The Revelation: As Political Witness, Part 2

lion-dove-lamb-yeshuaGorman cites three prominent elements of the Roman empire/religion from Warren Carter —

  • The gods have chosen Rome.

  • Rome and its emperor are agents of the gods’ rule, will, salvation, and presence among human beings.

  • Rome manifests the gods’ blessings—security, peace, justice, faithfulness, fertility—among those who submit to Rome’s rule.

(Kindle Locations 1085-1088).

Gorman adds the following:

  • The rule of the gods through Rome was accomplished by and manifested in violence, domination, and “pacification” that was hardly peaceful. The famous pax Romana was a sovereignty dependent on military conquest, enslavement, and other forms of violence.

  • The emperor himself was worthy of praise, devotion, and allegiance. He was also worthy of having divine and quasi-divine titles such as Lord, Lord of All, God, Son of God, and Savior. …

  • The imperial age is the long-awaited golden age, indeed the eschatological age, in which humanity’s hopes have been fulfilled and will continue forever.

(Kindle Locations 1098-1108).

Gorman notes that the Revelation condemns practices common in most nations —

More broadly, then, Revelation is a critique of civil religion (first of all, but not only, Roman civil religion), that is, the sacralization of secular political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices—creeds and liturgies, we might say—and the corollary demand for allegiance to that power.

… Human beings seem to have a need to attribute a sacred, or at least quasi-sacred, character to their political bodies, their rulers, and the actions of those entities. One tragic but frequent result is the sacralization of one’s own people, whether nation, race, or tribe, and the demonization of the other. Out of such religion comes a culture of hatred and even violence. We know far too many examples of this in modern times.

(Kindle Locations 1212-1221).

Gorman then lists certain elements of American political culture that are contrary to the teachings of the Revelation:

One foundational theopolitical conviction or sacred myth is exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a unique place in God’s plan, that it is in some sense chosen. In American history this exceptionalism has manifested itself in such beliefs as the Puritan “city on a hill” (Matt 5:14), Manifest Destiny, and the identification of the U.S. as “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14; John 8:12; 9:5).

The United States is indeed unique in world history, but does that mean that we are necessarily on God’s side because of it?

Similar to and sometimes growing out of exceptionalism is American messianism, the notion that the U.S. has a special, central vocation in the salvation of the world, particularly through the spread of American practices of freedom and American-style democracy. This belief in an exceptional role and messianic destiny to spread freedom is the backbone of America’s national religion.

Again, I’m certainly not opposed to spreading democracy and free enterprise — which I count as blessings. But has God charged the US with that mission? And it is always wise and godly to use military force to pursue these ends? I mean, our recent experience in nation building — in trying to turn Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria into Western-style democracies — haven’t gone that well. Have we missed something really important?

Arising from it is a myth of innocence, of possessing “an element of messianic inerrancy.” This third myth holds that America always operates in the world according to the highest principles of ethics and justice, and that when criticized or attacked, America is the innocent, righteous victim.

(Kindle Locations 1231-1242).

Each failed effort at “liberating” a nation that doesn’t want to be liberated leaves us in a state of cognitive dissonance. Why do they prefer to bomb each other and seek to destroy Israel when they could be making money and enjoying peace and freedom?

As a matter of history, the so-called American Experiment, especially constitutional democracy, has proven a far superior form of government to many — leading to a much higher standard of living as well as far greater personal freedom than is enjoyed in alternative political systems. There are some truly excellent, positive things about America.

But our current experience in Syria and recent experience in Iraq amply demonstrate that we are often incompetent to spread our values and political systems to others. We cannot, by military means, routinely turn dictatorships into prosperous, self-governing democracies. Some criticize our efforts at “nation building.” It may be truer to criticize our efforts at converting the world to American values and culture. Outside of Europe, Japan, and South Korea, there are very few examples of American success.

Not everyone even wants to be like us. We can’t imagine someone not wanting to be wealthy and free. But in many nations, other values are held much higher — such as faithfulness to the Koran, honor, and tribe. To many, honor is far more important than a good job with a 401(k) plan. To many, death would be preferable to a loss of honor. And honor often requires vengeance or continuing to pursue the destruction of Israel or terrorist attacks on civilians — because terrorism shows that you’re still fighting.

In the US, most respond to these accusations by pointing to the other political party as the reason we failed to successfully bring democracy to Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. But the world see our failures as American failures, not Democrat or Republican failures. And both parties have their own long list of military disasters because both parties have trouble resisting the temptation to use the American military to bring freedom to oppressed people who don’t want what we have to offer. And so we rarely succeed.

It is, indeed, a new thing in world history for nations to use their armies, not to defend their borders or conquer their neighbors, but to bring about political change in other nations solely in hopes that this other nation will no longer suffer under a repressive dictatorship. As unusual as this is, it’s even more so given how rarely we succeed.

It’s an interesting discussion to consider why we successfully established democracies in Japan and Germany and hardly anywhere else. As a result, we created two of the world’s most powerful economies and valuable trading partners — and dramatically improved the quality of life in those nations. We’ve made a buck or two trading with them. And we wish we could do the same thing for the Libyans and Afghans.

In fact, even in the 18th Century, the American example led to the French Revolution, but this was a revolution against both the monarchy and the church — leading to the adoption of atheism as the official state religion and the slaughter of thousands by the guillotine. In Latin America, many nations, inspired by US victories, won independence from Spain or Portugal only to suffer under brutal dictatorships that only pretended to be democracies. My junior high history classes taught me to celebrate these victories for freedom, but many of these nations are far from free.

My point is that evangelism for democracy and free enterprise often fails for lots of reasons. On the other hand, evangelism for Christianity has a way of succeeding despite dictatorships and oppressive governments. We sometimes confuse the obligation to spread Jesus with a supposed obligation to spread democracy and capitalism. And while I’m not sure Gorman would agree with me, the fact is that democracy and capitalism do much better in Protestant nations. It’s not that Protestantism does better in a democracy, but rather Protestantism creates a worldview and a culture that is conducive to democracy. I mean, even you were irreligious, which countries would you prefer over a nation with a Protestant heritage?

Far more people would enjoy the benefits of democracy and free enterprise if the church were more effective in sending its missionaries. Missionaries change culture far more effectively than Huey helicopters. But we’d rather pay our taxes, send our soldiers, and spend our church money on gyms and ball fields rather than evangelizing the nations.

At the same time, our preachers more and more preach from the Declaration of Independence and our “Bible” classes study the Constitution and Bill of Rights. And when our Bible classes study Jefferson and Madison rather than Moses and Jesus, we’ve crossed a very dangerous line — a line that the Revelation warns us against.

Fortunately, the Churches of Christ were strongly inoculated against getting too tied to the government by David Lipscomb, who authored Civil Government. Lipscomb considered it wrong to even vote or serve on a jury! But his teaching is being quickly forgotten.

The Churches of Christ were largely pacifistic until World War II, when Foy Wallace, Jr. purged most of the pacifism out of us. Many of our brothers served in prison rather than fight in World War I. The government shut the Gospel Advocate down during World War I because of its anti-war teachings (the First Amendment was routinely ignored in those days).

So we’ve changed. A lot. It’s fair to ask whether it’s been for the better.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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14 Responses to The Revelation: As Political Witness, Part 2

  1. Mark says:

    “But we’d rather…. spend our church money on gyms and ball fields rather than evangelizing the nations.”

    You hit on something here. How can the nations be evangelized when the next generation within Christianity can’t? With the exception of a safe place in the inner city for youth who might otherwise be on the streets, I guess the gyms and the ball fields are to give the young Christians something to look at as being semi-inclusive and see the church. Perhaps it is time for a discussion of what worked, what didn’t, and new ideas in teaching the next generation.

  2. laymond says:

    (the First Amendment was routinely ignored in those days).

    Frankly, I believe the first amendment is strongly abused and should be curtailed when it is used to defeat and destroy your political opponents , I don’t believe the amendment was intended to be fell back upon after spouting lies about a person just because you oppose what he believes in. Politicians are people too, This republican primary has stunk up the whole premise of democracy , It is more like a www match, they will call an opponent any vile name while showing their teeth in a Colgate smile, where is this going to end , badly I do suppose. yes we need to be able to express our ideas and thoughts, but we don’t have the right to destroy lives while we do so. And as has been expressed by some the church does the same thing, just to a lesser degree.
    Politics in the church should be gotten rid of, now.

  3. Mark says:

    laymond, which politics? The secular right vs left or internal church politics? As volatile of topics as religion and politics are, there is nothing more volatile than the politics of religion.

  4. laymond says:

    Mark, Christ’s Church already has a leader, that leader said there is one God, and we should come together as one to worship him, even when we are not in the same building. I believe if we recognize that leader as our leader, we should follow. And come together in spirit and truth , because that is what the One God wants. And as our leader once said “Your will not mine”.
    We are only in Jesus’ Church by the will of God. We don’t have elected leaders as Paul said, we have a selected leader according to God’s will, as Jesus said. actually there is no room for politics in the Church, only acceptance of the God anointed leader. Mark, who introduced politics in the church?

  5. Mark says:

    I could make an argument for Constantine. There is a difference in Christ’s Church and individual congregations/denominations.

  6. Dwight says:

    Christ’s church or congregation is made up of people and these people can meet in groups called assemblies or congregations. When we become saints we are joined with Christ and this puts us in relation to other saints in other places or next door. But the congregations as groups don’t have an exclusive arraignment with and in being the congregation or God. The head of the congregation is Jesus.

  7. laymond says:

    Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is the practice and theory of influencing other people. Politics involves the making of a common decision for a group of people, that is, a uniform decision applying in the same way to all members of the group. It also involves the use of power by one person to affect the behavior of another person. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community,

    Mark, do you still think Constantine was the first to engage in politics in the Church.

  8. Ray Downen says:

    Each Christian is an individual, patriotic or not. Congregations have no business entering politics. But individual Christians in THIS NATION have a duty to vote and form political groups in order to effect good things in this free nation. Churches, AS churches, surely should not be political. We are called to be good citizens AS INDIVIDUALS. I’m a Republican promoter. My church is not telling members how they must vote on ANY issue or which candidate they must support. Organizations made up of Christian individuals (or Christians and non-Christian members) surely have the right to take political positions, but organizations of churches have no such right.

  9. Dwight says:

    The Pharisees and Sadducees and such were great at playing politics and they wanted every ones vote, but didn’t get Jesus’ vote.

  10. Mark says:

    I was referring to Christianity post-ascension.

  11. laymond says:

    I was too Mark, the letters from Paul to the churches sounded a little political to me. Who told them how leaders must be judged and selected, who told them how church must be done. Even played a little politics to get in with non Jews. (all things to all men sounds like what is going on, on my TV machine now ) If you pay close attention you might find most if not all preachers , preach a little politics. Paul was just the first. When we hire a preacher we tend to do so on his politics. If he does not see things as the elders do, he will be kicking rocks down the road.

  12. John F says:

    Supporting the concept of “political salvation” is the Priene inscription honoring Augustus, dated 9-6 BC from Smyna. see the following:

    It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [sôtêr], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [phanein] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [êrxen de tôi kosmôi tôn di auton euangeliôn hê genethlios tou theou],’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna…”Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia, on motion of the High Priest Apolionios, son of Menophilos, of Aizanoi: whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arête [virtue] for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour (σωτῆρα)] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God (τοῦ θεοῦ) signalled (ἦρξεν δὲ τῶι κὀσμωι τῶι δι᾽ αὐτὸν εὐαγγελίων ἡ γενέυλιος ἡμέρα τοῦ θεοῦ) the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. (proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus) has discovered a way to honor Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.”

    also this quote:

    Interesting that as Smyrna proclaims its euangelion, God is proclaiming another savior, “born this day in the city of David”

    The contrast could not be clearer, any further comments would “just be preachin'”

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    Thanks. That inscription is very important in seeing the political implications of Christianity and much of Paul.

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