Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Politics and Prose
By Byron Borger
June 16, 2014
Christian Political Witness edited by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee
(IVP Academic; 2014) $26.00
For more than twenty years, Wheaton College has hosted a theology conference, the presentations from which are published by InterVarsity Press. Last year’s conference focused on political theology, and the resulting book, edited by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, is titled Christian Political Witness. This fine volume, with tremendous, substantive chapters, is important for anyone interested in the interface of faith and politics, and particularly how Christian theology can inform our thinking about a faithful and relevant Christian political witness.
While I think this is an important book and a wonderful resource, I would note a weakness: there are no (Christian) political scientists included and no one writing as a scholar of statecraft. Given that the event was a theology conference, naturally the speakers were men and women with those credentials. Still, it might have been helpful to include someone engaged in politics. Regardless, the theological voices here are top-shelf and their contributions are fascinating, ranging from early church studies to modern sources, with a few generative chapters on contemporary application.
The book begins with two important chapters that set the stage for the rest. In the first chapter, Stanley Hauerwas discusses the nature of the church as a sort of polis and the gospel as inherently political. As Jim Skillen has explored in The Good of Politics, Hauerwas’s view is not quite in line with Center for Public Justice thinking, but he is endlessly interesting and remarkable in his breadth of knowledge, making this a very informative introduction to his school of thought.
In the next chapter, Mark Noll shows how the Bible has been used in political and ethical debates, focusing on the era of the American civil war. This is particularly helpful as we learn to be informed by the Biblical narrative without succumbing to cheap Biblicism.
The next three chapters explore early Christianity. Here we have lively pieces by Scot McKnight on the gospels, Timothy G. Gombis on a political reading of Paul, and a magnificent chapter by George Kalantzis on the Roman context of the early church.
Jana Marguerite Bennett’s essay presents the church and family as topics for political theology. She offers a wise and fruitful critique of Enlightenment-based assumptions, in this case the dichotomy between private and public realms and the centrality of individualism and its notions of rights.
William Cavanaugh brings his radical critique of consumerism and economism in his astute reading of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. He argues that market economies have become models for liberal democracies and subsequently have eroded notions of the common good.
Peter Leithart’s chapter, simply titled “Violence,” is very impressive and uses semantics and rhetoric in truly interesting ways. Leithart is a brilliant, provocative scholar, formerly of the quirky New Saint Andrews in Idaho. Has he become a pacifist? No, not exactly, but his exploration of God’s rightful war against violence is breathtaking and highly recommended for careful study.
Daniel Bell gives a summary of his book Just War as Christian Discipleship. He writes “Just war as a distinctly Christian form of politics asks a great deal of those who would abide by its discipline. It asks of Christians that they recognize that their identity is found first and foremost not in the nation-state but in Christ and his body, the church. This is no small task or petty challenge, given the pretensions of modern states… just war calls for a people who can bear great risks, shoulder great responsibilities and forgo the consolations of a more permissive politics of war.”
CPJ friend David Gushee explores why there hasn’t been a robust, coherent tradition of evangelical social ethics and politics. I appreciate these reminders of our weaknesses and the feisty call to get serious about the lordship of Christ over all of life, including specific social concerns and public policies. However, this chapter seemed to miss some of the good stuff – from CPJ and Evangelicals for Social Action, for instance – that has developed in the last decades. Gushee presents a quick overview of what he sees as a viable view on ten topics, inviting further conversation. Some of this draws on his magisterial The Sacredness of Human Life and a collection Gushee edited, A New Evangelical Manifesto.
The last two chapters of Christian Political Witness are like testimonials – still semi-scholarly, but with a slight shift in tone. Jennifer McBride offers examples of how public repentance can witness to our common ground with others, and her call to humility is more than appropriate. Bishop David Gitari of Kenya reflects powerfully upon his ministry in a land of dangerous hostilities; it is rare to see solid, orthodox writing on theology next to a section called “elections and assassinations” and the famous poem from Martin Niemoller. Bishop Gitari reminds us of what is at stake in our efforts to nurture a Christian political option, and the people we are called to be, “in but not of the world.”
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”