Saturday, November 25, 2006

Wright on Politics

"We in the twentieth-century church are neither Galilean villagers nor citizens of the Roman and Mediterranean world of the first century. The specific concerns which Jesus addressed are not ours; the agenda which Paul believed himself called to address is not ours either. We do well to respect our distance from the NT and its world, and should not, in our eagerness to make it relevant and so demonstrate our Protestant orthodoxy, flatten out the territory that separates it from us. We need it to be where it is, at the beginning of that historical movement which we confess in the creed to be under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit, and which is known rather flatly as Church History. As I have argued elsewhere,29 I believe that the means by which the Bible, and particularly the NT, can today carry the authority which is so often glibly claimed for it is by the resolute working out of the essential story or drama of God's dealings with humankind which we find written up, prophetically, in Scripture. In the Bible we find a drama in several acts. The life and death of Jesus are the penultimate act, the moment when the drama reaches its height. The resurrection, the gift of the Spirit, and the birth of the church are the beginning of the final act, in which the climactic moment of the previous act is worked out. But the drama is not over. The way the NT is written is precisely open-ended - with clues as to how the final scene will look (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 15; Rev. 21-22), no doubt, but with a large blank to be filled in by those who, as the heirs of the first scene in the fifth act, are seeking to advocate the drama, by means of Spirit-led improvisation, towards its appropriate conclusion. The authority of the NT, then, consists not least in this: that it calls us back to this story, this story of Jesus and Paul, as our story, as the non-negotiable point through which our pre-history runs, and which gives our present history its shape and direction.

In particular, the story of Jesus compels us to work out, better than we normally do, the hermeneutical principle by which we get from the penultimate act - his life and death - to the final one, in which we find ourselves still. The whole world view of Israel provides the clue: when Israel's hopes are fulfilled, then the world will be blessed, or at least ruled properly at last. If Jesus is bringing to its climax the destiny of the people of God, then this is bound to have earth-shattering implications for the whole world. The hermeneutical rule of thumb, then, is that Jesus' mission to Israel becomes the basis, and the model, for the church's mission to the world. His call to Israel to repent, his summons to her to join him in a new way of being Israel, is to be translated into the church's call to the world to a new way of being human.

Within that responsibility, there emerge different levels of interaction between the church, qua church, and the official rulers. Romans 13 enunciates the minimal position: being a Christian does not mean being an anarchist. The Creator intends his human creatures to live in social relations, which need order, stability and structure; Christians are not exempt from these. But, just as no one would think that Romans 14 had said the last Christian word about what one was allowed to eat or drink, or that Romans 12 had said the last word about behaviour in general, so Romans 13 must not he taken as the sum total of all that Paul might have thought, or could or should have thought, about what we call 'the state'. The minimalist position is basic, corresponding to the equally generalized Romans 12:9 ('hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good'). Beyond that, one is free to develop and explore the implications of Christian theology and ethics, responsibility and vocation, in all sorts of ways.

Among these ways will be, I think, a full outworking of the implications of Philippians 2:10-11. If it is true that the church is called to announce to the world that Jesus Christ is Lord, then there will be times when the world will find this distinctly uncomfortable. The powers that be will need reminding of their responsibility, more often perhaps as the Western world moves more and more into its post-Christian phase, where, even when churchgoing remains strong, it is mixed with a variety of idolatries too large to be noticed by those who hold them, and where human rulers are more likely to acknowledge the rule of this or that 'force' than the rule of the creator. And if the church attempts this task of reminding, of calling the powers to account for their stewardship, it will face the same charges, and perhaps the same fate, as its Lord. It is at that point that decisions have to be made in all earnestness, at that point that idolatry exacts its price. But it is here, I think, that the NT's picture of the gospel and the world of political life finds one at least of its contemporary echoes.

I cannot, in short, support from the NT the separation of the gospel and politics which is still so popular, not least in certain shrill branches of contemporary evangelicalism. We cannot abandon politics to those who carry guns, or for that matter to those who carry pocket calculators. When I pray for God's kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, I cannot simply be thinking of a condition which will begin to exist for the first time after all human beings have either died or been transformed à la I Corinthians 15:51. If I am to be true to the giver of the prayer, and to those in the first Christian generation who prayed it and lived it, 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 the King."

- NT Wright

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