Tuesday, February 2, 2010
The Gospel? A denunciation of Patriotism - among other things
"And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."
- The Gospel According to Matthew 24: 14
I have been reflecting a good deal on this lately and so today's entry is going to dwell on this issue:
I think that one of the major issues I have with American conservative-evangelical Christianity, and by extension to this, why I see no problem with reconciling my own very progressive, and sometimes even "radical" politics with a very orthodox and traditional affirmation of Christian truth, is because I am truly convinced that the evangelical movement in America has completely reified the meaning of "the Gospel" to mean something it was never historically understood to mean before relatively modern times. Moreover, in even more recent times, the American political movement generically referred to as "the Religious Right," seems to have so co-opted the perception of an overwhelming majority of evangelicals, that it has become almost impossible to distinguish this type of Christianity from values associated with the American political conservatism. In particular the notion that patriotic nationalism and Christianity have anything remotely to do with one another.
It is helpful to point out that N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham (England) and one of the worlds leading biblical scholars - and probably the worlds top academic expert on the literature associated with the Apostle Paul - points out that Paul's use of the word "Gospel" (i.e. "Good News") esp. in his letter to the Romans, has been completely mis-understood and mis-applied by modern evangelicals. Bishop Wright points out that Paul borrows his use of the term in his letters to the churches directly from the widely recognized Roman proclamation of the time "Caesar is Lord" - this was the "Gospel" of the Roman State. What Paul suggests is that the good news or "Gospel" of the Church of Jesus Christ is the proclamation "Jesus is Lord." This new gospel presented a radical challenge to Roman state authority. It was this suggestion that the "Christos" (the "anointed" King) was elevated above Caesar by the early Christian communities that occasioned the several persecutions suffered by the Christians at the hands of the Roman government.
In short, the "Good News" was not an individualistic Gospel of personal salvation - it was the Gospel of the "Kingdom of God." Throughout the Four canonical Gospels, the central message of all Jesus' teaching and conversation seems to be preoccupied largely with this subject of the "Kingdom," relatively little is said regarding the salvation of individuals, and when the matter is addressed at all, it is directly in connection with the Kingdom, is understood as entirely a divine supernatural work of the Spirit, and not related at all to an instantaneous personal decision or "prayer of faith". Nowhere is the personal decision act of "accepting Christ as personal savior" even explicitly taught in the New Testament. Even the phrase "you must be born again" (in John's Gospel) is in the original Greek text in fact rendered more accurately as, "you must be born from above" and is directly linked with the practice of ceremonial baptism ("born of water and the spirit"). Calls to "Repent" as recorded in the Luke-Acts chronicle of the early Church are always associated with baptisms.
The early Christians understood "the ecclesia" - the Church - as the in-breaking of the Kingdom into the present age of the world, and that the age would end with the second advent when the King would return to personally inaugurate the Kingdom. It was precisely this claim to Kingship for Jesus on the part of the followers of "the Christ" that persuaded the Roman governor to grant the Jewish San Hedrin Council's petition to execute him - even though the Jewish "beef" was in fact blasephemy (not a capital offense under Roman law). The Roman legal justification for crucifying Jesus of Nazareth was high treason, which is why the sign Pilate had placed on the cross of the condemned was "King of the Jews". More than one early church father of the 2nd and 3rd centuries made it quite clear in his writings that their existed "no concord between Christ and Caesar." Polycarp was executed for refusing "to swear by the genius of Caesar" - he was but one of thousands of martyrs who would suffer death for no other crime than the simple act of rejecting the Lordship of Caesars Kingdom for that of the Christ.
What I am arguing is that modern evangelical Christianity, especially as widely understood and practiced by contemporary evangelical Protestants of several denominations (or so-called "non-denominational" churches) has transformed the Gospel message into a primarily private and individualistic matter of personal salvation and a view of "the Kingdom" as an exclusively future eschatalogical event with little or no reference to the universal Church. When I speak of "the Church" I am not really speaking of an institutional heirarchy per se - though clearly, it has institutional expression and as such is a visible phenomenon - but of the Eucharistic Community. The community that celebrates the "body and blood" of the coming King and is the visible embassy of the Kingdom in the world (and in this regard I do not advance the claim of any particular denominational entity as constituting the Church merely in itself - in the Anglican tradition we practice open communion, which means the sacrament is available to all baptized Christians). Secular political institutions such as national governments - with their use of war, force and violence as basic instruments of policy - are understood by many theologians and biblical scholars, such as Bishop Wright referenced above, as a manifestation of the Satanically dominated kosmos ("the world") of this present age. As such our loyalty and allegiance to the divine global institution of the Church - and by extension the coming Kingdom of God - must supercede any loyalty and allegiance to a national entity. Indeed with this understanding of the Gospel in view, nationalism becomes in fact, a form of idolatry. This is why personally I even object to national emblems on parish altars, and will refuse to stand for the flag if it is carried in processional during a church service on so-called "national days." There is no compromise possible in my view - we are either Americans first, or we are Christians first - we cannot be both! "There is no concord between Christ and Caesar."
The modern American gospel seems to be "the Market is Lord" and this culture of consumerism is rather obviously in direct defiance of everything the Gospel of the Kingdom that our Lord Jesus taught stands for. A Kingdom in which "it would be harder for a rich man to enter...than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle", a Kingdom in which "the life of a man would not consist in the abundance of his possessions" etc. The contemporary evangelical Gospel of being "saved" or "born again" understood as an entirely personalistic and individual "crisis experience" involving a "decision" unwittingly plays conveniently into this Market-driven modern cultural context. Christianity becomes a private matter distinct from the sector of public or community life and is thereby open to being transformed into a market commodity. Churches become businesses where a product called "religion" is sold rather like the sacrificial doves in the Temple marketplace whose tables our Lord Jesus overturned in his day.
All the above said, I do not disparage the personal dimension of salvation, nor do I consider it unimportant. Individual persons are "saved," they do experience "the new birth" etc. Scripture clearly affirms this. But they do so only in the context of the sacramental Christ-community called the Church, and they do so not as a result of a personal decision of "accepting Jesus" (after the manner of a Billy Graham crusade) but entirely as a supernatural work of God's grace - "lest any man should boast" (Paul). Personal salvation and redemption is but an underlying component of the Gospel, which is as Paul plainly stated it, and the early Church clearly understood it, "Jesus is Lord."
I also do not disparage the requirement - as plainly affirmed by Paul in Romans 13 (and reiterated by Peter in 1 Peter 2) - "to submit to the governing authorities." However this admonition too is broadly mis-understood by contemporary Christians to mean something it does not. Christians are admonished to "live at peace with all men" and it is always been part of the Christian tradition to respect the rule of law. But only so long as the rule of law of a given Nation-State is not in violation of the law of God. Indeed one advantage the United States has - historically at least - enjoyed above many other nations, is that in our civic republican tradition the law is elevated above "the State," and even the State is regarded as accountable to it. This idea is actually directly inherited from the English tradition (and has a thoroughly Christian basis and heritage) that even the King himself is subject to the rule of law (its worth pointing out that in medieval England most written law-codes were largely Church canon law). That the only sovereignty that is absolute is the sovereignty of God - and by extension the sovereignty of the law. On this very basis the English Parliament actually ordered the execution of Charles I in 1649.
However, what happens when even the State forgets the law and acts lawlessly? Or - what happens when the very law propounded by the State calls upon Christians to act against their Spirit-directed conscience (such as for instance on the matter of participation - or endorsement - of imperialistic wars, or assent to State policies that sanction slavery, race prejudice or the forceful dispossession of indiginous peoples, or allow the economic violence of social injustice to the poor for the sake of pretecting the private profit of corporations as over against the public interest and the public welfare) well in Acts 5, we are told that "we ought to obey God rather than men." Clearly, non-violent Civil Disobedience to the State is firmly recognized in the New Testament, in fact both Gandhi (who it must be said did not profess to be a Christian) and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a Baptist Minister) openly claimed they had derived their use of this political and revolutionary tactic directly from the Christian tradition.
I have come to recognize that the proclamation "Jesus is Lord" is not merely a privatistic spiritual claim applicable to the personal lives of individual Christians, it is indeed a radical political claim that calls for the prophetic confrontation of all violence and injustice (legal, social or economic) even if on perpetrated on the part of the secular State. The only patriotism applicable to Christians is the patriotism of the Kingdom of God, any other is a compromise of the Gospel.