the politics of witness

My friend, Allan R. Bevere, a pastor, professor and New Testament scholar, often likes to remind his readers that we in Jesus as the church are called to the politics of witness, rather than the politics of power. This came to the fore with the quote I left from Martin Luther King, Jr., yesterday, providing a bit of stimulating feedback. Along with a friend on my Facebook also grappling with it a bit, with me.

We all have some sort of vision of how the world ought to be. For some on the “religious right”, the vision is not a world that is flourishing as in God’s kingdom vision revealed in scripture and coming in Jesus. But it seems more to be making the most good out of a bad situation. A case of living in the real world. Involved in that are wars, politics that involve compromise, settling for the time being with what is less than perfect, to move toward an ideal, which is not really the ideal of shalom as shared in scripture. That can’t be realized until Jesus returns. We witness to bring others to Christ, and we work at holding down evil in the world.

For those on the “religious left”, there is often a downplaying of “original sin”. There can be some sort of realism in place, but there is an idealism that is often related to the Enlightenment as much or more than to the kingdom vision of shalom. We find some of these believers pressing for acts from nations as if the nations were followers of Jesus, or more so in this case, followers of some worldly vision of progressive humanity, which over decades has more than fallen on bad times.

The politics of witness to which the church is called in Jesus must involve something more and better than either of these two alternatives. On the one hand we know shalom is not present on earth in all of its flourishing fullness until Jesus returns. On the other hand, we believe that in Jesus the kingdom is now present, and that in the church we can find the beginning of shalom at work within and from that even into this world. So that this witness, as incomplete as it is now, can impact this world for good. One notable case in point I think is the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which took place in South Africa after apartheid ended. Many expected a blood bath. Instead there was a system set in place under the influence of Christians like Bishop Desmond Tutu in which wrongdoers were to confess their wrongs to their victims who in turn would forgive them. I think some sort of remuneration may have occurred when deemed appropriate. For all its shortcomings and imperfections, I think this is a case in point which brings something toward the flourishing of shalom in a broken, fallen world which awaits in Jesus, the new creation.

Just some preliminary thoughts on this. But what do you think? How would you express “the politics of witness”? And how does it contrast with “the politics of power”?

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2 comments on “the politics of witness

  1. Ted,

    Thanks for this post. Perhaps I should clarify. To refer to the politics of power is somewhat misleading (unintentional) on my part. The New Testament says that the cross of Christ is the power of God. Power is exercised in many different ways.

    What I mean by the politics of witness is that the church is the primary and central polity for Christians. Thus, by our way of life we witness to the nation what God wants for it as well. But what has happened for many centuries now is that Christians themselves have marginalized the church to playing “second fiddle” as God’s polity. We have come to believe that the nation state is the primary mover and shaker in politics and political action. So, then we think that Christians can be politically engaged only as they find ways to be in charge of the nation.

    So, to give an example from Christians on both sides of the political aisle– for the religious right the most important thing in reference to abortion should not be to try to outlaw it, but for the church to be the kind of people who welcome children and do not have abortions themselves (except in rare phystical complications). In so doing we will be witnessing to the state that they’d be a better state of they didn’t kill their children.

    For the religious left, the first task is not to insist on raising everyone’s taxes in order to feed the poor, but for the church to be so intentional about being extremely generous toward the poor that we would bear witness to the state saying in effect that they’d be a better state if they took care of their poor.

    This is not to say that Christians can have no involvement with the state, but the job descriptions have gotten reversed and once Christians came to believe that the state was where the political action was, it by necessity marginalized the church. And the irony here is that in the name of being relevant Christians threw themselves wholeheartedly into nation politics, which marginalized the church even further. I keep quoting Stanley Hauerwas, In the name “of political responsibility, the church became politically invisible.

    • Thanks, Allan for the helpful clarification. I agree. The church is what God uses to rebuke and hopefully enlighten the rulers/pricipalities and powers of earth (and the heavens). I like the way you put it: we fail to see where the action is, as far as God’s kingdom work in the political realm, through Christ. It is to be in, of and from the church, not the state.

      Thanks for helping me to think through this. I do struggle with how the Reformed view of Christ transforming culture may fit into all of this. Though I can see that it is primarily and as a rule through God’s working in and through the church, to the world.

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