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God Goes to War Against His People

The great rhetorical “armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6:10-18 is drawn from Isaiah 59:17. Many Christians are familiar with the Ephesians text, but likely have not given much attention to Isaiah. The prophet speaks to God’s own people, those who look to God for salvation but have become a people of violence and complacency about injustice, failing to advocate for the oppressed.

Our conflicted culture of finger-pointing forces us into defensive postures. The church, however, must avoid this, because it prevents us from life-giving practices of confession and repentance. Defensiveness keeps us from reckoning with latent racist attitudes, Christian complicity in our national sin of slavery and ongoing dynamics of racial injustice and ethnic animosity.

Surely it is worth considering. After all, the stakes are pretty high, for in Isaiah 59, God takes up his armor to go to war against his people:

1 Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,

    nor his ear too dull to hear.

2 But your iniquities have separated

    you from your God;

your sins have hidden his face from you,

    so that he will not hear.

3 For your hands are stained with blood,

    your fingers with guilt.

Your lips have spoken falsely,

    and your tongue mutters wicked things.

4 No one calls for justice;

    no one pleads a case with integrity.

They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;

    they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.

5 They hatch the eggs of vipers

    and spin a spider’s web.

Whoever eats their eggs will die,

    and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.

6 Their cobwebs are useless for clothing;

    they cannot cover themselves with what they make.

Their deeds are evil deeds,

    and acts of violence are in their hands.

7 Their feet rush into sin;

    they are swift to shed innocent blood.

They pursue evil schemes;

    acts of violence mark their ways.

8 The way of peace they do not know;

    there is no justice in their paths.

They have turned them into crooked roads;

    no one who walks along them will know peace.

9 So justice is far from us,

    and righteousness does not reach us.

We look for light, but all is darkness;

    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.

10 Like the blind we grope along the wall,

    feeling our way like people without eyes.

At midday we stumble as if it were twilight;

    among the strong, we are like the dead.

11 We all growl like bears;

    we moan mournfully like doves.

We look for justice, but find none;

    for deliverance, but it is far away.

12 For our offenses are many in your sight,

    and our sins testify against us.

Our offenses are ever with us,

    and we acknowledge our iniquities:

13 rebellion and treachery against the Lord,

    turning our backs on our God,

inciting revolt and oppression,

    uttering lies our hearts have conceived.

14 So justice is driven back,

    and righteousness stands at a distance;

truth has stumbled in the streets,

    honesty cannot enter.

15 Truth is nowhere to be found,

    and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

The Lord looked and was displeased

    that there was no justice.

16 He saw that there was no one,

    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;

so his own arm achieved salvation for him,

    and his own righteousness sustained him.

17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate,

    and the helmet of salvation on his head;

he put on the garments of vengeance

    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.

18 According to what they have done,

    so will he repay

wrath to his enemies

    and retribution to his foes;

    he will repay the islands their due.

19 From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,

    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.

For he will come like a pent-up flood

    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion,

    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”

declares the Lord.

21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.

Bono is America’s Pastor

I attended U2’s 30th anniversary Joshua Tree concert Saturday night in Chicago, the same city in which I saw them in October 1987, though at a much smaller venue than Soldier Field. It was a blast to see them with my brother-in-law Paul and my friend and teaching colleague Jonathan, both long-time U2 fans. I enjoy them as conversation partners in grappling with what U2 is doing artistically and theologically.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 10.17.55 AM

Just before they played “Exit,” a brief film set in the Old West was played on the screen behind them in which a snake oil salesman named “Trump” prophesied apocalyptic doom and portrayed himself as the only hope for salvation. This character prompted discussion among the town’s citizens and one man’s accusation of “Trump” being a liar provoked another man to shove him. The film concludes with “Trump’s” shady eyes scanning the audience.

Two hands with “love” and “hate” inscribed on them appear and clench into fists before disappearing. The band then played “Exit.”

Though he doesn’t do this in the Dallas show to which I linked above, on Saturday night Bono stated just before singing that the hands of love can both heal and destroy.

Because the brief black and white film was so striking, I initially received it as a simple critique of America’s president. On the drive home on Sunday, however, we discussed the possibility that the film’s target was the audience, alerting us to the danger of a divisive figure sowing chaos and discord, provoking citizens to act with violence towards each other.

We noted that after the song, Bono said something along the following lines: “whether you are left or right, and however you voted, you are welcome here. We have to come together and figure out how we’re going to move forward.”

Exit” is a song that ponders the dangerous possibility of being so fixated on the purity of a righteous cause that one seeks to advance it by doing violence. The song closes with these lines:

So hands that build

Can also pull down

The hands of love.

In U2 By U2, Bono said this about “Exit”:

[Y]ou have to get under the skin of your own darkness, the violence we all contain within us. Violence is something I know quite a lot about. I have a side of me which, in a corner, can be very violent. It’s the least attractive thing in anyone and I wanted to own up to that (p. 231).

Rather than critiquing the president, I think U2 is calling on audiences to recognize the violence within our own hearts, the desire to accomplish good through anger. This impulse makes us see our own hands as “the hands of love,” insisting that our motives are pure even as we demonize others and seek to destroy them.

Bono has always expressed appreciation and love for America, and he did so again Saturday, commending Americans for being activists against the ravages of HIV/AIDS in Africa. But U2 also has always asked Americans to consider the country’s place in the world and whether and how it is contributing to healing or to violent destruction. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is an obvious example.

When U2 played the Super Bowl in 2002, I was struck by how they spoke to America, gathering the country’s emotions without endorsing any political view or military action. To my mind, they get how to speak in a way that reflects the forever counterintuitive gospel, the always devastating and always redeeming word that both confronts and comforts, that invites repentance and ignites hope.

It seems to me when Bono speaks in these ways, he is pastoring America.

He gets how to call for engaged discernment and vigorous discussion while also calling us to avoid letting the current presidency draw us into tearing each other apart.

Evangelical Leaders and Donald Trump Are Cut from the Same Cloth

Endorsements of Donald Trump by the leaders of evangelical organizations, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. and James Dobson, have mystified outside observers and have frustrated many evangelicals. Based on my experience in several evangelical organizations led by a singular figurehead, I believe that many of these leaders do not merely see him as the preferable candidate for president. They resonate with him at a deeper level, seeing in him something of themselves.


Many of these leaders are older white men who built their institutions through the force of their charismatic personalities. They built constituencies and maintain them through strong rhetoric that forms clear boundaries to identify who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “safe” and who is “unsafe,” who are “friends” and who are “enemies.” Their organizations are involved in the culture war, seeking to influence the country by promoting Christian values and holding back the tide of growing threats to the faith. The Moral Majority and Focus on the Family are examples of this.

These leaders are suspicious of experts and scholars who see greater complexity in the world. They see people in black and white terms – good vs. evil, with us or against us. They envision the success of their organizations as validation of their views and may receive criticism or dissent as attack or persecution. They are not interested in parsing out fine distinctions since they feel that the causes they champion are so urgent and important. They often articulate the success or failure of their movements in apocalyptic terms – the future of our civilization is at stake!

They do not tolerate dissent within their organizations and will get rid of non-conformists, often violating agreed-upon terms of employment. They discourage or actively stifle dissenting opinions, labeling people who think differently as “disloyal” or even “dangerous.”

Many large evangelical organizations have traditionally served white America. For this reason, Donald Trump’s racially insensitive rhetoric – to put it mildly – does not offend evangelical organizational leaders, many of whose forebears were resistant to or critical of the civil rights movement. At the least, they have not historically been in solidarity with African- and Hispanic-Americans and view refugees and immigrants with suspicion.

Further, these leaders have stressed the submission of women in society, the church and the home. Donald Trump’s comments about women, while shocking to many, are not ultimately troubling for these leaders since for them, women have value insofar as they are living according to their “God-ordained” roles as wives and mothers.

When these leaders see Donald Trump, they see someone who is like them. His rhetoric, like theirs, prioritizes traditional white America. He wants to uphold the status quo, rhetorically labeling marginalized groups as threats to safety and security. This resonates with their militantly conservative posture in the culture wars.

The way they run their organizations is very similar to how he speaks about what he would do as president. Like them, he speaks in black and white terms, labeling people as “for” or “against” him. He is suspicious of experts and is strongly anti-intellectual. He has no time for complexity, for understanding the subtleties of issues and he does not tolerate dissent or value others’ opinions.

Further, many of the leaders of evangelical organizations have either been affected by or have themselves nurtured the hysterical paranoia about Hillary Clinton over the last 25 years. Their organizations are more or less aligned with the Republican Party so that there is little distinction. The leaders themselves, and those who populate the organizations, cannot imagine a person being loyal while not supporting a Republican candidate.

As an example, in 2012 two faculty members at an evangelical institution wrote an editorial in the school paper explaining why they were not voting for Mitt Romney. They did not mention the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, but the outcry from students, fellow faculty and constituents was overpowering, calling for their dismissal. To not actively support a Republican was to be a disloyal Christian.

Many evangelicals sense a strong dissonance with these evangelical leaders. Many of them, especially younger evangelicals, distrust megachurches, preferring churches that offer strong community and participation in local life. They are suspicious of large evangelical organizations that solicit donations. They prefer to be personally involved in bringing about social change. And they do not view social transformation in terms of culture wars, but want to engage others with compassionate and gracious postures. They have close friends among historically marginalized groups and are offended by the demonization of racial and ethnic minorities and the denigration of women. They are willing to question traditional visions of gender and sexuality.

There are doubtless other factors, but these are some reasons why, in my estimation, leaders of evangelical organizations embrace and endorse Donald Trump.

Scribes & Pharisees Call Out the Church

Mark 2:1-3:6 contains a series of five episodes in which the scribes and Pharisees raise questions about Jesus’ behavior. In four of the five episodes, they direct their questions to Jesus. But in vv. 15-16, they question the disciples.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

In terms of how this episode works on audiences of Mark’s gospel, something subtle is going on. The disciples throughout the gospel stand in for the church, so the scribes who are questioning the disciples are really challenging church audiences.

Think of films or plays in which characters break the fourth wall, departing from the narrative and speaking directly to the audience.

All Are Welcome

Sieger Köder, “All Are Welcome”

It’s as if the scribes pause the narrative and turn to church audiences to ask their question.

“Hey, church, are you paying attention to what Jesus is doing here? Do you see him eating with all the wrong people—the notorious sinners and those we consider traitors? These are the sort of scum upon whom God will surely rain down his judgment! Why is he spending time with them, running the risk of being seen to endorse them by eating with them?”

“And why is he so different from you? Your communities seem to be specially ordered to make sure you never run into these people? You’re so tidy and clean! Can you really claim to be a community loyal to this person?”

It does no good for us to answer that we truly do care for sinners but we just want to see them repent before we hang out with them. This is precisely the posture of the scribes and Pharisees. They long to see repentance and restoration on the part of sinners. But their method is to shun them into repentance, avoiding their contaminating presence.

Jesus doesn’t merely desire their repentance. He goes to them, walks among them, sits and eats with them. If God’s people are not among sinners and other marginalized people, the question must be faced, “why does Jesus eat with sinners and tax collectors when his disciples want to have nothing to do with them?”

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 6

Paul’s gospel, then, is thoroughly political, but not “political” according to the corrupted status quo of what we call politics in our 21st century American culture. Paul doesn’t call for the church to try to agitate for power and influence, and certainly wouldn’t tolerate rhetorically denouncing other people or fellow Christians in the name of differing party loyalties. In Paul’s view, God is making all things new through Jesus Christ and through him alone. God is working out his purposes in and through the church, pouring out his blessing on his people as they seek to faithfully embody the broken-hearted love of God for all people. So, some practical implications for contemporary church practice:

First, a lesson from Saul the Pharisee. He had a mind and heart more thoroughly saturated by Scripture than anyone currently alive. His aims and ambitions were completely oriented by God’s agenda! Or so he thought. It’s all too easy, once our passions are aroused, for us to distort Scripture, to see in the Bible what we want to see, and to have our notions of the ideal society shaped by cultural prejudices or other cultural voices than by God’s agenda. And it’s all too easy, driven by growing anger, to adopt a cultural mode of violence and coercion—even if it’s only verbal and rhetorical, and not physical. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re advocates for God’s agenda, but instead be in serious need of political repentance. Just as Saul converted from a politics of violence and coercion, Christian people must resist the temptation to rhetorical, verbal, and most certainly physical violence. We must develop and foster practices of gracious speech and other skills associated with peace-making.

Second, when it comes to politics, Christian people ought to think first of their church, its internal networks of relationships and its postures toward outsiders. For Christians, politics has to do with how we conduct ourselves in our churches and how our churches relate redemptively toward outsiders.

Third, our Christian identity, our loyalty to Jesus and those in our church, far outstrips any earthly affiliation and especially national political party identification. While Christians differ over policies and political ideologies, we ought to celebrate our common participation in the life of God in Christ by the Spirit.

Paul the Apostle

Fourth, we must reconsider what is shaping our imaginations. Through whose eyes are we seeing the world and our national situation? Cable news? Newspapers? Talk radio? Politically-charged web-sites? Are they so stirring us up with anger that we speak of this or that political figure derisively and in angry terms? Do our stirred-up passions drive us to think, act, and speak like non-Christians? Let’s have minds and hearts shaped by Scripture, oriented by hope in the coming Kingdom of God. Let’s set our hearts and minds on eternal things, on that Kingdom that is to come and which is already here in power. And let’s reconsider our words, and treat people as if we truly are followers of Jesus.

Fifth, when it comes to political action, let’s indeed get involved! But let’s think first about the efforts of our local bodies of Jesus-followers acting among our wider communities and neighborhoods. How can we get involved in practical ways to bless our local communities in the name of Jesus? We are to be communities of shalom and justice and self-giving love, rather than coercion and quests for power and influence, making demands that others meet our standards or become like us.

We can talk all we want about how policies should be different regarding immigration and local economics. But, whether you identify yourself as a Republican or Democrat, or whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, here’s just one practical suggestion for embodying the servant-shaped posture of Jesus toward the world.

Thinking especially of our situation here in West Michigan, why not get to know the leaders of local migrant worker communities and offer to help them figure out how to get legally documented? Do immigrant communities fear for their children or have trouble getting integrated in their schools? We can be advocates on behalf of those who are strangers and who live in fear. If we did, we would manifest the character of God.

Listen to what the God of Israel says to his people:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:21-24).

God hasn’t changed. That is still his heart, and we can embody the character of that God in our social practices, acting as the polis of Jesus in our wider communities.

What if your church initiated an effort as advocates for immigrants? I can tell you right now it would be difficult. Strangers are . . . strange! It would mean sacrifice, re-orienting your lives, changing community patterns, getting to know people with whom you’re not comfortable – all behaviors that just might help us get over our constant complaints that our church communities are stagnant and complacent and lacking in excitement. Solve the problem. Get to know someone in need. He just make you draw upon God’s grace and ignite your heart with God’s own love with which he loves the alien and the stranger. And if they ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can tell them that you’re acting in the name of Jesus Christ so that you yourself can be pressed more deeply into the heart of the One who gave his life so that the world might truly live.

Well, there are so many more practical ways of living out Paul’s political vision, but I’ll leave it to you and your creativity to come up with those.

During this election season, you ought to consider well what candidate to vote for, and you ought to vote. But whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green, you should also be aware that voting is only one among a limitless range of options for Christian political behavior—and there are many others that are far more effective, life-transforming, and community-enlivening, and that serve to manifest the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 5

The church’s politics can be seen in at least three concrete ways. The Lord’s Supper was a political practice that reflected the sort of community that embodies the death of Jesus Christ. How is this so? When the world eats its meals, it gathers rich with rich, poor with poor, people from this side of town with people from the same side of town. Social groupings are determined by ethnicity, shared interest, income level, social class, etc. When they eat, the more important people sit at the head and near other important people—they have seats of prominence that reflect their status.

Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 11 present a different scenario that reflects the church’s subversive character as a holy body. Everyone was to wait for one another. The poor were welcome and weren’t to be shamed, but could enjoy a feast even if they had nothing to bring. And the wealthy were to bring more than they could afford, sharing from their bounty with others and sitting alongside people of lower status. This would have hurt their social capital in the eyes of the world, so eating the Lord’s supper would have been politically dangerous and risky for those with wealth. But when people gather in Jesus’ name and depict their new political identity with this sort of political practice, the Lord’s death is proclaimed, and the church powerfully witnesses to Jesus Christ’s Kingdom reign.

Paul the Apostle

Second, the church’s politics can be seen in their care for the poor. In Acts 2 and 4, Luke mentions that there was no one needy among the polis of Jesus because everyone was looked after. People were selling their possessions in order to share with one another. Further, in Gal. 2, Paul reports that when the two major arms of the church, represented by Peter and Paul, got together, the one thing they heartily agreed on was that they should remember the poor. The polis of Jesus must have as one of its central concerns a care for the marginalized and poor within its ranks, and a heart for the poor and suffering in their surrounding communities. This is yet again an instance in which God’s commission for Israel shapes Paul’s vision for the church.

Third, the internal life of the church and its posture toward outsiders must always be cruciform and servant-shaped. God triumphed over his enemies and the corruptions of the world by going to the cross, giving his life for his enemies. That means that the internal sets of political behaviors must embody self-giving love and cruciform servanthood. And the corporate shape of the church that relates to the world must be cruciform. As the body politic of Jesus encounters the political bodies and structures of the world, we must maintain postures of humility, weakness, self-giving love, cruciformity—in an effort to see God at work among them and so that God will powerfully work in us for the glory of God’s name.

These political bodies were alternative communities that manifested in their social practices the triumph of God and the reign of the Lord Jesus. They did this in their care for one another, in their use of property and money to meet each others’ needs, in their deference toward one another rather than domination of one another, and in their regard for the larger communities in which they were set. All that is to say, their political behaviors—their conduct as the polis of Jesus—functioned as a public monument to the reign of Jesus over all things. Just as he is a Lord who triumphs and rules in a radically unexpected and unprecedented manner, so his body politic functions internally and externally in a way that is completely different from any other political body on earth.

Tomorrow, some suggestions for embodying Paul’s political vision in our communities.


The Politics of Paul, Pt. 4

I’ve claimed thus far that Paul’s gospel is political, and I’ve already given some hints about the basic shape of his outlook. But what are the more specific political contours of his thought? Just how does this work out when we turn to the sorts of things he actually wrote to churches?

First, as I’ve already mentioned, the heart of Paul’s gospel is the announcement of a new ruler—Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord. This is, of course, a political title. Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel, but Lord over all things, highly exalted over all powers and authorities (Eph. 1:20-22). Jesus Christ is the political ruler of a newly gathered people—the new creation polis of God.

Second, Paul’s gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited Kingdom of God, a new and life-giving, reality-altering, community-transforming realm into which God is drawing people by his Spirit. This political reality is the emergence of a God-empowered, Spirit-animated realm that manifests the reign of the Lord Jesus through a radically new social order—the polis of Jesus.

Writing to the Colossians, Paul says that God “has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” He calls on this same imagery in Gal. 1:3-5:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore (vv. 3-5).

At salvation, God snatches people out of enslavement within the oppressive matrix of the present evil age, brings them into the life-giving Kingdom and sets them under the gracious reign of his Son, Jesus Christ. We now participate in the reality of the being-restored creation by the power of the Spirit. This is the fundamental reality about which Paul speaks—a new political reality with renewed political practices. Paul says to the Galatians that no longer does ethnic identity determine personal value (Gal. 3:28). He condemns those who compel or coerce non-Jews to become Jews. According to his gospel, Jews and gentiles must accept and love one another because they together inhabit a new political reality and have been united by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul went on at least three missions to establish Kingdom communities throughout the world, revisiting them, sending ministry partners to them, praying for them, and writing them letters to see that they would flourish and grow.Paul the Apostle

Third, the church as a body politic takes its orientation from Israel as a political entity. The church is not Israel, nor is it a nation like other nations, determined by one ethnicity and situated on a distinct patch of land. But Israel’s identity and mission shape the church’s identity and mission. This is signaled by Paul’s language for the church, which he borrows from Scripture’s language about Israel.

Paul calls the church “holy ones” in several places, and uses “holiness” language quite often to speak of his churches’ identity with reference to God. This does not merely point to a moral purity before God (though it may include this). It points to Israel’s politically-oriented vocation. God called them as a radically different sort of people who were to embody a radically different domestic set of social practices, and a completely unique set of relationships with the surrounding nations. When Paul uses “holiness” language for the church, he’s getting at how the polis of Jesus is supposed to be this sort of people among the various peoples of the world.

In several of his letters, Paul refers to readers as “chosen,” or “elect.” He’s not developing a doctrine of predestination in these places, but again, referring to Israel’s election. God chose Abraham and Israel, not because he loved them more than the nations, but precisely because he loved the nations. His chosen ones are those who are special recipients of God’s love so that they can be agents of that love to others. When Paul uses election language of the church, he’s thinking of the identity of Israel as agents of God’s pursuit of the nations and of the missional character of Israel. This vision of a political unit that embodies God’s relentless love for the nations shapes how Paul conceives of the church.

Finally, Paul begins nearly every letter with a greeting of “grace and peace.” Peace, of course, is one way of translating the Hebrew term shalom. Beyond merely indicating the mental or spiritual state of his readers, Paul wishes for them an experience of the political order of universal flourishing that was to characterize God’s world from the beginning.

Much more could be said about this, but this is just to say that the political identity and political mission of Israel determines how Paul conceives of the church.

For tomorrow, some of the concrete ways that Paul’s churches enacted Paul’s political vision.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 3

It would be an outrageous understatement to say that when he saw the exalted Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul’s perspective changed. Of course, it did. But we must take some time to unpack just how it changed and what aspects of it were transformed. First, when Saul saw the resurrected and ascended Jesus on his heavenly throne, he realized that resurrection had come—God had initiated his salvation program. And remember, for Paul resurrection was not merely a spiritual reality. It was holistic, involving political, economic, and social aspects of life, and even the transformation of the cosmos (God had defeated Sin, Death, and the powers that rule the present evil age).

Second, Saul realized that God had begun his resurrection agenda with the crucified Jesus—the crucified Jesus. We’re so used to this that we have difficulty realizing how shockingly scandalous it is. In the midst of a Jewish culture craving revenge, fantasizing about violent retaliation against their oppressors, God accomplishes salvation through Jesus’ death on the most potent political symbol of imperial domination and shameful political defeat. Jesus dies on a cross along with political agitators, violent criminals, and others that Rome simply wants to be rid of. Far from being cursed by the God of Israel, this Jesus has been vindicated, shown to be in the right, revealed to be God’s chief agent of salvation, resurrected, exalted, and installed as Cosmic Lord, ruler of all things in the heavens and on the earth. God does not accomplish his saving purposes through power, domination, or coercion, but through self-giving love, servant-hood, and giving himself fully for the life of the world and the flourishing of his enemies. That is, God saves only by his grace, and not based on works of righteousness.

Third, because of this, Saul now realizes that God’s politics must be shaped by the cross. If the Lord, whom God has installed as ruler of all things, triumphs by means of the cross, then all those loyal to him must be cruciform—that is, oriented by and shaped by the cross. If the ruler is cruciform, then the body politic—the polis of Jesus—must have its political, economic, and social life holistically determined by the cross, and not by power; not by coercion; not by violence. For Saul this was a breathtakingly radical reversal, indeed, so profound we can hardly grasp it.

Paul the Apostle

A fourth transformation of Saul’s political vision—resurrection doesn’t work like Saul had anticipated. He expected one singular end-time event—the Day of the Lord. This was to be the day when God would judge the wicked, save his people, raise the righteous dead, transform creation, and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom—God’s new creation political order.

But Saul comes to understand this mystery—that God has begun his work of salvation, but will complete it over time. Christ is the first-fruits and God will raise from the dead all those who are loyal to Jesus in another future end-time event—the day of Christ. In the meantime, however, God is building his church—his alternative body politic—the polis of Jesus set among the poleis of the world.

Fifth, Saul undergoes a radical reversal regarding Israel’s relationship to the nations. Saul certainly had the same prejudices as his fellow Jews toward non-Jews. He had little doubt that the God of Israel was going to return to rescue Israel and blast the nations off the map for their idolatry and their status as God’s enemies. For Saul to hear, then, from Ananias in Acts 9 that he was to bear the name of Jesus “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel,” it must have come as quite a shock.

Saul now sees that God doesn’t hate the nations (i.e., the gentiles) nor does he long for their destruction.  The God of Israel loves the nations and Jesus died so that they might truly live. And God is no longer reaching the nations of the world through the nation of Israel, but is building a new people—a new body politic, a new polis, drawn together of all the nations, Jew and non-Jew, of those who follow Jesus. In fact, as God builds his new body politic, he is drawing in people from all ethnicities so that the singular defining identity marker is “Jesus-follower,” and not Jew, or non-Jew, Greek, Scythian, European, Italian, Irish, white-American, African-American, Hispanic, Arab, Michigander. All are united in the one new polis of Jesus in which all other identities are subjugated to our membership in the body of Christ.

Saul of Tarsus, therefore, had a radical political conversion. His conversion wasn’t merely “spiritual,” involving a profound change of heart.  Saul came to see that God had installed a new ruler of all things, seen and unseen, things in heaven and things on earth—the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul’s conversion, then, is a thoroughly political one, and his politics are transformed thoroughly.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 2

Paul’s thought is most fundamentally shaped by the Scriptural narrative of the Creator God and his call of Israel as his special possession. The God of Israel created the world and everything in it. He spoke a creative word, ordering the world and placing humanity within the garden of Eden. God charged Adam and Eve to fill the entire earth and to cultivate it. They were to rule over creation as viceregents on God’s behalf in such a way that reflected his ultimate rule and brought forth the earth’s fruitfulness. They were to cultivate shalom, the flourishing of humanity and creation together. God’s original intentions, therefore, were political, having to do with the reign of God and the right ordering of humanity’s social behaviors.

Humanity rebelled, however, and no longer ruled creation in the name of the one true God, and they no longer sought to cultivate shalom, looking after God’s good world in harmony with others. They now exploit the creation for short-term and selfish pleasures, spoiling it and exploiting one another. The fall into sin introduced a disordered politics of chaos and destruction.

In response to this, God made promises to redeem, and began to fulfill these promises by calling Abraham, promising to make of his descendants a great nation and through it to redeem the nations of the world (Gen. 12:1-3).

God called Israel out from Egypt to make them a “holy nation,” his own unique possession. Through Israel God intended to fulfill his promises to Abraham, making them a blessing to the nations. This is what is meant by Israel as a “Kingdom of priests.” They were to represent God to the nations, and were to lead the nations in the worship of the one true God. From the very beginning, then, we have a political vision for God’s people, involving both domestic and international relations. Domestically, they were to be “holy,” having an internal life that was to be completely different from the nations. They were to be a nation of justice and compassion, looking after the poor, the orphan, and the widow. There was to be no one needy among them, since they were all brothers and sisters, and the one true God whose world is one of plenty was to dwell among them uniquely.

And they had a very unique foreign policy. While maintaining their distinct identity, they were to welcome the nations, developing relationships of mutual sharing in order to disciple the nations in the way of the God of Israel, who was also the Great King over all the earth. Their foreign policy as a kingdom of priests was a seriously risky mission! It involved, after all, a military policy of vulnerability and weakness. According to God’s original design, however, if Israel was faithful to God regarding its domestic practices and international relations, God himself would be their security.

Paul the Apostle

As the story goes, however, Israel failed on a massive scale. Rather than being a light to the nations, they wanted to be like the nations. Rather than cultivating a politics of holiness, they mimicked the corrupted political, economic and social practices found among their idolatrous neighbors. They developed practices of injustice, exploitation of the weak and defenseless, and adopted the worship of the gods of the nations. They did not trust God to protect them or their national interests so they made treaties with the nations in order to guarantee their security.

And they perverted their foreign policy of holiness, distorting God’s Law. They turned its practices into a set of distinctives that they then held over against their neighbors, adopting an arrogant and judgmental posture toward the nations God wanted to redeem. Rather than being agents of the life of God to the nations, they grew to fear and despise the nations, longing for their destruction. And they imagined that God regarded outsiders with the same attitude of disgust. Because of the vast range of their corruptions as a body politic, God sent Israel into exile.

Even in exile, however, God wanted his people to maintain a political vision of holiness. They were to stick together and become a wandering people among the nations—a polis among the poleis, a cohesive body politic among foreign kingdoms and nations. They were to cultivate internal practices of mutual care, love, servanthood, humility, and economic sharing. And they were seek the blessing of the surrounding polis—the wider culture within which they were now situated. Looking ahead, the political vision of a wandering people faithful to God while among the nations likely shaped Paul’s vision for the church more than anything else.

While they were in exile, the God of Israel insisted that this was not the end of the story. He promised that he would return to gather them back to the land and establish his Kingdom among them once again. He would return to restore his people, sending his Spirit to breathe new life into dead bones and reconstitute Israel as a nation that would truly “know God.” God would make them finally into the just nation that he called them to be. They would practice justice and look out for the poor, the orphan, and the widow, and they would lead the nations in the worship of the one true God, enjoying together his magnanimous blessing.

These promises of a restored body politic shaped Jewish expectations of salvation in the centuries preceding the turn of the eras. First century Jews lived under the oppressive domination of Rome and called out ever more passionately for redemption from the God of Israel. This redemption was political—they wanted freedom from oppression, the installation of righteous leaders, a society of justice and compassion where everyone was looked after—they longed for shalom, the political order of flourishing that comes from God’s very presence among them.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 1

*In the election cycle in 2012, I participated in several discussions bringing biblical and theological perspectives to bear on politics. I wrote several posts stemming from my reflections on Paul’s political vision. I’m going to re-post them over the next few days.

Over the last half-century or so, evangelical Christians have envisioned the relationship between politics and Christian faith as a complicated and thorny problem.  For some, politics and Christian faith are best kept completely separate.  Faith isn’t political and the church ought to stay out of politics.  Nothing but trouble awaits us when we—as Christian people—try to enter the political realm. On this view, Christian faith is a private matter—something between believers and God, meant to be unsullied by the compromises of politics and the logic of “lesser of two evils” voting strategies.

For others, Christian faith means “getting involved,” being informed about important issues, fulfilling our civic duty of voting, and using the political process for righteous ends.  All too often, however, the available options for such involvement are extremely limited—being a devoted listener to this or that political radio personality, this or that cable news channel; voting faithfully and consistently according to this or that issue or one or the other major national party.  But how are we to know which of these two options is “the Christian one?”

Within the last few election cycles, I’ve spoken to an evangelical Christian person who said he could not imagine that anyone could be a Christian and vote for a Democrat.  Oddly enough, I spoke to another evangelical Christian who said he could not imagine a person being a Christian and voting for a Republican.

There is obviously great confusion among the faithful about how our discipleship to Jesus should be embodied when it comes to our citizenship.

But can we find any help from the Apostle Paul?  Does Paul have anything at all to contribute when it comes to faith and politics?  At first glance it sure doesn’t seem so.  For many NT interpreters over the last two centuries, Jesus had much to say about politics, but Paul was silent.  Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, repentance and a change of public conduct, a redeemed use of money, and transformed economic and political practices.  But Paul had a different focus.  He left all that Kingdom of God teaching behind and had little to say about the repentance or public Christian behavior.  He was a theologian of the heart set free, giving counsel on sustaining the spiritual life and maintaining one’s affections for the things of God.  He called for minds set on heavenly things and hearts fixed on eternal realities.  If Paul had anything at all to say about politics, he said it in Romans 13:1-7—take on a posture of submission to secular governments, don’t participate in civil disobedience, and leave politics to the world.

Paul the Apostle

In these posts, I will offer an alternative understanding of Paul’s political vision.  I will argue that his conception of Christian realities is thoroughly political.  Paul could have only seen things in political terms.  To de-politicize Paul’s vision is to tear out its very heart, turn it into something completely distorted, and to end up with something that Paul would hardly recognize.  Just what that means, however, requires that we put aside our modern notion of “politics” that has been shaped by presidential and congressional election cycles, national power politics of a two-party system, and cable news networks that make their money from stirring up anger and labeling those who disagree as the source of all evil.  Let’s do our best, then, to extricate ourselves from our current cultural setting and its perverted vision of politics, go back into the first century to consider Paul and his texts, and then return and look afresh at our culture through the lens of Scripture.

Before I proceed, I’d like to define a few terms.  First, I’ll be referring quite a bit to “politics” and that which is “political.”  By “politics,” I’m speaking about that which has to do with rulership—who is in charge and what right do they have to order our lives?  Politics involves the proper ordering of social practices and relationships, and patterns of economic exchange within a social group.

Politics has to do with all sorts of behaviors in the polis.  That term—polis—is the Greek term that denoted ancient cities and all that held them together as a cohesive social and cultural unit.  The polis is the body politic, a gathered people regarded as a political body under an organized government.  Politics, then, has to do with ruling and socially ordering a polis.

Simply by defining our terms more carefully we can already see that Paul is a political figure, and his gospel a political one.  He proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the proper ordering of communities that claimed to abide under his gracious reign.  Such communities constitute the polis of Christ, the body politic of Jesus.  You may not have thought about the nature of the church in this way before, but this is precisely what Paul imagines—the church of Jesus Christ is the body of Christ—the group in this or that ancient city that is loyal to the true ruler of all things and is thus related to one another as a unified body politic and relates to the outside community on behalf of its ruler, Jesus Christ.

Paul’s letters of instruction to such political bodies involves their social ordering, the transformation of their social practices, their economic exchanges with one another, their treating one another according to radically new social rules.  They relate to one another, in fact, according to the realities of a coming political order—the Kingdom of God.

For Paul, God was doing his work in the world through local churches, each of which was an outbreak of Kingdom of God life on earth.  Each church was a polis functioning and flourishing in the midst of the wider polis.  When Paul talks about the church, then, he is elaborating a political vision.

Let’s turn, then, to Paul.  I’ll first talk about Paul’s Scriptural heritage—the biblical narrative that informed his thinking.  Paul was not shaped by Western individualism, had no knowledge of the Enlightenment, nor did he grow up among a people accustomed to over two centuries of democracy in the form of representative republicanism.  The Scriptural vision of Israel’s identity and mission shapes his thought.  I will then turn to Paul’s pre-conversion and post-conversion political mindsets.  Much about his perspective changes—quite obviously.  But not all of it.  Following this, we’ll draw out some aspects of Paul’s political vision for the church.  And finally, I will make some practical suggestions based on what Paul says about the church’s identity and mission in the world.