GOD APPOINTS, WE CHOOSE?

REORIENTING CHRISTIAN THOUGHT WITHIN A DEMOCRACY

Photo Courtesy of MikesPhotos

By Dr. James Spencer

Published October 1st, 2020

            As we move toward the next presidential election, it seems likely that we will begin to rehearse what seems to have become the standard conversations in an election year. The spectrum of views is certainly broad, but within more mainstream Christian media, is not overly complex. We weigh in on the crucial issues of the day (often framed by political campaigns, debates, the media, and prominent evangelical leaders), remind ourselves that God is neither Republican or Democrat (even as we continue to apply labels like “conservative” and “liberal” without any particular nuance), and are encouraged to respect our leaders by going to the polls (though it isn’t always clear just why our right to vote became a crucial Christian practice). That is all well and good. Yet, saying that our pre-election conversations are “well and good” is not necessarily the same as saying that the evangelical conversation is thoroughly theological.

            However necessary it may be to recognize that sincere Christians can hold conservative or progressive views, there is a more basic question with which we need to wrestle: what does it mean to be a Christian in a democracy? Whatever beliefs the founders of the United States held, government of any sort has a “purely secular character…in the Christian era…not by its own profession, which is irrelevant, but by its actual position in salvation history.”[1] Political leaders “are constituted…as a secondary theatre of witness to the appearing grace of God, attesting by their judicial service the coming reality of God’s own act of judgment.”[2] It is not a question of the legitimacy of government, but of its role and scope of authority. God is Sovereign, Christ is King, political leaders serve at God’s pleasure and are to execute judgment through a variety of functions, yet, as O’Donovan notes, government remains a “secondary theater.”

            God continues as Sovereign despite the democratic system. Yet, to some extent, it is simpler to recognize God’s sovereign work when biological succession and war determine political leaders, particularly given the Old Testament’s portrayal of God’s hand in the fates of the nations and those who rule them. Whether it be the judgment brought upon the likes of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, God’s decision to remove Saul and appoint David to the throne, or His use of “his anointed” Cyrus (Isa 45:1), the Old Testament consistently reminds its readers that Yahweh is active in the affairs of the nations. The endurance of the nations and their emperors or kings are not a matter of human determination, but divine action.

            It is one thing to affirm the Old Testament’s teachings concerning God’s relationship to the nations. It is quite another to understand how we might demonstrate such an understanding within a democratic system in which governmental leaders are chosen by the public. While it seems clear that one can be Christian and vote for a Democrat or Republican, it is less clear how it is that we are discerning God’s will and aligning with God’s work in the world by making one choice or the other. Whereas the biblical practice of casting lots to make decisions (Lev 16:8; Josh 18:10; 1 Chron 25:8; Acts 1:26) offers a tangible picture of submission to God’s will, the sort of rational arguments we utilize to choose one political candidate over another do not seem to have the same explicit force as casting lots even when such arguments include biblical and theological rationale regarding specific issues. Arguably, our way of making decisions, can lead us to draw God into our agendas rather than pressing us to discern where He is going. In choosing our leaders, we must not assume that God is somehow tied to those issues we deem to be important.

            As we look toward the upcoming elections, how might we begin to more fully recognize God as the preeminent, social actor determining the course of history? In other words, what might it look like for us to recognize the ways in which we have “in the midst of our agendas, strategies, moral outrage, and legitimate concerns, fashioned God into a deity of our own making so that He looks increasingly like us rather than us being transformed to look increasingly like Him?”[3] First, we must take the individual and collective steps to ensure we are living out our theological destiny rather than being formed by the state. In many instances, it may well be tempting to accept the values and beliefs of the “secondary theatre of witness” that is government as sufficient to express our Christian identity. Accepting the more general good can easily become a substitute for God because we begin to forget that politics is “about the way we learn to speak about ourselves and the world” rather than being “associated with bargaining between interest groups necessary to secure a relatively fair distribution of resources.”[4] When we deny ourselves the opportunity to plumb the depths of what it means to be God’s people, we run the risk of allowing our citizenship in the United States to trump our citizenship in heaven. As George Will notes, “Men and women are biological facts. Ladies and gentlemen—citizens—are social artifacts, works of political art. They carry the culture that is sustained by wise laws and traditions of civility.”[5] Our wise law was given by God, not the state. Our telos, or ultimate goal, is not civility, but the glorification of God. When the civility of the state becomes our highest good we can be sure that we have forgotten that God is not subject to the state, but the state is subject to God.

            It is the body of Christ’s responsibility to resist the urge to adopt orientations to the world that deny God and, thus, deny us the opportunity to live according to the power of the Spirit. Perhaps worse we must resist the temptation to accept partial pictures of God as if they represent Him fully. It is through our public practices that God’s people engage in what Yoder calls “an a posteriori political practice that tells the world something it did not know and could not believe before.”[6] Being formed as God’s people allows us to tell “the world what is the world’s own calling and destiny...”[7] While it is not wrong for the body of Christ and its members to participate in the political process, we would do well not to become another advocacy group employing methods that are virtually indistinguishable from advocacy groups which would not proclaim Christ. However, we choose to participate in the political process, we must do so in a manner that does not diminish our ability to pioneer “a paradigmatic demonstration of both the power and the practices that define the shape of restored humanity.”[8]

            Second, we must avoid the temptation to limit God. It is certainly appropriate for us to look at specific issues such as abortion, immigration, and environmental policy. We should also be concerned with the extent to which our society is structured so as to cultivate and reinforce partiality. Whatever conclusions we may come to regarding these positions, we should not assume that we have a clear understanding of how and where God is taking our nation simply because we have robust biblical arguments for one issue or another. God moves beyond what we can see. What Israelite, for instance, would have guessed that God would call Cyrus, a Persian king, “his anointed”? Would anyone have guessed that God’s vehicle for delivering Israel from Babylon would be the up-and-coming Persian empire? God is not constrained by democratic processes. He is not required to work within the limits of a given nation’s politics. While we need not refrain from participating in the democratic process according to our biblically and theologically informed convictions, we would do well to distinguish between casting our vote and determining our destiny.

            Finally, we would do well to learn to ask different questions. Our worlds are, to some extent, framed for us. Wolin argues that within a democracy we are subject to “inverted totalitarianism,” which “pays outward fealty to the façade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography, traditions and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.”[9] To the extent that Wolin’s assessment is correct, we can no longer be naïve about the presentations and proposals of political leaders or institutions. In fact, as Christians, we were never in a position to be naïve about the information, systems, and structures that derive from and make up secular society because even the most truthful narratives and beneficial systems do not subject themselves to theological scrutiny and reform. As such, being a community capable of asking theological questions will assist us in cultivating an identity more deeply root in Christ.

            According to Berger and Johnston, “Asking different questions is about shifting the mindset, and it is a reciprocal move: your questions can shift your mindset and your mindset can shift your questions.”[10] When we allow ourselves to be led along by the questions of the day, we inevitably limit our thought process and surrender to the agendas of those who are driving public conversations in a particular direction. While it is certainly appropriate to engage in public discourse as Christians, we need to recall that being in God’s presence opens us up to possibilities unavailable to those who do not know Christ. Christians are empowered by God to engage in the sort of thought and discussion that refuses “to be overdetermined by the frameworks, questions, or choices defined by the world. This refusal does not deny the importance of attending to contemporary questions or challenges. Rather, it is a refusal to be boxed in by a set of solutions or approaches limited by human capabilities and uniformed by the possibilities God provides.”[11]

            Asking theological questions allows us to reorient ourselves within a given situation. Consider the theological orientation of King David who, despite ample opportunities to kill Saul and take the throne of Israel, chose to spare the man who was pursuing him. When we read the narrative of David sparing Saul in the cave, we recognize David’s respect for and faith in God (1 Sam 24:1-22). David’s refusal to raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam 24:10) demonstrates his understanding of the way the world works: the fates of the world’s rulers are not determined by political maneuvering or military might, but by God. As Wells notes in his discussion of Christian ethics, for Christians there is no boundary other than God: “…God takes the place in Christian ethics normally reserved for time, death, sin, bodily limitation, and so on—the conventional boundaries. The only boundary, in other words, is the boundary of God.”[12] He goes on to suggest that conventional ethics “because it is so anxious to establish what is right for everyone, everywhere, at all times, plays down the distinctive claims of the Christian story. It assumes that Christians must accept the givens of the contemporary world and make decisions based on those givens.”[13]

            It seems that we could say something similar regarding conventional politics. Politics, like ethics, has a way of driving us to adopt certain assumptions about the way the world works. To the extent that we allow ourselves to be held back by the “givens” of politics we run the risk of forgetting that we serve a God who is not subject to the structures and powers of this world. As such, “It is crucial that we move away from a God-in-man’s-world to a man-in-God’s-world perspective” with regard to the democratic process.[14] Whoever our elected officials end up being, it is certainly appropriate for us to participate in the political process in an effort to encourage them to act well within the “secondary theater of witness” that is the political realm. Government is not trivial. It matters. Yet, “shifting power from one human government to the next lead by one would-be-savior after another, isn’t liberation…it’s a change of scenery.”[15] Our leaders do not change the fact that as the people of God we serve a Sovereign who has given us “the theological empowerment to live unencumbered” by the givens of even the best political regime.[16] Let us be the body of Christ first and foremost so that the world sees Christ, not democracy or capitalism, as the sure foundation on which God’s people place their hope for the future.

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Footnotes:

            [1] Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 4.

            [2] Ibid., 5.

            [3] James Spencer, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind (Self-published, KSP, 2020), chap. 11, Kindle.

            [4] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 6.

            [5] George Will, The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 3.

            [6] John Howard Yoder, “Sacrament as Social Process: Christ the Transformer of Culture,” in An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology ed. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 655.

            [7] Ibid.

            [8] Ibid.

            [9] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), xxvii.

            [10] Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 17.

            [11] Spencer, Thinking Christian, chap. 2, Kindle.

            [12] Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004), 124.

            [13] Ibid., 133.

            [14] Spencer, Thinking Christian, chap. 10, Kindle.

            [15] James Spencer, “Liberation and Deliverance,” in Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology, ed. Bryan C. Babcock, James Spencer, and Russell L. Meek (Eugene: Pickwick, 2018), 70. [16] Ibid.

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