Monday, August 27, 2012

Wise Words from Lee Camp on Christians and Politics


I had lunch this past week with one of the elders of my church; it was a great conversation, very enjoyable and lively. He had been a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War, based upon a selective Just War position, and so we shared some of our experience and convictions with one another.

Along the way he mentioned to me that his wife had had a meal recently with the mother of one of my university students. The mother said she was very upset with me: that I had turned her daughter into a pacifist, socialist, and a communist.

I laughed and told him that I hoped that I had in fact made the student into a pacifist, but not a socialist or a communist. I further conjectured that perhaps the student was not really a communist. Perhaps the mother had wrongly concluded that her daughter was now a communist due to the sharp partisanship that characterizes American culture these days: everything is so very polarized that it seems, at worst, that there are only two possible positions, or at best, that there is only a single continuum between two possible positions. If the daughter comes home talking about non-violence, and the mother is a supporter of her government’s wars, then the daughter must be a damn communist, too.

Thanks to Jim Wallis, it has been noted very often in the last few decades that “God is neither a Republican nor Democrat.” I have my suspicions that sometimes this mantra is actually a cover for self-righteous Democrats: “God is not a Republican, and all of us clear-headed Christians are Democrats; and I cannot see how a Christian can be a Republican.” Whether my suspicion is fair or not, it does seem to me that we need some helpful pegs or constructive theological starting points at which to critique both Republican and Democrat, or better, to provide a constructive alternative to them both.

The constructive alternative, of course, is “the church”—a real community that is characterized by a voluntary commitment to the way of Christ, including sharing, reconciliation, and non-violence. This is, obviously, neither Republican nor Democrat. What might such a community want to say to Republicans or Democrats or Socialists or Communists, then?

Increasingly, I tend to think that it is the New Testament notion of the “principalities and powers” that provides ground to say important things to such partisans. As has been increasingly noted in New Testament studies in the last half-century, the “powers” and “dominions” and “thrones” and “principalities” are an ever-constant element in the Pauline writings. Our enemies are “not flesh and blood” but the “powers of this present darkness.”

And as the theologians have increasingly explicated, “the powers” get made manifest in a variety of institutions, -isms, systems, and structures. “The powers” are created for good (per the letter to the Colossians) but overstep their bounds, and rather than serving humankind, get “hell-bent on their own survival” (per Walter Wink) and thence begin to enslave and oppress.

With this sort of starting point, we take an altogether different approach: our task, short of the full in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, can never be any partisan agenda. This is because anything short of the full consummation of the Kingdom of God will necessarily still be tainted, or worse, corrupted, by sin. All political activism then—in the sense of being active in talking to the contemporary powers-that-be in western culture—is always and necessarily ad hoc, never utopian, and never idealistic. We deal with each concrete question and issue as it arises, and seek to bear faithful witness as best we are able.

For example, to those who foolishly idealize “the free market,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that they do in fact co-opt the supposedly free market for purposes of greed and grasping which corrupts and controls as much as any tyrannical dictator. Or to those who foolishly idealize “the welfare state,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that the over-weening bureaucratic mechanisms of control do in fact limit creative human creativity, and create dependence.

This does not necessarily entail “withdrawal” or a “refusal to vote,” though such stances could be an exercise in faithful witness. Sometimes it seems to be a genuine human good when the government limits the power-hungry greed that drives the quest for monopolies—a quest as old as capitalism. But then, of course, such legitimate limits, before we know what hit us, can overreach and become a stifling even oppressive practice. And then will be good to call the powers-that-be to let go some of its control-freakishness.

The centralization enacted by Joseph for the good of the starving Hebrews provided the very bureaucratic tyranny that served to enslave those same Hebrews. History never sits still. Thus neither can our politics. If we find ourselves lumping together into one mass group of political enemies anyone who disagrees with us (as in the irrational conclusion that the pacifist must be a communist), then perhaps we have become enslaved to the powers which use a binary, polarizing view of the world to create enemies, stratify communities, and breed hostility, precisely for the good of the corrupt powers, but never for the true good of humankind.

--Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?

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