Progress often comes from hurting others." That, according to Robert Kaplan, is Machiavelli's cruel but accurate assessment of political reality. And that is why America's political leaders today need a pagan rather than a Christian ethic if they are to defend American lives and interests. So says Kaplan, author of Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (Random House, 2002). "Machiavelli," says Kaplan, "believed that because Christianity glorified the meek, it allowed the world to be dominated by the wicked: he preferred a pagan ethic that elevated self-preservation over the Christian ethic of sacrifice."
Exactly right, says Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas. "War becomes the great event in American life, because that's when we send the young out to die and be killed. … It's an extraordinary sacrificial system, but sacrificing to the wrong god, Mars. … Christianity is an alternative to that sacrificial system" (quoted in Mark Oppenheimer, "For God, Not Country," Lingua Franca, September 2001).
Kaplan the political warrior and Hauerwas the pacifist agree: it is time to break up a Christian-pagan political marriage that should never have taken place. Kaplan thinks Christianity's private morality offers no public virtue. Hauerwas believes that Christianity's greatest virtue is displayed when Christ's followers renounce all use of violence. Furthermore, they say we can't have it both ways. If you want to protect America and the best of its "private, Judeo-Christian morality," says Kaplan, you will have to work publicly to uphold good pagan virtue for "the preservation and augmentation of American power." On the other hand, if you want to be an undivided Christian, according to Hauerwas, you must relinquish the ungodly identification of Christianity with patriotism, and follow Christ, pure and simple.
Wrong and right politics
But are these the only two choices? Is there another way forward? Indeed, I believe the wholehearted following of Jesus Christ does entail a public ethos that stands in marked contrast to Kaplan's pagan ethos.
Furthermore, Christ's lordship sustains a role for human government that stands in marked contrast to the pacifism advocated by Hauerwas.
We need not dwell long on Kaplan's contention that Christianity offers no public ethic. His book is typical of those who are largely ignorant of Christianity and read it only through the eyes of Kant, Nietzsche, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Nietzsche, like Machiavelli, rejected as a grave human error the soft, unmanly meekness of Christianity. Niebuhr, though, is said to be the most important public theologian of the 20th century. But his view of the direct public usefulness of the Christian love ethic was dim.
With Hauerwas, however, we must spend more time. First, he does not stand alone. He speaks for a growing community of Christians who look to the moral theology of John Howard Yoder and to the biblical exegesis of theologian Richard Hays. All three men believe that Jesus Christ has called his followers to live as an entirely new community—a new polis (Greek for "city"). The members of this polis worship, evangelize, and pursue social justice together as an alternative society that lives in contradiction to the world.
In an important 1979 essay titled "The Spirit of God and the Politics of Men" (published in For the Nations, Eerdmans, 1997), Yoder argues that Christians should
be guided by the claims of God upon the one real world which he intends by the power of his Spirit to redeem. The choice or the tension which the Bible is concerned with is not between politics and something else which is not politics, but between right politics and wrong politics. Not between "spirit" and something else which is not spiritual, but between true and false spirits. Not between God and something else unrelated to God, but between the true God and false gods.
Hauerwas fully affirms Yoder's call for a "right politics" of the Christian community. And that, Hauerwas insists, demands a politics of nonviolence. "That Christians are committed to nonviolence does not entail, as is often assumed, that Christians must withdraw from the world. The church of Jesus Christ must be in the world as he was in the world." Yoder's case for Christian nonviolence, says Hauerwas, "is compelling because his understanding and justification of nonviolence cannot be separated from the Christian conviction that God is our creator and redeemer. Yoder forces us to see that the doctrines of God and nonviolence are constitutive of one another" (With the Grain of the Universe, Brazos, 2001). Nonviolence is thus central to the church and "right politics." And this should be on display in God's new political community, the church.
To sum up, then, these authors believe Christians are called to live in an entirely new community, a new polis. And this polis should be characterized by, among other traits, nonviolence.
But are these ideas biblical?
Misuse of violence
Let's begin with the issue of nonviolence. This is where New Testament scholar Richard Hays comes in support of Hauerwas and Yoder. Hays contends in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) that Yoder and Hauerwas are correct. From Matthew to Revelation, writes Hays, "we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it."
Yet Hays handles the words violence and nonviolence in a way that obscures the scriptural texts he deals with. Violence, as Hays uses it, always denotes or connotes "inflicting suffering" on others, hurting or killing or forcefully taking advantage of others. Furthermore, violence is the word that all three authors use when referring to the actions of the military and police. Hays concludes that the New Testament teaches that violence can never be used in the defense of justice. Consequently, true Christian community can have no part in the political communities of this world. Instead it is an alternative polis, a different kind of city. It is a community with a government quite unlike that of the United States or any other country.
But Hays fails to take up the Bible's actual language about the use of force. The New Testament does not use the word violence to refer to all uses of force. It, like the Old Testament, speaks of reprehensible acts of murder and killing. It also speaks of vengeance, retribution, and punishment. It says the killing of one's neighbor is murder and merits punishment. Biblical writers do not portray the use of force to punish the murderer as a parallel evil, but as just retribution. The punishment of the murderer by a God-ordained government is just recompense, not unjust violence.
The argument turns on Romans 12 and 13. From Yoder's highly influential The Politics of Jesus (1972) up through Hays's Moral Vision, these three theologians interpret this passage as follows: God condemns all violence, including the taking of vengeance upon one's neighbor. Instead, Paul urges Christians to return good for evil and to leave wrath to God (12:17-21). Consequently, since the responsibility of government includes the use of force against evildoers (13:3, 5), governmental offices are off-limits to Christians. That kind of government is part of the politics of violence and cannot be part of the Christian polis, or political community.
Quite in contrast to this interpretation, another one flows much more naturally and coherently from the epistle. Indeed, Paul, like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, tells Christians that they should return good for evil and turn the other cheek. Their lives are to exhibit loving service to their neighbors. Personal vengeance is off-limits because it grows from pride and self-seeking. Leave revenge to God, says Paul, because, as the Scriptures say, " 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (12:19).
Yet it follows directly from this, according to Paul, that God has established governing authorities precisely in order to execute some of that divine vengeance (13:1, 4). Government bears this responsibility not as an extension of human vengeance but as a servant of God. Government is not the independently authorized power of Caesar, but "God's servant to do you good" (13:4).
This is in keeping with the Old Testament and with the whole tenor of his letter. Paul is telling Roman Christians to recognize Christ's lordship by loving and serving their neighbors for their good, in every office they may hold. They should do this by responding nonviolently personally to any attacks—and by allowing God, through the governing authorities, to execute any forceful judgment that may be necessary against those who do such evil things.
If Christians find themselves in positions of governing authority, they must recognize, as every official must, that they are servants of God's justice. They are not personal vengeance-takers or representatives of vengeful friends and neighbors. In a position of political authority, their task is still to do good to their neighbors. But in this office, that will require punishing evildoers as well as commending those who do good. It is no contradiction for a Christian, on the one hand, to exercise restraint by not taking personal vengeance, and on the other hand, to exercise the responsibilities of a God-ordained office by executing God's vengeance. In both cases one is called to act as a wholehearted, undivided servant of the Lord. And in both cases one must be willing to sacrifice one's life for the good of one's neighbors in carrying out that service.
But the issues raised by these three thinkers go deeper than the narrow question of the use of force. They extend to the very identity of "Christian community." The Christ presented to us by the Gospel writers and apostles is the one who announces upon his resurrection that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). He is the Lord before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess (Phil. 2:10-11). He is the one for whom all thrones and powers, all rulers and authorities, were created (Col. 1:16). Clearly, Jesus did not call his disciples to engineer the fulfillment of his kingdom by force, or to compel anyone to bow before the risen Lord (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Acts 1:6-8). Yet as these passages show, Christ's lordship extends beyond the community of believers. The Christ whom we have been called to serve is not only head of the church but also the supreme authority in everything in heaven and on Earth (Col. 1:17-20). The implications of this confession for our life in society are huge.
Just as marriage and family life belong by creation to people outside the household of faith, so business and agriculture, science and art, schooling and government belong to all human creatures. I agree entirely with Yoder that the Bible is concerned with the difference between "right politics and wrong politics." Christians should indeed be demonstrating faithfulness as a community by the way they pursue "right" families, "right" businesses, and "right" politics. However, in imagining that we should pursue right politics through the church as an alternative polis, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Hays confuse the Bible's teachings on creation and redemption.
The followers of Christ are certainly a called-out community, called out from sin to become a community of obedience to God. But they are not called out of God's creation. Think for a moment of the biblical language used to characterize Christ's followers: bride of Christ, the children of their Father in heaven, brothers and sisters of their elder brother Jesus, joint heirs with Christ, a community of priests, disciples (students) in the school of a new teacher, and certainly citizens in Christ's kingdom. The primary referents in all of these metaphors are the very creaturely realities in which the people of God live.
To live as a member of God's family, I do not disown my parents but rather obey them as unto the Lord. Likewise, in order to participate in the Christian community as a citizen of Christ's polis (kingdom), I do not take leave of my citizenship. Rather, I act as a citizen in obedience to the Lord in accord with teachings such as those in Romans 12 and 13. The church, then, is not an alternative to any of these creaturely realities. It represents, instead, the fulfillment of them all in Christ.
The three theologians confuse matters by speaking of the church as an alternative polis. They would equally confuse us if they spoke of the church as an alternative family, or as an alternative business enterprise, or as alternative school. The church is not an alternative to anything that God created for human development. Rather, the Christian community is that people whom God has restored to their creaturely callings as forgiven sinners, who are being redeemed by their Savior, Jesus Christ. The Christian community is composed of those who are learning to turn from habits of sinful degradation in all areas of life and seeking to demonstrate God-honoring earthly stewardship. Only when Christ's kingdom comes in its fullness will God put the full "alternative" community on display. And of course at that point of eschatological celebration, the people of God will constitute the creation fulfilled.
Christians may pretend in this age to live in a community they call an alternative polis, which among other things renounces the use of force for the sake of justice. But calling such a community a "political community" will not make it so. And in the meantime, the Kaplans of this world will go on deciding, with a pagan ethic, how to use military and police force. They have concluded that Christianity has nothing to offer, no criteria for judging the just and unjust performance of governments.
Instead, to be authentic Christians, to be able to serve our civic neighbors throughout the world, Christians need to be involved as real citizens in real governments, exhibiting a genuinely Christian public ethic. Such a responsibility will include working for the restraint of personal vengeance. And it will entail the exercise of official, publicly accountable punishment of those who commit crimes and unjust aggression.
Turning from injustice, faithlessness, hatred, and greed in every sphere of life requires constructive, communal service by those who are being redeemed from sin. When Christ, by the power of the Spirit, has finished making all things new, we will then be able to sing with the saints of all ages, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).
James W. Skillen is president of the Center for Public Justice (www.cpjustice.org).
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Books referenced above include:
Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos by Robert Kaplan
The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays
The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public by John Howard Yoder
Previous Christianity Today articles by James Skillen include:
Tanks at the Manger | Some would like to forget that Christmas—and religion in general—has political significance. (January 2, 2002)
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