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Trapped in a Constantinian Paradigm

A Response to James Smith’s Review of
The Myth of a Christian Nation

In my book The Myth of a Christian Nation I repeatedly call on Christians to engage in social activism. Followers of Jesus are called to be revolutionaries, I argue, meaning that we are to revolt against the status quo insofar as the status quo doesn’t reflect the character of God. Using the unique power of Christ-like love, I maintain, the Church is to take responsibility to address issues of (for example) homelessness, hunger, racism, sexism, greed, social injustice, drug abuse, domestic violence, AIDS, etc. (see, e.g. Myth, pages 115-16, 119-26; 141-46; 178-86). In my book, I attempted to clearly express my conviction that social activism lies at the very heart of the Gospel!

Despite this attempt, in a recent Christianity Today review of my book, James Smith argues that I appear to be advocating a return to “pietism” — a form of faith prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries that is commonly (and mistakenly) viewed as focusing on personal salvation and holiness with little social emphasis. (Later in this essay, I will suggest that we reconsider this understanding of pietism, but for the time being, I will use the term in the way Smith does, though putting it in quotations to reflect my concern.) As Smith understands it, my view is “simply resurrected pietism.” Other evangelicals, such as Chuck Colson, have questioned my view on similar grounds. From their perspective, I appear to be encouraging Christians to retreat from issues that plague the public sector.

In reading these responses to my book, the question that repeatedly comes to my mind is: How has this serious misunderstanding of my view arisen? I don’t believe for a moment that anyone is intentionally misrepresenting my position. Yet, neither can I see how I could have been more emphatic or clear in my book about the importance and centrality of the social dimensions of the Gospel. So, I am left asking: What explains this fairly wide-spread misunderstanding of my position? As I have wrestled with this question, an answer has emerged—one that is as informative as it is symptomatic of the central problem that I address in The Myth of a Christian Nation.

In a word, it seems to me that those, like Smith, who equate my view with a “pietistic” withdrawal from social activism have difficulty understanding my view precisely because the paradigm that structures their thinking essentially equates “social activism” with “political involvement.” Since I, like the “pietists,” make a strong separation between the Gospel, on the one hand, and political concerns, on the other, it is assumed that I must be advocating for a socially disengaged “pietism” – despite my strong and repeated expressions of the need for the church to engage in social activism. Thus, Smith’s paradigm simply does not provide for the conceptual possibility that someone could espouse radical social activism while at the same time espousing a strong separation of the Gospel from politics. However, this is precisely the view I defend in my book, making it almost inevitable that those who hold to a paradigm like Smith’s will have difficulty understanding my position.

From where does this paradigm–reducing social activism to political involvement–arise? Certainly not from the ministry of Jesus, for Jesus never so much as commented on the turbulent political issues of his day. Yet, as I argue in my book, his life and message were centered on social activism. (Here, an interesting question is: Would those holding to this paradigm also brand Jesus as a “pietist”?) Nor does it come from any other part of the New Testament, since the only words of instruction we read about politics in these books are that we’re to obey the laws of the land as much as possible, pray for our leaders, and (significantly enough) not position ourselves as the judge of non-Christians (I Cor 5:12-13, I Pet 4:17, cf. Mt. 7:1-5).

So where does this paradigm come from? Like so much of historic and modern Christianity, it ultimately can be traced back to the fourth-century emperor Constantine. Constantine’s alleged conversion to Christianity (by means of a dream that for the first time ever associated Jesus with military violence!) resulted in Christians acquiring significant political power. Within a few decades the Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and, with the fall of Rome in the fifth century, a dominant political power for centuries to come. The official interpretation of this newly acquired power, first given by theologians such as Eusebius and St. Augustine, was that this political power had been given to the Church by God. By means of political power, it was assumed, the Church “militant and triumphant” would conquer the world for Jesus Christ.

Against the paradigm espoused by Eusebius and Augustine, I submit that this political power is the very same power Jesus rejected throughout his ministry as a temptation of the devil (e.g. Lk. 4.5-7). The barbaric history of how the Church often used this power and the disastrous results it has had on the Church and on missions up to this day would plausibly suggest that Jesus was right, while Eusebius and Augustine were wrong. But, in any event, this acquisition of power created what can be called “the Constantinian paradigm” within which everything is assessed most fundamentally in terms of political power. Within this paradigm, it only “makes sense” to assess differing views of the Kingdom in terms of how much or how little of Caesar’s power they want.

An examination of Smith’s review of my book suggests that he is operating from within this Constantinian paradigm, and explains why his interpretation of my position is, from my perspective, quite mistaken. Smith begins by noting that there has been a pendulum swing within Evangelicalism from a “pietistic” separation of faith and politics before the 1970’s to the heavy identification of faith and politics on the part of the Religious Right (and, I would add, among some on the Religious Left) at the present time. As always happens in history, Smith notes, the pendulum is bound to start to swing back in the other direction. And this, Smith argues, is precisely what my book represents. Thus, from his perspective, my view is “simply resurrected pietism.”

It is important to notice that the continuum Smith assumes in his analysis is defined by how much or how little political power one wants. The “pietists” want none while some on the Religious Right and Religious Left want as much as possible. Since I clearly reject the latter ambition in my book, Smith (and others) assumes I must be advocating the former – again, despite my repeated emphasis on social activism.

I am convinced that those who remain trapped within the Constantinian paradigm have a difficult time conceiving of an entirely different – and, I believe, a much more biblical – way of understanding the Kingdom. In this non-Constantinian view, the Kingdom isn’t defined by Caesar’s power, but by Christ’s power. The Kingdom isn’t about exercising power over others by legislating behavior: it’s about exercising power under others by manifesting God’s transforming love through sacrificial service. Within this paradigm, it makes perfect sense that one could be a radical social activist and yet place no trust in political power.

This is precisely the sort of social activism Jesus engaged in and the sort of activism we are called to imitate (Eph. 5:1-2). Yet, there is no real category for this sort of activism if one is operating within a Constantinian paradigm. The inability of the Constantinian paradigm to understand my position is reflected in each of the three criticisms Smith makes of my position, each of which relates to his classifying me as a “pietist.”

First, Smith argues that because of my “absolute dichotomy” between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world,” I am unable to assess “whether one configuration of society is better than another.” He argues, for example, that because I won’t say that one version of the kingdom of the world is “closer” to the Kingdom of God than another, I can’t say that “South Korea’s democracy is a more just system than Kim Jong-il’s tyranny” or that South Africa is better “after Apartheid” than “during Apartheid.”

Notice that this criticism presupposes the Constantinian paradigm in which the Kingdom of God is the “ideal” of political goodness and justice. Hence, political systems that are “better” than others are by definition “closer” to the Kingdom of God. And any view such as my own that says that no version of the kingdom of the world is “closer” to the kingdom of God than any other must be saying that no version of the kingdom of the world is “better” than another.

Actually, I explicitly address this issue several times in my book (e.g. pp. 22; 54-56; 97; 153-54). Of course some governments are better than others! And, as I argue in my book, of course we should support better forms of government and resist worse forms (e.g. 102-03). The question is: How could Smith miss this line of reasoning in my book?

I believe that the Constantinian paradigm simply prevented Smith from making any real sense of my statements. In his paradigm, there’s no way I could consistently deny that one version of the kingdom of the world is closer than another to the Kingdom of God while affirming that some versions of the kingdom of the world are obviously better than others. Consequently, Smith seems to have concluded that I was simply inconsistent. But if one can simply step outside the Constantinian paradigm for a moment, one will see that there is no inconsistency in my position at all. Seen from outside of the vantage point of the Constantinian paradigm, the kingdom of God simply is not on a continuum of “good” and “evil” with the various expressions of the kingdom of the world. The kingdom of God is not about the “good” or “evil” use of political power (what I call “power over” in the book). Rather, it is about an entirely different kind of power—what I refer to as “power under”—and one that simply cannot be adequately understood or appreciated when viewed from within the Constantinian paradigm. Jesus did not come to give us a “new and improved” version of the kingdom of the world. He came to bring us a kingdom that “is not from this world” (Jn. 18:36). He came to bring us a kingdom that would transform the world through self-sacrificial love. But this is not a kingdom that fits anywhere on the Constantinian spectrum.

Second, Smith believes that my view leads to the conclusion that “Christ’s call to discipleship doesn’t touch the public square.” We must notice, once again, that this criticism presupposes the Constantinian paradigm in which the only viable way to “touch the public square” is by political means. But why should we allow Caesar – or Constantine – to define how we who follow Christ “touch the public square? Surely it is significant that Jesus “touched the public square” (he’s transforming the entire world!) and yet he never allowed himself to be pulled into the political quagmires of his day. Jesus was all about “the public square,” but he simply refused to let Caesar – or Constantine – define the terms of his engagement. And, at the heart of Christ’s call to discipleship is the call for us to transform “the public square” in the same way Christ did.

As I repeatedly stress in The Myth of a Christian Nation, the Church is called to make every issue that touches “the public square” – issues like poverty, justice, violence, sexism, racism, sexual brokenness, etc. – our issue. And, as kingdom people, we should not be fighting one another and dividing ourselves over the question of what government should do for us about these things! Individually and collectively, our job is simply to imitate Jesus and serve those created in His image (all human beings), whatever the issues happen to be. Even more fundamentally, our job is to model for the world what a community that is overcoming these issues through the love of Christ looks like. The best thing we can do for society at large is to model an alternative, kingdom way of doing life.

As part of this second criticism, Smith takes issue with my point that Jesus called the ultra-conservative Matthew as well as the ultra-liberal Simon to be his disciples, and yet we never read a word in the Gospels about which political view Jesus thought was “best.” I argue that this silence supports my contention that the kingdom Jesus was planting is such that this political difference becomes, comparatively speaking, inconsequential. Against this, Smith notes, quite correctly, that this is an argument from silence. Against my conclusion Smith states, “Couldn’t [Jesus] have been calling both of them to an entirely different, but common, politics?”

Of course, this too is an argument from silence. But this hardly entails that these two arguments from silence have equal plausibility (or implausibility). Arguments from silence have force to the extent that there are other considerations that support or count against the conclusion drawn from the silence. Now, in support of my conclusion, I would appeal to “other considerations” such Jesus’ consistent and explicit refusal to weigh in on any of the many hot political issues of his day. I would appeal to Jesus’ explicit teaching that life in the Kingdom of God is to look antithetical to the kingdom of the world (e.g. Mt. 20:25-28). I would appeal to Jesus’ uniform example of refusing to use power over others, preferring instead to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. And I would appeal to Jesus’ explicit teaching that his kingdom is “not from this world.” I am left wondering: To what would those holding to Smith’s view appeal to in support of his argument from silence? As far as I am aware, no such support is available in the New Testament. Moreover, if Jesus was in fact calling Matthew and Simon to a “common politics”, if there was any element of a political agenda in his mission, one wishes Jesus or anyone else in the New Testament would have given us some small hint as to what it might be. As it is, we have only a resounding silence.

Smith’s third argument is that I make a “rather naïve distinction” between the “government’s ability to merely ‘control behavior’ and the church’s ability to ‘transform hearts.'” Against this Smith recalls Marx’s criticism that the Christianity of capitalists has by and large failed to transform the hearts of these capitalists to make them more concerned with issues of poverty. Since, as Smith rightly notes, I have an “antipathy toward ‘judgment’ of any sort” (see. Mt. 7:1-3; Ja. 4:11-12), he rightly states that I cannot judge all these capitalistic Christians to be unsaved. And so, Smith suggests, I must accept that hearts are not as “magically” transformed by virtue of coming into contact with the Gospel, as I seem to believe. This is an interesting criticism. I have four things to say in response to it.

First, I confess I am a bit perplexed by this line of criticism. Is Smith actually suggesting that my view entails that all “saved” people are instantly made perfect – or at least generous? I hope not, for I certainly do not believe that and I nowhere suggest it in the book.

At the same time, I think this criticism may bring us back to the core issue, and this is my second point. To the extent that I can make sense of this criticism, it seems to reveal, once again, a perspective that derives from a Constantinian paradigm. This line of criticism would seem to seriously discount the transforming power of self-sacrificial love. If you’re serious about changing people, this view seems to suggest, you have to use external, political means. As Smith expresses it: “Without laws that challenge unfair systems, even Christians find it easy to overlook inequities.”

Now, I certainly think a political regime that has “laws that challenge unfair systems” is much better than a political regime that has laws that do not. (Of course, we now have to argue about what “fair” entails as well as what “system” best administrates this fairness, but that is beside the point right now.) But why should we think this means that these laws bring (force?) the people of a country closer to the Kingdom of God? If this perspective were true, one is left wondering why Jesus concluded that the Pharisees, who were the guardians and enforcers of the ‘right’ laws in first-century Jewish culture, were farther from the Kingdom of God than prostitutes, tax collectors and other law-breakers (Mt 21:31). I am left wondering if those espousing this line of criticism of my position truly believe that laws that force a more just distribution of resources actually make people more generous (and not just make people act more generously). Are people in more socialistic countries really more generous than people in countries with less stringent laws on the distribution of resources (e.g. America)? Would they suggest, for example, that the Democratic economic plan makes people more righteous than the Republican or Libertarian? Yet, even if we conceded this rather dubious point, it still wouldn’t advance the thesis that better laws bring people closer to the Kingdom of God. For outside of the Constantinian paradigm, we simply have no reason to suppose that the Kingdom of God can be understood on a continuum of good and bad laws, whatever they produce or do not produce.

My third response is that with Smith’s observation that “even Christians find it easy to overlook inequalities,” he may be hitting on the most fundamental issue of all – though, perhaps, not the one he intended. The sad reality is that, on the whole, the Church in the west looks little different from the non-Christian west in all areas except the “faith” we profess. In this light, one can easily appreciate why Smith and others come to the conclusion that trusting self-sacrificial love to transform the world simply doesn’t work. One must at some point become practical. We need laws! And so, the reasoning easily goes, it must be the job of Christians to figure out which righteous laws we need and work to grab the mantle of Caesar’s power to get them enforced. (Of course, at this point Christians will split over which laws we need and which political party best represents them. This is one of the unfortunate but inevitable outcomes of thinking it’s the Church’s job to resolve these political matters).

In this sorry state, it is understandable that anyone who comes along and claims that the Church has its own unique power that will eventually transform the world without the help of politics might sound a bit out of touch with reality. To claim that the Church should focus on being the community where social justice and peace is modeled while humbly serving the world, and to claim that the Church should lead the world not by its (self-designated) superior wisdom on political issues but by example, seems insane, given how impotent the Church at present seems to be. It is this very impotence, I suggest, that makes it hard for Smith and others to even imagine the Church being all that the New Testament says it can be, and should be. And it is this impotence, I believe, that leads many to default to the only visible place where significant power is found these days – sitting squarely on Caesar’s throne.

While I cannot help but empathize with this sentiment, I find myself reminded by the teachings of the New Testament that we are called to be faithful before we are called to be practical or efficient. Faithfulness and practicality sometimes contradict each other (just as they did when the devil tempted Jesus, see Myth, pp.73-75). We have pledged our allegiance to a God who used omnipotent power to get himself crucified, and we are called to imitate (literally “mimic”) him (Eph. 5:1-2). How “practical” can we expect our faith-walk to be? In a Good Friday world, a Calvary-like lifestyle may often not appear very practical. But Easter morning is coming, and our challenge is to have faith that when it comes, we will see that every Christ-like act of loving service we engaged in contributed to the ultimate conquest of good over evil. We must therefore be faithful to trust the power of self-sacrificial love more than the power of Caesar’s sword, however impractical it seems.

At the same time, if we focused on cultivating this Calvary-like lifestyle in our Christian communities more than on grasping our share of Caesar’s power, I believe we would in fact see more “effective” results. The sad fact is that since the fourth-century, when the Church became afflicted with the Constantinian paradigm, we have had only pockets of Christians who have intentionally forsook the power of sword and pursued in a radical fashion the power of the Cross. What would happen if significant numbers of congregations committed themselves to simply being the Church, modeling to the world community life as God intends it, while humbly serving the world in Christ-like love? It would have far more transforming power both on an individual and social level than Caesar could ever imagine. Unfortunately, because of the dominance of Constantinian thinking, we do not have a plethora of examples to inspire our imagination.

Which leads me to my closing point. Contrary to the previously mentioned widespread caricature of pietism today, some of the best examples of a Christ-like approach to social transformation are found among the pietists! As a matter of historical record, most pietists in the 17th and 18th century were not at all focused on individual salvation and holiness at the expense of social transformation. To the contrary, many were renowned for the way in which they placed the onus of social transformation squarely on the church instead of government. Independent of the government, they established schools, orphanages, shelters for the homeless, soup kitchens, and many other socially impacting ministries.

So, while I adamantly deny I am a “pietist” in Smith’s sense of the term, if one is speaking with historical accuracy, I proudly wear the label.

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