Psalm 2 opens with the question, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” Jonathan Leeman’s study of Christian faith and politics, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age [listen to Collin Hansen’s TGC Podcast interview with Leeman], is cast as an extended meditation on this passage, which provides this answer: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
Therefore, Leeman—editorial director at 9Marks [read their recent Journal issue on Church Life: Our True Political Witness]—takes it as a fundamental truth that the political powers of this fallen world will set themselves against the true ruler of the universe, Jesus Christ. How the Nations Rage is a thoughtful guide to living faithfully amid this ancient conflict in a particularly conflicted context: contemporary America.
Leeman’s analysis is guided by a few central convictions. One is represented in Psalm 2 and the title itself. He explains, “History’s greatest political rivalry, it would seem, is between the nations of the earth and the Messiah.” Another guiding insight is that all of life is religious, including politics. This is true even for those who declaim explicit religious belief. As Leeman puts it:
Every church is political all the way down and all the way through. And every government is a deeply religious battleground of gods. No one separates their politics and religion—not the Christian, not the agnostic, not the secular progressive. It’s impossible.
This seemingly simple insight has significant implications for how we ought to approach the dynamics of faith and politics, and it’s complicated by the difficulty of defining exactly what one understands terms like religion, justice, politics, and church to mean.
There is an inherent ambiguity in such words, which Leeman considers a real danger: it’s quite possible for there to be nominal agreement about the proper ends of social life, for instance, while substantive discord remains.
We live in a time of division. It shows up not just between political parties and ethnic groups and churches but also inside of them. As Christians, we’ve felt pushed to the outskirts of national public life, yet even then we are divided about how to respond.
In How the Nations Rage, political theology scholar and pastor Jonathan Leeman challenges Christians from across the spectrum to hit the restart button. Only when we realize that the life of our churches now is the hope of the nation for tomorrow do we become the salt and light Jesus calls us to be.
Consider the realm of politics. There are at least two senses in which we might use the word political. One describes all of our social life and is related to Aristotle’s classical understanding of the human person as a “political” or “social animal” (zoon politikon). Here politics touches everything that concerns the relationships of human beings to one another, as well as social institutions to individuals and other institutions.
But often when we talk about politics, we mean something less comprehensive than all of social life. We mean to talk about government, and civil government in particular, with its attending policies, mores, and practices.
So we might rightly affirm the church as political; but depending on what we mean by the term, that affirmation will take on rather different significance. Thus, a central claim of Leeman’s book requires the reader to work out its implications: “For a Christian, the political life must begin inside the church—in our new-creation life together as local congregations.” No doubt Leeman believes that the Christian faith must find expression in political life in both senses, and this is certainly true. But it’s not always clear which sense is primary when claims are made about the fundamentally political nature of the church.
Leeman clearly identifies what he means by church: the local congregation. But there’s another distinction at least latent in Leeman’s book that requires some reader discernment. This is the distinction between the church as an institution, a formal organization that has its own structures and systems, and the church as a living body, a corporate organism that exists beyond the walls of the church building and corporate worship.
An example of how this distinction complicates the political reality of the church is seen in the role of the pastor. Does the pastor, ordained as an authority within the institutional church, have the power to bind consciences concerning political matters? If so, in what sense? Might a pastor instruct his congregation to participate in a pro-life march, for instance? Or must a pastor restrict his preaching and prophetic exhortation to general principles and ends to be pursued, rather than specific means?
No easy answers here. Thankfully, Leeman’s book is replete with prudent insights into such difficult questions. Concerning the pro-life march, for instance, Leeman argues that it’s not only appropriate but incumbent on pastors to preach about life and the need to protect the unborn. But it’s quite another matter to make claims about the best means of pursuing such goals. In general, church leaders should be wary of providing their own opinions as mandates for their congregants.
Respect Consciences and Callings
The complication of distinguishing ends from means, and imperatives from suggestions, can be understood in part as a reflection of the need to respect both individual conscience and alsothe diversity of callings present in any congregation.
The pastor has a responsibility to proclaim the gospel in all its fullness and prophetic judgment. The congregation has a duty to respond appropriately. But that response must necessarily come to expression in arenas outside the corporate life of the institutional church. Mechanics, waitstaff, stock traders, and politicians each have their own realms of responsibility—and consciences that must be formed by the gospel in light of the concrete realities of their everyday experience.
Pastors typically have expertise in interpreting and applying God’s law in a general sense. They should help us understand what it means to not murder and not steal, for instance. But these general principles don’t always map neatly onto the concrete realities of what it might mean to steal in the context of an office cubicle or a factory floor.
At times, Leeman trades on the ambiguities inherent in terms like church and politics to make claims that are quite likely true in a generic sense, but require parsing to clarify in what sense precisely. In some ways this is simply unavoidable—which is itself instructive for the reader. Pastors, leaders, and experts can give important guidance and even identify the lines between right and wrong, but ultimately each of us must work out the implications for faithful discipleship in our own contexts. And as necessary and helpful as general advice and prudent guidance is, that is only where discipleship begins.
Neither Left nor Right
Leeman’s book has valiantly taken up a controverted set of topics, and it performs a number of services to its readers. Beyond the introduction of complicated dynamics in an accessible and realistic manner, How the Nations Rage does justice to what is typically treated as a binary either/or: the perspective of conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. Leeman’s book manages to turn down the heat of our political discourse, even while affirming and recognizing the need for cooking.
How the Nations Rage is also a bracing reminder of the dangers of partisanship and ideology more generally—and just how often we substitute our own preferences and opinions for adherence to the Word of God. Leeman puts a great deal of weight on the local church, and he has good justification for doing so, as the New Testament certainly does the same:
Whether you’re a member of this party or that party, the local church is where we learn to love our enemies, forsake our tribalism, and beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Here is where we tutor one another in the righteousness and justice of God. Here is where the righteousness and justice of God become tangible, credible, and believable for the onlooking nations.
If this sounds like a responsibility too heavy for a local congregation to bear on its own, that’s because it is. As Leeman rightly reminds us, we need not only the structures of the institutional church to guide us and inform our moral and political sensibilities. We also, and more fundamentally, need the Spirit-filled power of the reborn humanity to come to expression in all our relationships and responsibilities. Only then will we be a church cast in the image of our Savior, a church that gives of itself for the life of the world.