Again I thank the publishers, Energion Publications, for sending me a review copy of The Politics of Witness by Allan R. Bevere. I have now found time to read it, and here is my review.
This is a slim book, with only 62 pages of main text. As such it can hardly claim to do full justice to the complex main issue it addresses: how, if at all, Christians should be involved in politics. Indeed it makes no such claim, but is presented as an introduction to the issues. Its North American perspective gives it some distance from my British one, but in today’s world US politics have to be the concern of us all.
In general terms this book is a useful introduction to the issue. It gives a clear presentation of how from the time of Constantine onwards the church has been compromised by its often close association with governments. It also clearly shows that, theologically speaking, it is not modern nation states but the church which is the successor of the ancient kingdom of Israel, and so material about Israel should not be used directly for modern political purposes.
Sadly, however, the book does have some serious weaknesses. One of them is related to its disconnected feel. The author is aware (p. xiii) that the book reads somewhat like a collection of rather loosely connected essays on one theme. These loose connections gloss over huge holes in Bevere’s arguments.
Most strikingly, his treatment of the biblical material in chapter 2 comes to an end in Mark 12, and so has nothing to say about the death and resurrection of Jesus or about the birth and early life of the church. There is not even a mention of the apostles’ practice and teaching relating to governors and officials. The first we hear of the church, in chapter 3, is when it is already compromising itself with the state, in the person of Constantine. It may be that in a book this size the material in the latter part of the New Testament could not be discussed in detail, but surely there would have been space for a brief mention of which passages needed further study.
As for the biblical material which is presented, I have some serious issues with Bevere’s treatment. In particular, he quotes (p. 10) Ezra’s instructions concerning the surrounding nations “never seek their peace or prosperity” (Ezra 9:12) without noting how this apparently contradicts what Jeremiah wrote to the Jews in Babylon:
seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
Jeremiah 29:7 (NIV)
How can one resolve this apparent contradiction? One difference is that Jeremiah is writing to God’s people in exile whereas Ezra is addressing Israelites living in a restored theocracy. So if, as Bevere argues, theocratic Israel is not a model for modern nation states, Jeremiah’s instructions are surely more relevant for Christians today.
Bevere makes a similar error when he interprets Mark 10:35-45 (pp. 13-14) as relevant to politics. He claims that this passage is “more than a lesson on how the disciples should relate to one another”. But explicitly that is what it is. If principles can be found here which are applicable to how Christians relate to governments, then they can also be found in many other biblical passages which Bevere argues are relevant only to Israel and to the church.
Bevere also makes use of the rhetorical device of hyperbole to cover weak points in his arguments. For example, he writes:
For Jesus, one of the biggest failings of his people was the decision not to reject violence … Time and time again, Jesus continued to insist that God’s people could not be a light to the nations if they insisted on beating the nations over the head. On more than a few occasions, Jesus refused to be taken off and made king by the people in order to lead a revolt. (p. 13, emphasis added)
Well, the gospels present just one clear occasion when the people wanted to make Jesus king, John 6:15. It is possible, but unlikely, that his triumphal entry to Jerusalem could be interpreted in this way. But one or two occasions is not “more than a few”. I don’t remember Jesus ever addressing “beating the nations over the head”, but a few times, not “Time and time again”, he did teach his disciples to avoid violence. Bevere’s point could have been made much better by discussing these few passages rather than exaggerating their number and prominence.
Skipping over several chapters about which I have no specific comment, I come to chapter 6, “Why the Church in America Cannot Speak Truth to Power”. I accept that there is a real problem in that many Christians involved in politics, on the left as well as the right, seem more interested in power than in the kingdom of God. I realise that Christians in politics will be misunderstood (as I have been!) as supporting the Constantinian system. I understand that any system of political parties tends to corrupt those who go into them with good Christian ideals. But I don’t think these can be used as arguments that no one should even try. It is not of course an easy path for Christians. But we are not always called to do what is easy.
So I find myself in agreement with much of the “(Not So) Modest Proposal” in Bevere’s final chapter. I agree that some Christians are called into national politics. I would also fully support Bevere’s point that this call
must be confirmed by the church just as much as the call to ordained ministry. (p. 60)
Christians who go into politics and in doing so cut themselves off (as President Obama has done) from a local church are stepping into a minefield with little protection. Those who do so with the backing and prayer support (although not the public political endorsement) of a local church are far better placed to avoid wrong compromise, remain faithful to their calling, and make a difference to their nation. So I am pleased to read that Bevere does consider this to be a proper Christian calling.
I’m sorry to sound rather negative about this book. Despite the weaknesses I have pointed out it is still well worth reading. But it is by no means the last word on a subject of great interest to me. I intend to continue blogging about this, taking up some of the themes from Bevere’s book.