Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Evangelicals in a Post-Haggard, Post-Rumsfeld World

It was Shakespeare who said “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which if taken at the flood” leads on to great things. Of course the opposite is true as well. Sometimes the tide goes out on an idea, an alliance, a dream. One of the interesting trends in the mid-term election results is that outside the South, Evangelicals were not really a decisive factor in determining the outcome of a race or ballot issue, with the exception of the gay marriage ban which passed in all but one state (Arizona). So what should we learn now that various of the mighty have fallen, or at least have fallen on hard times. Should Evangelicals be is bed with ultra conservative Republican politician and their schemes? Or does this do a disservice to the Christian faith and polarize Evangelicals? And furthermore, will Evangelicals pay any attention to the fact that the major issue fueling the change of hands of the Congress and Senate was the war--- and the growing unease with the war in Iraq. It has been said the winners win, and losers learn. We will see if Evangelicals learn, or are even ‘good losers’.

My take on all of this is that it is too early to tell, and certainly to early to say that Evangelical political clout is on the wane. But here are some thoughts for reflection. Firstly, the alliance between Evangelicals and the hard line conservatives in the Republican party has made it difficult for many Evangelicals to see the difference in our time between being a Christian and being an American, and in particular being a certain kind of an American—namely a Republican. The problem is that this reflects a certain kind of mental ghettoizing of the Gospel, a blunting of its prophetic voice on issues ranging from war to poverty, and sometimes this even comes with the not so subtle suggestion that to be un-American (defined as being opposed to certain key Republican credo items) is to be un-Christian. But Christianity must and does transcend any particular cultural expression of itself, otherwise we have the cultural captivity of the Gospel which leads to a form of idolatry. It is one thing to sing ‘my country tis of Thee’, its another thing to have a bunker mentality which makes our countries ills hard to define and our flaws even harder to critique and correct.

Secondly, the ethical content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in so far as we are talking about what the Bible actually says, and not merely what it may also imply, does not focus on issues like abortion, same sex marriage, gun control, pornography, and other related personal ethical issues. You will not find many verses that deal with these subjects in the NT. Do I think that there are implications in the NT for how we should view this issues? Yes, I do. But my point is that these are not the hot button issues that Jesus or Paul or Peter or others made their main concerns or agendas. The social and ethical issues the NT focuses on over and over again are: 1) wealth and poverty issues, including food, shelter, and clothing issues (see e.g. the Lord’s prayer and the parable of the sheep and the goats); 2) paying taxes (we are supposed to do it and stop belly-aching about it—see e.g. Romans 13); 3) sexual behavior issues focusing almost entirely on heterosexual behavior issues, though we clearly have texts like Romans 1 where there is a critique of homosexual, sexual behavior as well; 4) behaviors and attitudes that divide the people of God—envy, strife, jealousy, greed, pride, arrogance, lack of the fruit of the Spirit; 5) war. Yes I said war. The Book of Revelation is a huge warning to leave justice in God’s hands and he will sort things out in his own time and way. It is a call to be prepared to be martyred, not a call to arms. Indeed, there is no call to arms in the NT. Instead there are warnings about those who live by the sword will die by the sword (hmm, what does that imply about gun control), and a call to personal pacifism in order to emulate the non-violent behavior of Jesus. There is nothing even remotely to be found in the NT that supports war as an act initiated by one country against another. Nothing! And this brings me to my point.

Personal ethics without a larger social ethic that deals with systemic problems in society is but half of an ethical Gospel if you read carefully what Jesus, Paul and others say. But here is the kicker--- neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor others expect the government to fix these social ills. They expect that WITHIN THE COMMUNITY OF CHRIST AND BETWEEN CHRISTIANS THEY SHOULD NOT EVER EXIST. In other words, the church needs to take care of its own, bearing one another’s burdens and so on. This is why for example in Acts 2-4 we hear about the Jerusalem community who makes sure no one goes without food, shelter, and clothing, who sets up a way to take care of the widows in the church and so on. Forget social security, they believed in church security. The church had not trivialized the Gospel and turned it into spiritual mcnuggets for the week yet. Until the Evangelical Church actually gets religion about the big ticket ethical items in the NT, it will not have much of a witness to the least, the last, and the lost, never mind to our global neighbors who are tired of our saber rattling. Why should anyone believe we believe in the sanctity of life when we vehemently oppose abortion but are strong advocates for capital punishment and war!! Over and over again. Our agendas are all too often not in sync with those of the NT writers on these issues.

Thirdly, and this will have to do for now, when your nation decides to make all its biggest decisions on the basis of fear and not faith, on the basis of what might happen to us, instead of what already is happening in our midst, on the basis of Real Politik instead of vision, we are in deep trouble.

Take for instance the issue of Homeland Security. The goal of terrorism is of course to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy so they will colossally over-react, over-reach, and most of all over-spend and waste their resources on chasing ghosts and fighting rear guard actions. Well I am saying we have colossally over-reacted to 9/11 and other such threats. We are squandering our resources and we are very little safer now than we were in 2001. Indeed, we have managed to aggravate our world friends and alienate the neutral, and antagonize almost every enemy we have in the world in the last six years. We have wasted billions of dollars a year for the last six years which could have gone a long way to eliminate some of the major social problems we have right here at home, never mind building good will abroad with ministries of compassion.

Christians should never be making their major decisions in life chiefly based on fear or a desire for revenge, or both. Nor should we support politicians who do so, whether they go to church or not. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. If the question is WWJD, for sure its not what we’ve been mostly doing as a nation in the last six years.

So its time to wake up and smell the coffee. Does it smell like the aroma of Christ and his Gospel, or does it smell like dirt, like grounds, like mud? I hope someone out there in the Evangelical Church is listening. We need a whole new approach to ethics and ministry in the years to come in the 21rst century. Its time for a year of Jubilee. Its time to mend fences with our neighbors and the neutral. Its time to stop sticking sticks in hornet’s nests and wondering why we keep getting stung. May God help us overcome our American and Evangelical myopia.


gmw said...

Foreign Affairs for Sept/Oct 06 has an interesting essay from an Ohio State prof (who I later saw on The Daily Show last week) who says that the whole terror response apparatus is completely overblown. He points out that the chances of dying in a terrorist attack are something like less than the chances of slipping in your bathtub and dying.

His article reminded me of a little IVP book I read a few years back called How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in and Information Society by John Sommerville, which said (among other things) that we form our opinions about the world (and especially our safety) based on headlines and splash from the media, government, etc and not from actual facts and thoughtful reflection.

Matthew said...

"Patriotism can become idolatry if a people pledge allegiance to their nation and view God as the legitimater of their society's values."

This is the opening sentence of Chapter 10 -- Are Evengelicals Too Militaristic -- in Tony Campolo's book Speaking My Mind.

Also in that chapter, Campolo quotes Ben Franklin: "When a nation makes its security more precious than its freedoms, it will end up with neither." I suspect Mr. Franklin may have frowned upon the post 9/11 notion of "Homeland Security."

I think you are right on target, Dr. Witherington. It will be interesting to see what kind of discussion your post generates.

Alex said...

Hey Ben,

I don't disagree with what you're saying but I would sharpen it with this: There are many problems that plague the poor that "church security" can't handle. For example, the church giving more won't change the prices of cotton on the world market, only an end to subsidies through government will do that. The church volunteering more won't build infrastructure in Africa, only the government with its particular expertise in that area can do that. My personal opinion is that the purpose of the church is more akin to being a voice rather than being a charity. The poor shouldn't have to rely on the whims of the offering plate each month. Structural change initiated by our voices (think Abolition, Civil Rights movement, etc.) is the only thing that truly shows our hope for the future of the poor.

Mr. G. Gallant said...

Ben, you are a refreshing "evangelical" voice from the US and i always look forward to reading your insights. I thank you for your willingness to step out and be a voice that risks by asking the necessary tough, introspective questions. You help bring perspective and understanding to this Canadian who is often times confused and, yes, frustrated with trying to make sense of American conservative thought and its tenuous relationship with the church.

Ben Witherington said...


I don't disagree with what you say when it comes to systemic change in society, but what I think is that these are the sort of things Christians can get involved in government and hope to accomplish. But I do insist, Christians must provide an example, a microcosm, of how people can take care of their own, 'in house'. Of course helping the Christian poor will not solve all of world poverty, but it will provide examples of how the problem could be alleviated.


Ben W.

Jeffinoh said...

Fantastic post, Ben. Thanks for the timely reminder that 'Christian' is not the equivalent of 'American' nor 'Republican.' I've heard Tony Campolo (quoting someone else whose name I forget) state that evangelicals have always defined themselves by political rather than theological issues. He made a good case supporting that concept, and it changed my understanding of evangelicalism.

see-through faith said...

"The church should take care of its own " that's why Dobson's (apparent) crossing the road and walking by on the other side is unacceptable.

Jesus weeps!

byron said...

I hope someone out there in the Evangelical Church is listening.
We're listening. (Though I'm an Australian...)

Gary G - I'm curious: why the scare quotes around 'evangelical'?

Interestingly, the idea that governments should look after their poor was one that the Roman government stole from the church out of jealousy. Obviously it's more complex than a single incident, but Emperor Julian (lived AD 331-63; reigned 361-63), sought to imitate the way Christians cared for their poor out of envy of the church's popularity:
"These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes."
"Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods."

Whether or not governments imitate us (and they won't be able to help themselves if we live the common life to which we're invited in the NT), the first political task of the church is to simply keep on faithfully being the church. Thanks for a great post, Dr Witherington.

David Johnson said...

Amen to this post.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

Your statement that poverty and social ills should not exist within the community of faith is as clear an indictment as any I could imagine that the United States is not a Christian nation.

During this last election season, I saw an 'evangelical' candidate who habitually printed Scripture passages on his campaign materials. The passages all equated the U.S. with the Israel of the OT, as if our nation was the new "chosen people" of God. The arrogance of that position is as preposterous as it is dangerous.

Only when evangelical Christians turn their hermeneutic of suspicion back on themselves will we be able to engage in a faith practice that is consistent with our stated faith convictions.

Corn on the Robb said...

Excellent post as always, Dr. Witherington.

I notice often in government class that when we discuss certain issues it is always an "let's get them before they get us" kind of deal, or "I'd rather have their people go than ours." It seems that Jesus' call to self-sacrifice is too difficult to imagine on a social scale. Who would've thought that Jesus would've had us suffer! It seems the sermon on the mount only applies affects personal and not social ethics.

Elvis Elvisberg said...

Andrew C. Thompson, that kind of flyer is frightening. How could anyone who has read the Gospels take Christianity to be a mere identity group, a side to be cheered on, with no more ethical or moral content than being a Yankees fan?

But that's what that flyer is about. "We're right, they're on the outside, let's resent the stranger and the meek among us. Vote Republican!"

Dr. Witherington, I bookmarked this page so that I could read thoughtful, well-informed, politely expressed views with which I disagree. So, with frustration, I have to conncede that I agree with every word you wrote.

knsheppard said...

I agree that the church must be a microcosm to the society at large. But the thrust of your post seemed to lean towards getting that right first, and then heading to the 'pubic real'. Yet we live in an age where the State has taken responsibility for many of our social needs, rightfully or not. While I tend to think the practices of, say, a Shain Claibourne & The Simple Way group, an excllent model for the church as practicing microcosm, I don't want to abandon the structural issues of our culture/society at large. Even if the NT has no prescriptive language about this, does that leave us 'minding our own business' as the church?

B-W said...

Thank you for the reminder that one can accept the label "Evangelical" and still be other-than-right-wing. I have so many friends who, while having rather Evangelical theology, have utterly rejected the "Evangelical" label because they think it means "sides with the Republican party." It's such a tragedy.

ClydeG said...

"The church should take care of its own!" Ben, is there any criteria that should be implemented for helping our own? I attend a small and very loving church. We average around 80 on Sunday mornings. We struggle like most small churches to meet our monthly budget and still try to help our own and send a monthly missions offering to our sister church in Africa.
Yet we have a couple of families that ask us to pay their electric or phone bills every few months. Forgive me, but it gets tiring. I would appreciate any words of wisdom from you that I could pass on to the rest of our church board.

Clyde G.

David said...


I was driving home this morning listening to a Christian radio station. There was a "talk" format, and one of the prominent "Christian" leaders was discussing how Evangelicals should see this past election as proof that it is essential for churches (nb: not Christians, but churches!) to be involved in the political process.

This spokesmen went on to talk about how "we" lost control of the Senate Judiciary committee.

It is absolutely terrifying that such evangelical leaders can identify the Republican party with "Christian". The damage to the Church from doing this is far greater than the damage of electing poor candidates (from either party).

BTW - I'm so conservative that a decade ago I ran for Congress as a member of the Constitution Party. Yet, there is absolutely no excuse for taking any of the committments that we owe to Christ and giving them to a political party. We evangelicals desperately need to relearn Chuck Colson's phrase that "The Kingdom of God doesn't arrive on Air Force One."

Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments.


Matthew Miller said...

Ben, you are absolutely right in pointing out our Evangelical errors. Evangelicals have erroneously caused untold millions to associate coming to Christ with a conversion to the Republican Party, placing an unnecessary yoke (i.e. just like circumcision) on those of a more liberal persuasion. But the problem is not the fault of Evangelicals alone; some blame must rest on the Democratic Party and on our two-party system. Evangelicals associate themselves with Republicans not because they are for capital punishment, gun-control, low-taxes, or less government, rather they associate themselves with Republicans because they are pro-life. And life is not a minor New Testament issue, as your post seems to imply. This issue reaches to the heart of the gospel (i.e. liberation for the least, the last, and the lost). It is this single issue, which has more than any other co-opted the Evangelical Church. The Democrats have failed to be consistent with their values (i.e. Anti-killing in war and crime but pro-killing in the case of the unborn) just as Republicans have failed to be consistent with theirs (pro-killing in war and crime but anti-killing in the matter of the unborn). I honestly believe that if the platforms of both parties flipped on this single issue then Evangelicals would migrate to the Democratic Party and in the process become more liberal on issues such as the environment and government control. Our problem is a matter of choice. Politics rests on alliances. If Christians want to have a voice then they must vote for a single party and thus they are forced to choose their bedfellows. The right of the government to the sword has more New Testament support (Romans and 1 Peter) then the private killing of innocent children. And so for "now" I vote Republican. Give me a better way.

B-W said...

"If Christians want to have a voice then they must vote for a single party"

Could you elaborate on this point? I'm not sure I agree. Why must Christians vote for a single party in order to have a voice?

Ben Witherington said...

G'Day Byron: Thanks so much for the great quote from the time of Julian. A truly great quote, which shows that even centuries after Acts 2-4, Christians were still taking in the poor, and taking care of their own.

Clyde I hear you about the issue of paying their bills. My suggestion is several fold: 1) you need to have some banker or other financial dude in your congregation do pro bono personal budgeting counciling. You send such folks to them and they analyze their real financial situation; 2) if the issue really is that they have inadequate employment to pay such basic bills then you help them get better employment through your church social networks, or neighboring church's social networks; 3) it is fine to expect financial accountability from those that you help. You give the help freely, especially the first time. But if they are just those who are freeloaders then Gal. 6 applies--- read both Gal. 6.2 (which refers to financial burdens) and 6.5, and 6.10. Each should carry their own load to the degree that they are able in the body of Christ.



Rodney Reeves said...


I was asked by our university to speak in chapel the last two weeks. Took up a similar theme: how living like an American is sometimes at cross purposes to following Jesus. Talked about consumerism, legalism, nationalism, and pragmatism. Things were going well until I took up the issue of nationalism. Opened my comments with this teaser: "If Jesus were to run for elected office in our country, what would his campaign ads look like?" Explosion.

"I am a man for peace; but when I speak, they are for war."

May God help us follow Jesus no matter what.


Ben Witherington said...

Well Rodney, don't feel bad. One of the better gauges that you have touched the motherload of golden calfs is precisely such a reaction.


Ted Gossard said...


Thanks for this great post.

I so much identify with what is being said here. It's like I'm an inferior Christian among some, because I even question the Republican party.

yuckabuck said...

Matthew has a point. While it surely is wrong to identify Christianity with any political party, it is understandable why many would given the nature of the two parties in America. When you have liberal Democrats criticizing President Bush for "talking to God" (ie., he actually prays), then one gets the feeling that Christians are not welcome on one side of the aisle unless there's an election looming. I'm not saying that these Christians are right for embracing the Republican party in such a way, but I sure can understand it.

Also as Matthew said, the abortion issue is huge, as many Christians saw it as the first morally unambiguous political issue to come down the pike in a while. Vatican 2 didn't break down the walls between Catholics and Protestants, but the charismatic movement chipped at it and the pro-life movement made cooperation between the two real. My father has never paid attention to politics, and has always lamented my leaving the Catholic fold. Yet the only abortion protest I've ever attended was one put on by his Catholic church, where I stood side by side with him.

Before anyone confuses me with Pat Robertson, I should mention that I have said before on this very blog that the indentification of Christian with Republican is wrong and is hurting the spread of the gospel in this country. I have also criticized Christians for acting like they thought the Kingdom of God was going to come through politics. I am also of the belief that much of American Christianity is of the shallow "cultural" sort that doesn't know Jesus anyway. Recently I tortured myself by reading Ann Coulter's book "Godless," and was disgusted to see her call herself a Christian and then joked (?) that she hoped liberals wouldn't make it to heaven. There may be a baby in there, but this bath water has definitely got to go!

The problem I have with Dr. Witherington's post is also one that I've mentioned here before: The New Testament seems to assume a body of believers who are on the margin of society and have no political power or resonsibility whatsoever. In that case, it's more clear-cut to say that the state "bears the sword," while at the same time advocating a position of personal pacifism and "cheek-turning." But what if you are a Christian who has been elected to political office who is now repsonsible (to a point) for their security? As Dr. Fee would say, I have heard what the Word of God was to them, but now I need to hear what that same word is to us.

"The Book of Revelation is a huge warning to leave justice in God’s hands" Is that an acceptable public policy if you have been elected commander-in-chief with a committment to defend the nation? (Note that I am dealing with a hypothetical here- I am not affirming or rejecting any specific action of the Bush administration.)

"It is a call to be prepared to be martyred, not a call to arms." Again, I may personally choose martyrdom, but do I have the right to make that choice for my constituents if I hold a public office?

"There are warnings...and a call to personal pacifism in order to emulate the non-violent behavior of Jesus" Dr. Witherington is clear that the call is both a personal one, and a corporate call to the community of believers. But what about the wider community? Should we advocate non-defense and martyrdom, and then tell the wider community, "Hey, my soul's prepared, sorry about your luck?"

Let's not fool ourselves that transferring a Christian ethic to larger public policy issues will have a happy ending. It most definitely ends at a cross- meaning a violent execution. If we show love to certain militant groups, they will at some point see it as weakness and move to exploit it. For a Christian and for the church, that is fine, but it is criminal to make that choice for others who are not following Jesus.

So, the only alternatives would seem to be: 1) Christians should remain on the margins and never stain themselves in public office, or 2) Christians can run for office but let it be known that they will pursue only radical actions of self-denial and non-violence and should not be expected to use the military at all, as justice will be left in God's hands.

matt gallion said...

amen, dr. witherington.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Yuckabuck for your thoughtful post. I quite agree with the fact that abortion is an important issue, very important indeed. What a society does to its most defenseless members is most revealing of the character of that society. I too have pondered what a devout Christian should do in a position of moral responsibility over some sort of military force. Much depends on your view of moral ambiguity, and your ability to deal with it. Luther for example, gave the advice to 'sin boldly' if it was the lesser of several evils, and then repent.

So suppose for a moment we allow the notion that to fail to choose a lesser evil is in fact to choose a greater one. I don't think this is necessarily so, but for the sake of argument lets allow it. If this is the case, then I could see a devout Christian taking on a morally doubtful or ambiguous act because the choices appeared to be limited to bad and worse. I have of course heard Christians say God would never put a Christian in such a position, but in fact he does allow such things.

So, what, for example does a Christian policeman do, who is charged to 'bear the sword' to some extent (although Paul is only taking about a defense dagger there-- not an offensive weapon like a gun). I would say three things: 1) he knows it is a sin to kill another human being, and 2) he knows as well that not doing so may indeed lead to the death of many other human beings if we are dealing with a maniac; so 3) while he does not use lethal force except as a last resort, when such a situation seems to come, he uses it "as a lesser of several evils".

What follows from this? Do we applaud the man for taking a human life? No we do not. It was still morally wrong. Do we reassure him that he made the best out of a bad situation? Now we are getting closer to the mark, but we will also urge him to confess his sins, since the situation was a fallen and morally ambiguous one. What we will certainly not do is thump our chests, play patriotic music and glorify the killing either at home or abroad. That, we as Christians should never do. As John Donne said " Anyone's death diminishes me, for I am part of humankind. Therefore do not seek to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me..."

Finally, I would add to this, that I myself as a pacificist would have great difficulty even going this far with restrained violence. I would have to do a lot of soul searching and asking of questions like, 'is their a higher ethical value in my value hierarchy than respect for life'? And actually the answer must be yes or else there would be no cause for which I would even sacrifice my life.

So, what is that even higher value? The answer must surely be the loving of God with my whole heart and also my neighbor as myself, and also even my enemy. And so, what follows for me is that I must ultimately always do the most loving thing in a situation, even if I lose my life, doing my very best to avoid taking life as well. Different Christians will differ on what this means, but what it means for me is that I can't serve in the military or the police force, though I certainly understand Christians who feel they can do so and I respect them. I simply say to them-- don't forget to pray for forgiveness of sins, and forgive others as well.


Ariel said...

The problem is that this reflects a certain kind of mental ghettoizing of the Gospel...

I completely agree, well said.

Also, I didn't see an email address on your site, but I have a proposition for you regarding a new blog portal. Maybe you wouldn't mind shooting me an email? arielj.van [ at ] gmail [ dot ] com.

Elvis Elvisberg said...

Wow. Is this article serious? It can't be, can it?

THE NETHERLANDS — A new Bible translation produced in Holland that aims to be more attractive and market-oriented is causing controversy after it cut out difficult parts surrounding economic justice, possessions and money.


Chairman W. R De Rijke said the foundation has reacted to a growing wish of many churches to be market-oriented and more attractive.

"Jesus was very inspiring for our inner health, but we don't need to take his naïve remarks about money seriously. He didn't study economics, obviously," he said.

De Rijke said no serious Christian takes these texts literally.

"What if all Christians stopped being anxious, for example, and started expecting everything from God? Or gave their possessions to the poor, for that matter. Our economy would be lost. The truth is quite the contrary: a strong economy and a healthy work ethic is a gift from God."

preacherman said...

We must understand Christianity and evagelism will still exist and be effective regardless of Haggard or Rumsfeld. God is still God and is in control no matter what goes on in the world. We must realize understand this truth as leaders and the church.

Alex said...

Ben, absolutely agreed on being a microcosm, and I love the phrase, "motherload of golden calfs". That sums up the situation we find ourselves in nicely. I am going to spread that one around.

Byron, really important and timely quote from the emperor.

Knshepherd, you made the classic mistake of leaving out the letter "l" in the word "public." :)

Elvis, scary article indeed. But this quote may be a painful truth "De Rijke said no serious Christian takes these texts literally." You know what? I think he's right. For example, most serious, educated Christians that I know would say that Jesus' illustration of a camel going through the eye of a needle means that it's just very hard, not impossible for rich man to enter heaven. Also, very few serious Christians take Jesus message to give up all your possesions seriously. If De Rijke is wrong in what he says, it is our (Christians) own fault for showing him that we are not serious about the radical message of Jesus. De Rijke sounds Ayn Rand-ish to me.

Curious Presbyterian said...

"Ben, absolutely agreed on being a microcosm, and I love the phrase, "motherload of golden calfs". That sums up the situation we find ourselves in nicely. I am going to spread that one around."

I think Ben meant to write "mother lode", not "motherload"!

Alison said...

To Ben & Yuckabuck,
While I "think" that I am willing to sacrifice my own life, I am not sure I am willing to sacrifice my neighbor's life.

yuckabuck said...

Ben, May I call you Ben? :-)
Thank you for your kind response. I had commented in a similar vein before, but it was after the blog had moved on and nobody was paying attention. I think we are on the same page, or at least in the same chapter, as far as ethics go, though my wording would be more influenced by Norman Geisler's book on ethics. What you describe as "moral ambiguity" he calls "conflicting absolutes," in order to separate such situations from times when there is no ambiguity and we know what God expects us to do.

I am still struggling with how a Christian can be involved in politics. Just today I read this in Wright's new book on evil:
"The revolutionaries try to get in on the act of God's in-breaking kingdom, but their attempt to fight violence with violence can only ever result in a victory FOR violence, not victory over it" (page 80). Reflecting on this, I am seeing it as true, for even the "noble" World War 2 ended some great evil, but it was at the cost of other evils, and it left other evils untouched. It was like what Tolkien's Galadriel called "the long defeat." While I am not a Fundamentalist calling "Be ye separate!" I am beginning to think that Christians really cannot exhibit the "already" victory of the Kingdom while being an active participant in politics. Too much of what goes on is a victory FOR politics, not a victory over politics and for justice. Or, as Byron said above, "the first political task of the church is to simply keep on faithfully being the church."

Jason said...

While your post made me think about some issues, I disagreed with some of your points.

First, what exactly does this have to do with a Post-Haggard, Post-Rumsfeld world? It sounds to me that you are just giving your post-9/11, stuck-in-a-war worldview.

You said: The Bible..."does not focus on issues like abortion, same sex marriage, gun control, pornography, and other related personal ethical issues."

Is not what the Bible says concerning improper sexuality more than an implication for such topics as pornography and same-sex marriage? Obviously we wouldn't expect those to be addressed in the Bible because photography and the internet were not around. Similarly the idea of same-sex marriage was unheard of. But if the Bible prohibits homosexual sex, is it not clear how God would view homosexual marriage? If the Bible prohibits looking (or thinking!) of a woman improperly, is it not clear how God would view pornography? You probably agree with this; so my point is: why did you make this an issue? Why use those issues in your larger effort to detach the Bible from current issues.
[I mainly take issue with these examples, not the gun control example.]

You said: "The goal of terrorism is of course to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy so they will colossally over-react, over-reach, and most of all over-spend and waste their resources on chasing ghosts and fighting rear guard actions."

It seems kind of abritrary that your definition of terrorism includes "so they will colossally over-react, over-reach, and most of all over-spend and waste their resources on chasing ghosts and fighting rear guard actions." What makes you think that is the fundamental goal of terrorists? It seems circular that you have worked this into your definition when you obviously think the US has "colossally over-reacted" to the 9/11 attacts. Indeed you stated it explicitly in the next sentence, "I am saying we have colossally over-reacted to 9/11 and other such threats."

You said: "...we are very little safer now than we were in 2001." That is arguable, though I'll leave it alone.

You said: "We have wasted billions of dollars a year for the last six years." Given the fact that we have not had another terrorist attack on US soil in the last five years, maybe the not ALL of the money was wasted. I think it is safe to say that the terrorists would like to attack us!

Also, am I right to assume that the US's over-reaction to 9/11 you are talking about was the invasion of Iraq? Was the military action in Afghanistan part of the over-reaction? If so, what should have been our reaction to 9/11? In other words, what does a pacifist (such as yourself) propose as a response.

I do not think that christians should be republicans by default. I do not consider myself one.

Ben Witherington said...

Jason I do not think we disagree on those issues, nor do I think sexual immorality of any sort is a minor issue. Of course the focus in the Bible is on things like adultery, not gay sex. I don't however see much emphasis on correcting adultery from the religious right at all. So again, it seems to me a matter of misplaced emphasis.

I think the issue with the invasion of Afghanistan is more debatable than Iraq. With Iraq George Jr. was simply trying to finish George senior's dirty little war in the area. There were no WMDs. It was an excuse to go get Saddam Hussein (remember all those speeches) but we could have done than through special ops if that was all that was needed.

No George figured he could get a quick major victory which would bolster things. What he has in fact done is alienate a major part of the Republican power base and ruined our relaitonship with many countries including allies like Egypt and Jordan. Its just a trociously bad foreign policy, and from a Christian point of view, whenever some tries to take revenge, there are always negative consequences like this. See the next article on my blog.



Alison said...

Ben, regarding your last response, "I don't see much emphasis on correcting adultery from the religious right at all," that is one reason I couldn't really get behind the marriage amendment, especially the way it was worded in Kansas. If the church is really all that interested in protecting marriage, we'd be trying to ban no-fault divorces instead of civil unions.

samlcarr said...

I often wonder whether in the early church, the stress on doing things for "the brethren" may not be a reaction to the earliest believers doing more good to their neighbors (in obedience to the gospel) than to those closest to them in their new community.

Mark said...

Hi Ben!

Before becoming a pastor here in America, I served as a resident missionary to France for a number of years. It was a very interesting and eye-opening experience to pastor wonderful, Spirit-filled people who were highly committed members of the Socialist party, or who even voted for the Communist party during their elections...!

I came to discover a couple of important differences between what I perceive to be the mindset of a majority of French evangelicals as opposed to their American counterparts:

1. French believers have zero expectation that their civil government will ever be run by people who are actually born again Christians, so they do not examine the personal lives of their leaders from a biblical perspective before voting for them. It never enters a French believer’s mind that a politician’s personal life would be sufficient reason to withhold their vote from him or her.

2. French believers view the political process as inherently corrupt due to its built-in dynamic of compromise and deal-making, not to mention its potential for conflict of interest or illicit monetary gain through the trafficking of special interest lobbyists, etc. This causes them to conclude that it would be completely impossible for any believer to maintain his or her integrity and run for office with any of the major parties.

This is due, in part, to the fact that French politics are based on a parliamentary style system that renders it virtually impossible for anyone to run for office as an independent. In the mind of French Christians, no believer could ever attain the backing of any major party without having engaged in so much questionable prior activity in support of that party, or without having incurred so many "IOU's" to so many other political figures, that their integrity and freedom to act according to their conscience would have already been fatally damaged before even being put forth as a candidate.

3. Believing that the major power brokers of all major political parties have long ago compromised their personal integrity and conscience, French pastors and other spiritual leaders would view with deep suspicion any overtures from politicians trying to court the support of the church in the electoral process. Most French pastors have a very hard time understanding why their American colleagues get so excited when representatives from the White House or Congress come calling or send invitations to functions inside the Beltway. In their minds, Americans should understand that offers of political power and access are never altruistic, but always comes at a price, namely, a requirement to stand by the party or candidate in question in other areas of public policy, even though those other issues may not be clearly biblical in nature or even of great importance to the church world.

4. As a result of these and other factors, French pastors tend to believe strongly that spiritual leaders, local congregations, and church movements should play the role of public conscience to larger society and never try to forge any sort of alliance with one particular party.

In the beginning of my stay there, I questioned their perspective, given what seemed to be great gains made by the evangelical church in America regarding certain social issues in exchange for publicly supporting individual candidates and forming a de-facto alliance with one particular party. Now, I look back with dismay and think we were probably duped into believing that we could salvage our souls while selling our support.

Although I personally have strong political convictions regarding certain issues and have voted for the same party’s candidates in every election for nearly thirty years, and though I believe there are individuals who are called by God to run for office, I have purposed in my own heart to only use my pulpit to proclaim biblical principles. I believe the best way I can shepherd all of my flock is to teach them spiritual truths, many of which do, in fact, have a direct bearing on one’s conscience and decisions when entering the voting booth, but that I should never use my position or platform promote a particular party’s or candidate’s agenda. In the end,, the only real hope any of us have for making the world a better place, not to mention improving the state of our country, is the kind of profound spiritual renewal and transformation that comes through a deep encounter with the living God through His Son Jesus Christ.

Mark Brand