The clash of kingdoms is real:
Political Theology, as the term implies, has to do with thinking theologically about politics. Or, putting it the other way around, involves doing politics from a theological point of view. The Christian knows that the proper use of politics – like everything else – must be seen, assessed, and done from a biblical point of view.
This is now my third article on these sorts of themes, all drawing on one important book Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers by English Christian author Alan Storkey. The book is so helpful that there might be even more articles to come in the future. The other two pieces are these: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/07/jesus-politics-and-speaking-truth-to-power/
In these articles I have sought to stress how this-worldly Jesus and the Bible are. We tend to so over-spiritualise Christianity – at least in the West – that we lose sight of just how much Jesus and the disciples were involved in dealing with the physical and material needs of people.
And not only that, but we lose sight of just how much of a challenge the gospel message actually was to the powers of the day, including the political powers. Many of course have written on these themes. N. T. Wright is one such figure. And think of three volumes written or edited by Richard Horsley:
–Paul and Empire (Trinity Press International, 1997)
–Jesus and Empire (Fortress Press, 2002)
–In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)
Of course one need not agree with all that is found in these volumes, and Horsley and Co may have taken things too far. Indeed, others have written critical assessments of this anti-imperialism emphasis. See for example these three books which offer a much-needed corrective:
Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Eerdmans, 2008)
Scot McKnight, and Joseph Modica, eds., Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP, 2013)
But still, there is no question that Scripture must be seen – at least to some extent – against this backdrop of empires and rulers who found the Judeo-Christian message to be a real threat. The prophets, Jesus and the disciples all posed challenges to the political powers of the day.
Getting back to Storkey, let me focus on chapter 6 of his book, “The Government of God,” which I have quoted from earlier. He writes:
The biggest subversion of all is to dethrone the ruler and politics and put them in their limited place under the sovereignty of God. This change is at the fulcrum of world political history. To identify the issue, we have to begin by recalling the overwhelming structure of the ancient world’s empires. Politically, they were ruler-dominated cultures: the ruler, often with the help of priests and religious myths, provided the total worldview for its citizens.
He looks at some of these empires, and then says this:
By the time of Jesus, not much has changed. Rome, though it has different foundations, is a politically defined culture. The Roman state defines citizenship or slavery, worship, and law, and it operates with an overwhelming sense of control. At the time the empire is moving fast toward worship of the divine Caesar….
Jesus is entirely different. He requires true subordination to the rule of God, in which the state and its ruler are banished from overall control, political and religious. People live before God and not within the conception of the state or the ruler. Living before God demythologizes the whole ethos of dominating politics. People are free to live before God as they choose. Politics is pushed into a limited place, and there is room for friendship, science, children, discussion, prayer, the arts, fishing, and walking about, meeting people.
Jesus posed a real threat to the powers that be. By insisting that we bow the knee only to God, he challenged all the power structures of his day. Storkey continues:
We see how deadly serious is this great historical confrontation. The Nazarene stands against the absolute rule of the state and against its claim to define the meaning of life. He is brought before rulers and will not bow, but serenely teaches the prior rule of God. The temptation to control all the kingdoms of the world, the totalitarian vision, is dismissed at the beginning of the journey (Matt. 4:8-10). Jesus shows that we all live in God’s creation, not in the mythical constructs of the State’s men.
Yet, the word is out. Jesus’ low-key proclamation of the rule of God restructures the fundamental meaning of politics, which all too often has been construed in Greco-Roman terms. As Jesus taught it, the rule of God has deep structural consequences. First, it subordinates the state to God and to the law. The principle of the rule of law properly understood requires ruler and ruled to submit to God’s precepts of justice, respect, and neighbor love. Autocracy, arbitrary rule, and double standards are out. Second, the ruler-god is unacceptable. Rather, the political rulers are officeholders, with required standards of service and patterns of accountability – people who must never look down on their fellows. Third, totalitarianism, or political control of all areas of life, involves the state pretending to possess powers it does not properly have. We live before God, not the state, and the latter is limited to upholding God’s justice and not to undertaking the control of people’s lives. Fourth, it makes a society pluralist, where family life, work, religion and church, education, the arts, community all have a place before God and are not to be controlled or swamped by the state.
He discusses the fundamental difference between these two types of rule. In the Christian perspective, things like family, church, the state, the economy and society are under the rule of God. But in the totalitarian tradition, family, church, the economy and society are under the rule of the state. He continues:
This Christian truth shows that the society-wide dominance of the state is mistaken at several levels. God rules, not the state. The state is fallible and needs a higher system of accountability. The state is partial and does not supply the overall perspective on life. State or political control of other institutions wrongly politicizes them. The state also has no superior status. Within this perspective a political paradigm is not adequate for understanding what family, education, work, and the arts are about. Yet this perspective does not validate church control of the state, the medieval model. When the state and rulers impose the myth of their ultimate rule and try to give a political meaning to life, idolatry is taking place.
As Jesus saunters through the countryside and teaches the actual rule of God, no one and no institution else, he expels fear of rulers from his disciples. “When they arrest you, do not worry. . . . Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. . . . So don’t be afraid” (Matt. 10:19, 28, 31). As he does so, the ruler-god, the state myth, the political domination of life is dethroned. This is the dethronement of the throne. In the other system, rulers inherit the earth. Here, the meek do. In the other system, rulers enslave mind, heart, and work. Here, rulers serve and work for others. Jesus’ submission to the Father is self-effacing (John 15:10). Our reaction is to say that this man is not really a politician, but actually, we are seeing the quiet tail that wags the barking State dog.
Let me offer one final quote from this chapter:
Further, the principle of the rule of God over all of life limits the place of the state to a part of it. Almost unawares, we have accepted Jesus’ granting of freedom. His story is of friends, healing, walks, parties, weddings, and funerals. One of the nuances of Jesus’ thinking is the way he depoliticizes problems. You have harmed your neighbor; sort it out now, before court. You want to discuss divorce; the problem is hardness of heart. Politics is put in its limited place. Even when facing the final political confrontation, Jesus’ concern is more to teach his friends about God’s relationship with them. Politics is subsequent; the relationship with God is everything. And anyhow, this is what life is really like. God-given life involves eating, sleeping, learning, friends, travel, families, and discussion; it is not politically defined in the ways Fascism and state Socialism have tried to pretend. There is now an understanding of the limited and partial place of politics. The removal of its dominance from other areas of life is one of the marks of the West.
Yes quite so. It was the Judeo-Christian understanding of things that led away from Statism to the freedoms and values of the West. But sadly, as the West becomes more secular and anti-Christian, it is reverting to its pagan roots – and that includes the return to the all-powerful and all-dominating State.
I have written often about this worrying trend – a trend only compounded by government overreactions to the corona virus. That is why a book like this is so valuable, as it reminds us of basic biblical truths. God is God, not the state. And we need to see how often Scripture presents its truth claims over-against the political powers of the day.
Moreover, as mentioned above, the theme of empire and reaction against it is indeed to be found in the Bible. But as I also said, some recent writings on this have overemphasised this theme, and we need to keep the biblical balance here. So stay tuned for further articles in the near-future which will speak to such matters in more detail.