Going beyond the [B]ook

For the past few weeks I have been lamenting, well occasionally reflecting. I am not very good at reflecting, and as for lamenting – not even too sure I know what the word means.

My reflectful lament has been over the four books written so far – the two you all rushed to buy and the two in the pipeline for publication. I have realised that the readership will be predominantly people like me (not the majority world). People who have a strong background in the evangelical (and likely charismatic) world but are willing to consider concepts that some think are outside the box. I am not going to get an atheist to read them and desire to join a zoom group, but I sure would love honest dialogue in that direction. Not to ‘convert’ them (when was that part of the job description of the Great Commission?) but to present Jesus as the ‘face’ of God and as the ‘face’ of ‘actualised’ humanity – OK theologically ‘true humanity’.

So I have made a start at writing for that audience, and also for those who do not position themselves completely at that end of the spectrum of faith / non-faith. (The other audience I would love to dialogue with are those born after 1980, so help me God!) I am not writing an apologetic, there are others much better equipped at that, but trying to write something that is open and transparent. It is interesting in trying to do that cos one’s own presuppositions have to be challenged in the process. A few days ago I said to a friend / neighbour who expressed (past tense) he was an atheist, and then (present tense) ‘I would like to believe, but…’, that perhaps faith wise I need him as much as he needs me. I need him to challenge my faith, cos although faith cannot explain everything it must have substance.

I am planning an opening chapter on Jesus and a second one on our holy book, the Bible. In doing so I wrote the obvious concerning Jesus that he grew up in a prejudiced world, that was also fed by an interpretation of the holy scrolls that he looked to. It is hard to believe Jesus also did not have biased perspectives, particularly with respect to Gentiles and women. Scripture clearly says he ‘became mature’ through what he learned, and as I have written in an earlier post he is the great teacher because he was the GREAT LEARNER. It is amazing that he broke through beyond the culture and his own preconceived perceptions. To be fully mature by 33, and in that culture… Here I am all-but double that age and… (Any way to follow this through the interaction with Gentiles and women is very informative to observe the learning process in Jesus.)

The guidance that the holy scrolls gave Jesus is instructive for us and the guidance we receive from the Bible. Today I wrote:

Jesus was so far ahead of his culture and setting, and that his holy book (set of scrolls) both helped to shape his life and thoughts and at the same time restricted his progress. And of course this is something we have to consider also when we as Christians read our holy book, the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments.

Never articulated it like this before, but seemed obvious as the words appeared on my screen. We are very grateful for Scripture. Jesus must have been so grateful as he meditated on texts and saw in them his true identity and destiny. I am not sure if the right word is ‘balance’, but let me use that. We have to balance that invaluable guide that the Scriptures are with the realisation that we can also be restricted by the pages we read. Of course there are good restrictions, but there are also restrictions that prevent us moving beyond the pages. Yes beyond. For the Scriptures are to speak of Jesus, not of themselves, and Acts 28 is an unfinished record of the continuation of what Jesus is doing and teaching. A progression beyond has to faithfully follow the trajectory set out but if the whole journey is not described in the pages we have to go beyond.

Be engaged

In considering that the apostolic gospel is political I consider that such a long-term vision challenges:

  • Party allegiance. We might be aligned to a particular party, but we cannot be bought. There is no party that is perfect, no party that is Christian. The critique of the Gospel is that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. All parties and all systems certainly have! In a given situation we might always put our vote somewhere specific, the guiding choice has to be how redemptive we consider the vote is, how beneficial to a healthy, relational and equitable society the direction that party would move us in.
  • The apostolic vision is one that looks long term, and resists simple short term action that is justified by the outcome. Although in a time of crisis short term responses are always necessary. If a house is on fire we need to get the people out rather than leave them there while debating the best building materials to employ.
  • It challenges strongly the belief that change can only take place from the top, indeed I suggest that the apostolic Gospel suggests it rarely takes place from the top.
  • Challenging the idea that we have to be in power to be effective, it raises an interesting issue. Maybe (if there was such a thing!!) a Christian party would be best placed not in power. That is a challenge to the voter – vote for us, we do not aim to be in power! However bizarre that might sound the apostolic vision is a challenge to the power dynamic, and to the hope that someone elected will do it for us. Servanthood and a denial of vested interest has to be promoted and the empowerment of the grass roots, rather than power and an unconnected representative body.

An apostolic vision also recognises that:

  • Almost certainly with any party that we vote for, there will be policies that they endorse that we do not agree with. There is necessary compromise along the way. If God ‘allows’ we most certainly cannot legislate. The compromises that God is pleased with are the redemptive ones, the ones that might not be perfect but move it to a better place.
  • We also have to consider what are personal values and what are public ones. I might have a personal value that comes from following Jesus, but do not believe such a value should be imposed on society.
  • That our hands are not clean. We are all implicated in the system of destruction. The issue is that we are not clean, but in not being clean we do not have to be dirty. Our choices, our life-style has to be set through redemptive, though compromised, decisions.
  • That God works not to give people a guilt complex so that they might find him, but gives them a shape, a set of boundaries, within which they can find him. We likewise should not look to off-load righteous legislation but create a shape where people can prosper. All legislation should be redemptively creating shapes where people can best develop who they are. Sin is to not be the person I can be: a person in my skin representing the character, persistence and love of God. Sin is not avoiding through legislation a set of predetermined evils.

There are troubled areas for believers that often swing their vote. But as we cannot legislate in an absolute fashion we come back to the dirty world and the compromises that are required.

Abortion is often the single issue politics that determines the ‘Christian’ vote. Yet the issue is multi-faceted and the factors that surround it are complex, certainly including education and economics. It also sits on a spectrum of pro-life issues. What our response is to the current and pressing crisis related to climate change and global warming. Every response to this issue is a pro-life choice, ultimately determining who will live or not. Abortion and abuse of the climate are connected to the future of the unborn, and to those already born.

We could add xenophobia (and nationalism) likewise as they sit on that same spectrum. They are all positions that reflect on who we wish to prosper / live. The death of Jesus as a privileged male and a compromised Jew was for all, regardless of faith, gender and national identity.

The vote for a believer is indeed a challenge. We cannot simply vote along party lines. Also we do not carry a vision of getting our person to the top (the word of God came to John in the wilderness). We can though be governmental and help create a shape that pushes back the powers that control so that those who are equipped can come through to occupy in a humble spirit positions that are there. I consider that we are here to create and hold a shape.

In creating a shape – lifestyle, relationships, prayer, action… there are also those who we will partner with. Theologically we cannot simply partner with those who profess faith. Paul had friends who had a lot to lose, as far as wealth and status was concerned, on the basis of his vision, but were committed to be with him and support him. They had not recognised Jesus in the sense of at the level of personal allegiance to him, but they were simply convinced that Paul carried a vision for the future of this world. That vision was not one that was compatible with the structures as they were currently defended in his imperial world.

Who do we partner with? On a spectrum we are at times tempted to place, for example, atheists at the opposite end to that of Christians. I suggest we need to think again. There are atheists who are anti-God and there are atheists who do not believe in god. I too do not believe in god. I share my non-belief with a number of ‘good’ atheists. We have that in common, even if they do not share my belief in God.

More often than not there are those who are believing in a false god who are at the other end of the spectrum of those we can work with. Some of those might use our language, but fill it with other meaning. ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘the cross’ are words – the meaning we fill them with is what is important. There might be those who are ‘Christians’ that we cannot partner with, how they understand the cross (by this sign we conquer) might be in such a strong contrast to how we understand it (the instrument that we carry daily for our own death) that we cannot partner with them. Our connections might be those who do not believe in god.

Theologically we have hope and vision for this life… and beyond. And as eschatologically the age to come is shaped from this one we cannot not work in this age. Our political involvement at whatever level, whether fruit is seen now or not, is vital. It can produce fruit now, and even if it fail will become seed for the age to come. (Again I applaud where an atheist who has no belief in an age to come in which they will participate is committed to work for a better future. If they can how much more should I be willing to do so.)

Disruptiveness has to be part of the political involvement. Particularly given how privileged we are. Most of us do not have the context of the threat against our lives, and in that context Paul even gave a voice of caution. That is not our context so we have responsibility for those who are threatened. The current Extinction Rebellion is making a very real impact. People are willing to be arrested for their beliefs. Yet the resistance is overwhelmingly white. In our cultures a non-white person is rightly cautious about being arrested. This does not negate the movement, but we must be slow to pat ourselves on the back when our protest is a privileged one.

Practically drawing on the work of Roger Mitchell he suggests that from the life, teachings and example of Jesus there are 9 areas that should prioritise our energies and commitments. The notes below are mine, so I hope I do not misrepresent.

The making space for the feminine. Given that cultures, structures and societies have been formed by men and the masculine, holding space for a feminine voice and creative response is vital. The lock up in Cataluña is an example of this. The age old conflict is in lock up because of power. No one can back down. A person such as Ada Colau, the mayoress, is not weak, indeed has to have more strength than those who resort to power and endorse violence. She is also a good example of who we have to take care of by taking responsibility to hold back the powers that seek to ‘steal, kill and destroy’. There are those who can speak to this much more than I can. There are some males who probably can, but the best we (males) can normally do is to be silent but hold space so that the voice of the feminine woman is heard.

The prioritizing of children, to whom the kingdom belongs. To reduce the future for the unborn to the issue of abortion is simplistic and wrong. Jesus prioritised children. Health care and education are two aspects, for sure that come to the top of the list when making space for the future, as are the issues mentioned above when touching on abortion.

Advocating for the poor. This moves beyond the patronising of doing things for those less privileged, to doing it with them. We cannot be those who do things to the poor, sometimes we might only be able to do things for them as it can be hypocritical to assume we are ‘with’ those who find themselves economically marginalised. These issues hit home. We can demonise the top 1% and immediately baptise the next 4% as being OK simply because that is where we find ourselves.

Care for the creation. This is God’s world and it is our habitat, and the habitat of those who are yet to live. The original habitat was in order to create an environment where God could be at home. Planting trees could be our greatest contribution to the future. The tree biblically is what bridges the arts and practical sustenance – maybe this could be a factor in why humans are described as trees?

Freeing prisoners. Of course we spiritualise the words of Jesus who came to set the prisoner free. Yet there are prisoners at all levels in society, as all systems will imprison. There are no simple answers, but the level of imprisonment in certain Western world countries indicates something is desperately wrong. Restorative justice aligns to Scripture in a way that punitive justice does not.

Promoting health. Jesus healed and did good. Healing is multi-faceted, and each political response is a sign of who God is. I find it hard to see how health is a privilege that can only be offered to the wealthy, and not at some very real level a responsibility to provide for as many as possible. We live as aliens in Spain but have stood against private health insurance. Maybe in some situations that might be necessary, but our approach to health care is shaped by our beliefs in the Gospel.

Confronting the powers. This is one I like a lot! Confrontation is not simply to put something in its place but to give an opportunity for the person representing that power to act humanly.

Making peace. Blessed are… We live in a fractured society that has its divisions. Divides so often because a voice that comes from a different experience and perspective is so often not heard, other than in that particular circle. We can allow voices to be heard, that is the only way that we will hep people move forward without the felt need to shout, or the reaction through intimidation or inferiority to be silent. At a very small level Gayle and I had a good experience in having someone stay with us who took a different stance on the Brexit issue and a different take on money. We were enriched.

Publicizing the good news of peace. Politics and faith do mix! We can at al times be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. How and what we share has to be shaped by the love of Jesus. This too cannot be ‘top-down’.

Until he come (parousia) we work, relate, disrupt and proclaim (ekklesia). What we do now will, if done in line with the patient apostolic vision of lives laid down in love for the world, will come through the fire. Are we politically involved. For sure, with a small ‘p’ or a large one. Everything we do is about shaping the future, the future here and now and the future then. The small responses we make are so vital. They too are political.

Terminology speaks

The Imperial world of the NT gave the Gospel an inevitable conflict politically. There was a vision of transformation within it. The terminologies were so in your face:

  • Son of god
    The common and official title of Augustus Caesar in Greek documents was ‘Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of god’. An inscription from Pergamum refers to Augustus as ‘The Emperor Caesar, son of god, Augustus, ruler of all land and sea’.
    Caesar’s did not claim to be god but were seen as invested with the divine and to such an extent that each subsequent ruler was termed ‘the son of the divine (previous) Caesar’.
  • Peace through his blood who did not resist, or through the blood of those who resisted.
  • Who is ‘lord and saviour’ and ‘king of kings? And this came with the further question of how is that lordship and kingship defined, and outworked. Jesus is not simply the alternative Caesar, one who also acts in the same way! Power, top down; or love with empowerment beyond.
  • The word euangelion (Good news) was used in ancient Greece of the public announcement of good news. It was used of a public declaration of a military victory or public policy. In the Roman world it was used whenever there was a royal ascension to the throne. The good news of Caesar Augustus the son of the divine Caesar. (Augustus, being the successor to Julius Caesar.)
    When the apostolic band came to a Roman city and came with a gospel message the expectation was of a proclamation concerning the activity of an emperor. The person in the street was not pinning their ears back with an expectation of a three point sermon but of representatives of the government to proclaim good news. Government representatives they most certainly were!
  • Paul taught about the ‘kingdom (basileia) of God’, the very term used by Rome of their basileia (empire) of Rome, basileia being the Greek term and the vast majority of the world where Paul travelled was Greek speaking.
  • Then the term ekklesia (church) was loaded with political implications. We have a very challenging question to answer when we ask what was in Paul’s mind when he was planting and encouraging ekklesias in city after city? Each Roman city already had an ekklesia – the political assembly that was the means to shape the future of the city. Each significant city had a Roman assembly… and here comes Paul planting a heavenly assembly, an assembly of Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that the very name ‘ekklesia‘ suggested that this assembly was the representative of Jesus called to shape the future of the city.
    We have to ask what was Paul, for example, teaching on a daily basis in the hall of Tyranus in Ephesus. I consider it had a strong political message, so strong that the rulers of Asia (Asiarchs) became friends with Paul without ever responding to the ‘pray the sinners prayer now’ part that we assume was his message. They could not, or would not, get that part but so got the other part that they wanted to preserve his life. So different to the Jewish leaders who wanted to extinguish the life of Jesus to preserve the nation and Temple!
  • We pray till he come, we anticipate his parousia. Cities longed for the parousia of the emperor, the royal visit. Great blessing would come to the city, areas where they were struggling to see Roman culture expressed would receive such a boost. With the simplicity of the common meal those early disciples proclaimed his death until his parousia.

The political apostolic Gospel

The marks of an apostle were with Paul. He mentions signs and wonders and miracles, yet Jesus had said that there would be those with signs, wonders and miracles that he would distance himself from. Paul says that the miracles were accompanied with ‘great patience‘. An apostolic vision works today for the long term. At the heart of it is a conviction that a death by one is a death for all; a death in one place is for all geographies; a death at one time for all time. The apostolic carries a long-term vision of transformation of God’s world. A political vision that is not looking simply for short term fixes but long term healing. In that there will be great gains, and if the ground is not held great losses.

Jerusalem to Rome

Jesus and Jerusalem

The Jewish Court had decided that Jesus would have to be dispensed with in order to preserve the nation and Temple. However, by the time of Jesus both Temple and nation (as a whole) were not fulfilling the purposes of heaven. Even the Temple was no longer a house of prayer for the nations, hence its future could only be where ‘not one stone would remain upon another’. If the Temple no longer served a redemptive purpose there was no hope for the city nor for the nation. Nation and Temple could not be saved, yet a living ‘temple’ and a ‘holy nation’ for the nations could find salvation. Salvation from the coming destruction and salvation for the nations. Jesus came at the fullness of times, born human and specifically as a Jew. His focus took the message of John the Baptist to a new level. Religion, and in particular compromised religion would never fulfil the political task of being a light to the nations.

The task in Jerusalem indeed brought to a finish the work that the Father gave Jesus to do; yet it also marked an important pause in what he came to do. It was both the finish and also simply the beginning of what he did and taught. Given that framework to the book of Acts that Luke says right at the outset, the work of Jesus is not finished, but continues through the book of Acts with the apostolic work and context. No longer a focus on Jerusalem but on the Imperial world of Rome. If we thought that Jesus’ message was religious with no political implication we soon have to reframe his message. It was deeply spiritual, deeply concerned about our response to who God is as that core shapes and directs the whole political approach to the nations.

The end of Luke and beginning of Acts gives us the biblical focus that Jesus gave to the Jewish disciples. That focus was through Scriptural understanding concerning himself, the suffering he was to endure and the nature of the kingdom of God.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Lk. 24: 27).
This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Lk. 24: 47).
After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3).

All of that had a focus on Jerusalem. From the wilderness with John came a movement that arrowed in on Jerusalem. But by the end of Acts the focus is not Jerusalem but Rome. Paul has completed his task but the apostolic task remains unfinished. We have no idea if he left the prison situation in Rome and continued on his way. We don’t even know (from Acts) if he died in Rome. Seems to me significant. It is unimportant if he got beyond Rome, and his death is not vital for us. It is important that in understanding the message deposited in Rome that we get to all places beyond ‘Rome’ and that we find where we are to live out the Gospel.

By the end of Acts Rome is the focus

Luke states that Acts is a record of what Jesus is continuing to do and to teach. His work from birth to ascension was the beginning of his work. That took him to Jerusalem. Paul takes it to Rome. If Jesus’ work was unfinished, so then is Paul’s and what he represented – the work of the apostolic Gospel to the nations.

There is such a significant turning point in Paul’s journey and such a focus on where the message of the Gospel is to travel to in Acts 25:

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!” (Acts 25:10-12).

It was the Jewish court for Jesus, but not for Paul. Jesus was focused to get to Jerusalem but Paul wanted to get to Rome, the political centre, so that he could get to Spain – the ends of the earth (Rom. 15: 28). His journey to the ends of the earth would take place through the centre of earthly power. His desire to come to Rome was to proclaim to them (the believers) the Gospel. He is not looking to hold an evangelistic crusade, but to align the believers there with the Gospel. At the end of Acts we read:

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus (Acts 28: 23).

The same work as Jesus did in Jerusalem so Paul did in Rome. Scriptures, and kingdom of God. The Gospel that had implications for Jerusalem now had implications for Rome.

The world of the New Testament

The one time we have had an-all but one world government was the world of the New Testament. Rome’s rule extended beyond anything that had gone before. It is for this reason that I see no reason to posit a future one-world government, nor a global antiChrist. We have had that, and in true Babylonian fashion it was never absolute for Babel will be forever unfinished. I do not look for that future reality, but through the book of Revelation consider we can have our eyes open to the reality of it around us now. There is a one-world government, there are antiChrists, the call of Jesus has implications economically for there will always be restrictions on the extent to which we can buy and sell.

The Roman world was the empire of its day. For the Jews the big ‘monster’ was Babylon and Babylon continued to represent the enemy of Israel symbolically. Likewise Rome. The empire of the day and the ongoing symbol for that one-world opposition to the kingdom of God.

The Pax Romana

In true Imperial fashion Rome conquered and offered a way of life beyond anything that had gone before. The Pax Romana was across the world – a peace that came through the power of the sword. Comply and be blessed; resist and be eliminated! (And Paul’s words about the powers being appointed by God and can wield the sword is so tongue in cheek given Nero’s claim that he did not need to raise the sword. What a man of peace Nero was… NOT!)

Peace in the imperial world was considered such an achievement that the one who brought that was seen to be operating with divine power. It further pointed toward the divine nature of the emperor.

Peace was not the absence of war but was the result of war. Peace meant being in submission to Rome. Peace was imposed on the subjugated by means of force. Peace was brought about by taking lives and creating inequality. The Pax Romana!

As is often the case the reality is there to be seen if we are willing to look. The altar of peace stood on Mars Hill, the hill dedicated to the the god of war! Peace was brought about by war to the Romans.

The contrast to the message of Jesus where he established peace through sacrifice, not through killing his enemies. It was love for the enemy that was exhibited at the cross, thus all powers were stripped bear and exposed. The lie exposed.

Caesar was indeed ‘lord and saviour’ and ‘king of kings’

In secular Greek, the word ‘saviour’ was attributed to someone who had done something significant that safeguarded the people or preserved what was precious. That person ‘saved’ the city and as a result could earn a person the title of saviour. Not surprisingly the title of saviour was in common use for the Roman emperor, especially denoting his ability to maintain or restore peace in the empire.

Of Julius Caesar it was written:

In addition to these remarkable privileges they named him father of his country, stamped this title on the coinage, voted to celebrate his birthday by public sacrifice, ordered that he should have a statue in the cities and in all the temples of Rome, and they set up two also on the rostra, one representing him as the saviour of the citizens and the other as the deliverer of the city from siege, and wearing the crowns customary for such achievements (Dio 44.4.5).

Likewise in connection to Augustus:

Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a saviour, has put an end to war and has set all things in order. (Priene calendar inscription; 9 B.C.).

The emperor was often called ‘the saviour of the world’ or ‘the saviour of the inhabited earth’.

It is not surprising that on hearing the apostolic message it was heard politically and understood to be a rebellious one at that. These apostles were proclaiming a rival to Caesar.

The message was political. It might have been possible to miss the deeply spiritual element within it! Yet there is a deep spirituality, a radical relationship to heaven that was contained within it. From that commitment to the God of heaven (the ‘foreign’ God of the Jews) this message called for a political way of life and carried a political message for the nations.

If Caesar is not lord, but Jesus; if he is not the saviour of the world, but Jesus; if he is not king of kings, but Jesus. We have a clash. The Christian message could be ignored, sidelined, or controlled. But what Jesus began till the days of his Ascension, and Paul’s ministry symbolised by centring in on the centre, has and will continue ‘until he comes’. That being another imperial term…

Loss of privileges

Most of us at a personal level have been frustrated that we have not had a voice. Sometimes we have a voice but the negative feeling is as simple as others have not agreed with us! On the wider front this has been the feeling about the lack of voice (being listened to / agreed with) from within the church as far as the political world is concerned. My strong guess is that the church is not alone in this feeling and there are many marginalised groups that must feel similar. I think though it is compounded by a sense of privilege, for after all ‘we are a Christian country’.

The cry of ‘we are losing our influence’ was (my perspective) one of the main reasons in the USA for the rise of the ‘moral majority’ and to provoke a heavy investment into the sphere of politics, with the majority of the moral majority coming to endorse the Republican party, the party of (supposed) small government and pro-life (or supposed pro-life). It probably awakened a realisation that following Christ and politics are not in two separated realms. Following Christ has a personal element to it, but faith does not mean that the public arena is irrelevant, indeed personal faith becomes another factor that provokes an even greater focus on the public arena at a different level.

In many circles where there has been an emphasis on transformation a theology has developed such as the seven mountains of influence, where society is seen as consisting of mountains such as politics, media, the arts, etc., and to influence those areas for Christ there is the realisation that the top 3% within those realms are the shapers, therefore it is essential to either become those top 3% or to influence them for Christ. This is both a theological and pragmatic approach, and owes much to the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, prime minister of Holland from 1901-05. There is a theology behind it that the Lordship of Christ and claims of Christ extend to every area of society, and there is a pragmatism that looks at how to bring about change in line with the claims of Jesus. The final outcome might not look too different to that of Sharia law! In this approach something that needs to be critiqued is that of power, of how the influence of Jesus is expressed and how much a shaping from the top-down is in line with the cross of Jesus.

Christendom where the privileges offered to the church (bishops in the house of lords, royalty crowned and anointed by the church), and the idea of living in a Christian country is coming to an end. The demise of the so-called Christian west is not necessarily the demise of Christian faith, indeed it should prove to be the fertile ground for faith that resembles more closely the faith witnessed to by the New Testament, a faith that was political.

A note on the word ‘political’. It comes from the Greek polis (city) so carried the sense of being involved to shape the future of the city. It developed semi-democratically where the ekklesia (church) was formed of the mature and free males who could vote on issues.

The Bible, Israel and politics

Israel was called to be a light to the nations. Called for the nations, not to convert them, but so they might find their way. Israel, shaped by law, and that law was predominantly social hence it shaped their community life. (Convenient as it might be to distinguish the ceremonial and judicial aspects from the moral law, this was not in line with how it was given nor received. The law was law as a whole. To be disobedient in one aspect was to be disobedient.) The law placed limits on behaviour and curbed excesses, particularly in the economic realm. The 8th Century prophetic movements were huge critiquing voices against economic exploitation. The maximisation of profits was illegal, care for the ‘widow, orphan and alien’ was a regular reminder brought to Israel. The law was unique to Israel, they alone were to be not as the other nations, with Jewishness less defined by race than by faith. Unique in the world, but in existence for the world. They were elect not in the sense of ‘saved’ but in the sense of uniquely set apart for the sake of others. Their politics was clear, Torah defining that, and as a guide they were to provoke and facilitate the nations finding their own way, their own politics. (By this I am not suggesting that they were not going to be evangelising, proclaiming the news that there is one true God who sets the prisoners free; simply I am focusing here on Israel was a unique theocracy.)

It should be no great surprise that the NT flows from that understanding of what it meant to be unique and therefore it is no surprise that the early impact of their faith in the liberating God was visibly seen relationally in the economics of the community. The early response in Acts, post-Pentecost can be understood as a Holy Spirit response to the requirement of jubilee, something that it seems Israel were never able to fulfil. Living as aliens in an imperial world the the self-identity as royal priests within their geographical setting was deeply appropriate. Living, as Israel had done before them, as a light to the nations, it is not surprising that there is a huge political element to the NT, and that the final book is still, after 2000 years, the highest critique of power, institutionalism, economic policy and international trade relationships.

Church (ekklesia) as community and as movement

I have written before about there being two sociological ends of a spectrum when looking at healthy groups. At one end of that spectrum the existence of the group is focused in on being there for one another, so that in the interaction each person is encouraged and healing brought to them to be a continually improving version of themselves. That ‘community-focused’ perspective is present in the NT – encourage one another, admonish one another, love one another etc. The other end of the spectrum is around what is understood as a movement. A movement is part of a wider community but the movement is formed around a world view that the wider world does not share. A good example would be that of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech epitomising the world view that was their vision – a world of equality. That was why they were together, not primarily to see healing come to one another, but to see a transformation of the world around them. They are ‘mission-focused’. My bias is mission-focused – and I believe the raison d’etre for the church in the NT is that of mission-focused, for the nations.

Post Christendom – a challenge to transformation by power

One of the biblical issues we face is that God works in and through all forms of less-than-good structures. A pertinent example is that of the king in Israel. The request for a king was a rejection of God, yet God anointed the one who symbolised the rejection of God.

We cannot justify something because God has used it. In the days of the British Empire there was the twinning of expansion, colonialism and missionary enterprise.

The church has been complicit in believing change comes through enforcing it, indeed the church has strengthened that way of acting, thus empowering the government to act in such a way, particularly when it enabled Christian privileges to be maintained. In a post-Christendom space there is opportunity to see powers disempowered, but this will only come about by an embracing of true servanthood.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Lk. 3: 1,2). 

Change did not take place by replacing the rulers with Christian rulers, nor by converting those rulers. Rather the word of the Lord was embraced in the wilderness, those who came were submitting themselves to be part of a movement. There is a repeat of Israel’s history, formed in the wilderness, receiving the law in the wilderness, crossing the waters of the Jordan. A movement for the world. This is a new beginning, children of Abraham who God could raise up from stones… race will prove not to be the issue, but faith.

And the process of change did not begin from a ‘top-down’ position. And from that beginning the process did not become a top-down movement.

Loss of privileges, for sure. But what possibilities!

Not many smart

Gayle and I are in London for a couple of days, hosted by Adrian & Pauline Hawkes. They, their colleagues and friends are great to hang out with. Always challenging, inspiring and refreshing. I am not quite as young as I was, and they are not quite as young as I am, but when they talk about what they are going to give themselves to for the next 30 years it does kind of encourage one not to complain but to make a half-decent attempt at aligning with God’s direction.

Very graciously Adrian asked me if I would seek to address the subject of ‘theology and politics’. Graciously as I know almost nothing about politics, and on theology rumour has it the proverbial significantly sight-challenged bus driver was very confident of driving the double-decker through my various arguments without hitting anything in the process. As I explained last night my politics were shaped when I saw, in the 1960’s, a prime minister of the UK from Yorkshire smoking a pipe. I thought somehow that looked cool, so basically that party had my vote from then on. There are, dare I suggest it, deeper approaches to political issues, hence the graciousness of Adrian.

I will post here over the next few days the gist of what I shared. A perspective, a biased one, but nevertheless a perspective.

Of course a certain amount of what I adhere to is shaped by our social and geographic context, and springs from a clear sense some 5 years ago this month that the Lord was asking us to ‘take responsibility for the politics of Spain’. So often (did I hear ‘always’?) we do not understand what it means when the Lord speaks, as our great resource of knowledge does seem to get in the way, and we certainly do not know the journey that will entail. Five years later we are still pretty clueless and certainly do not believe we are qualified.

Crazy – not qualified, and as immigrants not even able to vote in the national elections. Just hope there is something in Scripture about not many smart people being called.

If I point to our geographic context there are some BIG negatives and a few positives in terms of what we see. Maybe the negatives are not so negative, maybe there are more positives than seem to be visible… and maybe the negatives are even BIGG… No don’t go there. My point is that it so difficult to assess. And sometimes there is little point in seeking to assess. If ever we gain a victory it is always time to push again, and if there is a real ‘failure’ time to push again. I like that as for someone fairly simple to condense things down to a simple activity is very helpful. And hopefully that is our approach.

My final disclaimers are that in what I will post I will use the term ‘church’ for shorthand for those who self-consciously follow Jesus – by using the term I am not limiting it to any specific expression nor am I denying it to other sets of relationships.

In approaching theology we can quickly make one aspect the whole and when we (as I will) suggest that the call of the church is sharply focused on shaping politics it can be easy to ignore other aspects of the call of the church. However, I make no apology in focusing on the issue of church, theology and politics as, for too long, the church has either:

  • been silent on major political issues, or
  • or complicit with the powers, or
  • only interested in a narrow set of issues.

The church has also often chosen to support the party that has a proposed bias toward ‘family values’, or is pro-life, turning a blind eye to any criticism that could be brought against that party. No political party can be baptised as ‘Christian’, nor can we remain uncritical of those who exercise authority. The critique of power is essential to the Gospel and with the demise of Christendom (the supposed domain over which Christ reigns) we have a fresh opportunity to find new ways of engagement.

OK enough for now.

But finally… We do not have a vote in Spain. Elections took place on Sunday, and a dear friend sent us a note saying ‘you have voted’. I thought surely he understands that we do not have a vote. In various text exchanges he repeated this the following day. So eventually I wrote back with

we do have a biased vote in the court of heaven but not a biased vote on paper in the land.

Then he clarified – he did not vote based on his choice, but knowing we could not vote he put the cross where we would have put it. We voted!

Simply profound

Ever find something hard to understand – or is it only me? I was once told that truth is both simple and yet profound. Sometimes though getting hold of what someone is saying / writing is not always so easy. Words used, and wait for it, the ‘presuppositional pool’ might mean we don’t quite get it. In this post I am going to recommend a video and a post from two important contributors in the realm of theology and its application.

I am grateful for Roger Mitchell’s work and also for having the privilege to dialogue with him so (I think) I have some grasp on his important writings. In his introduction to the video that appears below he writes:

If you find me hard to read as some do, although by no means all, then this talk will help hugely!! As an activist I find it s much easier to make sense at a popular level when I’m in context hands on. Here I am!

There is so much meat in the talk and his explanation of why he pursued his PhD is very clear. He came at it with three questions:

  • why do the rich and powerful always end up at the top?
  • why is it the same way in the church?
  • and why has the church actively supported / endorsed and strengthened that scenario?

Let the ‘ouch’ of those three questions sink in and then here is the link to the video:

The second post I suggest that is more than worth a read is one by Andrew Perriman. The opening paragraph reads:

Here I want to try and answer some questions sent to me by someone who grew up in the “reformed, fundamental, SBC” tradition but has spent the best part of the last year deconstructing his faith “down to nothing.” He has been reading the work of historically-minded interpreters like Pete Enns and NTWright, but has been having a hard time finding a way forward. His faith is sinking. “I currently don’t see any reason to be a Christian or to continue in the Christian way.”

Sinking faith feeling

I do not find and agreement with the perspective that Christendom is the fulfilment of the hope that God is acknowledged as Lord of the nations, so on that I do not go along with Andrew, but his writings and his insistence on the narrative shaping theology is invaluable. This post I reference above will help enormously in understanding this.

Perspectives