Saturday, October 23, 2010


Summing Up: The Politics of the City of God

We come now to a final summing up of the politics of Jesus. I want to acknowledge my dependence in these lectures on one particular source: Tod Lindberg’s The Political Teaching of Jesus (2007). I have followed him, with a bit of indulgence, because his overall thesis is unusual: that Jesus’ teaching forms the basis of modern politics. In this regard, he may be suspected of secularizing Jesus in a way common from the time of the 18th century Enlightenment: one thinks of philosophers like Hegel who saw Jesus and Christianity as part of the unfolding history of an idea. Or Immanuel Kant, who believed that Jesus’ teaching was implanted in the heart in such a way that men might act naturally on their moral instinct. I am not sure from the book whether Lindberg is a practicing Christian; I suspect he is. In any case, he seems not so much intending to secularize Jesus as to strip way an exclusive religious mindset in reading the Gospels.

What I would like to do in this final address is to give due credit to Lindberg’s view of Jesus’ politics, to qualify it with a more traditional understanding, and then to give a contemporary example of how Jesus’ political teaching can guide us in the Church today.

Jesus’ Politics for the Modern World

Lindberg’s view is that Jesus’ teaching has relevance and practical importance for everyday life in the modern world. He points out three aspects of that teaching in particular: self-regulating love for the neighbour, a kingdom without a king; and a league of nations without enemies.

The first aspect, self-regulating love of neighbour, flows from the Golden Rule and the Love Commandment. When we come to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, then we will want to treat them as brothers, even if they are from a different race or tribe. In many traditional societies, people tend to follow a group consciousness which separates them from us, their tribe from my tribe. In ancient Israel, law functioned both to unite tribal identity and offer a more advanced standard for treating others, but it was still externally imposed through a positive attitude to “law-keeping.” Jesus’ does not deny the value and need for law, but He teaches an internalizing of the Law such that when we see a person like the man fallen among thieves, we think, “there is my neighbour, because there, but for the grace of God go I.”

The second aspect is a kingdom without a king. Jesus did not preach for or against various human political orders: what today we might call monarchies, aristocracies and democracies; and indeed Christians have lived for centuries under various forms of government and justified these forms with ideas like “the divine right of kings.” But Lindberg argues that modern notions of universal rights and representative democracy do flow from His teaching about man’s yearning for righteousness and the commonality between me and my neighbour. One might argue that the two main political alternatives in today’s world are the one found in the democratic societies formed by the Christian ethic and the other reflecting an Arab tribal ethic going back to the 7th century. The recent change of regimes in Kenya and Zimbabwe, costly though they have been, are a vindication of democratic rights over tribal or racial autocracy, even while they show that democracy is not easy or automatic.

The third aspect of Jesus’ teaching is a league of nations without enemies. Jesus is seen constantly counseling his followers to seek peace, to settle disputes along the way, to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy times seven. This has led some to conclude that his politics are unrealistic or perhaps that they were intended only for private relationships, not for the political sphere. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus directs his hardest teaching to the crowd as well as the inner circle. He wanted to motivate them with a vision of a “counter-culture” (a phrase John Stott coined for his book on the Sermon) where people and peoples can live at peace. This was such a strange notion in his day, where it was assumed that peoples would be in a continual state of war or suppressed under a dominant empire like Rome, that he did not want to dilute it by giving anyone an excuse to opt out. And there is a certain sense today that we see the fruit of that teaching. The idea of a League of Nations, championed by the Christian statesman Woodrow Wilson and then embodied in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, penned by the Christian philosopher Jacques Maritain, has become a partial reality in our days, where we expect nations to work out their disputes at the conference table rather than on the battlefield. Ideologies like radical Islamic jihadism are challenging this vision, but it is not clear that they will succeed.

The Politics of the City of God

Although Lindberg’s attempt to find Jesus’ teaching in the political mindset of the modern world is highly original, there is something clearly missing: the transcendent role of the heavenly Father and the eschatological role of Jesus himself, not just as Teacher but as Son of Man, who will come to separate the sheep and the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous. Likewise, Lindberg fails to account for assumption behind Jesus’ teaching that man is sinful: “if you being evil…” Therefore he seems to see Jesus’ teaching as an educational project rather than a redemption project. Powerful as Jesus’ teaching is, it only becomes fulfilled in the mighty acts of Holy Week and Easter, when He dies for our sins and rises for our justification.

It was St. Augustine, the North African bishop and theologian, who classically described Christian politics under the heading “The City of God.” For Augustine, the City of God was certainly not identified with pagan Rome, nor was it even the same as Christian Rome after Constantine. For Augustine, the City of God was a supernatural society of the redeemed, who had come into relationship with their true selves and others through the love of the Triune God. To some extent this city could be seen in the Church rather than the state, but even the Church, according to Augustine, was a pale shadow of that city whose foundations are not made with human hands and whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). At the same time, Augustine did not back away from believing that Christ was Lord of history and Lord of politics, even though the world was sinful (Ephesians 1:19-24). He defended the Church from the charge of having weakened the political fabric of ancient Rome. He laid the foundation for a missionary Christianity which spread out into the barbarian kingdoms and eventually conquered Europe.

Like Jesus, Augustine exerted his power through words, the words of Scripture, fused with the wisdom of classical political thought, and his lasting influence on Christian political thought came from his writings, which were studied and passed on to the great Reformers like John Calvin and even down to the present in a writer like Tod Lindberg.

Jesus’ Politics Today

As I said above, Lindberg seems particularly concerned to reclaim Jesus’ teaching for the real world and over against a spiritualizing tendency to treat it as only relevant for private morality or church life. This was a tendency of the Revivalists, even as they made a deep impression on East African society. It shows up today when people are angered by Ghadaffi’s comments on the Bible but not on the autocratic way he rules his country. So we need some new models of discipleship which draw from Jesus’ radical teaching but which are full of the supernatural sense of salvation which comes from the Gospel.

I want to give one example of the way in which Jesus’ teaching is having a mighty impact on the Muslim world, just at a time we may think the Muslims have the upper hand through their oil money. This example is about a man named Zacharia Botros. Let me quote from a recent article “Islam’s Public Enemy #1”
Though he is little known in the West, Coptic priest Zakaria Botros — named Islam’s “Public Enemy #1” by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid — has been making waves in the Islamic world. Along with fellow missionaries — mostly Muslim converts — he appears frequently on the Arabic channel al-Hayat (i.e., “Life TV”). There, he addresses controversial topics of theological significance — free from the censorship imposed by Islamic authorities or self-imposed through fear of the zealous mobs who fulminated against the infamous cartoons of Mohammed. Botros’s excurses on little-known but embarrassing aspects of Islamic law and tradition have become a thorn in the side of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East…

The result? Mass conversions to Christianity — if clandestine ones. The very public conversion of high-profile Italian journalist Magdi Allam — who was baptized by Pope Benedict in Rome on Saturday — is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani stated on al-Jazeera TV a while back that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros’s public ministry.

Now here is an example of the kind of issue that Botros exposes: the fact that sharia law authorizes men to have female sex slaves. In a recent broadcast, a Muslim woman in full hijab challenged a Koranic sheikh to deny this and mentioned that “there is a certain man who has discussed this issue over twenty times and has received no reponse from you.” Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, the Sheikh was speechless, unwilling to admit that the Koran does teach sex slavery but unable to deny Botros’ challenge. Instead he said: “Don’t listen to that low-life character.”

What do we see here? We see a Christian political preacher, using the global media (if he were in a Muslim country, he would be killed) to reach the Muslim world and challenge it with the message of Jesus. The Muslim woman, though veiled, has already absorbed something of the Christian and Western view of women’s rights, and the Sheiks is too embarrassed to come right out and defend the Arabic tribal view of women as nothing but property.

Botros’s message is, finally, not just political but a message of inward transformation:

But the ultimate reason for Botros’s success is that — unlike his Western counterparts who criticize Islam from a political standpoint — his primary interest is the salvation of souls. He often begins and concludes his programs by stating that he loves all Muslims as fellow humans and wants to steer them away from falsehood to Truth. To that end, he doesn’t just expose troubling aspects of Islam. Before concluding every program, he quotes pertinent biblical verses and invites all his viewers to come to Christ.

Botros’s motive is not to incite the West against Islam, promote “Israeli interests,” or “demonize” Muslims, but to draw Muslims away from the dead legalism of sharia to the spirituality of Christianity. Many Western critics fail to appreciate that, to disempower radical Islam, something theocentric and spiritually satisfying — not secularism, democracy, capitalism, materialism, feminism, etc. — must be offered in its place. The truths of one religion can only be challenged and supplanted by the truths of another. And so Father Zakaria Botros has been fighting fire with fire.

One further crucial point is made in the article. Botros is successful because he speaks fluent Arabic and knows the Koran better than the ulema, the religious leaders of Islam. In this respect he also resembles our Lord, who amazed the teachers of the Law and who spoke to the crowds in vivid parables and sayings that are part of our heritage to this day.

I see no reason to think that there might be a Botros right here at Uganda Christian University, a person from the local African culture who would take up the cross of reaching Muslims for Christ by showing Jesus’ teaching as a better way. I see no reason that the African Church cannot grow up to full maturity in becoming a model society about which people over the world would say, not “they will know they are Christians by their tribe, but they will know they are Christians by their Love. Let us pray that this is the case.

2 April 2008

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