The Politics of Witness -- A Review
THE POLITICS OF WITNESS: The Character of the Church in the World. (Areopagus Critical Christian Issues). By Allan Bevere. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2011. Xiv + 69 pages.
I need to start this review by acknowledging that the book under review appears in a series to which I have contributed a book. Indeed, the author is co-editor of the series in which this book appears. The point of the series is to offer relatively brief books that tackle important issues of the day from an orthodox Christian perspective. That I contributed a volume to the series suggests that the orthodoxy in mind here is a generous one, and not a narrow version.
As for the book itself, Allan Bevere, an evangelical United Methodist Pastor with a Ph.D. in biblical studies from the University of Durham, where he studied under James Dunn, and an M.Div., where he came under the influence of Stanley Hauerwas. The influence of the latter is definitely on display in this book, where Bevere argues that the church must reject the trappings of the world and understand itself as God’s chosen nation, through which a witness of goodness can be shared. Bevere doesn’t reject the idea of social justice; he just doesn’t believe that it can be obtained by means of any partnership with the nation-state or any political entity beyond the church. To do so, to enter into a Constantinian bargain, will in the end corrupt the church and endanger its mission. To be clear, the author doesn’t reject the idea of politics, only the partisan type that is expressed in our current democratic institutions. His vision takes us back to the pre-Constantinian era where the church existed without political power.
Bevere begins his conversation by noting his own journey that has taken him into both political camps – from Focus on the Family to Sojourners, Republican to Democrat – and has found both wanting. In the end he believes our hope lies in the witness of a faithful remnant that has chosen not to partner with the powers of this world, but “faithfully embody the politics of witness to the nations” (p. xiii). The starting point in the conversation is the problem of Constantinianism– (the idea that Christians should seek an alliance with the state so as to influence it to enact Christian policies) and Christendom (the idea that a culture of a nation might express vestiges of Christian values. These two ideas have been the subject of much debate in recent years, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that Christianity is losing its grip on Western Culture. There is great weariness with a politicized gospel, and so people are either turning inward in their spirituality or rejecting the idea altogether. But, in Bevere’s view, Jesus offers us a different vision, wherein the church is the new Israel, the nation by which God creates a witness of holiness. It is from such a remnant perspective that the church has the opportunity to “speak truth to power,” a possibility that in his mind is impossible once the church enters into political alliances or engages in power politics.
In the course of the book, Bevere outlines what it means for the church to exist as the reconstitution of Israel, and thus fulfill Abraham’s calling to be a blessing to the nations. This calling is symbolized by the fact that Jesus calls twelve apostles to carry on the mission. It needs to be noted that at least here, Bevere doesn’t wrestle with the idea of supersessionism, a view that suggests that the church replaces the Jewish people as God’s covenant people. What he does, however, is extend Jesus’ critique of Israel to modern Christendom. Having laid out his vision of the church as God’s chosen witness to the world, he discusses the way in which the church experienced a “Constantinian shift.” Following John Howard Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism, that saw the church join in what appeared to be a mutually beneficial alliance that ended up changing the church more than the state. Indeed, according to Bevere, after this point the church’s own self-understanding has changed rather radically, so that now God is seen working directly through the empire and the church becomes an invisible entity. From that point baptism becomes equated with citizenship, and true faith is known only to God. Ultimately the church loses its identity as the “polis” of God and the church/world distinction is undermined.
Whereas the church’s task previously was to bear witness to the world as to what God wanted the world to be (the church was to be the church) without resorting to the utilization of the power structures of the dominant culture, now the church utilizes those very power structures to fashion a state that favors and even promotes Christianity. (p. 23).
As a result the church must jettison the implications of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom for this world. Indeed, as understood by Jefferson and Franklin, religion (especially Christianity) has importance for the nation only in the sense that it helps make for virtuous citizens. Thus, two American founding fathers who were hardly orthodox, if not deist in their faith expressions, become unwitting supporters of Constantinianism.
Having laid out his critique of Constantinianism and Christendom, much of which I can embrace, if not all of it, Bevere turns to what he calls his “ecclesial hermeneutic.” That is, he calls for the creation of a new ecclesial identity that is separate from Christendom. This requires a critique of both the religious right and the religious left, both of which, he suggests have sought to pressure the nation-state to implement their vision of God’s purpose for the world. The visions may differ, but the underlying principles, he believes are the same. This is where the author and I begin to differ, as he takes aim specifically at the religious left, suggesting that they seek to do the same thing as the Religious Right by embracing a civil religion that reflects their theological visions. While not disagreeing with the need to help the poor and marginalized, the author does not believe that the church should either partner with the state or seek to pressure it to reflect its understanding of God’s purpose. The prophetic word speaks not to the state, but to Israel and to its reconstitution in the church. My problem with this analysis is that I don’t see the religious left seeking to impose its views on the nation in the same way as the Religious Right. I recognize that my own perspective is rooted in my own location on the left side of the political spectrum, but from my vantage point the two sides are very different in intention. One seeks to impose a “Christian nation” on a pluralistic nation, whereas the other recognizes and celebrates the plurality – but recognizing that pluralism seeks to speak out from its theological perspective, calling on the state to seek the common good. It roots this witness in theology, but understands that it must respect other perspectives. I also don’t accept the perspective that if we seek to engage in the political realm that we necessarily become puppets of the state or that the nation-state replaces the church as our community of faith. It is, of course, a temptation, but need not become a reality. I may identify with a political perspective, but that does not mean that this political perspective is foremost in my mind. Rather it is from my own faith perspective that my politics is formed. Though I do admit that it’s easier to critique the other side than my own!
Having laid out his critique and his alternative hermeneutic, Bevere offers his “A (not so) modest proposal” as to what the politics of witness might look like. He insists that this proposal doesn’t involve retreat from the world or that it is apolitical. It is, he says, also not a rejection of the nation-state in totality or of the need to seek the common good, only that this must be “highly qualified.” He writes: “the politics of witness does not preclude the church working with the nation on matters that benefit the common good, but that is not the primary political task of the church (p. 52). Although the author and I differ on our perspectives regarding political involvement, I can affirm this idea. Indeed, forging alliances with the powers-that-be should not be our primary purpose; the question is how do we pursue the common good (love of neighbor) in an effective manner without being subsumed by the powers. Where we differ is where we draw the line on this involvement. For instance, Bevere notes the Health Care Reform law. Many on the Religious Left pushed for a strong public option and were disappointed at what ended up in the final bill, but of course politics is the art of compromise, and that in the end what we find enacted will not be reflective or our higher aims. Bevere is right to critique less- than-Christian behavior in the course of the debate, but was the pursuit of a provision of a more equitable health care system not worth the effort? The idea that churches can provide either for the poor or health care simply underestimates the reality of the problems facing us. They can play a role, but they can’t cover all needs. Thus, in my estimation, the church can push the state to be more just and equitable in its actions, even as it seeks to offer the witness of a better way.
Finally, regarding the proposal itself, which includes a call to live a simpler life style (no problem here), and a call to refrain from aligning themselves with the political parties. It is here that I have problems. We live in a system that is and has been for much of the past two centuries organized along party lines. I’m really not sure how we can engage as citizens outside the party system. Indeed, I agree with Parker Palmer in his new book Healing the Heart of Democracy that the problem isn’t partisanship, but demonizing the other side. Historically our political parties have allowed people to organize themselves to express a political perspective on issues of importance. It has often been rough and tumble and not always “Christian,” but in recent years, it has become increasingly nasty. That is one reason so many have rejected it. But I’m still not convinced that an alternative way of being citizens of the nation has been found. To suggest that the church is an alternative nation, still seems to me to be an argument for political separatism. It may not be of an Amish variety, but I’ve not been convinced that there is an alternative to the present system. If this is true, then creating a separate polis may not be the best model. That being said, I appreciate Bevere’s attempt to offer a critique of the dangers present in seeking to use power/pressure tactics to achieve our aim. There is a danger that the church’s witness can be corrupted by drawing too close to the powers. If we wish to engage the public square, seeking the common good, then we must be ever aware of these dangers. Thus, while I don’t agree with where Bevere’s vision takes us, I appreciate the warnings to be ever aware of the temptations to incarnate the spirit of Constantine rather than the spirit of Jesus.