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Christian Political Theology Needs To Grow Up And Become A Real Discipline (Jonathan Cole)

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Contemporary Christian political theology presents a rather confusing picture. A cacophony of voices offers conflicting accounts of what the Bible says about politics and what a normative Christian attitude towards politics ought to look like. Many of these accounts infer or perform eisegesis on Scriptural warrants for any number of contemporary political ideologies, movements, parties and agendas unknown to the original authors.

Many contributors evidently lack any tangible political experience or expertise in the highly specialized areas of public policy characteristic of contemporary politics. Moreover, English-speaking political theologians are almost exclusively preoccupied with Western liberal democracy with little thought for how their ideas might relate to Christians living in North Korea, Iran, or Northern Nigeria. And while most political theologies propose a normative ethic for Christian political engagement, they rarely, if ever, test these norms with case studies of actual regimes, past or present.

The confusion evident in Christian political theology is reflected in the bewildering diversity of conflicting popular Christian attitudes towards politics. Christians find themselves on opposing sides of just about every major policy question. There are Christians who earnestly believe God is self-evidently a liberal or progressive and others who just as earnestly believe he is self-evidently a conservative. I

In times past God has been variously in favor of empire, hereditary monarchy, socialism, anarchism and fascism. In the eyes of others God is utterly disinterested in politics. And in the eyes of yet others he is implacably opposed to all politics.

The Rationale for Political Theology

At the same time, political theology is both unavoidable and indispensable for the Christian and the church. It is unavoidable because Scripture invites reflection on politics, everyone lives under some form of political authority, and Christian churches occupy public space.

Scripture invites (some might say demands) reflection on politics in several ways. Firstly, Scripture uses political concepts to articulate theological truths. Political concepts such as “kingship”, “judgment”,  “law” and “citizenship” are used in Scripture to articulate the relationship between God and his creation, especially his image-bearers. So key theological concepts, such as God’s kingship, unavoidably have implications for how the Christian views politics.

Secondly, Scripture provides a narrative of God’s activities in human history. As a consequence, Scripture contains descriptions and interpretations of actual historical regimes and political developments, which have a greater or lesser bearing on how many of the stories in the Bible are interpreted. The history of God’s interaction with the word, irrespective of how it is interpreted, is inextricably intertwined with politics.

Thirdly, there are parts of Scripture that contain explicit exhortations in relation to what we would characterize today as politics. The most famous such passage is Romans 13:1-7: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (NRSV).

Reflection on politics is also unavoidable for the Christian because all humans live under some form of political authority that materially affects their lives, forcing them to think about politics and to make judgments about how they interact with political authorities. In fact, membership of a particular political order is involuntary – everybody is born under some form of political authority, even illegal aliens – and people can only remove themselves from a political order with great difficult, if at all. So everybody, Christian and atheist alike, forms at least some opinions about politics and has at least some interaction with political authorities.

Political theology is further unavoidable for the fact that the church occupies public space. This is a product of two features of Jesus’ ministry: it was public and spawned a social movement. If Jesus’ ministry were not public, he would not have come to the attention of the religious and political authorities of his day. And if his ministry had not spawned a social movement, i.e. if he had not gathered followers who aided and participated in his ministry, then he likely would not have been deemed a threat by those same authorities.

These two features of Jesus’ ministry remain constitutive of the church.  It  is public and still functions like a social movement. As a consequence, churches unavoidably have a relationship with a political order and with particular political authorities.

Political theology is indispensable for the Christian and the church today because traditional Christian beliefs and practices are increasingly matters of public controversy as cultural norms and attitudes shift. This makes an apologetic and constructive political engagement more important than ever for Christians.

The Missing “Political” in Political Theology

The fundamental problem with contemporary political theology, and a source of the confusion that characterizes theopolitical discourse, is that it is strong in theology and weak in politics. Given the importance of the concept of “politics” for the field of political theology it is remarkable how infrequently this central term is defined in writings on the subject. This is no trivial point. Political theology, after all, without the “political” is merely theology.

The failure to see the significance of defining “politics” in political theology is indicative of a broader disinterest in close examination of the phenomenon of “politics” by political theologians. There is much analysis of what the Bible does or doesn’t say about politics, what the political significance is or isn’t of the Christ-event, and what the existence of the church means for political authority, but often very little analysis of ‘politics’ as a distinct phenomenon in its own right, i.e. its meaning, nature and purpose in human social life and history. Thus political theology is often more about exegesis, theology and the church than it is about politics.

It becomes clear on closer inspection that some of the fundamental points of difference in political theology trace their roots back to very different implicit conceptions of “politics” brought to the interpretation of the Bible, Christian doctrine, history, and tradition. This gives the field a degree of incoherence, as it is not always clear if political theologians, when they address “politics”, are actually talking about the same thing.

Part of the problem possibly stems from the fact that “politics” is nowhere defined in Scripture. The terms “politics” and “political”, which derive from the Greek polis (city) or politeia, only occur rarely in in the Bible and have the general meaning of “citizenship” or “civil administration”.  It is understandable why the Biblical authors by and large did not see the need to define politics. They were not writing treatises in political theory. It is, on the other hand, difficult to understand why someone engaged in political theology would see this as unimportant..

As a consequence, politics is studied, discussed, and written about at a volume, regularity and degree of publicity that political theology simply is not. Given the phenomenon that political theologians and secular political thinkers analyze is shared and observable, there is much to be gained from a Christian theological engagement with secular political thought.

The Challenge of the Professionalization of Politics

A great challenge for political theology is the professionalization of contemporary politics. With a few notable exceptions, most participants in theo-political discourse have spent their careers in the academy, the church or a mixture of the two. This is not a criticism per se, for this is exactly where one might expect, or indeed wish to find, among theologians. But in today’s technocratic world where politics is the realm of professionals, whether in the form of elected representatives, advisors, civil servants or journalists, analyzing politics from the sidelines can be an obstacle to understanding how politics functions in practice.

English philosopher Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism perceptibly observed that “the reality of politics is action”.(1)  Yet much work in political theology fails to recognize this fact. Theopolitical discourse has a tendency to be a rather abstract affair, entirely unhindered by considerations of feasibility and implementation. In some cases it is difficult to even discern whether a theopolitical proposal has any practical implications for political action at all.

Meanwhile, political decisions are inexorably made daily. Just consider for a moment the criticism presidents and governments come under for perceived inaction, indecisiveness or undue delay in decision-making.

That is not to suggest that thinking about politics is unimportant. Scruton did not just say that politics is action. He also highlighted that thought governs action. So the way we think about politics is inextricably linked to political action. Political theology is not wrong therefore to pay attention to how Christians ought to think about politics. It could however do a better job of relating Christian political thought to Christian political action.

There is, of course, no shortage of professional Christian politicians, advisors, officials and journalists. But they are rarely professional theologians, and generally do not engage in political theology. We have, therefore, on the one hand political theologians with little to no experience or expertise in the profession of politics, and, on the other hand, Christian political professionals with little to no theological training. There would be great mutual benefit in bringing these two worlds into deeper conversation.

A related challenge for political theology is the sheer complexity and specialization of policy-formulation and implementation in modern nation-states. People spend whole careers developing expertise in specific areas of public policy through study, research and professional experience.  The political theologian, meanwhile, who has a host of non-political duties, obligations and commitments, often lacks the opportunity and resources to develop any real level of expertise in specific areas of public policy, whether through work or study.

Political theologians could address this gap by making the effort to better acquaint themselves with some areas of public policy. The political theologian, for example, could test their theories or proposed norms by studying a particular policy area in consultation with experts and political professionals with relevant experience.

A Disregard for Political History

Another weakness of political theology is its surprising lack of interest in political history. If political theologians take account of political history at all, they generally do so with a parochial focus on the history of Israel, the first century Greco-Roman world, Christendom (Byzantine political history and political thought is entirely ignored in English-speaking political theology) the Enlightenment and liberal democracy. Other historical regimes and civilizations are generally ignored or treated superficially.

The significance of the aforementioned historical matrix needs no justification for the political theologian writing in English, as it expresses the genealogy of their political context. But is this really a sufficiently deep and broad basis upon which to draw normative conclusions about politics given its universal character?

Political history begins well before the emergence of Israel. Both Egypt and Sumer had established and reasonably developed political orders when they adopted the systematic use of writing in the fourth millennium BC, marking the beginning of recorded history. Systematic analysis of politics began in fifth century Greece. Moreover, Christian reflection on politics is not the only species of political theology. There is a long parallel Islamic tradition of reflection on politics.

The point is not that Christian political theology has some sort of obligation to look outside its own history and Scripture for its political concepts and norms. It is to suggest, rather, that Christian political theology could become much more intellectually rigorous if it broadened its horizon to include the political history of regimes that fall outside sacred history.

The Problem of Critical Mass

A final challenge for political theology is the lack of critical mass in scholarship on the topic. Political theology is still a relatively marginal sub-discipline of theology and hardly a staple on the syllabus of the average theology school, or seminary. In fact, one of the most prominent and influential political theologians, Oliver O’Donovan, once described political theology in his Bampton lectures entitled The Ways of Judgment as a “pseudo-discipline”.

Recognizing that political theology is in many respects still in its infancy as a discipline can help us to place existing contributions into context.  Key contributions to the field, dating back to the 1970s, deserve to be regarded as pioneering works. They are the first fruits of theologians who beat a path from the comfortable confines of theology into the dense, wild jungle of politics. We therefore owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of John Howard Yoder (Mennonite), Reinhold Niebuhr (Reformed), Oliver O’Donovan (Anglican), Johannes B. Metz (Catholic) and Christos Yannaras (Orthodox), to name but a few, for beating the path. But it is time to pave the paths trodden by these pioneers to enable high-volume traffic and trade to proceed.

Conclusion

Given Scripture and the nature of the church demand some level of thought about politics, and given the fact that we all inescapably have to interact to some degree with a political order, the choice confronting the Christian is not between a political theology and no political theology. Rather, it is between a robust political theology and a weak political theology.

A robust political theology requires deeper reflection on politics qua politics than is commonly the case in theopolitical discourse. It also requires deeper engagement with secular political thought and political history, as well as with the practical art of politics.

That is achievable. But it requires political theology to transition to a full-blown, bona fide discipline. Such a transition depends on a greater number of aspiring or established theologians choosing political theology as a vocation, and then dedicating themselves to the long study of politics required to develop true expertise in the field.

This in turn requires theology schools and seminaries to invest greater resources in political theology in recognition that it ought to be regarded as an essential component of a contemporary theological education fit for helping the church to confront its new and rapidly developing political context.

Jonathan Cole is a research member of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University (CSU), Canberra, Australia, and a PhD candidate in Political Theology at St Mark’s National Theological Centre, CSU. He spent 14 years working in the Australian federal civil service in the areas of Immigration, Health and Intelligence. He spent seven of his 14 years working in two intelligence agencies as a Senior Terrorism Analyst. He has an MA specializing in Middle Eastern politics and Islamic theology from the Australian National University. He speaks Arabic and is an expert in Islamist terrorism. He also has a BA Honors in Modern Greek language and history. He wrote his honors thesis on the politics of linguistic nationalism in nineteenth century Greece.

(2) Comments

  1. One of the best short pieces on political theology I have read making many points that need to be made,
    I am a late entrant to full-time ordained ministry which I began in my 50s after 25 years spent mainly as a university lecturer in history and politics.New 84 I have been a regular church goer since 1949 and was involved in actice politics from 1950-85,
    I same upon this website while looking up some material for a presentation to a local preachers group next Feb.As the session is short I want to make it a Q & A time rather than a lecture,My own favourite political theologians are Niebuhr,Neuhaus and De Kadt plius the “middle axioms” school,

  2. Enlightening article. I think the problem is slightly exacerbated by many leaning on public education (which promotes integration and we live in an age of propaganda…) and does not foster critical appraisal in many cases. How many Occidental Christian Theologians in the would agree with the Greeks that, at times, Tyranny has more utility and is better! And I’m only 31, but the 20-somethings I know that attend college relate how watered down history, science, etc. lessons have become. The impetus is no longer appraising issues but assigning moral judgement off the accepted hegemony (scary).

    And in part, it leads to a patriotism that refuses to look into and critique its own systems and world views (beyond social gospel but to the core level). We need to ask hard questions on core-level things! Like even voting at all!

    For example: Is a vote, something intangible and diluted by each additional one given a move to parity when economics remain concentrated? Wouldn’t giving out tangibles (fiefdoms etc. promote more equity?) they increase in value with demand. Now such an idea failed in China and Zimbabwe; its never really engaged, and the US is in the process of making such a distribution to a certain new-aristocracy. These in turn lobby and buy votes.

    Were does that lead us on something so simple? But it’s an important thing to have an answer too! If we just wave the secular democracy flag, that threat never comes into the imagination. And I think a big part of secularism is that it does not question, and that is becoming a liability. We can’t answer other cultures questions!

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