"I've been thinking of getting into politics...": N.T. Wright's Understanding of the Kingdom of God

Anyone who knows me knows that I really try to avoid talking about politics.

On many levels I do not consider myself a political person, which to me means, 1.) I hardly know where I stand on a lot of the big issues (i.e., health care, immigration, "the economy", American foreign policy, and 2.) I find the whole political process, globally and domestically, either uninteresting or completely soul-killingI just wanna minister to people and make art n' stuff, you know man?

But really my disassociation with politics also stems from being more concerned with how the Church as a body should behave morally and ethically—both to those inside and outside the church—rather than with how I should act as an American citizen in the politics of said country, whether locally, nationally, or internationally. This is because my identity in Christ (which is eternal and will endure to the new heavens and new earth) supersedes my identity as an American citizen or the citizen of any country (which is a temporary and accidental label to attach to oneself).  Here is a concrete example: I really have no idea what the government should do about poverty in our nation, but I could come up with a number of viable ideas with longterm effects for my congregation to help the impoverished in my own city.

So yeah, down with politics! and all that, because I'm a Christian and the Church don't need no politics!

But wait.

I am now in the process of beginning to think I have let myself off too easily by not allowing myself to think about the larger implications of my faith. The basic question(s) I have been asking myself is, if I have been made a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) how should I now live in my world? As a follower of Jesus what are my responsibilities both locally and globally?

To be clear, the only reason I am even beginning to ask these questions is that N.T. Wright (a biblical scholar, theologian, pastor, and former bishop) forced me into it.  I recently read his 2012 book entitled How God Became King: the forgotten story of the Gospels, which consists of Wright's argument for how we should read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In reading it I thought I would get some revelatory insights about the Bible (and I did), but at the same time I was actually being challenged to think about much much more.

Wright's main point in the book is that as modern Christians we have all but neglected the whole meaty middle section of the four Gospels, where Jesus' teaching, preaching, healing, authority-ticking-off ministry takes place.  We focus a lot on his birth and a lot on his death, because we really like to talk about how Jesus came to save us from our sins and how his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead brought us salvation.  But Wright's insistence is that in glossing over the middle section of the Gospels by claiming "oh that's just where Jesus gives a lot of good moral teaching and gives us an example to live by," we have neglected the central theme of the four biographies of Jesus, which is this: That Jesus Christ, and not the rulers of this earth, is Lord and King. He is the true ruler of all the earth and his kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven. (An aside: this theme is excellently echoed in a children's bible storybook I read my kids called The Big Picture Story Bible.  If you have kids, it is a worthwhile purchase)

And so, as Wright kept iterating this theme in various ways, expounding on this and that aspect of the Gospels, one question kept coming up in my mind: Well, if Jesus is both King of the earth and my personal savior, what does that mean about how I (and thus the Body of Christ as a whole) should be living as a citizen of my city, my country, and my world?  Over and over again I kept asking this.

But within How God Became King Wright never really addresses what the practical implications of Jesus being King might be.  So I had to go searching in other places, eventually finding some great resources at http://ntwrightpage.com/ (a site containing numerous free N.T. Wright lectures and essays).  On the site I found the transcript of a lecture he gave entitled "God and Government", where his basic thesis is that in the book of Acts a "highly subversive" new community of Jesus followers is formed (i.e., the Church), that 1.) constantly reminds the authorities of the day, both civil and religious, of their idolatrous, unjust, and evil ways and that 2.) proclaims that this Jesus is Lord and King and not the Caesars and the high priests. 

In order to give a basis for Wright's own thoughts, here are some quotes that stuck out to me:

...They were discovering that following Jesus generated and sustained a new way of living together, a new kind of communal life, which, strangely to ancient eyes, didn’t offer sacrifices to the gods, didn’t go off to ask directions from the oracles, and, though it paid Caesar’s taxes, didn’t pray to him or offer incense before his image. They weren’t normal revolutionaries; they were worse than that. And so, as the early church spread, the story of Acts was multiplied: martyrdoms on the one hand, explanations on the other, and, increasingly, a whole new view of how the world should be governed. The earliest Christians were in no position to do the governing themselves. But they, like some ancient Jews, had no hesitation in telling rulers how to do their job. The church was not simply called to be a parallel society, leaving the world to go its own wicked way. The church discovered that, out of allegiance to Jesus, it had the annoying and dangerous task of calling the world to account. Paul, on trial in Athens, turns the tables, and declares to his accusers that the God of whom he speaks has fixed a day on which he will judge them, bringing true justice to the world at last through a man whom he has appointed, giving assurance of this fact by raising him from the dead. As I have said elsewhere, the point about the early Christian view of government was not, as our modern age has imagined, to do with how governments come to power, but with what they do once they are in power... 

...the church claimed for itself a strange new public role, in articulating and living a vision of society which increasingly showed up Caesar’s empire as a shabby parody of God’s kingdom...

...the movement spread by the way people lived in their whole lives, not simply by the religious feelings that came over them or the subtle theology which enabled them to speak of Jesus and God in the same breath. The latter doctrine – Christology, and with it the Trinity – always was, in any case, as much a political doctrine as a ‘theological’ one, and part of the whole point of early Christianity is to deny that hard-and-fast distinction. Caesar claimed divine power; from Paul onwards, the early Christians demoted him, insisting that God does indeed want governments but that those governments are not divine. The Trinity explains how it is that this man Jesus is the world’s true Lord, and how he is exercising that lordship...

...in hailing Jesus as Lord the church from the earliest days until now is saying that he is in fact the true Lord of the whole world. The church’s claim must therefore always be a public claim, with public implications... 

...A Christian vision of political theology does not mean that Christians must try to seize power, or force through by non-legal methods the particular policies in which they believe. We must not only advocate the message of the cross but do so with the methods of the cross, which involve risky advocacy (for instance, when the government is bullying defenceless asylum-seekers), bold proposals (for instance, for debt cancellation), and wise counsel when the headless chickens all come home to roost... 

...Part of the point of Christianity is that it challenges you to think harder through the real complexities of life, instead of settling for the easy answers offered by the current platitudes of left and right. In fact – and here I come to a major point about how ‘God and government’ in fact works out within a Christian perspective – if we are following Jesus and indwelt by his Spirit, we should expect that we will find ourselves puzzled and confused at many points, that the church itself would be in distress on many points, which overlap with and often bring into focus the same problems that are ‘out there’ in the world. When that happens, declares St Paul, it constitutes a vocation to be in prayer at the places where the world is in pain, so that the God who himself comes to that point can bring not just ‘solutions’, but healing. Prayer is not a retreat from the business of public life, into a private world of detached spirituality. Christian prayer grows out of the prayer Jesus himself taught, that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven, that we might have bread, forgiveness and deliverance from evil. Those are all political questions just as much as spiritual ones...

...the Christian church has a vocation to create a climate of opinion in which the cry of the poor can be heard more easily, the summons to peace will sound more sweetly than the trumpet of war, and the challenge to faithful marriage will be recognised as the way to personal and social maturity and stability. No doubt all things need nuancing. No doubt there are many hard cases and surprising twists and turns of ethical and political argument. But what we must aim for, and not be distracted from by clever but specious arguments, is the continuing place in our society, all the way up to government itself, for the liberating, re-humanising, healing news that Jesus is the world’s true Lord; that he has broken the power and tyranny of evil; and now delegates to his followers the task of living out that victory in the face of chaos and tyranny...

While not exactly giving specific political/ethical directives, Wright has certainly given me some meat to chew on here.

As a Christian growing up in America (the U.S.A.) I have long grown weary of all the political debates, those between the right and the left as well as the religious and nonreligious.  I have become very cynical about any assertions that we can legislate morality or that we can enact Christian belief into law.  I have grown weary of those who cling on to the sentiment that we come from a "Christian nation" and should therefore run the government accordingly.  I have seen politically conservative and liberal Christians alike espouse the "Christian Nation" ideology and have observed all sides acting like divine-right kings when they are in power and whiny victimized martyrs when they are not.  And hence, the distance I have placed between myself and political thought and action goes much deeper than mere annoyance: I am seriously distrustful of anyone who takes politics seriously, especially of those who seek to wield political power.

Nonetheless, what Wright is showing me is that my idealistic tendencies are first hopelessly naive but then more importantly detrimental to the Christian witness I have before my neighbors. That is, by not being "political" I am not allowing Christ's Lordship to shine forth in my world.

To be sure, I will be sorting through all my "political" cultural baggage for quite some time but where N.T. Wright's thoughts have been particularly revolutionary for me is in helping me to realize that when, for example, I serve someone in my community who is in need I am being political; that I am engaging in a political act with far reaching ramifications beyond the act itself, even while on another level I am simply serving someone out of my love to God and my love towards that person. What Wright has done is sobered me and started me on a path of rethinking my place as a citizen of both the eternal City of God and the temporal City of Man.  The latter might be passing away, but God is calling me to live within it and be a part of bringing about his Kingdom here until all things are made new. He is teaching me to see the Bible is just as much a political book as it is a spiritual book, that if Jesus is indeed Lord of all the earth the two must be forever linked.  Thus we can never allow ourselves to merely spiritualize or make a trite metaphor out of a passage of Scripture like Isaiah 9:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7, ESV)

No, if this is true then there are some very serious real-world implications to this truth.  Needless to say, I am excited to start thinking along these lines, but I am also utterly frightened.  What does it really mean to love my neighbor as myself because I have first loved the Lord with all my heart soul mind and strength?  It does not mean I am going to run for Peoria County Treasurer anytime soon, but it does mean I am going to start seeing all of my actions as one who is in Christ as political.  That when I gather with fellow believers on a Sunday morning to worship God I am also partaking in a political act. The compartmentalization of  my life is over: my worship has to merge with my love for my neighbor.  Perhaps this is what Jesus was talking about in the greatest and second greatest commandments. (nudge nudge wink wink)

It looks like I have a lot of reading and thinking and listening and serving and failing and triumphing to do...until his kingdom comes...

Again, the full link of the article/lecture quoted above is:

For other reading on N.T. Wright's political interpretation of Scripture you can go here:

and here:
Here is an odd counterpunch to Wright's thought's in the previous link from Doug Wilson:

Here are Wright's thoughts on nationalized healthcare, a subject of which (as of yet) I do not have a dog in the fight on: http://www.dennyburk.com/n-t-wright-weighs-in-support-for-obamacare/

And here is a counter argument to Wright's thoughts on Christianity and empire, offered by Scott McKnight: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/12/03/nt-wright-empire-criticism-and-a-brief-response/

Also, another theologian whose work I would recommend is Oliver O'Donovan. He has written much more extensively on Christianity and politics/ethics.  I am in no way an O'Donovan expert and do not know the details of where he and Wright differ.  Either way, here are some links to descriptions of two of his books:

Resurrection and Moral Order
Desire of the Nations
and here is a book responding to O'Donovan's work by a number of his peers, including N.T. Wright:
A Royal Priesthood?

Welcome to the conversation! God let your Kingdom come!


Unknown said...

Might I suggest The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder as the next step of your journey. Or, perhaps, Body Politics, also by Yoder. Too often people think that politics means entering into the worlds political system that takes shape in a particular place and time (i.e American politics). Yoder's point is that the church in and of itself lives out and models an alternative politic. So the church - and Christians - are political by nature (i.e. they are concerned with how human life and relationships are ordered) it is just a different politic. We live out this alternative politic through the practices that Jesus and Paul gave the church. Once things like the Lord's supper, baptism, reconciliation, and so on are de-constintinianized we find a revolutionary kernel for a radically different way of life. Good stuff!

PostConsumer Reports said...

Michael, yes, you may suggest it! I know of Yoder's work but haven't read it. I've read a little bit of Hauerwas, who I think was influenced by Yoder. Yeah, it's good stuff. I'm definitely not running for office anytime soon.

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