“Political side of Christianity”? Is there such a thing? Well, some say yes, and some say no.
Those who say no often see Christianity as all about getting to heaven, living ethically, and little else. Those who say yes often see Christianity as all about affirming traditional American values of economic and political freedom.
Wright, however, offers some interesting insights. The next few quotations are from Wright’s paper “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire.”
Caesar demanded worship as well as “secular” obedience; not just taxes, but sacrifices. He was well on the way to becoming the supreme divinity in the Greco-Roman world, maintaining his vast empire not simply by force, though there was of course plenty of that, but by the development of a flourishing religion that seemed to be trumping most others either by absorption or by greater attraction. Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world. He was therefore to be hailed as Lord, and trusted as Savior.
In the First Century Roman Empire, the titles “lord” and “savior” were specifically claimed by Caesar, who further demanded worship from his subjects. Thus, when Paul tells Roman citizens who their true Lord and Savior is, he was most certainly making a political statement.
In some verses, this implication is fairly explicit.
We may begin with [Colossians] 3.20. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await the Saviour, the Lord Jesus, the Messiah”. These are Caesar-titles. The whole verse says: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality.
“Citizenship” was something enjoyed by Caesar’s subjects. A Roman citizen was entitled to certain high standing and protection under Roman law. By declaring that the citizenship of Christians is actually “in heaven,” Paul is declaring that our standing and protection is in God, not Caesar.
And the point of having “citizenship in heaven”, as has often been pointed out, is not that one might eventually go home to the mother city; Rome established colonies precisely because of overcrowding in the capital, and the desire to spread Roman civilization in the rest of the empire. The point was that, if things were getting difficult in one’s colonial setting, the emperor would come from the mother city to rescue and liberate his loyal subjects, transforming their situation from danger to safety.
In short, a claim of Roman citizenship was not a claim that a citizen would go to Rome when he dies, but a claim of entitlement to present protection from the Emperor himself. Hence, being a “citizen of heaven,” isn’t merely about where our souls will be when we die, it’s a claim of present protection from the One True Lord.
What is the immediate significance of this Jesus-and-Caesar contrast? It was of course a challenge to an alternative loyalty. Jesus is the reality, Caesar the parody. It was the legitimation of the Christian church as the true empire of the true Lord. And it was the outworking of the great poem (if that is what it is) in the previous chapter. The poem in chapter 2 has exactly the same shape as some formulaic imperial acclamations: Jesus, not Caesar, has been a servant, and is now to be hailed as Kyrios [Greek for "lord"].
Now it gets interesting. Paul is not claiming a dual citizenship, because he recognizes but one Lord and one Savior. Therefore, Paul says, we are only citizens of heaven, and nowhere else.
[I]n conclusion: if Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology [doctrine of the church], in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises. From this point of view, therefore, this counter-empire can never be merely critical, never merely subversive. It claims to be the reality of which Caesar’s empire is the parody; it claims to be modelling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and peace, and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which Caesar’s empire boasted.
Take a moment. Consider: who is Caesar today? Plainly, for me, the American government. How is the government like or unlike the Roman government?
Well, without a doubt, the American government claims the title “lord,” demanding obedience above the obedience we owe Jesus.
Recently, the Supreme Court has held that the government may enact and enforce laws that ban religious practices so long as the laws aren’t aimed at religious practice. Hence, if a city passes an ordinance banning buildings that are too large, which just happens to ban church buildings, so be it.
Of course, American citizenship brings with it entitlement to the protection of the state, but at the price of owing certain loyalties to the state. Citizens can be drafted. Citizens must pay taxes. And to become a citizen, a foreigner must swear an oath of loyalty to the government.
Finally, the American government takes great pride in breaking down racial and ethnic barriers–as though the government could, by law, make us give up our hatreds and prejudices.
Now, I don’t want to be understood as saying any of this is sinister. No, the United States government makes the same demands of its citizens as any other nation-state. Indeed, the U.S. demands far less than many. And it offers far more protections for the religious than many nation-states. But, ultimately, it claims the highest power. When your religion and any government are in conflict, the government always thinks that it should win. It’s the nature of the modern nation-state.
But the question isn’t whether the American government is good or bad, better or worse. Ultimately, the question is whether the claims of the government are consistent with Jesus being our only Lord and Savior and with our citizenship being only in heaven? And that’s a hard question.
You see, that question applies worldwide, because everyone is a citizen of some country or other. Indeed, some also have loyalties to tribes and clans in addition to their nations. But for Christians, we have but one tribe, one clan, and one nation.
One of my children went on a short-term mission trip to Kenya a few years ago, and spent time with Kenyan Christians who’d been converted out the local pagan religions. When these Kenyans accepted Christ, they took new “Christian” names, because they understood that had to surrender their tribal loyalties, and in Kenya, your name defines the tribe you belong to. They, quite correctly, saw becoming a Christian as leaving one tribe to join another!
But we Americans take great pride in our nationality. We very much want to be American Christians–not just Christians. Indeed, the very suggestion that we must see heaven as our only citizenship is offensive to most.
But we told, quite explicitly, that our only citizenship is in heaven.
(1 Pet. 2:9-12) But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Peter first declares the church a new “nation.”
10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
But he also says that before we became part of God’s nation, we were not a “people” at all. In other words, rather than being Romans (or Americans), we were truly nothing, because there is truly but one nation. All others are pretenders or, as Wright likes to say, mere parodies of the real thing.
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
Our citizenship in heaven places certain demands on us. We are to think of ourselves as “aliens” and “strangers” in America. An alien is, of course, a non-citizen.
Paul, of course, claimed his rights as a Roman citizen. The point isn’t that we renounce all civil rights. The point is that our confidence is in God, not the government. And, of course, it wasn’t long before the Roman government stopped protecting Christians and began killing them.
12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
But we live in tension. The Kingdom is not fully realized. We are citizens of a nation that’s here but not fully here. We aren’t allowed to escape into the Kingdom and separate ourselves from the pagans. Rather, we are to live among the pagans and show the superiority of our citizenship by the goodness of our lives.
Just so, Wright concludes with regard to Romans,
Paul wants the Roman Christians to live appropriately in the tension between present and future. This does not mean, as Paul’s own example bears out, that one must be politically quiescent or repressed until the final reappearing of Jesus. Preaching and living the gospel must always mean announcing and following Jesus, rather than Caesar, as the true Lord. But the eschatological balance must be kept. The church must live as a sign of the coming complete kingdom of Jesus Christ; but since that kingdom is characterized by peace, love and joy it cannot be inaugurated in the present by chaos, hatred and anger.
Paul was no fan of the violent overthrow of the government. Neither did he demand withdrawal. Rather, we are called challenge the powers of the present age by living like Jesus: in peace, love, and joy and by doing good works, generously given to others.
This is a different kind of revolution, but one that ultimately overthrew Caesar.
Which leaves me with this question. Is there anything–anything at all–about Christianity in America that threatens the American government? If the church were able to spread and practice its teachings more and more each year, would the church ever find itself in conflict with the government?
Is there any sense in which the American church is–
a counter-empire … the reality of which [America] is the parody; [a church that] claims to be modelling the genuine humanness, not least the justice and peace, and the unity across traditional racial and cultural barriers, of which [America has] boasted.
Much to my chagrin, the sad truth is that the American government has done much more for unity across racial and cultural barriers than the church!
In short, the church, as we “do church” today, is a long way from the church Paul and Peter proclaimed.
There’s a reason for this. And we’ll pursue that as we delve further into this New Perspective.
PS — For further on the church and politics, but from a different angle, read these posts–