By Dan Clendenin
As Americans vote in their mid-term elections this month, I once again find myself wrestling with a perennially complicated question that is as old as our faith — what is the role of the church in relationship to the state?
There are good reasons to be discouraged or dismissive about our politics. The safety of silence and withdrawal might be tempting, but you could never make that case from the Bible. The Bible is full of politics from cover to cover. Furthermore, politics are not only important, they are necessary, for we all share a common life as fellow citizens in the polis. We must learn to live together. That’s why the best minds keep returning again and again to the subject, like Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
Nonetheless, there’s an inherent ambiguity and even a tragic conflict between God and Caesar.
On the one hand, significant parts of the Bible are purely political, like the six books of 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles. This narrative runs for 250 pages and covers 400 years, from Israel’s first king David until its exile by Babylon.
We read about Israel’s role in the geopolitics of Assyria, Edom, Egypt, Moab and Tyre. There are wars, alliances made by marriage, famines, conspiracies, assassinations, trade agreements, taxes, and foreign policy negotiations. We read about Solomon’s massive building projects — the temple at Jerusalem and his royal palace, both of which were built by slave labor conscripted from resident aliens.
On the other hand, much of this can be read not as an endorsement of Israel’s political history, but as a trenchant critique. Yes, we read about Solomon’s wisdom, and his earnest prayer when he dedicated the temple. But his story ends with personal corruption to pagan gods and goddesses (Ashtoreth, Molech, Chemosh) whose practices included child sacrifice, exorbitant taxes, and a royal harem of 1,000 concubines. His son Rehoboam even bragged about how oppressive his subsequent government would be: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will make it still heavier; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” Rehoboam provoked a civil war that ripped the country apart, and that ended with defeat by the global powers Assyria (722 BC) and Babylon (586 BC).
If Solomon’s story regarding political power is tragic, the larger Biblical context is even more so. The tragedy begins with the origins of Israel’s centralized political power in 1 Samuel 8. The people wanted a king “like the other nations.” Samuel objected, went to God in prayer, and was rebuffed by the people’s insistence. In longing for a king, Israel was not rejecting Samuel but God himself. Samuel granted their request, but warned them of the harsh consequences — the government would conscript their children for wars, make them domestic slaves, confiscate their land, and impose exorbitant taxes. Israel’s first king, Saul, did all this and more.
The political panorama of 1–2 Kings includes the reigns of forty kings and one queen (Athaliah) in the 400 hundred years from the death of David to Israel’s exile to Babylon. Only two kings received unqualified approval by the narrator (Hezekiah and Josiah). With monotonous regularity, over thirty times the narrator renders the ominous judgment that a king “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Instead of glorifying political power or nationalistic celebration, this 400-year history of politics is unremittingly negative — in keeping with the dire warning in 1 Samuel 8.
So, this narrative conveys a radical relativization, subversion, and even judgment of Israel’s politics. For the true remnant of the people of God, just as there is no safety in silence, there is no collusion with political power, but instead a moral critique. That’s remarkable when you consider that these are Israel’s sacred writings, and that such negative conclusions about royal power must have put the author at some risk.
And so the psalmist warns us: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (146:3–4).
There’s a tragic irony in the futility of politics that nevertheless solicits our absolute allegiance. To be apolitical is to be dismissed as irrelevant. And yet the only place in the entire Bible where God laughs is at this inverse relationship between the pomposity of politics and its ultimate impotence: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together… The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” (Psalm 2:4).
In his book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible (2012), Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, suggests a provocative thesis — that while the Hebrew Bible contains a lot about politics, it isn’t really interested in politics. Rather, it commends what Walzer calls a radical anti-politics.
Since God alone is sovereign, caesar is always and only secondary. The prophets, for example, are poets of social justice and Israel’s most important form of public speech, but they’re not political activists with any program. With their emphasis on divine intention as opposed to human wisdom, the prophets exemplify the Hebrew Bible’s “radical denial of the doctrine of self-help.” The prophets “disdain” politics. In contrast to Greek philosophers, “the Biblical writers never attach great value to politics as a way of life.” Politics is simply “not recognized by the Biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity.”
In What Jesus Meant (2006), Garry Wills makes the same point from a Christian perspective. Jesus never allowed himself to be co-opted by any political party of his day, and didn’t engage in any overt political action. From his birth when King Herod tried to murder him until his death at the hands of Pilate, Jesus threatened the political powers, not because he sought to control what they controlled, but because “he undercut its pretensions and claims to supremacy.” If Jesus is Lord, then caesar is not Lord. Jesus didn’t acquiesce in silence before political power, he confronted it, so that “the program of Jesus’s reign can be seen as a systematic antipolitics.”
I’ve also appreciated the perspective of the Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan. In The Kings and Their Gods (2008), Berrigan interprets 1–2 Kings as self-serving imperial records that portray Israel’s kings as they saw themselves and wanted others to see them — God favors my regime and hates my enemies. He blesses us with their treasure. No war crime is too heinous as a means to the delusional ends of these kings, and so on page after page political hell descends to earth.
There is one political end in the book of kings, says Berrigan: extra imperium nulla salus, “outside the empire there is no salvation.” There are many pathological means to this political salvation: untrammeled imperial ego, political retaliation with absolute impunity, military might, revisionist history, manipulation of memory and time, grandiose building projects, economic exploitation, virulent nationalism, and, sanctioning it all with divine approval, religious sycophants.
A few dissenting voices object to imperial power, but they are silenced as unpatriotic and seditious (Jeremiah). Only with the eighth-century prophets like Amos are these “official” imperial texts amended so that we see and hear the real perspective of Yahweh about justice, kindness, and humility for all peoples everywhere.
In his poem “Credo,” Berrigan thus repudiates the idea of salvation through politics.
I can only tell you what I believe; I believe:
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominions,
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.
Likewise, I cannot be saved by Donald Trump, by the Democratic National Committee, by the Supreme Court, or the Pentagon. To think this way isn’t defeatist, it’s realistic. And in an age when politics defines everything, it’s also heretical.
On the final page of his reflections on the kings and their gods, Berrigan challenges us: “One must urge (to his own soul first) a firm rebutting midrash; bring Christ to bear. Read the gospel closely, obediently. Welcome no enticements, no other claim on conscience. Mourn the preachers and priests whose silence and collusion signal plain revolt against the gospel. Enter the maelstrom, the wilderness; flee the claim that would possess your soul. Earn the blessing; pay up. Blessed — and lonely and powerless and intent on the Master — and, if must be, despised, scorned, locked up — blessed are the makers of peace.”
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