Volume 16 - Issue 3

Readers' Responses

In vol. 16.1 we invited readers’ responses to articles. The following were received in response to the issue of church and state. Please do write in response to articles, remembering that the shorter your letter the more chance it has of being printed! If you wish to respond at greater length than 500 words, please write to the General Editor first with an indication of your intention. Publication of any correspondence is, of course, at the discretion of the Editor, when a letter is deemed to make relevant or alternative points of view that are significant.

N.T. Wright—‘The NT and the “state” ’

By way of both the written and the spoken word, many of us are deeply indebted to the teaching given by Tom Wright in the past. It is therefore with some reluctance that one is forced to express a fair degree of disappointment and disagreement with Tom in his article ‘The NT and the state’ (Themelios 16.1).

It would seem that Dr Wright assumes that to a large degree the interpretation of certain acts of Jesus as being overtly political can be co-ordinated with Jesus’ intention—the meeting at the Jordan, the calling of followers on the hill, the entry into Jerusalem, etc. These would, quite rightly, claims Wright, be interpreted within a political matrix. But this still leaves a gulf which has to be bridged (and demonstrated) between the fact of Jesus’ actions being understood politically on the one hand, and Jesus intending such acts to be political on the other. While Jesus may have sailed very close to the wind by engaging in actions and using terms with political associations, it does not follow that he affirmed such associations; indeed, it would seem that such ‘forms’ were given new content by Jesus. So the ‘political interpretation’ placed upon the feeding of the 5,000 by the crowds in John 6 is repudiated by Jesus, while his ‘spiritual’ message was decisively rejected (things don’t change much!). Historically, what other option was open to Jesus than an accommodation to the concepts and mental furniture of his fellow Jews (concepts rooted in the OT) and to modify them so that he might say something distinctive in order to bring them into line with his own intentions? This is a point well made by John Riches: ‘Putting it simply, Jesus had to use terms which were understood by his contemporaries or they would not have understood him at all; but he had to use them differently if he was to say something new’ (Jesus and the Transformation of Judaism). The same principle applies to actions as well as words.

This consideration seems to weaken Wright’s case for his understanding of Jesus’ ‘double meaning’ which, it is claimed, is ‘inescapably political’ (p. 12). While not wishing to minimize the strong religio-political associations of the temple, surely what we are confronted with in Jesus’ teaching about the temple in relation to himself is its relativization and replacement, so that he becomes the focus of previous aspirations which are to be worked out in a way altogether different from that commonly, but diversely, envisaged at the time.

This has bearing on Wright’s amazing contention that Jesus’ statement before Pilate that’ my kingdom is not of this world’ (Jn. 18:36) is really a reference to the methods by which it is established (‘if my kingdom were of this world my followers would fight to prevent me being handed over’, p. 13). But this is to reverse the function of this statement in the text. In the passage the latter acts as a qualifying sub-clause to the main statement about the nature of Christ’s kingship ‘not being of this world’, an observation reinforced by the next statement, ‘my kingdom is of another place’. In other words, the different method whereby this kingdom is established is indicative that this kingdom is of a different nature to earthly political kingdoms. It is the mode of being and not simply the modus operandi, as Wright suggests, that this verse is concerned with.

While one follows Dr Wright in Jesus’ interpretation of Israel’s destiny as his destiny leading to the cross, one still finds oneself at a loss in trying to discern the meaning of the statement: ‘Only so can the kingdom come to earth (in socio-political reality) as it is in heaven’. Without making the error of equating the church with the kingdom of God, is it not the community of the redeemed which in the ‘between times’ is a socio-political reality, and will be so in greater fulness at the consummation (here the imagery of Revelation, especially chapter 21, is suggestive)? In this sense (although I am not sure that Wright would agree with this), the gospel in producing the new covenant community which exhibits the values of the kingdom will impact the world in every sphere, including that designated the ‘political’. So Dick France writes; ‘Such an alternative society will inevitably have its effect on the life and values of the rest of society, not so much by campaigning for a predetermined blueprint for social reform to be implemented, but by bringing the revolutionary values of the divine government to bear on the context in which they find themselves in whatever way may best suit their particular context’ (The Divine Government). Independently, the Australian scholar Davíd Peterson concludes, ‘Jesus does not provide a pattern for transforming society per se, but intends that the lifestyle of the disciples, individually and collectively, should be both the judgement on fallen humanity and a pointer to the possibility of renewal and change under the rule of God’ (‘Jesus and Social Ethics’ in Explorations 3).

In turning to Dr Wright’s treatment of Paul, we are left in a similar state of bewilderment regarding the implications of what is being proposed. It is maintained that Paul’s teaching on ‘powers’ should be put back within the ‘main lines of his world view’ (p. 14). Fair enough. But we are still left in some considerable doubt as to what those powers are. We are given hints that they are ‘territorial gods’, ‘forces’ which worked through Pilate, and that they ‘become demons’ when worshipped. The problem with such a lack of precision is that such a concept can be taken and applied to any governmental or economic system of which one happens to disapprove. One is also left wondering what to make of the statement ‘Apparently with the reaffirmation of creation in the resurrection of Jesus there goes the reaffirmation of the essential goodness even of the “powers” that had rebelled’ (p. 14). This really does not get us very far in assessing such ‘powers’, any more than the resurrection of Jesus affirms the ‘essential goodness’ of one such as Adolf Hitler!

Finally, one is left pondering the actual ‘cash value’ of what Wright is proposing for today, as well as with more than a few reservations about the hermeneutic he is urging us to employ. Very few evangelicals would argue with Dr Wright’s final statement that ‘I must be envisaging and working and praying for a state of affairs in which the world of the “state”, of society and politics, no less than the world of my private “religious” or “spiritual” life, is brought under the Lordship of Christ’ (p. 16). Fine, but how do we decide what specific direction this should take? What is more, we might well ask what sort of ‘working’ are we to be engaged in to bring this ‘Lordship’ about de fado? If it were to be asked, ‘Did Paul envisage the Roman society of his day to be brought “under the Lordship of Christ”?’, many would answer ‘yes’. But the rider to this would be that the primary means whereby this was sought was through evangelism, so that, given the opportunity, Paul would have tried to persuade one such as King Agrippa to become a believer (Acts 26:29). How else is one to ‘call the world to a new way of being human’ (p. 16) other than by people being made new creatures in Christ?

In summary, Dr Wright seems to take a long time in arguing that the gospel and politics should not be separated, but gives insufficient guidance on how they might be related in a manner sufficiently true to the data of the NT.

Melvin Tinker, Cheadle, Cheshire

Dr Tom Wright replies:

I suppose I asked for it. If so sharp a mind as Melvin Tinker’s finds what I said confusing, I must have been really obscure. I covered a large subject in a short space, and I apologise to Melvin, and any other old friends who may have been puzzled.

The main problem, underneath the details, concerns the basic Christian worldview or theology. Wherever you stand, people further to the left will accuse you of being on the right, and vice versa. Traditionally, evangelicalism has been prone to a dualism which, afraid of pagan monism (or anything that appears to approximate to it, whether Catholic sacramentalism or the liberal ‘social gospel’), keeps God and the world well apart. The end of that road is Peretti’s extraordinary book This Present Darkness, which owes its huge popularity (I think) to the fact that it reinforces the dualism inherent in much British and North American evangelicalism. The opposite road leads, of course, to New Age thinking with its blatant neo-paganism, à laMatthew Fox, whose writings owe their popularity to the dehumanizing effect of ‘Christian’ dualisms. We must grasp these issues clearly, and rearticulate the full biblical gospel in a way which cannot be collapsed into either position: this means Trinitarian monotheism, centred on cross, resurrection and Spirit. I have found, in trying to get this right in theory and practice, that semi-New-Agers think me a dualist (because God and the world are to be distinguished) and semi-dualists think me either a liberal or a sacramentalist (because God and the world are dynamically interrelated). I doubt if Melvin Tinker thinks of himself as a dualist, but I sense that his reaction comes from that quarter. I would have had the same reaction ten years ago, when (as I now realise) I held something of a dualist position myself. Since then, I have written a commentary on Colossians.…

In particular, I find myself committed, in a way that Melvin Tinker does not seem to, to history. It is not an option for me to say that Jesus accommodated himself to the language of the time in order to say something quite different: that is the method of Bultmann in a nutshell. Evangelicalism is sometimes closer to Bultmann than it realises. The theology of the gospels lies within the serious history, not abstracted from it, and the ‘political’ dimension of the gospel stories is not part of a ‘timebound’ bit, to be stripped away. The resulting hermeneutic, which Melvin Tinker claims weakens the authority of scripture, actually strengthens it (see now my article on the Authority of the Bible in Vox Evangelica 21, 1991, 7–32), since it takes seriously the nature of the Bible as it actually is. It is precisely because I persist in believing in the inspiration of the Bible itself that I find myself driven into the positions I have taken, and it is at that level that further debate should, I think, be conducted.

A couple of details. First, of course there is an ‘other worldly dimension’ to Jesus’ teaching—as there was, and is, to all Judaism. The question is, how does that ‘dimension’ mesh with the rest of reality? According to the NT, ‘we look for new heavens and a new earth’. No Platonism there!

Second, I agree that it’s difficult to assess the present position of actual ‘powers’. I apologise for the ‘lack of precision’ at this point. The resurrection of Jesus reaffirms the whole created order, the ‘powers’ included—but now clearly as subject to Jesus’ lordship. Of course some ‘powers’ still exalt themselves against that lordship. The signs of this are the creation of ‘atheist’ states, where the state or ruler become de facto divine, and the consequent dehumanization of persons. There is a fair amount of this in contemporary Western society; why then do some Christians get cross if one tries to address the problem? (I speak, not of straw, but of flesh.)

N.T. Wright, Oxford.

The prophetic word, the religious establishment, and the political power of the state: Reflections from the Third World on the clash between the prophet Amos and the high priest of Bethel (Amos 7:7–17).

Christians living in most nations of the non-Western world often find it much easier to relate to the world-views and cultures portrayed in the OT than do their fellow Christians in the democratic West. This is especially so where believers find themselves living at the sharp edge of social and political injustices perpetrated by oppressive regimes, sometimes even aided and abetted by the religious establishment itself. It takes immense courage to raise the cry for justice, and the personal consequences for such lone voices can often be devastating. This brief essay attempts to highlight some of the difficulties besetting the church as it lives out its life under the shadow of totalitarian power structures in the Third World.

A voice from outside

Amos, a native of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, was called to prophesy in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. As a foreigner there, he was thus at an immediate disadvantage, for no national ever takes kindly to being criticized by an outsider. Most newly emergent nations are extremely sensitive to criticism from outside. Foreign correspondents, international aid workers, diplomats and missionaries have to be extremely guarded in their public comments, otherwise they are likely to be declared persona non grata.

A compromised establishment

Israel was not only an independent political unit, but it also had its own schismatic ecclesiastical establishment. After the rupture of the Solomonic empire, Jeroboam I set up state shrines at Bethel and Dan as cultic centres in the Northern Kingdom, to rival the focal point of the Jerusalem temple in Judah. Jeroboam also invalidly ordained his own non-Levitical priesthood, set up an alternative cultic calendar, and on one occasion took upon himself the role of priest by offering sacrifices on the altar at Bethel. So the ecclesiastical establishment itself had become fundamentally compromised, theologically, legally and politically, and remained so up to the time of Jeroboam II in Amos’ day. Church and state had been fused into one religious-political entity: ‘This is the King’s sanctuary, the Temple of the Kingdom’. The man in charge of this state sanctuary at Bethel was Amaziah the high priest. Amaziah was a typical establishment man: ‘Don’t rock the boat, maintain the status quo, the Government is doing its very best’.

In some Third World countries, some mainline denominational churches are fundamentally compromised, both theologically and politically, participating in the corruption of the establishment, supporters of the status quo, and jealously protecting their own special interests and privileges. In other countries it is often the mainline denominations who take the initiative in making courageous public stands on social and political issues, even though they may be considered not doctrinally sound by some of their more fundamentalist brethren. This nearly always provokes the angry response, ‘the Church should keep out of politics, and stick to preaching the simple gospel’. It can also be the case that the conservative doctrinally pure churches, the small ‘spiritual’ sects and denominations keep their heads down and retreat into their pietistic ghettoes, even, on occasion, spiritually whitewashing the most evident abuses.

Harsh centralized authority

Ideally, kingly power in Israel was delegated power. It was Yahweh alone who was absolute monarch and ruler. So the king was Yahweh’s representative, mediating and dispensing God’s righteousness to society at large, and enforcing the covenant stipulations upon the common people. But when bad kings abused their responsibilities, the only checks and balances in the system were the lone voices of God’s covenant prophets.

Modern Third World nations are no strangers to the harsh political regimes of the ancient world. However, unlike ancient Israel, most newly emergent nations are not theocratic states. Rather they are pluralistic societies with many different races, cultures and religions. Unlike the post-Christian secularized nations of modern Europe, they are often profoundly religious cultures. Their leaders are often religious men who nevertheless have thrust themselves into power often by brutal, undemocratic means. The ruling cliques line their own pockets at the expense of the vast number of the oppressed poor, whose precarious daily subsistence is so dependent, not only on the arbitrary whims of the head of state, but also on economic decisions made by multi-national consortia far distanced from the turmoil of the local scene.

The high price of protest

Into this scenario strides Yahweh’s anointed prophet. Amaziah, a loyal state-appointee, acts as an unofficial spy and reports Amos to the king: ‘Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the heart of Israel’. A cry of political subversion, a foreigner plotting to overthrow the government! Every corrupt and tottering regime needs a scapegoat, so Amaziah tells Amos to get out.

Most Third World regimes have their watchdogs in the churches, ready to report the least whiff of anti-government sentíment. Any valid social or political protest is deliberately misrepresented. Those who dissent have their characters publicly assassinated. Their patriotism, their loyalties, even their cultural identities are often brought into question. They are often accused of being in the pockets of foreign paymasters. Amos was merely deported. But the case of the indigenous protester is much more precarious. Jeremiah was left to rot in a squalid dungeon in appalling conditions. His contemporary prophet Uriah was even abducted from his hideout in Egypt by a snatch-squad sent out by the king, and then executed. Third World dissenters fare little better. There are mysterious ‘disappearances’, car ‘accidents’ are arranged, as is intimidation by the hired heavies, illegal detention without trial, and denominations are pressurized to neutralize troublesome priests.

The exposure of sin

What had Amos done to rattle the establishment so badly? And why were the authorities so angry? The sociaI criticism of Amos was considered unpatriotic, disloyal and treasonable. His exposure of the ruling classes was merciless: oppression of the poor, denial of justice, the sexual misuse of women, deliberate profanation of the Holy, bribery, corruption, unfair trading practices, etc. If we look at the other eighth-century prophets, the catalogue gets even more grotesque: perverse legislation, unjust decrees, misappropriation of ancestral land, exploitation of poor manual labour, extortion by blackmail and protection rackets, selling cheap and shoddy goods, exploitation of foreigners, failure to prosecute and invoke the law.

A great deal of personal courage is needed to catalogue and expose detailed specific abuses. The very attempt to get information will produce at best a cover-up, at worst violent political thuggery. He is a very brave individual who dares to print and document exposure of malpractices, naming names of individuals, dates of money paid into Swiss bank accounts, contracts given outside of those submitted by tender, sudden withdrawal of permits and trading licences, political appointments given to totally unqualified tribal friends, details of double funding, siphoning off foreign aid into private bank accounts, corrupt police officials, details of ballot boxes destroyed, etc. etc.

Moral and spiritual accountability

Amos applied the plumbline of Yahweh’s undeviating moral law to his covenant people, both Israel and Judah. Yet the Gentile nations also were held accountable and morally culpable under the light of God’s natural law. So Third World nations acknowledge universal moral norms. They would have no international respectability if they did not do so. Regimes follow regimes on anti-corruption platforms, yet often the darkness increases. So even in pluralistic societies, the church has a mandate to shine as light in the darkness of corruption.

For the poor, the exploited and the powerless, suffering endlessly, hopelessly under systems they are powerless to change, the cry goes up, ‘How long?’ In societies paralysed by fear, God still raises up individuals like Amos, careless of their own personal safety, who dare to confront the authorities with their injustice. Yet an ultimately more effective protest may be made if the whole national church leadership can be mobilized into action. The authorities are then much more likely to take notice. And where the church can arouse the attention of the international media, there is greater hope for change.

The churches under pressure in the Third World urgently need the spiritual and moral support of Western Christians, in their opposition to unjust systems and practices. The need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves is as great as ever.

Tom Gledhill, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Kenya