This week, The Atlantic published a piece on how politics have poisoned American evangelicalism. It’s a good read, and I don’t see an end to this sort of analysis anytime soon. One quote stuck out:
The Church is not a victim of America’s civic strife. Instead, it is one of the principal catalysts.Tim Alberta, The Atlantic
Everything changes, nothing changes.
This is the same basic “accusation” that Augustine of Hippo heard around AD 426 after the sacking of Rome. Augustine’s critics said it could all have been avoided if, like a villain from Scooby Doo: it wasn’t for those meddling Christians! Augustine’s magnum opus was a resounding “no” to their accusations.
And so for nearly 2,000 years, the Church has read Augustine and adjusted ourselves to see Christianity as innocent in the rise and fall of civilizations, while pagans, Jews, Muslims, and the “other” as complicit.
This reception of Augustine is a generalization, of course. More on that later. But a reception of Augustine that assumes the innocence of the Church is with us still. As Bonhoeffer pointed out, the impulse to apply cheap grace to ourselves is attractive. It’s why today, as Russell Moore puts it so well, we prefer to “rebrand instead of repent”.
The Church, then, is at its best when it assumes a posture of repentance. Repentance cedes control, whereas violence seeks control. This means we don’t have to control the narrative, we can be curious. This curiosity might just allow us to test whether we have a crucified Christianity, or a crusading Christianity, according to Kosuke Koyama. Is Christ or Constantine more representative of American evangelical Christians?
Today’s America watched the Christian flag storm the Capitol steps. It is hard to avoid the comparison to Constantine. This image is not going away, in spite of continuous “No-True-Scotsman” arguments.
The idea that Christians pose a threat to American democracy is gaining steam in culture war spaces. Does it have merit for the church? On the one hand, this idea fits the paranoid imagination of evangelicals. We have always imagined a dystopian future of persecution. We have long entertained the notion that we will go down as faithful martyrs in a tyrannical America. We could easily interpret this in a way that suits our own suspicions.
But what if we brought some of the tyranny?
Some might resent what this question implies. Just like some resent the over-generalized association in popular media that equates every living breathing evangelical with the Capitol Rioters. Or that doing Christian ethics in public is an attempt to turn America into A Handmaid’s Tale. We do not have to buy into these generalizations to weigh whether or not we Christians have had a hand in bending or breaking democracy and corrupting our witness.
I think we should at least consider this interpretation posed by Tim Alberta. It forces us to ask how we the Church see ourselves as an exception to We the People at the expense of our neighbor rather than in service of our neighbor. Is making America great again and following those who define “great” the vision the mission of the Church? Who would believe a gospel of peace from a Church committed to this war?
This was Augustine’s chief insight from the ashes of Rome: the city of heaven and the city of man go forward into history, together and yet separate. Bonhoeffer echoed Augustine to German Christians when he wrote, “the church must not engage in direct political action since it does not know the necessary course of history.” This doesn’t mean we don’t get political, it means we recognize that God is partisan when it comes to concrete human lives, as Brian Brock says.
Christians can be loyal to “We The People” as long as we can continue to live the implications of “Jesus Is Lord” in its midst. A political majority is not necessary for this to be true.
So much is given to us as “necessary” in our culture war posture these days: a vote, a position, etc. But “necessary” can signal a lack of imagination just as well as an unbreakable conviction. How long can we justify “necessary” tactics without calling them compromise? Of bending democracy by manipulation, violence, and deception in order to establish a kingdom of peace? Saying “the left does it too!” implicates right-wing politicized evangelicalism in this crisis.
There’s this thing about American Democracy and Christianity that is unique. We will be judged in the Kingdom of God not just over whether Christians submitted to government. The unique contribution of America is that we are the government. In the Kingdom of God, American Christians will be also be judged in how we ruled as governors–each in our own small, but no less significant way.
For so long, we’ve tried to protect the “Christian way of life” in ways that can only be described as anti-Christ. And so, it’s not just democracy at stake, but the witness of the church to a Kingdom not of this world.