Our politics are too small

N.T. Wright in his book, Surprised By Scripture, is offering direct commentary on a myriad of issues. I say 'direct' because anyone who is familiar with Wright's style will know that he has a tendency towards the grandiose epic themes of Scripture.

In his latest offering, he has narrowed down to a singular concentrated topic. The book is laid out not as a single exposition, but as a collection of essays that are meant to stand on their own.

Surprised By Scripture is largely the result of Tom being asked to lecture on specific issues and topics, thus forcing his engagement and reflection into presentable material. In essence, result of years of speaking engagements has produced this book.

Surprised By Scripture is not a collection of position papers. Wright remarks in the preface that he has published these collections of essays, "not as dogmatic pronouncements but as explorations into vast and exciting topics." I think that is an important preface to our engagement with the following  chapter, "Our Politics Are Too Small".

Our politics are too small

Wright opens this chapter by musing that in the 1980s he never would have suspected that he would be so interested about "the question of God in public."[1] It was the work that Tom was doing on Jesus in the historical context that forced him to mature his thoughts on politics and God. This growth and maturity eventually led to Wright voicing his objections to political policies and practices. Tom writes,

"I have been used to getting plaintive emails saying, 'We like what you write about Jesus and the resurrection; we are fascinated what you say on Paul; but why are you so critical of our President?' And my answer is, " If you actually read what I say about Jesus and the Kingdom, and you understand what Paul was really about, you'll have to take the questions of God in public seriously in a whole new way. To say that I was confusing spiritual issues with political issues is simply to restate the old Enlightenment dichotomy at a moment when it is disastrously inappropriate as well as misleading." [2]

It is at this point that I want to highlight a major point that N.T. Wright is making. We have a tendency vis-à-vis the Post-Modern//Post-Enlightenment to dichotomize spirituality and politics. We incorrectly believe that spirituality is for the afterlife, whereas politics are a separate realm for this life.

This assumption, according to Wright, is inherently Epicurean. Epicureanism, which stems from the third century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus, declared that the gods, if they existed at all, were totally removed from the world and never intervened in its affairs.

However, this is not the vision of Scripture where God is concerned about the state of this world. God is concerned about the treatment of the widow and the orphan.

"[Jesus'] agenda of dealing with sin and its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world."[3, emphasis original]

Wright believes we can find a way forward through a fresh reading of Scripture, namely the four Gospels. The "fresh reading" will start by taking seriously the teaching of Jesus.

He comments,

"I have been increasingly concerned that much of evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the Epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the Epistles themselves."[4]

The Western church has not wrestled seriously enough with the radical implications of the Gospels.

"The four Gospels will not be able to say what they want to say but [because of Western lens] will be patronized, muzzled, dismembered, and eventually eliminated altogether as a force to be reckoned with."[5]

So how do we read the Gospels afresh?

1. We need to read the Gospels as an integrated whole

"Attention has been divided, focusing either on Jesus's announcement of the Kingdom and the powerful deeds- healing’s, feasting’s, and so on- through which it is insinuated or on his death and resurrection. The Gospels have thus been seen as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental, and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions." [6]

2. The Gospels as wholes demand to be read in deep and radical integration with the Old Testament

"We do the Gospels no service by screening out the fact that each in its own way (as opposed to the Gospel of Thomas and the rest) affirms the God-givenness and God-directedness of the Jewish narrative of creation, fall, Abraham, Moses, David, and so on, seen as the narrative of the creator God's rescue of creation from its otherwise inevitable fate. The Gospels claim that it was this project that was brought to successful completion in and through Jesus."[7]

3. The Gospels demonstrate close integration with the genuine early Christian hope

"This is precisely not the hope for heaven in the sense of a blissful disembodied life after death in which creation is abandoned to its fate, but rather the hope, expressed in Ephesians 1, Romans 8, and Revelation 21, for the renewal and final coming together of heaven and earth, the final consummation precisely of God's project to be present, as Saviour, in an ultimate public world. And the point of the Gospels is that with the public career of Jesus and his death and resurrection, this whole project was decisively inaugurated, never to be abandoned." [8]

It is with these three integrations that Wright invites us to see the political nature of the four Gospel's; albeit a political meaning that is deeply integrated with the theological.

It would appear that much of Christian theology has wrongly concluded that we must derive our ethical guidance for life in the real world from other sources: common sense, calculation of what will work in a fallen world, non-Christian philosophical sources.

N.T.Wright is pushing us to ask an essential question: Should we not begin with an assumption that God’s revelation in Jesus’s life and teaching might well offer clear guidance for our social ethics? Should we not consider the Gospels as the launching of a whole new world?

According to Wright, we can no longer justifiably be bi-partisan in our approach to politics and theology.

"This means would-be theological interpretations that ignore the political dimension, as well as would-be political interpretations that ignore the theological dimension, are simply ruled out as naive and anachronistic."[9]

Wisdom for the Rulers- and the Church

Having now established a framework for thinking about theology and politics, Wright begins to reflect on the nature of the church and secular rulers.

Does the Lordship of Jesus negate our following of state rulers? Is the church meant to practice a separatist monasticism? N.T. Wright comments in this brilliant lengthy section:

"It is noteworthy that the early church, aware of the prevailing tyrannies both Jewish and Pagan, and insisting on exalting Jesus as Lord over all, did not reject the God-given rule even of pagans. This is a horrible disappointment to post-Enlightenment liberals, who would have much preferred the early Christians to have embraced a some kind of holy anarchy with no place for rulers at all. But it is part of creational view of the world that God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic, and that human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is to be accomplished- otherwise those with muscle and money will always win, and the poor and the widows will be trampled on afresh. This is the point at which Colossians 1 makes its decisive contribution over and against dualisms which imagine that earthly rulers are a priori a bad thing (the same dualisms, as I have been suggesting, that have dominated both the method and the content of much biblical scholarship). This is the point at which the notion of the common good, advanced afresh by the Roman Catholic bishops in the 1990s and now reemphasized (though I think without full clarity) by Jim Wallis, has its contribution to make.

The New Testament does not encourage the idea of a complete disjunction between the political good to be pursued by the church and the political good to be pursued by the world outside the church, precisely for the reason that the church is to be seen as the body through which God addresses and reclaims the world. Here, I think, the essentially anabaptist vision of Wallis and others may need to be nuanced with a more firmly creational theology. (I know there are many varieties of anabaptism, and I hope it's clear that I am in considerable sympathy with many of their emphases, but there comes a point when Anabaptism holds back from the dangerous task of working with the world, which I believe is just as Christian an obligation as working against the world.) "[10, Emphasis mine]

I was challenged by the above quoted section in two ways: (1)My own tendency to apathy around political involvement (2)My self identified Anabaptism. It can be very tempting as an Anabaptist (I speak personally) to lapse into an against the world mentality. I think of the history of separatism, displayed through various Anabaptist sects, as a prime example of my own tradition's inclination to be against the world.

I believe N.T. Wright's challenge to the Anabaptist community is one we must examine. How are we simultaneously working against and with the world? Failure to live in the tension of this question validates Wright assertion that,

"We in the contemporary Western world have all but lost the ability, conceptually as well as practically, to affirm simultaneously that rulers are corrupt and must be confronted and that they are God-given and must be obeyed." [11]

Thankfully for my own sanity, Wright clarifies what he means by obedience to the powers. He draws on Colossians 1:18-20 to emphasize that Scripture teaches that the rulers will be reconciled. The rulers of the age, while ultimately failing to bring new creation, (only Christ can do that) can still be used by God to bring order to the world. This, according to Wright, is the point of Romans 13.

"Not as the validation of every program that every ruler dreams up... but as the strictly limited proposal, in line wither Isaiah's recognition of Cyrus, that the creator God even uses those rulers who do not know him personally to bring fresh order and even rescue to the world."[12]

Wright is not advocating for a blind allegiance to the rulers and governments. Tom's insistence on God's calling of rulers is yoked to a deep conviction of the prophetic role of the church. He writes, "God working through earthly rulers only makes sense if the church embraces the vocation to remind the rulers of their task, to speak truth to power, and to call authorities to account."[13] "You can have as high a theology of the God given calling of rulers as you like, as long as your theology of the church's witness and martyrdom matches it stride for stride.”[14, emphasis added]

Concluding thoughts

I am deeply aware that N.T. Wright has maintained tension in his essay. I find myself being a bit uncomfortable at the lack of an easy resolution and simple answers. That, as I mentioned in the introduction, was Tom's goal in this essay, to approach the issues "as explorations into vast and exciting topics."

I think he accomplished his goal. Here are some questions I am wrestling with as a result of this essay, to which I encourage your feedback:

How does the church collaborate with governments without the compromise of our prophetic voice?

How can we simultaneously work against and with the rulers?
Is corrupt order and leadership better than chaos?

Might our lack of cross-bearing witnessing weaken the church's prophetic witness? Are we willing to suffer for our witness?

Why have we tended to ignore the political implications of the Gospels? What steps could I take towards integration?

How can participating in the flourishing of one specific nation be representative of the transnational Kingdom of God?

Should Christians not work for the good of all, regardless of nationalism?

"Jesus's way of life is the path of self-giving love, that mission and service can never be about imposing a would-be Christian policy or ethic on an unwilling or unready public, but rather allowing Jesus's way of bringing his kingdom to work through us and in us. The Church at its best has always sought to transform society from within."[15]


Works Cited

1. Wright, N.T., Surprised By Scripture, New York: Harper Collins,  p. 163
2. p. 166
3. p. 170
4. p. 167
5. p. 168
6. p. 169
7. p. 172
8. p. 172
9. p. 174
10. p. 175-176
11. p. 176
12. p. 177
13. p. 178
14. ibid.
15. p. 183

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About the author

Paul Walker is a pastor, a graduate of Horizon College and Seminary, a husband, and father. Nothing excites Paul more than helping people discover Jesus in thought, word, and deed. His personal blog is http://pauldouglaswalker.blogspot.com