Douglas Todd, the Religion Reporter for the Vancouver Sun, recently wrote an article entitled, Liberal Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘middle way.’ In the article he claims that Liberal Christianity is the faith practiced by most mainline Protestant and even many Roman Catholic Christians in North America. He outlines 10 points of Liberal Christian belief on topics ranging as widely as Jesus, sex, social justice and death. This current series, Classical Christianity – 10 things to know about this ‘ancient way,’ is our response to his article. Although there are some things that Classical Christianity can affirm in each of Todd’s 10 points, there is also much that must be added to, or rejected completely.
Today, we will continue with the seventh point of Liberal Christianity: Governments as a potential force for good. Douglas Todd writes:
Along with Obama, Trudeau and Layton, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne would fall into the liberal Christian camp. Their political differences suggest just how diverse liberal Christians can be. But it’s fair to say most liberal Christians, from Martin Luther King to Tony Blair, are not anti-government activists like those in the American Tea Party. Liberal Christians generally believe governments can be a force for good, including for upholding human rights, providing social services and reducing the gap between the rich and the rest.
This will be a much shorter response. You can breathe a sigh of relief! Todd has articulated what has been the predominant perspective of Classical Christianity throughout the centuries: Governments are a potential force for good. And Todd is also wise to include the qualifier ‘potential.’ No one would deny that governments have the potential for bad as well, and such abuse can happen at the hands of both Christians and non-Christians.
Christians engagement with politics, as with certain aspects of Christian belief, is marked by diversity. Only a minor stream of the Christian faith has advocated political disengagement. Fewer still have maintained that the government is solely a force for evil. From liberal to evangelical to Catholic to Orthodox, Christians have engaged within politics in all sorts of ways even if they have been at odds with one another. Of course this diversity is not exclusive to Christian political activity. It can be found in the Muslim world. It can be found in secular political attitudes too.
Perhaps the most unique contribution of Christianity to politics is an alternate vision of power. Jesus in his death and resurrection demonstrates that power is not to be wielded for our own advantage but for the benefit of our neighbour. We must seek the common good. Liberal and Conservative Christians will be unified in this theological premise even though they will undoubtedly diverge in it’s practical implications. What should not be lost, however, is that both (at their best) are seeking the common good of other people as an expression and embodiment of the gospel’s counter-cultural vision of power.
While governments can go awry, Christians across the spectrum must continue to engage within them for the sake of the common good.
Ultimately Classical Christianity and Liberal Christianity understand that power and authority is based in God himself, who has instituted governments for the sake of the world. And while governments may err and may abuse power, they cannot negate the true Lordship of Jesus Christ.
This shared conviction received notable expression in Abraham Kuyper’s political theology. He was the prime minister of the Netherlands at the turn of the 20th century. While aspects of his thinking are certainly regrettable by-products of his age, he has contributed a great deal to Christian political ideas. Kuyper was convinced that God alone — and never any creature — is sovereign. God alone holds the destiny of the nations because God alone created them and upholds them and rules them. Kuyper famously said “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’’” It was this conviction that helped him articulate a vision for Christian engagement within the spheres of government.
While governments can go awry, Christians across the spectrum must continue to engage within them for the sake of the common good. At the least, this is because Christianity reminds that all human power is subject to a higher power. Christianity insists that this conviction leaves an essential and beneficial imprint on the operations of government. It provides valuable direction for the handling of authority. It brings wisdom for finding a responsible balance between between the exercise and restraint of power. In short, Classical Christianity is less concerned with total dismissals or affirmations of government. It is more interested in informing the good function of government.
In our next post, Mike will respond to the ninth point of Liberal Christianity: When Bad Things Happen.