Mainline Protestantism Posts
November 1, 2010 by Jason Hood
“I think the NT doesn’t give us much guidance in being engaged with the state, other than to keep our heads down. For too long mainline Protestant Christians told ourselves ‘we live in a democracy so the biblical problem with ‘Caesar’ really isn’t our problem.’”
Will Willimon is a United Methodist Bishop (North Alabama Conference) and former dean of the chapel at Duke Divinity School. His books have sold over one million copies. Willimon also contributes frequently to his popular blog. His best known work remains the book he co-authored with fellow SAET-interviewee Stan Hauerwas, Resident Aliens.
1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?
WW: The omnipresent modern nation state is a real challenge for us Christians. I think the NT doesn’t give us much guidance in being engaged with the state, other than to keep our heads down. For too long mainline Protestant Christians told ourselves “we live in a democracy so the biblical problem with ‘Caesar’ really isn’t our problem.” This is an illusion. I think Christians can vote, can be involved in the apparais of the modern state but should do so carefully, critically, and not be surprised by how frequently we say, “I’m sorry. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ and can’t support the state in this regard.”
2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?
WW: Not sure what they mean by that. You know more about their thought than I. While I’m not much on “the church” making prononcements about political issues (though my church does it all the time) I think it’s fine for Christians to speak up and speak out whenever they feel God has given them some light on some subject. However, knowing the “Christian” approach to something can be a contentious matter. I also think that sometimes evangelicals have made too radical a distinction between individual believers and corporate responsibilities. When Christians think “corporate responsibilities” we are not to think primarily “state” we are to think “church.” Our first “political’ responsibility is to be the church. If we can be helpful to America in the process, that’s fine, but that’s not our primary concern.
3. Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?
WW: Negatively to Reinhold Niebuhr, who I think has been the source of much mischief and some good. His biggest problem is that he is not a theologian – God in Christ doesn’t seem to play any formative role in his thought.
I’m very attracted to Yoder (and by implication Hauerwas) though sometimes I don’t know what do with their thought other than to think that it sounds faithful to the gospel.
4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?
WW: I’m suspicious of the word “responsibility” these days. Great harm has been done to the gospel and the church by saying, “we have a responsibility to be responsible.” I think it’s fine to vote, but I don’t know that it really changes things. I think it’s fine to have a government job, just know that the government, for all its good, is a chief source of violence and evil in the modern world.
5. How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?
WW: I interpret that passage as putting limits on Caesar and the state, not on the church and believers. Caesar, in whatever form he takes is a servant of, and is answerable to, almighty God. If that doesn’t place some limits of Caesar, I don’t know what does. I really believe with the Psalmist that the “earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” therefore Caesar is not nearly as omnipotent as Caesar thinks.
6. How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics? Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?
WW: I don’t think much about Deut. Or Proverbs. Not quite sure of your point. I love the way the bible is both a product of a culture and yet, thanks be to God, is often that culture’s most severe critic. I also think that the “goal” of Deuternonomy is not the formation of a just state but is the formation of a peculiar people who know how to worship a true and living God.
7. Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?
WW: Seems fine to me, except of course the devil is in the details, the specifics of that service..
8. If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?
WW: Lots of luck, avoiding controversial topics. Again, when the church says “politics” we mean primarily “church” so I would think it’s lots easier to have political opinions (even Glen Beck can do that) than it is to form a faithful congregation. So I guess I see your friend’s point.
9. What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?
WW: I still love Yoder’s, The Politics of Jesus. I also like our Resident Aliens, but I’m prejudiced.
October 8, 2010 by Jason Hood
Recently I mentioned Ernest Gordon’s To End All Wars as an influential 20th century text by a mainline Christian author. Whereas Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound is set in a non-military camp and is more about the dynamics of life within a prison camp among the interned, Gordon’s time was spent in a vicious military prison system and addresses the problem of forgiveness and love for enemies. Few books do a more vivid job of portraying the difficulty and possibility of following Jesus on that cruciform path.
My wife’s grandfather fought the Japanese during World War II. To put it mildly, he was not a fan of the island nation and its inhabitants. Several of our family members read To End All Wars and enjoyed it; somehow a copy found its way to this 92-year-old veteran.
As Providence would have it, he was reading this book when he died. I look forward to one day discussing its contents, and finding out what impact it might have had on his perspective on the Japanese and following Jesus.0 Comments
September 20, 2010 by Jason Hood
The members of SAET are, generally speaking, evangelicals. I’d like to start a series on valuable texts from outside the evangelical tradition.
Can you come up with a “top five” list of books from mainline writers? This can be difficult inasmuch as it requires using labels, which some writers (Jimmy Dunn comes to mind) resist with all their might.
Two of the texts that come to mind are not the normal sort of theological or religious text one might envision in this category: Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound and To End All Wars by Ernest Gordon. These books have a good deal in common. Both are quite readable; both tell a story than involves a fair bit of theology; both are about life in a Japanese prison camp (POW in Gordon’s case, which was much more trying; Gilkey was in a civilian case with much less death). In both instances the theology and worldview of these authors changed drastically while in prison. Both exemplify ecclesial theology, wrestling with doctrine while life has you in its teeth.
Gilkey’s book, and many other fine contenders for a list like this, can be found in Christianity Today’s list of the top 100 books “having a significant effect on Christians” in the 20th century.
Which books would you select and why?1 Comment