Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Myth of a Christian Nation

An Interview with Greg Boyd is a little old, but I just stumbled across it today, of all days. Jared Coleman at PlanetPreterist interviewed him in March. Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church sounds very interesting.

Key quote:

If politics could save the world, it would have done so by now.

Here's the rest ...

1. First of all, thank you very much for writing this book! I enjoyed reading it immensely! I am curious to know, how would you characterize the general reaction that you get whenever you share this material with others, whether individuals or groups? Are there any trends that you have identified in the responses that you get?

GB: I first preached the basic content of The Myth of a Christian Nation to my congregation in a 2004 six-part sermon series entitled "The Cross and the Sword," and the reaction was... well... "interesting." On the one hand, about 1000 people left in anger or frustration (about 20% of my congregation). On the other hand, I've never had so many people be so enthusiastic about a sermon series. So, I've learned that, at least in America, this is a rather explosive issue.

In my opinion, the evangelical church in America today has to a significant extent allowed itself to be taken captive by political and nationalistic agendas. Many sincere believers place their hope on these agendas and to a significant degree define their spirituality in terms of promoting these agendas. These folks tend to react strongly in a negative way when you call their allegiance to political or nationalistic agendas into question. It cuts to the core of what they're about. But, on the other hand, there are many evangelicals (a minority by comparison) who really see the danger of too closely identifying the Kingdom with any political or nationalistic ideals. They understand that humbly serving sinners is more important for the kingdom than passing laws against them. They are often frustrated by the arbitrary and self-serving moralistic politicizing of "the right wing." They see how this is undermining the advance of the kingdom in America. These folks tend to leap for joy at the message of my book The Myth of a Christian Nation. Many have told me this book - or the sermon series that lead up to it -- articulates and demonstrates an intuition they've had for a long time.

2. You said, "The only criteria that matters, then, in assessing whether anything has any value within the kingdom that God is building on earth is love - love defined as Jesus dying on the cross for those who crucified him (1 John 3:16). However impressive a gift or achievement may be in its own right, it has no kingdom value except insofar as it manifests God's love - except insofar as it looks like Jesus Christ." (p. 45)

Many Christians would agree that only loving actions count as kingdom of God actions and yet would also believe that political activity aimed at protecting the poor, the orphan, and the widow is just such an action. Assuming that these Christians are not simply following the pattern of the world and giving to others out of abundance, but are actually pouring themselves out for others in Christ-like service, how would you respond to their objection to the way that you have excluded their political activity from kingdom activity?

GB: Clearly caring for the poor, the orphan and the widow - and many other such things - expresses Christ-like love, and is therefore a central aspect of kingdom life. The problem arises when we allow politics to define the terms of the debate about how best to care for the poor, etc. Republicans have one program, Democrats another, Socialists another, Libertarians yet another, etc... Who is right? Good and intelligent and godly people can and do disagree about these matters, for the complexity involved in the way politics frames the issues renders the "right" solution ambiguous. From a kingdom point of view, however, this ambiguity shouldn't matter, for our trust shouldn't be in finding the "right" political solution - as though our job was to "Christianize" one of the many and always limited options the politics of our day offers us. Our trust should rather be in the power of God using the humble, self-sacrificial love of disciples to change the world. If politics could save the world, it would have done so by now. The only thing that will save the world - and it certainly will save the world - is people giving up trying to fix the world by political means and rather dedicating their life to imitating Jesus, who in principle saved the world by dying for those who deserved it least (Eph. 5:1-2).

Jesus never allowed himself to let the world define the terms of his approach to issues. People in his day repeatedly tried to loop him into the political quagmires of the day, but he refused. He wisely turned their issues into opportunities for kingdom lessons. His kingdom was NOT of this world (Jn 18:36). When Christians forget this, we allow the ambiguity of the political system to pollute the unambiguous beauty of Calvary like love. We begin to worry more about "winning" in the political game than about simply serving. And invariably, because the issues of politics are always ambiguous, we end up letting the world divide us. I "Christianize" the Socialist solution, you "Christianize" the Republican party, another "Christianizes" the Democratic party, and so on. And the result is that instead of working as kingdom people to live out the distinctly kingdom approach to social issues, we fight over who is right.

3. You also said, "One wonders why no one in church history has ever been considered a heretic for being unloving. People were anathematized and often tortured and killed for disagreeing on matters of doctrine or on the authority of the church. But no one on record has ever been so much as rebuked for not loving as Christ loved.

Yet if love is to be placed above all other considerations (Col. 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8), if nothing has any value apart from love (1 Cor. 13:1-3), and if the only thing that matters is faith working in love (Gal. 5:6), how is it that possessing Christ-like love has never been considered the central test of orthodoxy? How is it that those who tortured and burned heretics were not themselves considered heretics for doing so? Was this not heresy of the worst sort? How is it that those who perpetuated such things were not only not deemed heretics but often were (and yet are) held up as "heroes of the faith"?" (p. 83)

How does this shape your view of creedal Christianity, by which I mean the way that churches and individual Christians use creeds as tests of orthodoxy? Does the fact that this sword-wielding was done in the name of the creeds (or of Christ via the creeds) make you question the practice of using the creeds as tests of orthodoxy?

GB: The fact that Christendom has often not looked anything remotely like Jesus, dying on the cross for those who crucified him, and the fact that no ecumenical creed places Christ-like love as the most important article of faith (despite the New Testament's repeated insistence on this very point!) leads me to conclude that, for all the wisdom found in the church tradition and the ecumenical creeds, these things must never compete with Scripture as the final authority for kingdom people. The Church throughout history manifested the kingdom we are to be solely committed to insofar as the Church looked like Jesus, serving the world, including enemies, whatever the price. Insofar as the Church didn't look like this, it was just a religion. Now, religions do some good in the world, but they also do a lot of evil. But the kingdom is always beautiful, for it always, by definition, looks like Jesus.

4. How would you react if you heard of a church that had actually abandoned a belief-based approach to fellowship/orthodoxy in favor of a praxis-based approach to fellowship/orthodoxy?

GB: The kingdom of God isn't just about doing things, or even primarily about doing things. It's about manifesting a new kind of reality - namely, the reality of God's reign (the King's Dome). This reality is centered on Jesus Christ. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us what God is like, reconciles us to the Father, and frees us and empowers us to live God's life. This obviously means that the kingdom is ACTIVE - faith without works is dead, as James says - but it's a radical activity that flows out of a real reconciled relationship with God. So, if someone dismisses as unimportant the Christ-centered faith dimension of Christian faith and life, I don't see how they can claim to be doing distinctly "kingdom" activity. They may be doing a lot of great things, for which we can be thankful. But they are not explicitly glorifying Christ in the process - and this is the essence of the kingdom Jesus came to bring.

I would like to add one final word: while orthopraxis without orthodoxy is deficient, it is no more so (and arguably less so) than orthodoxy without orthopraxis. A genuine faith in Christ transforms one to look and act like Jesus, dying on Calvary for those who crucified him.

5. You seem to leave some room for Christians to serve in civil government (if I haven't misread you), but you argue that every version of the kingdom of the world is out to preserve and promote its own interests at the expense of the interests, and often even the blood, of its enemies. So doesn't this make service in civil government a conflict of interest for Christians?

GB: True, all nations, governments, and parties within governments seek their own self-interest. By definition, they can't represent the kingdom of God. But the same is true for all corporations! It's just the way the fallen world works. I don't think its possible, or necessary, to work out a dogmatic ethical stance on the many issues this raises that would apply to all people at all times. Christians simply have to strive to follow God's leading on these ambiguous issues. We have to be okay with unresolvable ambiguity and with people having differing perspectives and callings on these matters. My primary concern is to help kingdom people see that, while they should manifesting Christ-like love in all they do (I Cor. 16:14), they should never equate what they do in civil government or in corporations with the kingdom of God. A person can and should vote or run for a political office if they feel so called - but they shouldn't equate your vote or office with the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not of this world.

I didn't write The Myth of a Christian Nation to give everyone the "right" answers on what kingdom people should or should not do. I wrote it to install a vision of the beautiful kingdom that will help them more authentically, and more clearly, think through the issues for themselves.

6. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed reading The Myth of a Christian Nation I am very interested in asking... do you have any other books that you are working on or planning to write in the future?

GB: I'm working on a massive project for InterVarsity Press called The Myth of the Blueprint which attempts to explain how the Church's theology became deterministic in the first five centuries of Church history. I'm also working on a project called Cosmic Dancing which shows how major aspects of the new scientific revolution are suggesting that the future is partly open.

For information about these projects and other aspects of my ministry, readers can check out my website at www.gregboyd.org.