by Mark Van Steenwyck
(from The Jesus Manifesto)
A long while back, someone asked me to clarify my views on the relationship between the Church and the State. You see, there are all kinds of ways of looking at how they relate. And this is only complicated by the fact that what folks mean by “church” or “state” is never nail-down-able. There are different understandings of each and different expressions of each. Nevertheless, I want to try to get at this question by starting with my own story. My goal here is to briefly lay out my own take on what Christians should do with government (and other systems that exert power over us).
When I became a Christian in my teens, I was slowly sucked into adopting an increasingly conservative political way of seeing the world. I had moments, here and there, where the radical message of Jesus tried to come out, but it was usually rebuked away. And so, by the time I was 18 I was both an ardent follower of Jesus and an eager devotee of Rush Limbaugh.
That explains, at least in part, this image. Yes, folks, that is a younger Mark Van Steenwyk proudly wearing a red, white, and blue rodeo-style shirt.
Up until my early-to-mid 20s, I wouldn’t have seen much of a conflict between the Kingdom of God and the US of A. I would have gladly affirmed the wise truths of the likes of Glenn Beck. And, if I were ever to disagree with conservative radio hosts, it would only have been because I was, ever-so-slightly, more libertarian than they were.
It would be fair to say that I believe that the Church was God’s beacon of light in the world to save people’s souls, and that the USA (and her allies) was God’s beacon of light in the world to save people from tyranny. These two kingdoms were, I believed, allies with only slight quarrels. And those quarrels were resolved through culture wars–where the Church re-asserted divine values so that the people of the US would be guided rightly.
In my mid-twenties, I had a crisis of faith. I realized–and it came as quite a shock–that I really didn’t love Jesus very much. I realized that I had treated him formulaicly. I realized that I really didn’t enjoy reading the Gospels, and that I thought Paul was a lot smarter than Jesus. Being a clever young man, I realized that either I needed to re-center my thinking and way of life on Christ, or I had to somehow maneuver myself theologically into justifying my marginalizing of Jesus. For some reason that I don’t quite understand, I gambled on Jesus.
This wasn’t a quick decision. It required months of cognitive-dissonance-fueled depression.
During that time, I came back to some conclusions that were rebuked away in my youth. I affirmed Jesus’ way of peace and poverty. From there, I stumbled into Anabaptist and Liberationist readings of Scripture. And my view of government became increasingly anarchic.
Let me clarify: anarchy isn’t blowing crap up. Anarchy isn’t chaos. It is, at its most basic, the conviction that there should be no hierarchies between people. Governments involve the rule over the many by the few…even in “democracies.” Corporations involve ownership of the few through the work of the many…even in “nice” companies like Apple. Etc. Any time anyone sets themselves over another, there is injustice. Anarchy rejects such over-one-another-ness and seeks to nurture deep mutuality. And, I believe, that this is very much complementary to the movement Jesus sparked 2000 years ago.
But, for a while, I still clung to this idea that there are two Kingdoms: on the one hand you have the kingdom of God, on the other hand you have Empire…the governments and powers of the world. I believed that, as a Christian, my duty was to nurture the Kingdom of God, and to disregard the other stuff altogether. In other words, I believed that I should proclaim Christ’s rule and, if those submitted to other authorities wanted to come and join team Jesus, they should leave Empire. I still resonate, mostly, with this.
However, in recent months I’ve shifted in some of my thinking. I once believed that followers of Jesus should really limit their engagement with government. That our task was purely evangelistic–to woo people out of Empire and into the Kingdom of God. But now, I’ve come to view the government in a different way. But, before I get to that, let me pause to clarify at least three of the predominant ways people understand these two “kingdoms.”
The view of Unam sanctum: Basically, in 1302, Pope Boniface VIII affirmed that there are two “swords”–a spiritual sword and a temporal sword. These two different sorts of authority…church authority and earthly authority. However, spiritual authority trumps earthly authority. Therefore, the Pope is God’s highest authority on earth. While it is easy to dismiss this view (and to see how it contributed to the Reformation), one can find variations of this in American society today. This is, essentially the view I held as a young man. I believed that America could only be a righteous beacon of liberty in the world insofar as it was properly submitted to the values of Jesus. In other words, America is awesome because it is a Christian nation. Jesus trumps America, paper covers rock.
One promblem with this view: Uh. There is something strange about using the religion started by a homeless prophet who preached good news to the poor and love of enemy as some sort of guiding set of values for Empire. Governments are made for power…the way of Jesus doesn’t really give much positive value to coercion and power.
Luther’s view: God rules the world through two kingdoms…one is the kingdom of the world, the other is the kingdom of God. He rules the world with reason and law by ordaining institutions like governments. The worldly kingdom restrains the “ravenous wolves” of the world. He rules the church through faith and grace. In this view, Christians are called to engage actively in both kingdoms in hopes that the kingdom of God can transform the kingdom of the world, however the two kingdoms are to remain seperate. They are both God’s kingdoms, both sanctioned, and are both to resist evil, each in their own seperate spheres. In other words, both God’s kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom are from God, and we should give proper respect to both, and engage in both.
One problem with Luther’s view: This leads to an impotent church. Conflicts of interest are kept to a minimum by a sort of dualism that easily seperates spirituality from every day life. This perspective is prevalent…and it allows for someone like George W. Bush or Barack Obama to espouse a firm commitment to Jesus Christ while bombing people (including the extra-wicked use of cluster bombs).
One traditional Anabaptist view: The two kingdoms should be kept totally separate. Once you are baptized, you have nothing to do with the kingdom of the world. You can’t be a soldier or in the government. There are some variations on the view. For example, some early Anabaptists thought it was ok to work in certain government jobs. However, Anabaptists have generally held that our allegiance to Christ means that the worldly “kingdom” is not our kingdom. In other words, God’s kingdom is ok…and, perhaps, so is Caesar’s…but we should let Caesar have his kingdom and we’ll stay out of it. I realize that folks usually peg Anabaptists as separatists who have washed their hands and have left the world to its own devices. But this is an unfair perspective. While Anabaptists have, traditionally stayed out of politics and military, etc, they have been involved in service, relief, education and more around the world in a way that is largely disproportionate to their numbers.
Problem with this view: However, there can still be a lack of concern for the problems of the world that flows out of this. Also, this view allows for great acts of charity, but it potentially limits one’s ability to do justice. In other words, if Anabaptists avoid engaging structures of oppression, the best they can do is run from oppression or try to pull people out of oppressive structures. Yet, there tends to be an inability to challenge or reform oppressive structures.
There are other views, to be sure. And, though I’m attributing these three views to three different groups, these ideas aren’t unique to these groups. In other words, lots of people have grappled with these ideas in similar ways. But, it seems to me, these give us a general sense of three ways folks tend to think about how “two kingdoms” relate to one another.
I, quite frankly, see all of them as unsatisfactory. Oddly enough, I find myself resonating most with the first and third views. To me, if Jesus is king, he is king. If someone has to rule over everything, it should be Jesus. And his Church is his representative on earth. I mean, most Christian have always held that this is the way it will be in End. And, since I have a (mostly) realized eschatology, there is a straight-forwardness to this approach. However, I don’t think coercion and violence and domination fit with whatever I would consider Christ’s rule. So, I affirm the Anabaptist conviction that we shouldn’t contribute into systems of oppression.
The Un-Kingdom of God: In other words, I affirm that only Christ has authority to rule over the earth…and that the Church is his embodiment on earth. But, I don’t affirm, when it comes to tangible power, Christ’s Supremacy. Rather, I affirm his subservience…he is an “unking.” Jesus has the right to rule, but he doesn’t. And, neither should governments.
I don’t believe in two separate kingdoms with two separate spheres. Instead, I believe in an unkingdom–I believe in Anarchy in the way of Jesus. And any government that tries to set up authority–to oppress or dominate or rule over others–is utterly illegitimate.
I affirm, as I did when I wrote this , that we aren’t to take up arms to challenge systems of oppression. But I’ve become increasingly convinced that, since only the un-kingdom of God, which is anarchic, is what God desires for our world, it is our duty as the Church to subvert the government, to non-violently revolt. Rather than simply ignoring it, we must struggle against it. Proactively. Actively. Creatively. We must take it down brick by brick. But, as with everything, we must do so with love.
And we must seek to replace it by forming, in the midst of the ruins of the old world, autonomous communities of deep mutuality and liberation. We must both create alternatives, as well as resist systems of oppression. If you do the former without the latter, you end up with a disconnected enclave. If you do the latter without the former, you end up making a lot of noise that never goes anywhere.