We have had the real privilege of having Scot McKnight at New Horizon over the last week. I should make clear that I was one of the people who invited Scot and having read some of his many books knew I wouldn’t agree with everything he said. He has been incredibly generous with his time, and very stimulating for those who heard him.
He has some interesting views on political engagement and work. I will come back to work in another post – here is part of my response to the politics question. In Kingdom Conspiracy he describes politics as “a colossal distraction from kingdom mission” and says “We kingdom people don’t need the state.” Scot takes a very minimal, anabaptist position on political engagement and I was asked to step in at the last minute and debate in on this.
I made three brief arguments outlined below:
1. The Biblical Case
The Bookends – The Bible begins by outlining the creational order – marriage, family, extended family, community and yes nation. There is a clear creation mandate to be fruitful, to multiply, to rule and have dominion. The whole earth is God’s temple and we are his representatives as Rikk Watts reminded those at New Horizon a few years ago. And we are moving to the redemption of all things as Revelation 21 reminds us – a new heavens and a new earth were God will make his dwelling place with humanity.
The OT – The 10 commandments are the basis of so much law today. Characters like Joseph, Esther, David, Solomon engaged in politics in their own way – lobbyists, rulers and civil servants. The prophets spoke truth to power – calling out injustice and idolatry. Daniel was a fine example of cultural and prophetic wisdom in politics. Real power and real authority come when we combine (intellectual and cultural) knowledge with the supernatural. Jeremiah gives us the exilic paradigm – we are to seek the shalom of the city. Eugene Peterson defines shalom as the dynamic vibrating health of a society that pulses with divinely directed purpose and surges with life transforming love – a wonderfully rich definition.
Jesus – The Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than a radical political manifesto. Jesus was crucified for making a political statement – Jesus is Lord. When Jesus is before Pilate and Pilate says “so you are a king?” and Jesus replies “you say I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth hears my voice.” Pilate, the first great post-modernist says “what is truth?” As Tom Wright says, “The whole point of Christianity is that is offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth.”
When Scot says in Kingdom Conspiracy that fighting for justice means embodying justice is the local fellowship – that to me is too small a vision of justice. When he says striving for peace means striving for peace in the local church – that is too limited a passion for peace.
The NT – Some argue that the early church gave up on politics but Paul used his Roman citizenship – a political act. In Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, Christians, as a tiny minority, are to submit to those in authority. In Colossians 1 and elsewhere we are reminded that God is redeeming all things and is inviting us to participate in this. So creation care is a political act against a consumerist culture. Resisting abortion on demand is a political act against a consumerist culture. Resisting the redefinition of marriage is a political act against a consumerist culture that wants to redefine it to suit individual desires.
Scot argues that there are five aspects of kingdom – a king, a rule, a people, a law and a land. I suggest that when done by people under the rule of the king, upholding his law in the temple of creation the above acts are kingdom acts. So a Christian lawyer who seeks justice is doing not just good work, but God’s work – kingdom work. A Christian nurse who seeks healing is doing not just good work, but God’s work – kingdom work. Scot would not agree that it is kingdom work.
2. The Historical Case
The early church was persecuted because it threatened the political powers – it was political. Constantine – the high or low water mark of political engagement – shows the church from its earliest days has been political. The church is full of political thinkers and theologians like William of Ockham in the 13th century who shaped our thinking on government with limited responsibility, separation of church and state, property rights and liberal democracy. And events such as the Reformation had huge implications for the modern state, the individual, liberalism etc.
Secular writers like Larry Sedentopp and Christian historians like Sarah Williams agree that the entire liberal framework is collapsing because it has been detached from its Christian foundations – the political landscape as we know it has been shaped by Christians. Concepts such as the rule of law, democracy, participation, consent, representation, the word polity itself and the word state are actually drained of ethical and moral content without Christianity. Put simply, faith has massively shaped modern life.
3. The Practical Case
I can write this blog because we have freedom of religion arising from a Judeo-Christian legal and political system. I stand on the shoulders of Wilberforce, Earl of Shaftsebury and many others. The legacy of Wilberforce is immense – RSPCA, Church Mission society, chimney sweep legislation, the RNLI, laws limiting the work children could do, reformation of manners and the Sunday school movement (precursor to proper free education for all) etc.
Scot argues that the church and the kingdom are the same (though not identical!) Yet the church opposed Wilberforce on slavery, sided with Hitler and supported apartheid. So parts of the (so-called) church are not the same as the kingdom.
Practically, the church has had significant political impact – supporting the Modern Slavery Bill in the UK and Lord Morrow’s anti-human Trafficking Bill in Northern Ireland and resisting the Counter Extremism Bill in England and Wales and the Named Person Bill in Scotland. The church has also engaged in policy relating to education, welfare, social policy and resisted liberalising of abortion law saving many lives.
Towards the end I quoted from A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson says to Tom Cruise “You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!”
I suggested (playfully) that Anabaptists like Scot get to live life and do church because others have engaged politically – it is a luxury they have because others have done the hard work. They have freedom of religion, freedom to share their faith, a healthcare and education system, charity status and tax benefits because of the political work of others.
I also suggested that they are in danger of privatising faith – their vision is too small!
In Kingdom Conspiracy Scot suggests “We kingdom people don’t need the state.” But we Christians are part of the state – the state is not something other.
“When it [what Christians want for the nation] is embodied in the local church, that embodiment is the ONLY activism the church needs.” This seems to me to focus on the gathered church and ignore the scattered church – the 50 hours a week we spend in business, in hospitals, in schools.
Scot continues, “put directly, fighting for justice means embodying justice in the local fellowship.” That seems to me to significantly limited the biblical command to seek justice.
Kingdom Conspiracy stops short of advocating withdrawal, but it also fails in my view to articulate what positive engagement might look like. I fear that in seeking to protect the term kingdom from misuse, it ends up with a too small a vision of kingdom!
I suggest that as prophets we confront the lies of our culture politically and otherwise. As priests and priestesses we cultivate what is good and steered heavens to earth. Finally, as sons and daughter of the King we exercise authority to bring about newness and offer creative solutions.
The King’s people doing the King’s work – surely that’s the kingdom.
#Boom as Scot would say!
*I wouldn’t normally be this cheeky about a speaker in the title but Scot likes to say he is right and we did have fun debating this stuff
ps. Scot and I concluded that we were pretty close in terms of what we would actually do and at least part of our disagreement was about language. He is seeking an accurate definition of the what the New Testament means by Kingdom. He is concerned that we it is used today to describe all the ‘cool’ justice stuff by those who don’t like the term church. I am concerned that in doing that important academic work he might cause a different type of confusion were people conclude that the stuff they spend much of their lives doing isn’t kingdom (on Scot’s terms) and therefore isn’t valuable. That is not what he is saying, but I don’t think he is clear enough to avoid people reaching that conclusion. The political aspects of Scot’s writing and thinking are also shaped by his American context which is different in many ways to here. We had great fun discussing this stuff and I thank him for indulging my significantly less erudite views.