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Christian Theology and Political Life Aim: to distinguish the main questions addressed in the Christian tradition's discussion of politics, and to begin.

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Presentation on theme: "Christian Theology and Political Life Aim: to distinguish the main questions addressed in the Christian tradition's discussion of politics, and to begin."— Presentation transcript:

1 Christian Theology and Political Life Aim: to distinguish the main questions addressed in the Christian tradition's discussion of politics, and to begin to address them with reference to biblical and theological sources. DCM, Oxford, Mar. 2015N. Townsend

2 Structure Introduction: (i) the obedience of rulers? (ii) context – liberal society (ii) definitions A. Three normative political questions: Why? What? How? B.Christian political participation in radically pluralist, liberal societies

3 Three periods in Christian political history: : Pre-Christendom 313: Edict of Milan: tolerance of Christians after Constantine becomes Emperor : Christendom 1791: First Amd’t of the American Constitution: there shall be no “law respecting an establishment of religion” now: Post-Christendom O. O’Donovan suggests these symbolic dates (Desire of the Nations, p. 195)

4 O’Donovan takes Christendom to refer to, a historical idea: that is to say, the idea of a professedly Christian secular political order, and the history of that idea in practice. Christendom is an era, an era in which the truth of Christianity was taken to be a truth of secular politics. (ibid., italics orig.)

5 We are now in post-Christendom, liberal society What form should Christian political witness now take – when our culture is no longer characterized by “the idea of a professedly Christian secular political order”, but by plural religious and philosophical convictions, discourses and communities? We shall address this in Part B.

6 What is politics? As this term is generally used (e.g. in British public life), ‘politics’ refers to determining what will be done for a whole, geographically-defined community by means of enforceable law … together with all the activities directed towards that – elections, lobbying, opposition, underhand scheming, and so on.

7 ‘Authority’: morally rightful holding/exercise of power ‘Political authority’: morally rightful holding/exercise of power for a whole society, in other words, morally rightful determining of what will be done for a whole society

8 Questions about political authority are normative – about what should be done. That is, they are questions in normative political theory (à la John Rawls, Theory of Justice, etc).

9 Three normative political questions 1.Why should people accept government’s claim to authority at all? The problem of ‘political obligation’ 2.What should government do? That is, what is the proper role of gov’t? 3.How should government be constituted? That is, should the ‘form of government’ be e.g. monarchical or democratic?

10 How can Christians address these questions? 1. The Bible We can read both of two political strands within it:  The ‘just government strand’  The ‘prophetic strand’ (From Walter Brueggemann, Andrew Goddard; see further N. Townsend, VPlater Mod A, 1.3 ) and Mod B, 2.2.)Mod A, 1.3Mod B, 2.2

11 The ‘just government strand’ - human rule as authorised by God OT: The Torah The role of ancient Israel’s king: Ps. 72, Prov. 16: 10-15, 31:2-9 ; Isa. 11 NT: Jesus: fulfils/transforms that royal role. God above Caesar, but Caesar has a role: Mark 12:13-17; Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2. Contemporary: Oliver O’Donovan

12 The ‘prophetic strand’ - God calls people to critique the very rulers whom God authorizes OT: The Exodus Warnings about monarchy: 1 Sam. 8; Kings The prophets: Amos, Micah, Jer. 21:11ff NT: Jesus: Luke 4:16f; critique of Sanhedrin (et al) Paul: life ‘in Christ’; James; Rev’n Contemporary: liberation theology

13 How can Christians address these questions? 2. The tradition(s) of Christian political thought Augustine’s pessimistic contrast: the two cities – arguably closer to the ‘prophetic strand’ Aquinas’s more optimistic vision of government directing persons to virtue and the common good – closer to the ‘just government strand’ See O’Donovan & O’Donovan (eds), Irenaeus to Grotius Witte & Alexander (eds), 2 vols on modern RC and Protestant writers

14 The two political strands in the Bible, plus the three normative political questions (why? what? how?) can give a structure within which to think clearly about Christian faith and politics.

15 1.Why should people, including Christians, accept government’s claim to authority? (a)Jesus’ message: “The reign of God is at hand” – for any holders of worldly power, a subversive slogan. But Jesus’ way of bringing in God’s reign repudiated all dependence on normal political means: taking worldly power, coercive imposition, military force. Rather, his way was the cross – as is his followers’. Jesus was simultaneously political and anti-political.

16 (b) Paul’s teaching, esp. in Romans Chs 1-7: How Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are significant, for the Jewish people and all people Chaps 8-16: What that means for how those ‘in Christ’ should live (incl. a passage, chs 9-11, on how the Jewish people fit into God’s purposes after Christ’s coming). In summary: “live according to the Spirit” (8:5).

17 From 12:1, Paul sets out what this means in practice – in an astonishing series of exhortations. What the whole letter up to ch. 12 conveys is that, under the authority the ‘Christ’ and the ‘Lord’, his followers are to live in a way that makes worldly structures of law and power superfluous. Their way of life is supposed to transcend these.

18 But, at this very point, Paul suddenly gives attention to how the Christians in Rome should see the Roman authorities! They should recognize and be subject to “the governing authorities” / “the powers that be” (13:1). Why? Their authority comes from God - the same God who is made known through Christ and the Spirit. The powers who executed Christ are “God’s servant for your good”! (v. 5)

19 Summary: The few verses about the ‘governing authorities’ in Rom. 13 are a brief aside in the letter overall. Romans can be seen as a relativization yet affirmation of human government. We should obey government because its authority is from God. But this is of secondary importance, relative to what God has done in Jesus and is doing by the Spirit.

20 The other two normative qs can be seen as arising from this one: If (1) God has authorised political authority, (2) what should it do, and (3) how should it be exercised? But can you think of another question that also arises, a fourth question?

21 When? Is political authority pre- or post-Fall? Is it given in creation, or only as a remedy for some of the effects of sin? What do you think? The can be called the q. of the ontological status of government.

22 Thought experiment: In a human society without sin – in the “state of innocence” (Aquinas) – would there be government? That is, would some people exercise authority for society as a whole, hence over others? See further sheet to be supplied: “Does government have a ‘directive’ as well as a ‘remedial’ role?”, and see Mod. B, p www.virtualplater.org.uk

23 2.What should government do? In summary: justice – the Bible witnesses to this in many places. To do justice to people is to recognise them for what they truly are, each alone and in community, and then to render to them what is due. But: different visions of humanness mean different conceptions of justice.

24 Ps. 72: a portrait of an ideal king O God, give your judgment[s] [mishpatim, pl.] to the king; your justice [tzedakah] to the king’s son; That he may govern your people with justice [tzedakah], your oppressed with judgment [mishpat]. That the mountains may yield shalom for the people, and the hills great abundance, That he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor. vv. 1-4 (NAB); cf. esp. vv

25 The mishpat, judgment, that the ideal king exercises is for the sake of those who are oppressed, poor or needy, or victims of violence (vv. 1-4, 12-14). One commentator on Ps. 72 says this: [T]he only stated responsibility of the king in vv. 2-7 or vv is to establish justice for the oppressed, to ‘save’ the needy… Such salvation was what God did in the exodus… and this function is the measure of royalty, whether human or divine. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., ‘The Book of Psalms’, in L. Keck et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IV (Abingdon, 1996), p. 963.

26 Ps. 72:2-3 shows also this: Through judgment (mishpat) in favour of the oppressed and poor, there will be not only justice (tzedakah) but shalom. Shalom: wellbeing, shared welfare, peace with justice, peace and prosperity, the common good. The king has responsibility for shalom, but this comes through just judgment for the sake of the exploited and poor.

27 Numerous other references in the Hebrew Scriptures show that government’s role is mishpat and tzedakah. E.g.: Exod. 23: 1-8; Num. 35: 9-34, esp. 11; Deut 16:18- 20, 17: 8-11; 1 Kings 3; Ps. 72: 1-4; Prov. 16: 10-15, 31: 4-9; Isa. 11: 3-4; Amos 5: 1-24…. Rom. 13 seems to presume too that a basic purpose of government is judgment in court.

28 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath [punishment (NIV); retribution (NJB)] on the wrongdoer.. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. Romans 13: 3b-5, NRSV

29 Tom Wright on this passage: [In Rom. 12,] Paul has just said, strongly and repeatedly, that private vengeance is absolutely forbidden for Christians. But this doesn’t mean on one hand, that God doesn’t care about evil, or, on the other, that God wants society to collapse into a chaos where the bullies and the power- brokers do what they like and get away with it... That is almost all that Paul is saying [in Rom. 13: 4-7]. Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2 (SPCK, 2004), p. 85.

30 Interlude: ‘The common good’ The human good is inherently or irreducibly common. It is analogous to the good of a concert, a football match or a great feast of celebration – it can exist for anyone only as all participate in the shared action in which they produce and benefit from it simultaneously. It is participation in communion, ultimately with God.

31 How has that biblical emphasis on government as judicial been developed in Christian history? We can distinguish at least three ways.

32 (i) Government as directive to the common good, including by disciplining people through law to the end of their virtue This sees government as ‘pre-Fall’, given in creation. Government uses the ‘force and fear’ of law to discipline people (Christian and not) in right conduct so that they are formed in good habits – the virtues. Influenced by Aristotle; the locus classicus is Aquinas; early modern Calvinism (C16-C17) is similar – the ‘disciplinary society’ (Charles Taylor)

33 (ii) The judicial role of government is made central/paradigmatic; the ruler is most essentially a judge/magistrate. According to O. O’Donovan, this reflects the long history of Christian political thought, going back to Augustine, more faithfully than Aquinas’s directive view. He labels this view ‘government as judgment’. This sees government as ‘post-Fall’, as of God’s providence for the fallen world. So government is “reactive” (O’D). Given OT emphasis on rulers exercising mishpat (judgment), and, arguably, as similar emphasis in Rom & 1 Pet 2.13, he advocates ‘gov’t as judgment’ O’Donovan sees this position as Augustinian. On this view, everything gov’t does is a response to wrongdoing – remedial; O’Donovan speaks of ‘the reactive principle’

34 (iii) Government as to establish/uphold conditions necessary for a supra-political good – the common good – including not least by upholding human rights. (a) Modern Catholic Social Teaching: gov’t as maintaining the ‘public order’ (John Courtney Murray) or the ‘social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment…’ (Gaudium et Spes) (b) Kuyperian neo-Calvinist: gov’t as maintaining ‘public justice’ among other social ‘spheres’ In both, gov’t’s role has directive and remedial aspects.

35 We need to be aware of a fourth position (but not one that can be seen as a development of the biblical emphasis on government as judicial): Government as alien to the gospel and not to be exercised by Christians: neo-Anabaptist; Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics. Emphasises that the church community itself is a polis – God’s city – and therefore ‘political’. But nothing is said about what Christians should do as participants in secular public institutions.

36 3.How should government be constituted? The q. of ‘form of government’ Slides on this are included, though the session could not consider this question. Good formBad form Rule by one:MonarchyTyranny … by few:AristocracyOligarchy … by many:Republican gov’tDemocracy

37 Jesus’ ministry and the early Church’s mission generated a contrast between the Christian community and earthly government. The community that professed Christ’s supreme authority wasn’t willing to see itself as under Rome’s authority alone – even though Rome had a role. This produced a new institutional duality – the contrast we now refer to as between Church and State.

38 This duality is rooted in the OT – in the experience of exile: Seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for in its shalom you will have shalom. (Jer. 29:7) The Jews in Babylon and the Christians in Rome were each a ‘city’ of God’s people within another city. The advice Jeremiah and Paul each gave was: live with it! Augustine: two cities.

39 That was at the end of the monarchy, the terrible risks of which Samuel had warned about at its beginning: 1 Sam 8. I and II Kings portray the monarchy as failure. Hence the OT history paints a negative picture of monarchy. Yet in I Sam 8, God concedes to it, and works with it – and an ideal of good kingship emerges.

40 In Jesus’ kingship, three things happened at once: The pre-monarchical ideal, in which God was directly the people’s king (1 Sam. 8), was restored. What became the monarchical ideal of an heir to David’s throne who would make real the vision of Ps. 72, Isa. 11, etc. was fulfilled. The post-monarchical model of ‘two cities’ (Jer. 29) was affirmed: Jesus’ kingship is supreme but Caesar’s rule has a place under it. [ ↩ ] ↩

41 Then, after Christ has come, God gives the Spirit, the Spirit of the Christ, to all his people: Acts 2. This offers to all renewal of true human living as those made “in the image of God” and granted dominion, authority, at the beginning. Here are seeds of democracy…..

42 While there are roots in Scripture for an assessment of forms of government, the Church was relatively indifferent among them, insisting instead that what matters much more is that government is just and for the common good. In other words: the ‘what’ question is more important than the ‘how’ question.

43 Reminder: three normative political questions 1.Why should people accept government’s claim to authority at all? 2.What should government do? That is, what is the proper role of gov’t? 3.How should government be constituted?

44 B. Christian political participation in radically pluralist, liberal societies Appeal to Christian faith in political debate? ‘Not allowed’, says neutralist liberalism. Most prominent defender: John Rawls (In Political Liberalism, 1993, and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 2001)

45 To see why not, consider the context of public speech: Religious, philosophical and ethical plurality/diversity/disagreement Rawls refers to this as ‘the fact of pluralism’ More accurately, his expression is: “The fact of reasonable pluralism”. In a free society, people will reasonably disagree about religion, philosophy and ethics – so ‘reasonable pluralism’ is permanent, he says. Christian participation in political life

46 But if we disagree, how can we live together without conflict? More specifically, how can we talk together and decide in public if we have deeply different ways of understanding the world? Christian participation in political life

47 Two main answers: 1.Translation into a ‘neutral’, secular, shared language - ‘thin’, ‘neutralist liberal’, John Rawls 2. Difficult conversation – despite deep disagreements - ‘thick’, ‘post-liberal’, Jeffrey Stout, A. MacIntyre Christian participation in political life

48 1.Translation into a ‘neutral’ shared language Religious language needs to be excluded from public debate, because it cannot contribute to reaching agreement. So public discussion needs to be secularised. And Christian speech/practice is to be privatised. Christian participation in political life

49 Translation into a ‘neutral’ shared language, cont’d Advocates of this ‘secularist’ position generally hold that the only content of the shared language is do with individuals’ rights… to be maximally free from external interference and to choose themselves how to live. Hence a ‘thin’ language. Christian participation in political life

50 The most influential such position is Rawls’s, who argued for ‘two principles of justice’. In his words: a) Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties [such as speech, association, religion…], which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; b) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least- advantaged members of society (the difference principle). (Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, p.42) Christian participation in political life

51 2. Difficult conversation – despite deep disagreements Advocates of this ‘thicker’ version of public discourse: hold that this is possible without conflict recognise that mutual understanding by those in different ‘traditions’ can be very difficult. Christian participation in political life

52 Difficult conversation – despite deep disagreements, cont’d Advocates of ‘difficult conversation’ also: hold that this is possible, thanks esp. to a vigorous democratic culture refer to such a culture as ‘strong democracy’ or ‘deliberative democracy’. (Benjamin Barber) Christian participation in political life

53 To recap, two main alternative answers: 1.Translation into a ‘neutral’ shared language 2. Difficult conversation – despite deep disagreements Luke Bretherton suggests a third alternative: ‘hospitality’. I’m not sure this is fundamentally different from 2. Luke Bretherton, ‘Translation, Conversation or Hospitality’, in N. Biggar and L. Hogan (eds), Religious Voices in Public Places (Oxford: OUP, 2009) Christian participation in political life

54 Main problem with the ‘translation’ approach: Some of the main issues we need to decide in public require appeal to matters on which people disagree religiously/philosophically, e.g.:  the beginning and end of life  human responsibility for non-human nature  economic justice – should income be distributed by individual contribution to profitability or by participation in generating a common good?  whether it’s better generally for children to be raised by their own two biological parents than others  what marriage is

55 If that is so, public discussion on such matters cannot take place in a ‘neutral shared language’ – as this would not engage with the reasons why people disagree. So there is no option but answer 2: ‘difficult conversation – despite deep disagreements’. This is what Christians who participate in public debate have to contribute to.

56 Summary: Public discussion in our day is deeply divided. So can we use a neutral language? No, because many contentious issues turn on deep differences that no ‘neutral’ language can articulate. So in public life and witness, Christians and the churches have to participate in a difficult conversation. Christian participation in political life

57 Whether people are Christians or hedonist neoliberals voluntarist social liberals Burkean conservatives ethical socialists, etc, etc, etc (see ‘Map’) they have no option but to come to public debate willing to articulate how their “comprehensive conception of the human good” supports what they advocate should be done by political authority.

58 It is democratic procedures which enable us, to the extent that we do, to live together politically despite the extent of the radical plurality among us. Christian participation in public life

59 Christian Theology and Political Life Introduction: the obedience of rulers? context – liberal society A. Three normative political questions: Why? What? How? Plus the q. of the ontological status of gov’t B.Christian political participation in radically pluralist societies


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