November 09, 2012

A Moment of Witness

As seems to be the case with every election cycle, we have just survived another contentious contest. I've been prompted over the last couple of days to think Christianly about the Christian life, political engagement, and particularly about the Christian stance regarding issues of homosexuality as a test-case and refining fire for these thoughts, or maybe more importantly, as a human face and immediate application of them. So what does it meant to be a Christian in a democracy (of course more properly, for us Americans, a presidential republic)? How does our Christianity inform our political engagement, and how is this related to our larger Christian witness in the world?

I wonder if Christians in the United States (I speak as an American, and that is thus where my situation gives me the best fodder for reflection) is approaching a watershed moment in terms of cultural engagement. That is, I wonder if the veneer of "Christendom" is beginning to fall (or well on its way to falling) away. We live, whether we like it or not, in a pluralistic country. Yes, Christian principles informed our founding to a greater or lesser extent, an interesting discussion I'd rather not belabor here because I am not entirely sure it's relevant. But, our country is made up of people from many cultural and religious perspectives. What does it mean to be a Christian in the public square in that type of setting. 

First, let me say that I think this is a genuine opportunity for Christianity and for Christians. I read a great blog post this morning by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in which he speaks of the importance of the second century for the development of Christianity. In reflecting on the development of Christian theology in this somewhat neglected century, and interacting with a book by Eric Osborne, he quotes, “This is one of those brief periods of human invention when earlier concepts become museum pieces.  Any such expansions requires at least four things:  some thinkers to think, new resources to use, questions to answer, and an opposition to challenge.” (p. 1) “Fortunately for posterity, Christian apologists [the second-century figures he studies] had to argue for their lives.” (p. 3)

I feel that we are approaching a place where Christians will need to argue for their legitimacy, if not their lives. Why is thinking about things in a biblical or Christian way a legitimate way of thinking? Does it have a legitimate place in a university setting? And, of course, this likewise comes to a head in politics: are Christian perspectives valuable or legitimate in political discourse? Gone are the days (if they ever truly existed) of saying that a law or policy is biblical and thus legitimate solely on those grounds. But, though not necessarily an "easier" context than that of the say fifty years past, I think this could provide a genuine opportunity for witness for Christians. For thinking Christianly about politics does bear startling fruit, and I think it does so particularly in a liberal democracy. For a Christian perspective values and loves the other, even those with whom we disagree (they aren't the enemy to be destroyed), and seeks the benefit of those in need and justice for the oppressed (even at great expense to oneself). These values could shine brightly in the face of the tyranny of the majority and the politics of self-interest. But Christianity also takes into full account the sinfulness of all people, those of "my" party as well as of "their" party. That can be a gateway to (if not a mandate for) genuine humility and substantive cooperative engagement not easily arrived at by other philosophical means. And exhibiting these Christian perspectives in the public square could be both beneficial for the being of the state but also a genuine opportunity for the church to let the light of Christ "shine before others, that they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven" (Mt. 5:16). 

So what of the Christian engagement with issues of homosexuality? I admit right up front, I'm reluctant to wade into these waters because so much needs to be said. And what follows is merely a sketch, so please take it as such. It seems every word requires nuance. But I think there are some larger contours that can be enumerated in a fruitful way, and that's what I'm trying for here. 

In preparation (remember what I said about nuance), I think there are numerous layers or facets making up the Christian engagement with issues of homosexuality, and I'd like to enumerate four of them here (there may be more). First, there is the interpersonal, direct engagement. How does an individual Christian or a body of believers treat a person who is a practicing homosexual? Second, or maybe part of the first, how does an individual or a church treat a fellow Christian who is a practicing homosexual? Third, how does a church respond to homosexual practice or homosexuality with regard to blessing of marriages and ordination of individuals for church leadership? And fourth, how do Christians engage with the wider culture on a political and cultural level about these questions? 

Even enumerating the list is hard, because there is interrelation between the facets. But I think understanding that there may be different responses at the different levels is absolutely essential to forming a robust Christian response. I don't want to sketch responses at each of the levels I've outlined, but instead want to outline an arc of engagement at three different levels, which I'll roughly construe as the interpersonal, the ecclesial, and the political. First, the interpersonal. Christianity has a lot to say about sin and the holiness of God, but the first word it speaks to the world is one of love, of invitation. For Christianity is first and foremost a live lived in Christ. I think Christians too often speak judgment first, and often judgment only, losing entirely the love of neighbor that is so fundamental to how a Christian embodies the image of Christ in the world. And in the engagement with supporters of homosexual practice and a homosexual way of life, this particular deficiency far too often comes to the front. We are all sinners, and those of us in Christ are redeemed sinners by the grace of God, a grace for which we are now ambassadors to a sinful, hurting, and hostile world. That's a gigantic truth, and one that Christians need to live into fully and enthusiastically. It certainly doesn't say everything that can or needs to be said regarding homosexual practice, but it needs, far more often, to be the place to start. Those practicing or advocating a homosexual existence should feel first and foremost the love of God in Christ flowing through us. We are called to love our neighbors as our selves, and the parable of the good Samaritan is particularly apt here. 

Second, there's the ecclesial aspect, particularly embodied in questions of blessing of unions and ordination. And it is here in particular that I hold more ground in common with traditionalists, in that these are arenas in which the church can and should advocate for strict and unfaltering adherence to God's will for human beings as we best understand it based on the Bible. I believe, at this point in my life and study and biblical engagement, that the church should not be blessing homosexual unions or ordaining practicing homosexuals as clergy. This isn't the post in which to delve further into that question, but I think and hope that stating a rather simple and traditional position here can help illumine how that position may differ (or maybe better, play out differently) in the ecclesial realm from that of the interpersonal and political realms.

So finally, on to the political realm, and what stimulated this overlong reflection in the first place. If we as Christians believe that God's will and desire for marriage is that it be between a man and a woman, and that sexual relations are meant to be within that man-woman bond, how would and should that relate to engagement in the arena of politics. I would like to assert, somewhat provisionally, that I suspect the best and most fruitful approach for the church is to support (or at the very least, not oppose) the creation of a civil union for homosexual couples. I say "suspect" because I am thoroughly aware that this is a thorny issue, fraught with wide implications. But I still suspect this is the best and most faithful route. 

One key barrier that I think stands in the way for many Christians is the felt need to have laws reflect God's revealed will and intent for all people. In short, the need to legislate morality. Obviously, the state is functioning best when its laws reflect the good and true and just, and when they proscribe the unjust, the harmful, and the false. But what does pursuing theses things in a pluralist society mean? I think it is essential that Christians come to understand that sometimes it is expedient and maybe even beneficial to seek to legislate something that is a good but yet falls short of the highest good (that being God's intent for all humanity on a particular issue). There are a few reasons for this. First is that states should be rights-honoring; that is, they should not harm their citizens. And I think this will often mean there will be areas where citizens have the right to make certain choices, and that empowering the state to remove those choices may be a greater harm than allowing (and thereby tacitly approving) what we understand to be detrimental choices. Obviously, this line of reasoning has a point at which it breaks down, in that there is a point at which the broad consequences of certain detrimental choices are viewed by society as being so harmful to the common good that the society must actively proscribe them and enforce that ban, and this is just where laws come in. But we must understand that we don't legislate all morality even as we seek to legislate morally. Second, I don't think marriage is particularly the purview of the state. The state benefits from strong family structures and stable family bonds, and thus has a vested interest (for the common good) of encouraging marriage, but the state does not confer a right to marry, nor does it truly enact a marriage (yes, it does so in a legal sense, in that it approves the conferral of certain civil benefits, but I would understand marriage first to be a religious institution, enacted before God in the presence of the church [this isn't meant to be a screed against non-church weddings--far from it; nor am I questioning the legitimacy of marriages performed by a civil magistrate without the presence of clergy; things may take place in God's presence no matter where they are, but I still want to maintain some type of distinction for the sake of my discussion here]). So I think the status of a particular union in the eyes of the state is different than in the eyes of the church (see the point above regarding the ecclesial aspect). Thus, there may in fact be reasons where thinking about the political and civil question regarding same-sex marriage differently than when we frame the question inside the confines of the church. 

I am quite sure these reflections don't say the last word on what it means to act Christianly in the public sphere, nor have I said all that could and should be said regarding the issues around and responses to homosexual practice and same-sex unions inside or outside the church. But I hope some of these developing reflections may prove to be a catalyst, for myself and others, to think afresh about what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ in our time and place. 

November 03, 2012

Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty

This book engages the important question of how God's authority is related to the authority of the state (2). It is a extended reflection in political theology, that is, thinking in a Christian way about the nature and authority of the state. The book comes out of lectures given by Wolterstorff in 1998, but, interestingly, he says he wasn't happy with the lectures in the form he delivered them (vi), so he set the material aside and returned to it occasionally over the intervening fourteen years, in the course of his other work, arriving at the product produced in this book. The book still retains much of the lecture "feel," in its direct tone and light annotation, but this isn't a deficit, and in fact makes what may otherwise have been overly technical accessible to the interested reader.

Wolterstorff's reflections are built on the character of Polycarp, one of Christianity's early martyrs, who exhibited an almost paradoxical allegiance to Jesus Christ and a recognition of the state. Out of Polycarp's situation, Wolterstorff recognizes two key dualities: "the duality of the authority of the state mediating the authority of God, and the duality of Christians being under the authority of both church and state." It is the exploration of these dualities that occupies the remainder of the book.

After looking at two possible objections to his framing of the situation (one from Yoder and one based on the "two-cities" understanding), he goes on to explore the nature of authority, of government, and of the specific authority to govern. These provide the reader with helpful summaries of what are obviously complex issues, laying important groundwork for the exposition to come. And after investigating Calvin's understanding of the relationship of God's authority and that of the state, he moves on to look at Romans 13, one of the key texts for Christian reflection on the stage.

The chapter on Paul really forms the heart of the book, both because of the historical prominence of this chapter in past Christian thought and because of the fruitfulness of his rereading of the passage. Without going into the details, two key points go together. This first is that most interpreters have looked at the passage and seen the first verse, emphasizing government's God-given authority, as the key to interpretation, whereas Wolterstorff asserts (not without warrant, I think) that verses four and five, which detail more specifically what government is and why it has been so authorized by God (emphasizing government's role as God's agent to curb wrongdoing). He asserts, "With verse 4 in mind, our immediate thought is that they [governing authorities] are not just instituted, period, full stop. . . . we know that they are instituted to do something, appointed to do something" (94, emphasis original). This interpretation is certainly not new, but what is more novel is that, in his argument, this dovetails with an earlier point regarding the nature of authority, where he differentiated between positional authority (that is, actions one possesses the power to enact by virtue of a position of authority) and performance authority (that is, actions that one has been given permission to undertake; 48). While many Christian interpreters have assumed something resembling the first understanding of authority when looking at Romans 13, Wolterstorff asserts that Paul has in mind the latter. This key interpretive move is at the heart of his argument. And he takes his conclusion one important step further. He asserts that the outline of government in Romans 13 would thus imply that government is to be a rights-honoring institution, since transgressing rights is in fact injustice and governments are tasked with punishing, not perpetrating, injustice. This leads him down a path he didn't fully expect at the outset of his own work: "I found a case for the liberal democratic state gradually emerging—albeit for a less individualistic understanding of the liberal democratic state than is common" (5).

 Wolterstorff's clearly written book does an outstanding job of formulating (or at least pointing toward) a theology of government, one that has potential to bear much fruit. Readers interested in questions of politics and theology will do well to take this work into account. Likewise, those interested in Pauline theology or Romans will likewise benefit from engaging with his reading of Romans 13. The book is scholarly, but also concise and direct, making it manageable for the interested general reader, and I hope many pick it up. I look forward to engaging more with his thoughtful writing, for I think it can illuminate why conflicts between religious and political spheres do in fact occur, and help us navigate a path through them that is true to the nature of each, all the while being ultimately faithful to the sovereign Lord who holds our full and ultimate allegiance.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy of this book.