Charisma Magazine asked me to write an op-ed addressing this question: Can Christians save the mess that is today’s American political scene? Better yet, should we? I was asked to represent the position that the church is an alternative society and our role of prophetic voice is better served when we remain transcendent to political partisanship. I was given a thousand words. Of course I explained that the relationship of the church to the state is one of the most complex issues we have faced in our two thousand year history and it would take at least a thousand pages to adequately address this topic. Nevertheless, I took a shot at it. Here are my 999 words on the subject:
The Church as an Alternative Society
By Brian Zahnd
Election season is upon us again…let the madness begin! And in the current climate of polarized partisanship where everything is now politicized there will be plenty of madness, anger, vitriol and a general lack of civility. Sadly, millions of confessed followers of Christ will be swept up in the madness as they give vent to their anger, fully convinced that God is on their side. Their justification is “we’ve got to take America back for God.” Presumably this is to be done by the dubious means of acrimonious politics. But I’m going to ask us to take a step back and think a little more biblically.
Does the church have a mandate to change the world through political means? Isn’t our first task to actually be God’s alternative society? I’m afraid we’ve made a grave mistake concerning our mission. We’re not so much tasked with “changing the world” as with being a faithful expression of the kingdom of God through following Jesus and living the Sermon on the Mount. But this mistake of confusing our mission of being faithful as God’s alternative society with trying to change the world through political means is nothing new—it’s the mistake the church has been making for seventeen centuries. Prior to the Roman emperor Constantine, the early church was content to simply be the church—to be a city set upon a hill living the alternative lifestyle that is the Jesus way. But after Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion the church embarked upon a project of running the world as a sidekick to Caesar. This project has not turned out well.
The problem with our “change the world” rhetoric is that it is too often a grasp for power and a quest for dominance which is antithetical to the way Jesus calls his disciples to live. Jesus specifically told us that we are not to emulate the way of Caesar in grasping for power and dominance, but we are to instead choose the counterintuitive way of humility, service and sacrificial love. (see Mark 10:35–45) We should never forget that Jesus ushered in his kingdom by refusing to oppose Caesar on Caesar’s terms. Thus Jesus submitted to the injustice of a state-sponsored execution by telling Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting.” The kingdom of God comes, not by the sword of political power, but by the cross of self-sacrificing love. We cannot fight for the kingdom of Christ in the same manner that the nations of the world fight; for the moment we do, we are no longer the kingdom of Christ but the kingdom of the world. A politicized mind can only imagine power as political domination, but a Spirit renewed mind imagines the more excellent way of love.
Admittedly we live in a world where much is wrong. But what is most wrong with the world is not our politics or Congress or who lives in the White House. What is most wrong with the world is the nature of the human heart. Greed, lust and pride in the human heart is the epicenter of all that is wrong with our society. As followers of Jesus we are not called to campaign for a political solution, but to demonstrate an authentic Christian alternative. This is how we are salt and light. We are to model what it means to be Christlike in a Caesar-like world.
But instead of imitating Christ with his cross, we want to imitate Caesar with his sword. This approach always leads the church away from being a witness to the gospel. That the primary public witness of the American church for the past thirty years has been a political witness is an absolute tragedy. The amount of hope some Christians place in politics is nothing short of astonishing! Jesus commissioned twelve apostles, not twelve politicians. Jesus didn’t call his disciples to campaign for a new Caesar, but to proclaim a new birth and demonstrate a new kingdom. Do we really think if we just get enough elephants or donkeys (or whatever mascot we cheer for) in Washington we will achieve righteousness? This is not the Jesus way. This is not the apostolic way. We’re not called to follow an elephant or a donkey, we’re called to follow a Lamb! (And that doesn’t mean we should form a Lamb political party!) This means we should first model the way of the Lamb and then make disciples of both elephants and donkeys in the way of the Lamb—the way of extending radical forgiveness and considering others in self-sacrificing love.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has correctly observed, “the church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy.” Instead of trying to force change upon the wider society through means of legislation, we are to exemplify the alternative of the kingdom of God by actually living it! We make a terrible mistake when we tell the wider society something like this: “We have the truth, so let us run society by setting the rules.” No! Instead we should simply be the alternative we seek to produce. We should be a righteous and just society.
Christians have a complicated relationship with the state because we are a people who carry dual citizenship. We are citizens of both the kingdom of Christ and the particular geopolitical nation we happen to live in. But our first allegiance is to the kingdom of Christ. So whereas we are free to participate in the civic and political process of our respective nations, we must do so as those who exhibit a primary allegiance to the Jesus way. This means treating everyone—even enemies—with kindness, love and respect. As Christians our first obligation is not to seek to transform the state by using Caesar’s means of dominance, but to simply be a faithful church and thus a living example of God’s alternative society.
P.S. Here is a hardcore theological response to the same question:
“The church cannot conceive of itself as an institution within a larger society, as a pillar of society, culture, and civic order, or as a spiritual association that commands an allegiance simply in addition to the allegiance its members owe the powers of the wider world. The church is no less (as Origen knew) than a politics, a society, another country, a new pattern of communal being meant not so much to complement the civic constitution of secular society as to displace it. If Christ is risen, if this particular form is the infinite Word of the Father and the substance of salvation, then the church has no excuse for surrendering the horizon of history to the forces of ‘secularity’ or for allowing itself to become a mere element within, or function of, secular order. Christ’s pattern has been handed over and entrusted to the church as a project; he does not hover above history as an eschatological tension, a withdrawn possibility, an absence, or only a memory, but enters into history precisely in the degree that the church makes his story the essence of its practices. The church, then, as a pilgrimage, whose light and motile transit through time is recognized as an intrusion upon the culture property of the secular world, should often appear as a transgression of the social order; at other times it should judge the social order good and necessary; but in either case it should act only from the vantage of the kingdom. The church itself is (insofar as it is the church) a fabric of endlessly various ramifications and effoliations of Christ’s beauty, unfolding between two parousiai, and can enjoy continuity with the form of Christ only so far as it resists the world’s every attempt to reduce it to the status of a secondary affiliation. And this is a difficult matter indeed, for Christians are instructed by Scripture to comply with legitimate authority, but also to live according to the justice of the kingdom even now, in the midst of history, and the passage between these two commandments must at times prove very narrow indeed. The normal politics of power (or of, to be more precise, the powers) is a politics of chaos and the inhibition thereof; it understands justice in terms of an immediate and hence tautologous reciprocity (in terms, that is, of violence). But the politics of the church can understand justice only according to a disruption of such reciprocity—bearing one another’s burdens, forgiving even the debt truly owed, seeking reconciliation rather than due retribution—and so typically should seek to order reciprocity after the fashion of the gift, as a differentiation and delay (and a giving again) that distorts the ‘Same’ of violence into the music of forgiveness.”
–David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (pg. 340)