Allan R. Bevere, in his book, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World is calling for nothing less than a paradigmatic shift and change in the church’s orientation to the state in this world. A return to God’s calling to the church as a witness through its life, good works, and words of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. The end of Constantinianism and the Christendom that goes with it.
Allan, who I am privileged to know as a friend, wrote this book with the idea of stirring up dialog. I’m afraid I have written too many words in trying to help others understand both Allan’s thesis, and how he works through it. And I should add, to help me work through it and better understand it, myself. The book is part of a series on critical Christian issues, relatively brief (less than 80 pages) in keeping with this series. And Allan shares sub-themes which are related to the thesis, but not necessarily coherent in flow, though certainly coherent in thought. And he does not try to cover everything. But an important part of this book to the author, along with sharing its thesis, was to prime the pump to get readers to interact with it and by that contribute to a book Allan would later write.
With my Mennonite roots and return to something of an Anabaptist faith, I think I am more inclined to see and readily accept Allan’s thesis. I too think the church is inherently political, because of God’s kingdom come in King Jesus. And that this kingdom is found in the church scattered throughout the world, the one holy nation, consisting of all Jews and Gentiles, of everyone who has put their faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. That the church in itself should be a witness, indeed the light to the world of God’s kingdom and the shalom that accompanies that, in and through Jesus. And I agree that this witness is both in the church’s inner and outer working. The church is to do well in loving one another, and in loving the neighbor, including the enemy. God’s kingdom in Jesus is to be active and at work through the church, no less.
I am inclined to accept not only Allan’s thesis, but his outworking of it. At the same time, I find myself slow to learn and really get what Allan is saying. Which means I need to keep working on it. It is doubtful that any two Christians who may agree that the church is to be engaged in “the politics of witness,” will agree on every detail as to how that is to be worked out. We at least bring different perspectives to the table. I too think that the church and we Christians lose an important part of our witness when we align ourselves with any political entity of this world. And Allan has admirably laid out this thesis. I think this is a landmark kind of book, and look forward to the book he mentioned as future in continuing and perhaps completing his theological work on this.
I myself live among Christians who seem to accept something of the Constantinian shift and the Christendom that goes with it as in keeping with scripture, and God’s will found in it. I want to be sensitive to their thoughts, and seek to learn from them. I believe God is at work for good in all things, even in our sins, and in our wrong judgments. And so God will use the church oftentimes in spite of herself, I hope I say with much love and respect, knowing that I am full well a part of that. At the same time, I hope I can gently, yet forthrightly, and with wisdom, present such Christians with an alternative. Which I believe gets us back to our roots and away from the mess we’ve made too often as the church in the world, and in which we find ourselves in.
I find both the religious right and the religious left to fall short of God’s politics, because both are committed to a politics that is both grounded in and therefore complicit with something less than God’s kingdom come in Jesus. Allan calls for Christians to abandon such politics, but he also suggests that the church should even ordain those who are judged fit for political service in this world (after the tradition of Daniel?). And yet Allan suggests that they should not be in any political party, such as the Democratic or Republican parties. And he hints that maybe something unexpected and good from God could come out of that. I’m sure though that Allan would not think at all that there could be a new party formed in the world, which would be Christian. That would be a departure from his belief that God’s politics is inherent only in the church. I am not knowledgeable enough to work out the details on how something like that may work. I’m having enough trouble trying to figure out and make a good judgment on what I should do as a Christian myself, brought all more to my attention and thinking front and center on the eve of the presidential election where I live as a citizen, in the United States.
So my biggest tension with this book is not really a push back against what it is saying. But simply in trying to make a good judgment as to how I’m to be involved as a kingdom citizen with reference to any nation-state in this world.
Another tension I have is how the church, which is so divided on this, even if still more or less complicit with Constantinianism, should act. I think developments in the world have actually helped the church to see that it needs to be willing to stand alone, come what may from the nations of this world. I can’t help but think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the stand he took, and what he seemed (rightfully, or wrongly*) compelled to do. So part of my tension in this is a continuing desire to seek and be open to God’s will in Jesus, with the idea that this somehow is meant to be an ongoing quest.
I will now mercifully end this review. Thanks so much, Allan, for sharing these important thoughts in this book. I well remember and even cherish our time at Ashland Seminary, when Scot McKnight mentioned the connection between the kingdom of God and the church, which I believe was the first time I had heard that connection being made, and in a way which I thought connected well with the witness of scripture.
I look forward to any future writing from you, Allan on this, especially another book. As we in Jesus, as the church seek to be for the world what God in Jesus brings, no less. In the power and wisdom of his cross, in that way sharing in his resurrection life. Together in Jesus for the world.
*As a Pacifist Christian I would disagree with Bonhoeffer’s decision to be a part of the plot to assassinate Hitler, though how he arrives to that theologically is surely fascinating. And his passion to always be seeking the will of God through Jesus is commendable to us all.