Christians Outside of Government

There is a post running on Revelife right now about Christian anarchism.  (In the interest of full-disclosure, I didn’t really read the post.)  In the comment section a conversation broke out about whether Christians are called to be involved in the government.  One commenter said:

Jesus told us to be ‘salt and light’ in our world. How can we be in the governmental world if Christians don’t go into politics? Some of the greatest reformers in the UK – like Wilberforce and Shaftsbury – were effective because they were politicians. That doesn’t mean everyone is called to do that but we should support those who are and are trying to make a difference to our world. To opt out is to give the world to the atheists and unbelievers which I cannot think is the will of God…. I cannot see how on earth we as Christians can effect government and politics except by some of us being involved in some way. As I said not every Christian will be a politician  but every Christian should be responsible and do the simple things. Like voting. 


Though I think that’s a questionable move in the beginning – is the government really a separate world? – the force of the comment is clear enough.  How can Christians makes sure the world comes out right, if they are outside of politics?

The first answer to that is that I’m not at all certain the task of the church is to make sure the world comes out right.  As Hauerwas says at the drop of a hat, “The first task of the church is not to make the world a better place, but to make the world the world.  Without the church acting as the church, how could the world ever realize that it is the world?”  I think that’s more or less right.

At the same time, I don’t think a qualified refusal to support or join the government leaves Christians in a position of irrelevance.  I think Dorothy Day is a good example of a Christian who refused to be directly involved in politics, but affected government and politics.  I think the actions of the Peace Problems Committee following WWI and during WWII in setting up alternative services for draftees was significant as well.

For that matter, the Christian Peacemaker Teams is a brilliant program run by the Mennonite General Committee where individuals sign up for two years of missionary work, where they go into the most violent areas in the world (very often Jerusalem) and continue the long work of one-to-one reconciliation by actually getting to know individuals of the two conflicting sides and bringing them together in friendship.  I think every Christian should be encouraged to do a stint on the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Then there is the long witness of the Quakers as mediators in international disputes.  It was the Quakers who brokered the first diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union fifty years ago, and they have also had significant impact on the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and very practical, real-world options for nuclear disarmament.  Because the Quakers stand as a distinctive, univocal group, apart from party lines, and also because their work is characterized by hard data and research, and respectable scholarship, they are a Christian group whose voice stands out in peacemaking.

The Quakers even have an office at the United Nations, despite their refusal to compromise their distinctive witness to engage in secular politcs.  Being a pacifist, sectarian church isn’t the same as being ineffectual.  This paper, called Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, was written by American Friends Service Committee precisely on the point of how Christians can directly affect the political process while remaining distinctively Christian and nonviolent.

And though Catholics aren’t by any means hesitant to get involved in politics, the global Catholic church has modeled what a unified global church might do if it worked outside of nationalist political structures.  See my recent post Wikileaks and the Catholic Church for details.

All that said, I’m not a Christian anarchist, but I’m not a Niebuhrian, either.  I definitely believe there is room for Christians to engage with those elements of the secular government that cohere with the mission and identity of the church.  As Augustine put it so long ago,

The heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other humans beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.

Hopefully this gives you a few resources to begin looking into on the matter of whether Christians have to join the government to keep from being politically irrelevant.


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