So here we see how the two positions are connected: so long as we believe that the person in the position of authority has authority in the first sense (that they are truthful and trustworthy), we continue to grant them authority in the second sense by granting them the respect and obedience due their position. The trouble is, when we’re talking about authority we tend to confuse it with power. The sociological definition of authority is “the legitimate or socially approved use of power.” Power itself is the ability the person in authority has to carry out the duties of their position: they can tell us what to do, because we’ve given them the authority to do so in recognition of their trustworthy and reliable nature or character. Perhaps, then, I should call this a third view of authority: that we grant authority to someone in recognition of the power that they hold over us. Because at a certain point, we only obey those in authority (and thereby continue to give social sanction to their use of power) out of fear of their power over us.

As someone who’s keenly interested in both theology and politics, this makes me ask: what kind of authority does God have, what kind of authority does government have, and how do the two exercise the power that comes with that authority?

In the first and third senses, God is the ultimate authority. He is completely and ultimately trustworthy and the only one in existence with access to all of the facts – therefore, he is an authority on everything. And he is also omnipotent, having the power to exercise ultimate control over everything in existence should he so choose. Usually theologians think of God’s omnipotence and omniscience when they think of his authority. The trouble with the theological emphasis on this third form of authority (that is, giving power someone in recognition of their existing power over us) is that it is the weakest or lowest form of authority, and tends to be recognized as illegitimate authority. It is the authority of a tyrant, or a mobster. If we only obey someone because they have the power to destroy us if we disobey, are we actually obeying? Do we owe allegiance to such an authority, or do we simply comply out of a sense of self-preservation?

When it comes to politics, things change a little bit. Politicians claim to have the first form of authority, as they claim to be experts who can guide our nation. We don’t often believe them, and a majority of Canadians didn’t vote for the current government, but they maintain the authority of their position nevertheless because of a combination of senses two and three  of authority: enough of us voted for them that they can claim that the people have granted them authority, and for those who dissent they exercise the power that comes with that authority, arresting and beating peaceful protesters (as in Toronto at the G20 protests a few years back). That exercise of power is widely recognized as being illegitimate use of authority, but so long as enough people continue to vote for them, they can claim legitimacy. We continue to renew their authority, even as they continually undermine any sense of being authoritative (in sense one, of being trustworthy and expert) by their misuse of authority (in sense three, of the ability to exercise power over others).

So, God has a perfect claim to sense 1 (trustworthy, expert), while any politician who claims that has a weak claim at best. God has very little authority in sense 2, in that a minority of human beings acknowledge, trust, or obey him; we tend to ignore him, or at least, ignore his commands. But for politicians in a democratic system, authority in the second sense is the only thing that grants them access to any authority or power at all. And while politicians often rely on authority in the third sense (the exercise of power to maintain authority in the sense of social sanction), their use of it actually undermines any authority they may have in the first sense (of being true or trustworthy) even when they’re successful at using it to shore up public support and authority in the second sense.

It appears, then, that senses 1 and 3 are mutually exclusive. If someone relies upon the use of power in order to maintain their authority, their credentials as a suitable expert whose commands are trustworthy is undermined.

Perhaps this is why, in spite of having all power in the universe, God chooses not to exercise it over the wills of human beings. He’d rather be respected and followed because of his character and correspondence to truth. This is why Jesus, having access to a legion of angels, submitted himself to the illegitimate use of power by the Romans rather than exercise his own, more legitimate  power (more legitimate because of the legitimacy of its source, in God).

Not long later, Jesus told his disciples “All authority [often translated as “power”] has been given to me in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). What does that mean, when governments and tyrants still hold power over people? What Jesus is saying is that he is the primary authority, and that because he alone is completely legitimate and trustworthy. We still grant authority to governments, but their authority is only legitimate insofar as they conform to reality or are trustworthy, and the benchmark for their legitimacy and worthiness is now Christ. That is, a government is legitimate when it is Christ-like. A ruler is legitimate when they are Christ-like.

Does this mean that all governments should be Christian? It’s not necessary to be Christian by creed or culture in order to act like Christ (though that is difficult for us all). There is no mandate in this statement for Christian culture or worship to be required of all governments or authorities. Christ himself never mandated that people follow him, he only invited – again, because he refused to exercise authority in sense 3, using his power to make people obey. In fact, I don’t think that it’s coincidence that it was after his execution at the hands of unjust authorities, in which he refused to exercise his unlimited power, that he proclaimed that all authority had been given to him. It is because of his refusal to exert power over human beings that he proved his worthiness to hold all authority and power. It is the most powerful person who never needs to use their power, and there is nobody else who can be trusted with that power.

So what does that mean for me, a Christian citizen? I continue to invest authority (sense 2) in my government only insofar as they are proved responsible and trustworthy (sense 1), which can be measured largely by how carefully they use their power (sense 3). When they abuse their power, I speak up and, whenever possible, step up. When a government proves itself illegitimate and must be reformed or removed, it is absolutely crucial that it is done so in a non-violent manner. In a violent revolution, those who recognize that their authorities are illegitimate due to a lack of sense 1 and 2 are just as illegitimate as the existing authorities they attempt to overthrow, as both sides are simply competing for power (sense 3), which undermines sense 1 and therefore sense 2. A true revolution is one in which those who have only power are overthrown by those who have only true authority: those who are right, trustworthy, and true. True authority is given freely, because it is objectively and truly deserved.

What would this mean for a political party or government? Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and you’ll have authority even if you don’t have power. (I think that the Green Party has authority in sense 1, even where it’s not recognized with the granting of the power to rule as in senses 2 and 3). If you have to sacrifice those things in order to gain senses 2 and 3, then you don’t deserve them and won’t be able to maintain them with any sense of legitimacy. Strive for truth, justice, and goodness, and recognize that this might mean that you won’t get re-elected; do it anyway, and see how people respond. Be a one-term government, and if you do it well, you might get another term. You might not, but it will still have been worthwhile.

My Journey to Political Theology

I’m back from another brief hiatus. This one was caused by taking on a political campaign for the Green Party in our riding’s recent by-election, which gives me a good opportunity to bring up two of my favourite topics: stewardship of creation, and political theology. You may see these as recurring themes here in the future. Today I’d like to talk about why I’m interested in politics, and maybe later, why I’m interested in Green politics. (I haven’t forgotten about the post on Original Sin – that’ll come eventually!)

My journey toward politics has been a bit of a zig-zag as I follow the ethical implications of my theology (guided largely by the theology and ethical thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). God demanded that human beings act justly and love mercy, and told us how to do that; when we didn’t get the message, Jesus showed us how to do it. At the same time, he painted a picture of what the world would be like if we all did it, and he called it the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom isn’t here in its fullness, but it appears, however briefly, when we gather together in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. In short, the Kingdom appears whenever the church acts like the church is called to act.

That said, there are glimpses of the Kingdom outside the walls of our local congregations. The Spirit goes where the Spirit wills, and God has implanted notions of justice and goodness in the hearts of human beings, and there are a lot of people out there who are doing good things. This, too, glorifies God and gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m trying to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by enforcing Christianity through the state! Far from it: I believe strongly that Christianity is something that must be chosen by individuals (see Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship for an account of that confrontation). I keep referring to the Kingdom because the picture that Jesus paints of it contrasts sharply with our present reality, and acts as a character foil for our social systems and personal choices. It’s the reality that I’m trying to live in, and it makes injustice in the world stand out all the more. It’s what gives me the ability to see that something is wrong, and it’s what calls me to do something about it.

In short, the Kingdom of God has made me an activist. Well, at least a slacktivist.

I say slacktivist because being a true activist involves going out and doing something about society’s ills. I’m much more prone to stay home and blog about it, sign petitions, and even occasionally donate small amounts of money. I feel called to do more because Jesus has given me a glimpse of a better world, but the media has shown me the extent and depth of this world’s dysfunction and distress, and I’m overwhelmed by it. My little acts of kindness and mercy, the outward marks of my discipleship, seem like a drop in the ocean. Perhaps if I could see the church organizing to do something about these issues in a bigger way, I’d be content to have the church be my only political affiliation (and make no mistake, becoming a Christian is a highly political act!); sadly, I don’t see that happening very much. I think that the church has been failing in its divine mandate to hold the other divinely instituted mandates in check (government, work, family – see Bonhoeffer’s discussion in Ethics), and I think that’s partially because Christians from across the political spectrum (with the exception of the far right) have stopped engaging in politics.

This is why I’m getting involved in politics: my discipleship makes me sensitive to injustice and demands action, and I want the action I take to have a far-reaching impact. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on small, personal acts of justice and mercy; on the contrary, those little acts of discipleship, and my formation in a community of worship, inform and inspire the action I want to take on a larger scale. But one act of personal kindness can feed one person for one day (or teach them how to feed themselves, as the old adage goes), but one piece of legislation can set up a program to teach a whole nation how to feed itself forever. I don’t think any government has the ability to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can certainly hold it up as an ideal as we work toward a more just society.

You may still think that I’m somehow trying to enforce my Christian ideals on people – well, all politics is about enforcing some kind of ideals. The trick is, what kind of ideals are we enforcing? People tend to have a problem with faith and politics mixing because, as I said above, religious commitment is a very individual thing that should not be coerced. To put it another way, you can’t enforce morality (at least not effectively, and not in a way that respect’s the Other as other – that is, as a human being who can make their own moral choices). But there’s a whole lot more to Christianity than just a certain morality; in fact, Bonhoeffer once preached that Christianity is distinctly amoral.  So it doesn’t follow that politics inspired by, or even enforcing, Christian ideals or values must actually enforce Christian beliefs or morals.

Besides, providing a moral example is something that the church has, more or less, done fairly well. If anything, the church tends to put too much emphasis on morality, especially in regard to sex (but that’s a post for another day). It was the same in Bonhoeffer’s Germany: in Letters and Papers from Prison he talks about how the church has been reduced to moralism, with nothing relevant to say to society except to dig through people’s drawers and closets in search of secret sin. He argued that our lived morality (that is, ethics) needed to be the primary witness of the church, rather than merely preached morality (moralism). He called this “religionless Christianity,” and it’s still necessary, though it’s not everything the church must be.

Another major way that the church is supposed to impact society (and the other divine mandates) is through its worship of God on behalf of the world; this is the one way that the church in North America is still fulfilling its function. We love to worship! Unfortunately, we tend to have “worship services” that are heavy on worship and light on (or devoid of) actual service. God scolded Israel for this through the mouths of his prophets, saying that their worship without the accompanying acts of justice and mercy was repugnant, wicked, evil. This is the reason he gave for the destruction and exile of Israel.

So here I am, a disciple of Christ and a member of his church. I want to continue to worship God, but for that worship to be genuine it must also involve service to my fellow humans; and for that service to be most effective it requires an organized effort that the church (with notable exceptions such as MCC, Kairos, the EFC, etc.) isn’t really making. Meanwhile, governments are charged with ordering society in a just manner, but often lack the ethical foundations that Christ is actively building into his disciples. This seems like a match made in heaven: someone (like me) who is based in a community focused on ethical formation, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility would be an ideal candidate to serve the function of ordering society justly in an organization (the government) known for its misuse of power and lack of ethical grounding.

Once again, lest you be concerned that a Christian could not function as a representative of all of the people of their political riding, who may or may not share in the Christian faith: the role of politics is to order society justly, not to preach morality. So long as it stays within that function, there is no danger of legislating morality; and even if there were, Christianity need not be moralistic, and may in fact be amoral (as Bonhoeffer suggests). The issues on which the broader population disagrees with Christian ethics are relatively few, and most of them fall outside of the mandate of government anyway, so it’s far from impossible for a Christian who is acting in accord with their faith to represent a non-Christian constituency.

Ultimately, then, I feel that political activity provides the best venue for the ethical, or “religionless”, aspect of my Christianity. Our current society doesn’t tolerate organized Christian groups very well, and much of the church just plain isn’t interested, but we can still fulfill this important function of the church by being the church at the same time as being citizens. These two realms, which we always seem to want to separate, complement one another in our society today, and allow each other to be fulfilled.

This is obviously a big and complex topic, so please leave your questions or comments below!

On Being Subject to Authority

The church-community has, therefore, a very real impact on the life of the world. It gains space for Christ. For whatever is “in Christ” is no longer under the dominion of the world, of sin, or of the law. Within this newly created community, all the laws of this world have lost their binding force. This sphere in which brothers and sisters are loved with Christian love is subject to Christ; it is no longer subject to the world. The church-community can never consent to any restrictions of its service of love and compassion toward other human beings. For wherever there is a brother or sister, there Christ’s own body is present; and wherever Christ’s body is present, his church-community is also always present, which means I must also be present there. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBWE 4), 236.

An interesting take on political theology: rather than being subject to two kingdoms (Church and World) as Lutherans hold, Bonhoeffer says that we as Christians are only subject to Christ, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. There is no sphere in which we stop being Christians, united to Christ and to one another; wherever one Christian is, the whole body of Christ is with them.

Does this mean that Christians are not subject to the laws of the land? Yes! Does that mean that we should not obey them? By no means! We are subject to Christ, who demands even more of us than any law; all just laws still fall short of the demands of discipleship, and so obeying the law is the least service to Christ. If a law is unjust, then it is contrary to Christ and must not be obeyed. Even though we should not obey an unjust law out of a sense of patriotism, refusal to obey an unjust law is again the least service to Christ. Whether we obey just laws or disobey unjust laws, in either case we do so incidentally, not out of service to the law or to the nation but out of service to Christ, to whom alone we are subject.

This can be seen in the way Christians live in community without coercion. Acts tells us that they held all things in common and gave to everyone as they had need, providing for widows, etc. They did not collect taxes amongst themselves to do so, but everyone gave as they were able, voluntarily. What the law requires under coercion, Christians give freely as service to Christ. In this way we are not subject to even the best laws, because we surpass them in Christ.

There is no such thing as a Christian criminal in this sense, because if we transgress so far as to break the law, we have long since failed to fulfill the demands of Christian discipleship, that is, to follow Christ. And when we break the law in service to Christ, we are not called criminals but martyrs, prisoners of conscience or faith.

So in all things seek first the kingdom of Heaven, and the law will be satisfied.