Does the church have anything to do with politics? I remember coming across an article by a local church leader on the internet which emphatically answered that question in the negative. This was more than fifteen years ago when I was just a curious young Christian trying to make sense of my faith. While I couldn’t remember anything else about that article, I remember happily accepting that conclusion, convinced Christianity was apolitical and concerned primarily about the salvation of souls. The only problem was that the New Testament seems to be in disagreement.
That we think Christianity has nothing to do with politics is a testament to how effectively we’ve spiritualised the political aspects within the New Testament, not in the least the gospel message. When asked to explain the gospel, we usually express something akin to “Jesus died for my sins.” Those of us more familiar with systematic evangelism methods would perhaps give an exposition along the lines of “Four Spiritual Laws,” or “Two Ways to Live” with a call to receive the promises of Jesus. While these do convey an important aspect of what Jesus has done for us, it reduces the gospel to an offer of personal salvation from judgment. The spiritual has drowned out the overtly political overtones.
This certainly wasn’t how the Greco-Roman world understood the concept of gospel. In Greek the word gospel is euangelion and literally means “good news” (eu + angelion). However, it was a technical term which meant “news of victory” and referred to the news delivered from the battlefield to the city after a triumphal battle. This term was also used in the worship of the Roman emperor, who was regarded as a saviour and honoured as a god. A 9 BC stone inscription recovered from the ancient Greek city of Priene uses euangelion in reference to the life of the emperor Caesar Augustus. His birth, his victorious campaigns, his ascension to the throne, and his rein which ushered in peace, were considered euangelion for the people of the Roman Empire. In a similar vein, perhaps many Singaporeans would consider our ex-minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew to be euangelion for Singapore.
The early Christians understood euangelion within that cultural context. Consider the four Gospels: they present the story of Jesus’ birth, baptism (anointing as King), ministry, death by crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (to the heavenly throne) as the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes for a Messiah. The common overarching narrative which they tell climaxes with Jesus receiving all “authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28.18) and ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. According to New Testament scholar Matthew Bates, this narrative constitutes the Christian euangelion and it “reaches its zenith with Jesus’s installation and sovereign rule as the Christ, the king. As such, faith in Jesus is best described as allegiance to him as king.”
In the earliest recorded sermon at Pentecost, Peter preaches the same euangelion: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2.36). To hear this is to be confronted with a choice of allegiance. If we accept the euangelion and proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” then we’re not merely dealing with spiritual categories but also political ones. It’s a decision to affirm Jesus as our “supreme leader” and no one else; to believe in Jesus Christ is to affirm Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed King of whose kingdom we profess to be part of. We’re not accepting Jesus merely as the “lord of our hearts”, as if the euangelion is some kind of abstract spiritual offer. On the contrary, the euangelion is a pronouncement that Jesus is the divine King over the nations, and that demands our complete allegiance, no less in the political.
For Christians, all earthly politics are relativized by this allegiance to Jesus. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “All early readers of the gospels knew perfectly well that the word ‘gospel’ itself … was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar [the emperor], the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as ‘good news’, ‘gospel’.” Theologian Peter Leithart asserts that “As soon as the church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town. The introduction of the church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls.” By virtue of our positive response to the euangelion of Jesus, we’re no longer in a position to uncritically accept the politics of the earthly city. No Christian should be besotted with any political party, government, political system or political ideology because our allegiance is to Jesus. Christians therefore live with a different political reality. Thus, Peter regarded the Christian communities he wrote to as a diaspora (1 Pet. 1.1)—they’re “aliens and exiles” who do not ultimately belong to the Roman Empire but to the Kingdom of Heaven. Similarly, Paul reminded the Philippians their true “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3.20) and not Roman Philippi. Hence Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith believes that “The earthly city does not have the corner, or the last word, on politics.” That last word belongs to the church because she embodies the politics of the eschatological universal Kingdom in herself.
That embodiment takes place in the church’s worship. Smith sees the liturgy as inherently formative: “The proclamation of the Word is the rehearsal of a liberation narrative for a royal priesthood, the announcement of a euangelion that rivals Caesar’s. The Table [Holy Communion] is a revolutionary meal in which even the ‘are nots’ (1 Cor. 1.28) are invited to sit at the King’s table. The weekly gathering of the saints is a rite that rehearses their heavenly citizenship.” This forms in Christians the discipline and habits of the Kingdom of Heaven to effectively resist the influence of earthly politics. For example, the church regards the inherent dignity of every human person as sacrosanct because all humanity is made in the image of God. As a result, pragmatic government policies that tend to reduce the value of human persons to their utility would certainly be an affront. By virtue of the church’s theological commitment, she must subject these policies to critique and resist their dehumanizing values. Her resistance would constitute the active embrace of the “useless” who’re rejected by society (but loved by God), thus opening up a radically different social imaginary. Of course, this doesn’t mean the church is set in opposition to the state. While earthly politics is permeated by evil because it’s constituted by sinful human beings, the church must still recognize the God-given authority of the state and be subject to it as the maintainer of justice and order. Furthermore, few state policies and institutions are completely void of goodness and hence can be supported even while subjected to critique.
The way the church engages with politics can only be through long-suffering humble witness and persuasion. There’s always a temptation to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth either by legally imposing her theological commitments through the mechanism of the government or by getting directly involved in state politics. However, to do so is a betrayal of Jesus since that inevitably involves coercion and violence, an acquiescing with the “rulers and authorities” (Col. 2.15) which he himself deposed. If our political reality emerges from a free assent to the euangelion of Jesus, then imposing it by force on others puts the cart before the horse and destroys our Christian witness. Here, one is reminded of a local group of Christians who attempted a takeover of a prominent secular Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) through political manoeuvring eleven years ago. They did so to forcibly steer the NGO away from what was deemed to be a morally liberal direction. While their plans were subsequently foiled, the bold shock tactics of the group scandalised many Singaporeans and even the Prime Minister had to publicly weigh in on the potential social ramifications of this saga. This did much to damage the Christian witness in the local public square.
We have to remember that Jesus became King only after suffering the excruciating process of being betrayed and abandoned by his own associates, attacked by false allegations, trialled by a kangaroo court, and finally liquidated by those keen to preserve their political power and social status. If so, then the church—of whom he is head—must reject the kind of earthly politics which her King suffered from, and which was put to shame at the cross. Instead, she must embody the cruciform politics of self-giving love: she must be a community of love who proclaims the euangelion of Jesus in both word and deed to those on the margins; she must be grieved by the evils around her and be moved to speak truth to power with love, even if it brings about martyrdom—the ultimate witness.
In conclusion, it can be said that the church has everything to do with politics. To be merely concerned with the salvation of souls is to maintain a kind of disembodied, otherworldly gospel that is alien to the tenor of the New Testament. The church is itself a polity of the Kingdom of Heaven made up of people who’ve sworn allegiance to Jesus as King. Since the universal Kingdom of Jesus will eventually be established on earth, the church must inevitably be concerned with earthly politics, even while engaging them in a manner manifestly different—one that’s rooted in the euangelion of Jesus.
Pr Png Eng Keat
July 12, 2020