A brief guide for Christians on election day…

First, go vote! The “powers” (including governments and those who lead them) are fallen, yes, but God created them and they are reconciled in Christ. We participate in this reconciliation when we follow Jesus in nonviolent action for social change.

Second, don’t get fooled into putting “The Economy” first in determining your vote. We have made this into a god, but one cannot serve both God and Mammon. Turn from this idolatry and follow Jesus as Lord.

Third, in your voting do what you strive to do in all areas of your life: follow Jesus. Here are a few commands of Jesus, lived out by Jesus, that guide me as I think about voting:


Niebuhr or Wink? “The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology,” Yes—But “The Powers Can Be Redeemed”

Richard Beck has written a series of blog posts that have been churning in my thoughts for many days. The essential thrust of his posts is that progressive Christian political theology thinks it is Anabaptist when in actual fact it is Niebuhrian—or perhaps should be. Here’s how he states the paradox:

Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.

In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.

I commend the whole series highly (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth).

I don’t dispute Beck’s central insights. I think Beck is onto something important, and he has stated the matter well, with his usual probity and clarity. Nevertheless, something about the posts hasn’t felt quite right to me, and it’s taken me several days to put my finger on it. The question that has been stirring in my mind is whether he has captured the full range of Anabaptist theology related to political engagement.

I think he has accurately described a common Anabaptist political theology, probably the most common Anabaptist political theology. Essentially, this is the idea of “the church as the locus of life and political witness,” to use Beck’s words. In this common Anabaptist perspective, the church and the world are utterly distinct. The world will do whatever the world does. The church’s call is to bear witness to an alternative political reality shaped around the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are variations on this Anabaptist perspective, though, that have a more positive view of the world and thus a more positive view of political engagement in the world. Some of these might well be an accommodation to non-Anabaptist ideals (Niebuhrian realism, perhaps). However, at least one of these variations grows out of a more distinctly Anabaptist theological framework: Walter Wink’s notion that “the powers can be redeemed.”

Walter Wink has been profoundly influential in Anabaptist circles, in particular for his description of the powers-that-be in the world and how Christians should engage these “principalities and powers,” to use some of the New Testament language. For Wink, this biblical language is not describing independent, personal spiritual beings that mess with our world like malevolent poltergeists. Rather, this biblical language of “powers” is describing the forces at work in our world that seem beyond our control yet have control over us: the systems and structures of power in the world, including the humans who direct them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. In Wink’s view, three things are equally true about these powers-that-be: 1) they were created good, but 2) they are fallen—yet 3) they can be redeemed.

In Winkian Anabaptism, this is where political processes fit, among these “powers-that-be.” Political processes are intended by God to be forces for good—we need good ways of organizing ourselves as human societies, and that means politics. Our political processes, though, are fallen—they inevitably get abused as people with power are corrupted by that power. However, these political processes, like all the powers-that-be, can be redeemed—they can again become forces for good in human societies.

Wink is clear that we cannot simply use the outer shell of the world’s political structures and systems; the internal spirit that drives these must also be changed. However, Wink holds out real hope that this can happen at least to some extent, and not simply as an ultimate eschatological event or only within the church-as-alternative-society. He speaks, for example, of political systems such as democracy as, in their best forms, reflecting kingdom values. Democracy, he even says, is in principle an outworking of “nonviolence,” a core Jesus-and-kingdom-of-God reality (Engaging the Powers, 171-172).

With Walter Wink we have an Anabaptist approach that is more positive to the world than many other Anabaptist approaches—and, one might say without irony, more “realistic” about the world. It is realistic both in the acknowledgment that every human group, every community, every society, needs structures and systems in order to function, as well as in the recognition that these social structures and systems are always prone to abuse of power. It is positive in the sense that it holds out real hope even within this age for social structures and systems that reflect, at least in part, the upside-down reign of God revealed in Jesus.

All this raises a question for me related to Richard Beck’s “Paradox of Progressive Political Theology”: when does political engagement remain “Winkian Anabaptist,” and when does it cross the line into “Niebuhrian Realism”? To put this another way, using Beck’s own examples, is “voting” and “calling Congress” really Niebuhrian realism, or do these non-violent political actions actually reflect some measure of redemption of the powers-that-be, à la Walter Wink?

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

Our Thoughts and Words Matter

us2016Nobody said U.S. politics were dull.

Like most of the world, I watched the recent U.S. presidential race alternating between fascination, amusement, and horror. Sometimes all three at the same time.

It’s the kind of election that will be analyzed from every angle for years to come. I’ve been sorting through my own thinking on “what this all means,” and one of the things that I keep coming back to is this: our thoughts and words matter.

Even more pointedly: As Christians, called to love both neighbour and enemy, it’s not enough that we act in loving ways. We must also think and speak in loving ways.

I’ve often reflected that, if I were set upon by bandits and left for dead by the side of the road, there’s no one I’d rather have find my nearly lifeless body than an Evangelical Christian. Say what you will about Evangelicals, but pretty much every red-blooded Evangelical I know of would stop and help someone in such desperate need, even at great cost to themselves. Evangelicals make great Good Samaritans.

However, I have heard some of those same people speak demeaning, even downright cruel words about others. I have seen some of those good Evangelical Christians manipulate and deceive and aggressively coerce in order to achieve what they believe to be good ends. I have witnessed their haughty looks, their patronizing gazes, their holier-than-thou disdain, their puffed-up egos run amok.

I have been on the receiving end of this. I know whereof I speak.

I know also that this is not merely an “Evangelical Christian” problem. It is a profoundly human problem.

I’ve heard politically correct liberals speak horrendously about conservatives behind closed doors. I’ve seen poverty-advocating progressives walk right by a homeless beggar on the street with not even a flicker of emotion.

The disjunction between outward action and underlying attitude can be found among all of us in one way or another. I’ve seen this problem all too often in myself, across the whole spectrum of ways. We’ve all got a problem, and it’s a deep-seated, far-reaching human problem: a “sin” problem, to use the Christian lingo.

But what has struck me most profoundly over the past few months of observing U.S. politics is this particular disjunction: we don’t seem to get that our outward actions are rooted in our underlying attitudes and fuelled by our shared speech.

We men might never walk up to a woman we don’t know and “grab her by the p*ssy”—but we tell blonde jokes behind closed doors, or we mansplain in our work meetings, or we smirk the words “PMS” to our buddy with a roll of the eyes.

We white people might never lay a finger on a non-white person—but we chuckle at the “drunk Indian” or “lazy Mexican” comment, or we  brush off the brouhaha over “Redskins” for a team name, or we think to ourselves that African Americans or Indigenous people just need to “get over it already.”

We straight folks might never assault the LGBTQ folks among us—but we perpetuate lies about some universal “gay lifestyle,” or we speak about bisexuality as if it’s a fake illness, or we’re not really sure we can trust the lesbian math teacher with our children all day.

We Christians might never bomb the nearest Mosque—but we assume the hijab-wearing woman is living in suppressed silence, or we choose the seat at the airport furthest from the Arabic-speaking men, or we forward the latest “Muslims are Taking Over Canada!!!” email to our family.

I’m not talking about those random thoughts that pop into our head from time to time. I’m talking about those attitudes that we allow to settle into our brains and dwell in our souls. We harbor these fearful, demeaning attitudes toward others, we speak fearful, demeaning words about others, and then we are all shocked when people actually act out of fear in cruelty and violence toward others.

But these things are connected. Our thoughts, our words, our actions—they are all of a piece.

Maybe we’re right about ourselves, that we would never physically harm others. But when we nurture harmful attitudes about others in our hearts and minds, when we encourage hurtful speech about others even in private, these thoughts and words will inevitably bear fruit in action—either ours or someone else’s.

This is what’s behind some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. “Adultery” is not just about sexual intercourse, Jesus declares, and “murder” is not just about the act of killing someone: these outward acts are rooted in our thoughts and anticipated in our words (Matt 5:21-30). In other words, Jesus asserts, “Evil things come from within, from the human heart,” and this is what truly defiles us before God and others (Mark 7:20-23).

Image result for seed sproutingTo borrow another favourite metaphor of Jesus—and some direct teaching from the Apostle Paul—“we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7-8). Our thoughts are like seeds that root themselves deep in the soil of our hearts, and they will shoot up in the words that we speak and bear fruit in the actions of our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deceiving ourselves. We are mocking God; but God will not be mocked.

When we nurture harmful thoughts, even in the deep places of our heart, or speak harmful words, even behind closed doors, we sow seeds of harm that will bear the fruit of harm. This is true for us as individuals, as families and churches, and as a society.

But if we can instead develop settled attitudes toward others that are based on truth and love, and speak words that build up and don’t tear down, then we can sow seeds that will bear the fruit of goodness and truth and beauty in our lives and in the world.

Let’s stop pretending that our inner thoughts and private words don’t matter. They do.

For the love of God—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves—let’s dig deep within ourselves and scrape out our stony hearts in repentance. After all, God has promised a heart of flesh ready and waiting for us, beating with the love of Christ.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Politics and Power, the Jesus Way


I saw you cringe. It’s one of those topics not fit for polite conversation. It may be entertaining for some, intensely interesting for others, but for many it’s one of those “change the subject” kind of subjects.

Cartoon of crumbling Greek buildingBut politics are everywhere. There are politics any time we humans organize ourselves in order to make decisions for our collective interest. Actually, that’s pretty much the definition of “politics.”

And any time we are talking about making decisions, we’re talking about power: the ability to bring about change. Where there’s politics, there’s power.

Yep, there are even politics and power dynamics in church. Yep, even your church.

Politics and power are inevitable in collective human life. They are neither good nor bad; they just are.

But I sure do understand that feeling of “Ugh!” when you hear the word “politics.” After all, so much of the way we do politics—you might say “the politics of the world”—is just not very nice.

We polish up our résumés and show off our good sides: all strength, no weakness allowed.

We shore up support through strategic relationships and backroom deals and hollow promises.

We appeal to our base through polarizing rhetoric: it’s “us” versus “them.”

We listen to those who agree with us, and we ignore—or even disdain—those who don’t.

We appeal to truth—when it’s convenient for us. Otherwise it’s half-truths, sometimes a full-on lie.

We manipulate emotions through sugary, empty rhetoric. Our only harsh words are for our opponents.

We take control whenever we can, holding all the crucial resources and making all the important decisions.

We do all this either consciously (“That’s just politics!”) or subconsciously (our capacity for self-deceit is astonishing).

And we do all this, we like to think, for the ultimate good of all. We know what is best, and we’ll do whatever it takes to bring about that ultimate good. In the politics of the world, the ends justify the means.

I bet you think I’ve just described politics in Canada or America. That may be, but what I actually had in mind was politics in the church.

Go back through the list again. That, all too often, is church politics. That, folks, is just politics, whether in the church or in society.

But Jesus calls us to another way. Jesus calls us to a radically different politics, a radically different power.

The gospel—and the Gospels—are shot through with Jesus’ upside-down politics and power.

Jesus is anointed by God’s Spirit and appointed by God’s decree: “You are my beloved Son (my chosen Messianic King, in other words); with you I am well-pleased (my chosen Suffering Servant, that is).” Jesus is King, but he’s not like other kings. Jesus brings in a kingdom, but not the way other kingdoms come.

Jesus then immediately and persistently follows through on this: he resists the temptation to seize power through evil or idolatrous means, to establish God’s kingdom through the use of overwhelming force or meticulous control—in stark contrast to the ways and means of the world.

Instead Jesus teaches love of God, love of neighbour, even love of despised enemies—and then he goes out and does it: embracing those on the fringe, exhorting those at the centre, attending to the weak, admonishing the powerful.

Rubens - Jesus on CrossSince his followers are slow to get the point, he states it bluntly: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And finally, in the penultimate end, Jesus is enthroned on a cross. He gives his life for the good of others, he embraces utter weakness and relinquishes total control, he refuses right to the bitter end to respond with raw power or naked force. In the politics of Jesus, the means—the ways of the cross—are the ends.

In the middle of all this is a familiar story that sums up Jesus’ approach to politics and power.

In the story Peter declares that Jesus is indeed the Messianic King. Jesus accepts his declaration, but immediately emphasizes that the way to his throne is the way of the cross. Peter then rebukes Jesus: That’s not the way kingdoms are won! That’s not how the world changes! Everyone knows this, Jesus!

And in turn, Jesus rebukes Peter, with words that should strike holy fear in the heart of anyone who claims to be a Christian: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not thinking the way God thinks about such things, but the way the world thinks.”

You are not thinking the way God thinks about such things—about kings and kingdoms, about politics and power—but the way the world thinks.

The world’s politics are about “strong power.” Overwhelming physical presence. Personal charisma and authority. Psychological intimidation and emotional manipulation. Coercive words, polarizing rhetoric, and subtle deceit. Full control.

Jesus’ politics are about “weak power.” Humility, not pride. Compassion, not apathy or antipathy. Persuasion, not coercion. Forgiveness, not blame. Persevering faith, not fear. Self-giving love, not self-serving self-interest.

The world’s politics are tempting, to be sure. You can get quicker results when you force your way through, when you unilaterally push your agenda for a better world. And the longer you spin your wheels trying to achieve a goal without results, or the more pressure there is to bring about a certain objective, not now, but right now—the more tempting it is to resort to strong power.

But the history of humanity—and the smaller stories in our own lives—show over and over again that these “good” results through strong power simply do not last, and they’re often more damaging in the long run. Even in the short run, there are almost always innocent victims, physical or psychological or emotional casualties left in our wake.

Jesus’ politics take longer to achieve any good thing—like small seeds growing, or yeast working through dough—and they demand much more of us—our very lives, in fact. But the end result is shalom for all involved: wholeness, harmony, justice, and abundant life.

So what does all this have to do with church politics? What (gulp) might this even have to do with politics of any kind?

Everything, in every way.

We must resist the temptation to bring about change, even positive change, through strong power. Strong-arm tactics, passive-aggressive behaviour, divisive fearmongering, meticulous control, and more, have no place—no place at all—among followers of the crucified Jesus, whether in the church or beyond it. We need to have a patient, persevering faith, truly trusting that God’s way, the way of weak power, is in fact best.

We must repent of the ways we have engaged in strong-power politics. Again, our capacity for self-deception and self-justification is truly astonishing. This is especially so when we are convinced that our way is the best way, or that we hold the morally superior or theologically correct position. We need constant, rigorous self-monitoring and self-examination—and the humility to accept correction by others.

We must embrace Jesus’ way of weak-power politics. Seeking to persuade rather than coerce: speaking truth to power, showing compassion for weakness. Serving others in humility, not posturing before others to gain status or controlling others to ensure the change we want to see. Forgiving others when they fail, not pouncing on their faults for political leverage. Patiently pursuing long-term shalom rather than short-term gain.

In particular, we must always attend to those on the margins. Always. Even when the margins shift, and those on the outside become those at the centre, and others are now on the margins. And especially when we’re the ones at the centre—along with our friends and family and all our favourite people. Any power for change we possess—through position, wealth, education, whatever—must be used in the way of the cross for those without such power, especially the most vulnerable and unjustly treated.

In other words, we must set aside our cultural brand of Christianity with its ways of the world and respond to Jesus’ radical call to discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

This is politics and power, the Jesus way. And it’s the only way to find real life: for you, for the other, for all.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.