Thursday, November 3, 2016

Faith and Politics in the Bible

As I was preparing for the second week of our four-week class at St. Paul's called "Faith and Politics," I came across this article. Its references to the political nature of Jesus' life and ministry were helpful as I faced the daunting task of giving an overview of the interactions between faith and politics in the entire Bible and church history ... to be presented in an hour and fifteen minutes!

Politics is about how we as a society decide to order our common life. Not surprisingly, when we look at political situations in the Bible, the tension is mostly about matters of justice. In seminary we studied different types of justice:

  • Distributive justice: How do all people get what they need and make use of the benefits of society? How can we ensure that people share the necessary burdens? Who will have certain opportunities, and who won’t, and why?
  • Commutative justice: How do we exchange, interact, buy and sell, come to agreements? What is the right ordering for fair exchange?
  • Retributive justice: How and why do we punish? What is fair in punishing those who violate the norms of society?
  • Restorative justice: How can we restore violators to full participation in society?
Together we took a quick jaunt through the Bible, reading selected stories about politics, faith, and justice.

The Torah was the Constitution of the Ancient Hebrews. It laid out the laws for society and the procedures for politics. But in the desert, before Moses even received the Law at Mt. Sinai, Moses’ father-in-law advised him to create a system of political leaders so that he wouldn’t wear himself out. Read Exodus 18:13-27. What kinds of justice are being assured here?

After conquering the Promised Land in a political conquest, the Hebrews set up a system of judges for themselves. This system didn’t work very well, as the entire Book of Judges demonstrates. Eventually the people clamored for a king. Read 1 Samuel 8:4-22. What kinds of justice are being requested here? How did this work for them? If you were to recast Samuel's speech to a present-day audience, what political phrases and concepts would you use?

During the glory days of the kingdom of Israel, David had an affair with Bathsheba, and the Prophet Nathan called him out on it. Prophets were a recognized profession in Israel and Judah; Nathan is one of the earliest. They could be seen as the “loyal opposition,” and the degree of acceptance of them depended on how willing were those in power to learn and grow. Read 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15. What kinds of justice are being assured here? Does David sound a bit like a modern politician? Who plays this role in our society today?

Prophets were those who saw what God would want for a situation and dared to say it.  Prophets can only be identified in retrospect; those who seek the life of a prophet may be suspicious characters. Amos, Isaiah,  and Jeremiah all have a moment in which they basically say,“I didn’t ask to be a prophet!” In other words, beware of those who sign up willingly for the job.

Perhaps the most traumatic political event in the Old Testament is the Babylonian Exile. The Assyrians took the northern kingdom of Israel first, but we don’t know what happened to the people after that. We have no record. The southern kingdom of Judah was taken 150 years later by Babylon. Much of the Old Testament chews on this traumatic event, which left the Jews asking, “If God is in charge, how could this happen?” Read Jeremiah 29:4-14. What kinds of justice are being assured here? Would you want to receive this advice if our own country were conquered by a foreign power? Is there hope in Jeremiah's words?

You’ll hear my take on Jesus as a political figure in my sermon this coming Sunday, so I'll leave that for now. But let's move beyond Jesus' earthly life. The earliest Christians needed to figure out how they would order their common life over against not only the Romans, but also the dominant forms of Judaism. Read Acts 2:42-47. What kinds of justice are being assured here? Why do you suppose the church didn’t stay this way?

During the early persecutions of Christians, apocalyptic literature gave hope to troubled believers. The Revelation to John has confounded Christians for most of the past 2000 years, largely because we have lacked the context to understand it fully. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we know what it means, or to think we can apply it directly to our own political situations today. Resist the urge to apply specific metaphors in Revelation to current or future times; that's not what it's for. Read Revelation 13:11-14:5. Did you grow up in a tradition that placed a lot of emphasis on this book? What kinds of justice are being assured here? What confuses you or frightens you? What do you find ugly or beautiful about this passage?

What about the 2000 years between then and now? How many situations can we name in which faith and politics have overlapped? To any of these situations, apply what you have learned about the Bible’s concerns for justice. What new insights can we gain from ...

  • Christian pacifism, from the early church to the Anabaptists to conscientious objectors today?
  • Augustine's Just War Theory?
  • The witness of women throughout Christian history?
  • The Reformation in Europe, with the church and state sometimes fighting and sometimes aiding and abetting each other in selfish ways?
  • The French Wars of Religion?
  • Thomas Jefferson's phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? Or American separation of church and state?
  • The Enlightenment? The development of individualism?
  • Missionary zeal and imperialism?
  • The Civil Rights Movement?
  • The Martyrs of Uganda under Idi Amin?
  • Liberation theology in Central America in the 1970s and '80s?
  • Bishop Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s?
  • Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey today?


  1. Great stuff Josh. You're a brave man. I've searched many years for a thoughtful way to consider these issues. Here's the best model I've been able to come up with:

    Conservatives (I am one) react on a continuum of barbarism vs. civilization. (Societies and Civilizations do, indeed, move from barbarity to civilization and then fall apart, spin apart, lapse into chaos)

    Liberals argue from a spectrum of oppressed vs. oppressor (Civil rights, child labor, women's rights, are clear examples)

    Libertarians use a coercion vs. freedom spectrum. (Taxes, laws, conscription, drug laws, are examples, governments do NOT constrain themselves)

    Whichever of these three heuristics you see as the most important, or that your parents or your college, or the people you admire used, is probably the one you use to the exclusion of the others (and to the utter disregard, or even hatred, of those who use a different thought model).

    So, for a liberal, abortion is the oppressor (men) telling the oppressed (women) what they can do with their bodies.

    The conservative asks: "What kind of a society kills its unborn children?" and is horrified at the fact that over half of the babies in some populations are aborted.

    The Libertarian might view it as a purely personal choice that neither the government, nor anybody else, has the right to dictate.

    So ask yourself which argument, if you consider any of them valid, carries the most weight?

  2. Ron, this is very thought-provoking. And by laying out the argument about abortion from three different directions, you have paralleled a model I hope I will have time in this series to address: the ethics model in which the possible goods in conflict are beneficence, non-maleficence, and respect for autonomy. I think abortion is the perfect issue to demonstrate the differences in emphasis.

    For a conservative, to stand against abortion is to stand for non-maleficence: to do no harm, first and foremost. It is also to respect the autonomy of the fetus as a living being. And finally, it is about beneficence: doing good by desiring for families to be in favor of every fetus potentially growing into a child (or being a child already).

    For a liberal, to be pro-choice is to stand for beneficence: what is beneficial for women, when historically their fate has been dictated by men? It is non-maleficent in that the hope is to do no harm to the mother, a human being with rights to her own body. In a similar way, it is also to respect the autonomy of the mother.

    For a libertarian, to be pro-choice is to stand primarily for respect for autonomy: what ensures freedom of decision to the highest degree? It is also to stand for beneficence: freedom of choice is a basic good for humans.

    All three views have well-considered ethical stakes in the game. I think the fundamental difference of opinion has to do with different understandings of the "personhood" of a developing fetus.

    Also crucial in every ethical dilemma is the fact that human beings rarely make decisions based solely on logic. Emotions play a role, and that's not a bad thing. It's just what makes us human and not machines.

  3. I need to understand your jargon: Beneficence is firstly, not hurting others and then, going further and actually helping in any way you can. Non-maleficence is simply doing no evil and doing no harm. (Sort of a corollary and natural result of of beneficence, isn't it? So why make it a separate "thing"? Seems a little fuzzy to me.) Respect for autonomy is God's greatest gift to us: Freedom. God gave us freedom, so how can man impinge. Am I close?

  4. Oh, sorry -- beneficence specifically means doing good things. Non-maleficence means avoiding bad things. They are separate categories because sometimes they are in conflict with each other.

    A good example: giving your child a vaccine shot is beneficent because it will protect the child from disease. But it fails the non-maleficence test because the shot is painful and makes the child cry. The goods are in conflict, and most parents (hopefully!) decide that beneficence outweighs non-maleficence in this scenario.

    Taxes are a good test case for respect for autonomy. We could make all taxes voluntary and reliant on an honor system. Instead, we decide that the beneficence of having money for public use outweighs autonomy to at least some degree.

  5. Got it. So this is sort of a toolkit for my half-baked model. As you consider each issue you can use these three ethical criteria to decide what is "good", "bad", "autonomous". And a liberal and a conservative may come to different conclusions because of their different heuristics. Thanks.