What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—April 5, 2017

We are living in interesting times. I can remember in the late 1990s having several conversations with progressive friends about the future of Christianity in the United States. Some of my friends thought we were heading into a time of diminishing interest in Christianity and diminishing influence of Christians on the wider society (it is interesting that today, it is more likely to be Christians on the right who worry about Christianity being marginalized in the United States).

Then George Bush got elected and proceeded to help bring the Christian Right closer to the seats of power than ever before. In the years since, for better or worse, Christian politics has remained a significant presence. And then, of course, with the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the strengthening of Republican power in most of the states in our nation, evangelical Christians seemingly heightened their stature and may well now be on the cusp of achieving some of their long sought policy goals—not least the repeal of Roe v. Wade and a return to the criminalization of abortion.

There are other Christians who have strongly opposed the close ties between the Republican Party and American Christianity—including, actually, a growing number of evangelicals. It is even possible to imagine that this moment of seeming unprecedented influence for the Christian Right might in time be seen as a turning point in weakening the broader connection between evangelicals and Republicans. Donald Trump stands for so many values that seem antithetical to traditional evangelical morality that it is difficult to imagine that he will be able to retain the support of all that many.

An interesting book

I just read a book about Christianity and politics that has stimulated more thinking for me. Keith Giles, currently pastor of an outside-the-box congregation in southern California, recently published Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb (Quior, 2017). I recommend this book if one if interested in seeing how the evangelical consensus favoring blind support for the Republican agenda is being questioned.

Giles is a birthright evangelical, and this book clearly emerges out his disillusionment with the Christian Right. In a nutshell, he poses “the pursuit of politics” in the contemporary United States as contradictory with a pursuit of the genuine gospel. His agenda is to encourage those who seek to follow Jesus to turn away from a quest for political power. He sees the quest for a “Christian America” as terribly misguided.

Authentic Christianity, as Giles understands it, does indeed hope to contribute to social transformation. But it is not a transformation effected by top-down, state-oriented power but by conversion to Jesus as savior. “Presidents and politicians have much less power than the average Christian when it comes to transformation…. The Gospel of Jesus is still the most effective weapon against evil, corruption, violence, hate, fear, and every other sin known to mankind…. Let everyone know that Jesus is the best Leader anyone could ever have” (p. 185).

There is much that is attractive in Giles’s argument. Certainly, his critique of the Christian Right and its embrace of the American Empire is helpful. I sincerely hope that many evangelical Christians read this book. I can’t help but think it would be better for American Christianity and the country in general if Giles’s position gained many adherents—even if I don’t actually agree completely with his constructive agenda.

Reading Giles stimulated me to think more about the different ways Christians approach politics in the United States. Feeling a bit playful, I decided to create a chart that maps various approaches that Christians have taken in recent years. This is a serious exercise, but not one to be taken too seriously. The “map” is only a quick (and superficial) sketch. But perhaps it has potential to serve as an aid for understanding.

Continue reading “What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts”

The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”

An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (6)—Messiah

Ted Grimsrud—March 23, 2015 

 This is the sixth in a series of posts.

Christians in general do not necessarily think of Jesus as a political philosopher—or even political practitioner. However, for the past 2,000 years there have been a few who do try to take their political cues from Jesus. Of these, not many would have used the language of “anarchism” to describe “the politics of Jesus.” However, if we think of the key elements of an anarchistic sensibility, decentering the state and affirming the possibilities of self-organization, we can find a great deal of resonance linking Jesus’s message and anarchistic thinking and practice.

Our starting point, I suggest, should be to look at the gospels in the context of the story of Israel told in the Old Testament. The earlier posts in this series have attempted to highlight strands in that story that may be seen as having anarchistic sensibilities. Jesus certainly saw his message in general as being in continuity with the biblical story he had grown up with. We have no reason not to think that his political perspective reflects this continuity.

One key aspect of the politics of the biblical story that I have discussed earlier is the move from territoriality (where the sustenance of the promise is linked with a geographically bounded political entity—initially a tribal confederation followed by a kingdom with a powerful monarch) to diaspora. The story can be read as culminating with a vision of scattered faith communities living as creative minorities in nation-states that they don’t run or try to run. This may be seen as a particular political option.

Jesus spent his life within the historical boundaries of the Davidic kingdom of ancient Israel, but he can be understood as pursuing a political strategy meant to be lived in diaspora. He pointedly rejected the idea that his messianic leadership could culminate in re-establishing a territorial kingdom. Such a rejection, though, was not a denial of his messianic identity nor was it a rejection of the vocation of his followers to embody God’s kingdom on earth.

However, Jesus’s style of kingship and the kingdom he called his followers too were so different from conventional politics that his kingdom could be called an “unkingdom” (as discussed by Mark Van Stennwyk in his book, The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance [InterVarsity Press, 2013]). His politics could be called a politics of servanthood, as opposed to power politics. In what follows I will mention only a few examples from the gospels that illustrate Jesus’s political sensibility—and support the suggestion that his was an anarchistic sensibility. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (6)—Messiah”

An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (5)—Prophetic Critique

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2015

 This is the fifth in a series of posts.

Part of the beauty and part of the frustration of the Old Testament is that it is mostly descriptive and not overly directive in its portrayal of the political economy of ancient Israel. Certainly there are various different perspectives reflected in the story—some seem quite positive about the monarchy and emergence of a hierarchical social order, others are quite critical of those developments. And the reader cannot always be sure which perspective shapes the various parts of the story. But we do have a lot of freedom for interpretation and application.

In reading the Bible for an anarchistic sensibility (note, I say a “sensiibility,” not an overt and thoroughgoing anarchist political philosophy), we can be comfortable with the diversity. I am not making a strong claim here but rather raising some possibilities and trying to see how much support there is in the story for an anarchistic sensibility (with the focus on two general points—a critique of the state and an affirmation of the possibilities of human self-organizing).

I won’t turn to Jesus’s message until the next post. I have been arguing that the Old Testament itself can be read as pointing in an anarchistic direction. I don’t think we need Jesus to see that. However, if we do see Jesus as inclined toward an anarchistic sensibility (as I will argue) and we also understand Jesus to base his social ethics and broader theology on the Old Testament, especially Torah and Israel’s great prophets, we might be more inclined to notice the anarchistic elements in the Old Testament and to expect that when we read it as a whole and read it as pointing toward Jesus, we will recognize that the anarchistic elements reflect the core storyline more faithfully than the monarchical elements.

The story of kingship

We get mixed messages about kingship among the Hebrews from almost the very beginning. Certainly the lack of human kingship in the creation story, in the stories of Abraham and his immediate descendants, in the exodus story, and in Torah (with only a few hints otherwise) is enormously suggestive. This society is founded and guided by God and non-kingly human leaders—and ideologically grounded in both a strong suspicion of imperial power politics and a sense of optimism about human potential for self-organizing. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (5)—Prophetic Critique”

An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (4)—Conquest and Kingship

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2015

 This is the fourth in a series of posts.

We find an intense struggle at the heart of the Old Testament story—and hence at the heart of the biblical faith. It’s a political struggle. We could characterize it as a struggle between the “Empire way” and the “Torah way.” According to the story, following the liberation of the Hebrews from enslavement in the Egyptian Empire, they started a process of finding out how to embody the liberation they had experienced. God provides them with a blueprint for liberated existence, the law codes, Torah.

The story treats it as a matter-of-fact development that this liberated community would take over and settle in the land of Canaan, where they could seek to embody Torah and ultimately bless all the families of the earth. However, the process of entering the land and then sustaining their life in the land was complicated. Could the land be gained without extraordinary violence, given the unwillingness of the inhabitants of the land simply to turn it over? Can the community be sustained as a territorial political entity with borders to defend and an identity to protect without moving towards an empire-like political economy? Can the anarchistic sensibilities I identified in previous posts survive?

The “conquest of Canaan”

On the one hand, the story of the forcible entry of the Hebrews into Canaan does have important parallels with the story of the Exodus—parallels that point at least somewhat in an anarchistic direction. On the other hand, especially when read in light of the ultimate outcome of this excursion into linking with promise with territoriality, this part of the story ends up being a pretty sharp repudiation of statehood as a channel for the promise.

The actual “conquest” where the Hebrews take over the land is notable in how the victory depends on God’s direct intervention, not on generals, warriors, horses, chariots, and careful human planning. The picture, surely not at all realistic, is of a decentralized, ad hoc, even rag tag group of invaders whose success depends upon God’s actions and whose victory does not empower military leaders and a revolutionary vanguard. God is the leader from beginning to end, and the particular events tend to reinforce the sense that this is not the beginnings of a traditional political kingdom but something different. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (4)—Conquest and Kingship”

An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (3)—Exodus and Torah

Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2015

 This is the third in a series of posts.

My argument that the Christian Bible, when read as a whole, reflects a strong anarchistic sensibility certainly has at its center the life and teaching of Jesus. However, the heart of the Old Testament story—exodus and Torah—also provides important support for seeing the two main components of this sensibility (a strong suspicion of state power and an optimism about human potential for self-organization) as biblically grounded.

The exodus story is remarkable in how it contrasts the main characteristics of the Hebrews’ God with the main characteristics of the Egyptian empire. Given what follows in the rest of the Bible, it seems appropriate to see Egypt not simply as one specific opponent to the Hebrews in the ancient past but as a representative of power politics in general that is meaningful throughout the story and down to the present. Egypt also provides the model over against which the social philosophy of Torah is articulated—a model of bottom-up power over against Egypt’s top-down power.

Our introduction to Pharaoh: Genesis 41

When we simply read the Bible from the beginning without thinking about what comes later, our first encounter with Pharaoh, the god-king of Egypt, is pretty benign—at least on the surface. The morality tale of Joseph, the eleventh son of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, among other things, gives us an account of how the people of the promise ended up in Egypt.

Joseph is sold into slavery by one of his brothers (who did this to save Joseph’s life after the other brothers left him to die in the desert). What follows is an amazing story of Joseph’s wisdom and God’s providence that places Joseph next to Pharaoh as a key adviser. Joseph’s brilliant suggestions provide a plan that will save the lives of many in face of severe famine—including Joseph’s own family.

On the most obvious level, Pharaoh is presented as a wise leader, willing to listen to his bright subordinate and act in ways that to help people survive the famine. But, it is also clear—especially in light of the story’s sequel in the book of Exodus—that Joseph’s advice shrewdly greatly expands Pharaoh’s power and wealth. In exchange for providing people with scarce food, Pharaoh gains title to their land. Continue reading “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (3)—Exodus and Torah”

An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows

Ted Grimsrud—February 2, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts.

In this survey of some biblical themes looked at from an anarchistic angle, I will not be real precise in my use of “anarchistic.” I’ll be talking about a sensibility more than a full-fledged political philosophy. The key “anarchistic” motifs I will focus on will be a strong suspicion toward centralized social power, especially kingdoms and empires, and an optimism about human possibilities for self-organizing and decentralized social power.

And I will be reading the Bible in fairly naïve and straightforward ways. I approach the Bible as a storybook and see it as providing a loosely coherent message, amidst a great deal of diversity. I will focus more on the loose coherence than the diversity—largely due to a desire to find usable guidance in the Bible. At the same time, in reading the Bible more as a storybook, I mean to reject any authoritarian dynamics. The story is invitational and winsome, more than coercive or dominatingly powerful.

The story of creation

The very beginning of the Bible provides much important information about the Bible as a whole, about the cosmology of the whole, about the character of the God seen to be central to the entire story, and about the relationships between humankind and this God.

Though the creation account in Genesis one portrays God as the power behind what is, the actual exercise of that power is muted. God speaks and what is is made. The dynamic is quite peaceable—in contrast to some other ancient creation myths (especially the Babylonian) that portray violence at the heart of things. Continue reading “An anarchistic reading of the Bible (2)—Creation and what follows”

An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible

Ted Grimsrud—January 25, 2015

[This post is a continuation of the conversation about anarchism that I have started in this blog in months past—the most recent post was “More thinking about an ‘anarchistic’ Christianity” on December 15, 2014. It’s an introduction to a series of seven or eight posts that give a quick survey of some anarchistically-inclined dynamics in the Bible.]

I have become motivated to pursue, as a thought experiment, an anarchistic reading of the Bible, for several reasons. For quite some time, probably going back to my discovery of Christian pacifism now nearly 40 years ago, I have found the Bible to be a great resource for thinking politically. However, it has been rather difficult to find connecting points between biblical politics and our current political landscape. I don’t find attempts to link biblical politics with liberal democracy all that attractive; likewise with Marxism. Yet, I also am uneasy with the way numerous, say, “post-liberals” (most notably Stanley Hauerwas) link biblical politics with the institutional church (or is it an idealized “church”?).

But what about anarchism? I can imagine anarchism as a more fruitful philosophical partner than liberal democracy or Marxism. And as more creative and more easily engaged with the entirety of human social life than the institutional (or idealized) church. And I have suspected for some time that the politics most characteristic of the Bible links fairly closely with at least some construals of anarchism, even if anarchists have tended to be quite anti-Christian and Christians anti-anarchist.

At this point, though, I am not as prepared to discuss anarchism itself as I am to think about a general anarchistic sensibility in relation to the Bible. So my definition of anarchism is purposely quite broad and simple. I am thinking of anarchism as having two main components, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is a suspicion of authority, especially in relation to the state (though I think an anarchistic sensibility should be just as suspicious of corporate power and the power of other large institutions). This leads to a de-centering of the state as the basic instrument of human political life. The positive component is the affirmation of human possibilities to self-organize, to manage our affairs in decentralized, self-managed communities. Continue reading “An anarchistic reading of the Bible—(1) Approaching the Bible”

More thinking about an “anarchistic Christianity”

Ted Grimsrud—December 15, 2014

My sense is that the anarchist tradition and its messy diversity, going back to the early 19th century and continuing into the present, offers some interesting resources that might prove useful for peace theology. Right now, my knowledge of anarchism is fairly limited, but I am learning more about it all the time. I would at this point identify with an anarchist sensibility that centers on a negative view of centralized political authority and a positive view of human possibilities of ordering social life in ways that enhance human flourishing from the bottom up.

I am not interested in a rigid political ideology, nor in debates about what is and is not authentic anarchism. Rather, I am interested in a looser sensibility that can provide lenses for interpreting the Bible, Christian tradition, and present social issues in peaceable ways. I want to keep learning more about the anarchist tradition—including the most famous “classic” anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Kropotkin, and Goldman; their less well-known contemporaries such as Landauer, Reclus, and Malatesta; and various post-World War II expressions. However, for now my main interest is to go ahead with an exercise in looking again at the biblical materials with an anarchistic sensibility.

My posts from the other day, “‘Saving’ the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading,” and from August, “Does the Bible teach anarchism?” got me started. Over the next several weeks I hope to post a number of summaries of class discussion about the Bible from my “Christian anarchism” class at Eastern Mennonite University this past semester.

However, first I want to take a little time to reflect on some issues brought up in several comments in response to the “Joshua story” post by John Miller and Bob Herr (follow the above link and scroll down to see their comments). Both gave some push back that focused more on the political ramifications of what I wrote about than the theological dimension that is more my area of expertise. But thinking about their points ultimately can be helpful for theological reflection.

What about government?

John Miller responds as if what I have in mind is a stereotypical anarchist rejection of government altogether. I am more comfortable using “anarchistic” as an adjective than claiming to be a full-fledged “anarchist.” As I discussed in my July 10, 2013 post, “John Howard Yoder and anarchism,” I am attracted to what is being called “post-anarchism.” One of the main ideas is that we shouldn’t make the state central—either in terms of making overthrowing it our main focus or in terms of looking to it as our main source of social justice.

In my 2004 essay, “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy,” written before I became directly interested in anarchism, I made a sharp distinction between two American stories, the democracy story and the empire story. Perhaps my affirmation of the “democracy story” would separate me from some more strict anarchists. However, I see anarchist sensibilities as helpful resources for seeking the “well-functioning society” John also seeks. Continue reading “More thinking about an “anarchistic Christianity””

Does the Bible teach anarchism?

Ted Grimsrud—August 25, 2014

I first learned about anarchism back in the 1970s. My wife Kathleen and I got involved with an activist group opposed to Jimmy Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft in order to “show resolve” to the Soviet Union (this is one of the darker aspects of Carter’s presidential legacy—a cynical but failed attempt to hold off the political threat from the right that remains thirty-some years later an important element in the socialization of young people into our national security state). We met a young couple, Karl and Linda, who had just moved to our hometown, Eugene, Oregon, to be part of the rising anarchist movement there.

I had typical superficial stereotypes of anarchists as mindless terrorists (it was an “anarchist,” after all, who had shot President McKinley). I was disabused of that superficial antipathy in conversations with Karl and Linda and also in seeing their lives. They were compassionate, committed to social justice, and (Linda, at least) thoroughly nonviolent. They were pretty negative about Christianity, but were interested to learn to know about our Anabaptist convictions.

About the same time, I took a class on the history of political theory at the University of Oregon—and the professor treated anarchism as a serious political philosophy that needed to be considered alongside the other more mainstream approaches. It might have been as part of that class the I read George Woodcock’s fascinating book, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements.

I have not traveled very far down the anarchist path in these past decades, but I have remained interested in and sympathetic toward this political orientation. Writers such as James C. Scott, Noam Chomsky, and Rebecca Solnit, whose anarchistically-inclined books I have read for reasons other than direct articulation of anarchism, have kept my interest alive. And then, when I learned about the Jesus Radicals website and movement, I started to realize that there was some genuine compatibility between the evolving political perspective I have been constructing and at some articulations of anarchism.

Anarchism and the Bible

One of the new ideas for me has been to think that perhaps we could say that anarchistic sensibilities (in our present day sense of what those involve) are embedded in the biblical story from start to finish. I want in this post to begin to sketch an argument to support this idea. Continue reading “Does the Bible teach anarchism?”