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Friday, May 31, 2013

Looking For Goldilocks Between Heaven And Earth

There are 3 basic approaches Christians take in how they relate to the world. One way is to be too cold to the world and its suffering by refusing to be concerned and involved. Because of where I live, I call this an Amish approach. That is such Christians greatly reduce their contact with the world by focussing on their own spiritual life and Christian community. By distancing themselves from the world, they hope to remain more pure and thus stand as a shining example of what those in the world could become if it was to imitate them.

Another way Christians relate to the world is to be too hot and bothered for it and its concerns. There are a number of ways by which this can be done but what is a common theme is to overestimate how one is ushering in the Kingdom of God or other utopia by what one does in the world. Unfortunately for some, doing good and participating in the world becomes their faith and salvation. This kind of belief then replaces any faith in Christ a person may have had.

The purpose David VanDrunen's book, Living In God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision For Christianity And Culture (listen to an interview with the author here) is an attempt to find how a Christian can relate to the world without being too hot or too cold. What VanDrunen wants to do is to find a way that Christians can relate to the world that is just right. The part of the book that I wish to review here is the section that deals with politics.

VanDrunen believes that to find the right middle ground, the Christian must be able to find common causes with the non-Christian that neither puts the believer into compromising positions nor expects too much from the unbeliever. VanDrunen  uses two Biblical time periods to model how we should relate to the world. The first comes from the time of the Noahic Covenant while the second comes from the exile when the Jews had been carried off to Babylon. Note that during these times, God's people were living amongst those who weren't God's people and thus were living under a different set of laws than existed in Israel where everyone was to serve God. 

According to VanDrunen, Christians can engage politically as exiles in today's world provided they follow five principles. These principles are: we must recognize that the authority of all governments is established by God; we must acknowledge that those in government are responsible for maintaining order and practicing a civil righteousness so that we can "lead quiet and peaceful" lives; we are obligated to support those in government by praying for, paying taxes to, and obeying those in authority; we can, if we so choose, participate in the political process by holding office as a civil authority; and, we realize that the government's authority is limited so that it cannot intrude on other cultural institutions such as the family unit. We also should note that we are obligated to disobey the government only when it demands that we break any of God's commandments.

VanDrunen continues by saying that outside of these five principles, we have options rather than obligations. That is that we can choose to support certain causes, candidates, and political parties without either being obligated to choose what other Christians have chosen or allowed to demand that others follow our lead.

Is there anything earth-shatteringly wrong in what is written here? The answer is no, though VanDrunen's Two Kingdom (2k) approach has been highly criticized by some who want Christians to carry out a more "transformational" role in the world. But at the same time, two observations must be made. First, VanDrunen's view of how Christians should participate with nonbelievers as exiles relies on some archaic world views. Second, the definition of what is a "quiet and peaceful" is not well-defined and thus its meaning is assumed by each individual who reads VanDrunen's book.

The obsolete world views that VanDrunen's 2K approach employs here governs how we are to relate to our elected officials. Here, we are for the most part called to be a passive consumer of the government.  A passive consumer here is one who, in submitting to and praying for the government in order to enjoy the government's benefits, is held accountable by the government but never returns the favor. That, with the previously mentioned caveat, the government can demand that we follow its standard of what is just but, outside of voting, we are not obliged to hold the government accountable to do what we think is right. And though some might choose to go the extra mile and speak out, this action is a preference and is thus non-binding on Christians if it is allowed at all.

However, two changes in the modern world have forever altered our, Christian and non-Christian, relationship with our respective governments. The first game changing difference consists of the advancements in communications technology. These improvements allow more and more people who are in need to cross our way just as the man who was beaten came in the way of the Good Samaritan. Remember that, according to Jesus, what obligated the Good Samaritan to help the man who was robbed and beaten was awareness of the man's situation. We must ask what does an ever increasing knowledge of need do to our carrying out of Jesus's command to love our neighbor?

And not only does an ever advancing technology widen our vision of a world in need, it extends our reach. So not only can we see people from farther away than ever before, we can, because of the same technology, reach out and touch them. For example, we have access to a plethora of aid agencies that can go where we personally cannot go because of technology. All we need to do is write these agencies a check and off they go.

But another change in the modern world that changes our relationship with our government is the proliferation of democracy. Democracy causes us to be actors in our government rather than just recipients of its actions. This is because democracy allows us to choose our leaders. And because we choose our leaders, we become responsible for their decisions in ways that we were not responsible before.

How can we carry out our responsibility for our leaders' decisions? The most obvious answer is that we can vote for new leaders. However, all too often blind loyalty to and prejudice against political labels limits for whom we will vote. The result is that we enable a government that is either inept or unjust by blindly voting.

But democracy is made up of more than just voting every x number of years. Some of the greatest achievements made by democratic states occurred because of activism. People protested, went on strike, boycotted the products of certain businesses, and practiced civil disobedience to change the practices of businesses and the laws of the governments. And occasionally, activism has chosen leaders. Democracy gives people more say and power over their government.

So as we see how both an advancing technology and the practice of democracy together gives us more awareness of suffering and more power to relieve it, are Christians now responsible for resisting their government when their government sins against others? Are we now responsible for responding to suffering and oppression by challenging those in power to practice compassion and justice? My guess is that VanDrunen would say that resisting or challenging the government to relieve the unjust suffering of others would be regarded as a preference or option to be determined by each individual's conscience. So, should we challenge VanDrunen here? Should we ask him if greater awareness and opportunities also brings more obligations and responsibilities?

But as we continue, we see something else. We see this in the absence of the definition of living a "quiet and peaceful" life. If we interpret living a "quiet and peaceful" life as being free to take care of those who are in our immediate circle of friends and family, we see a continuing theme from what VanDrunen sees in our relationship with the government. That is just as VanDrunen says we are to obey the government except when it commands us to sin, living the "quiet and peaceful" life places a similar stress on the self. This emphasis on the self tells us to disobey the government only when we think we are commanded to sin and to expect the government to allow us to seek our own space of tranquility. 

Here, we should add to VanDrunen's approach that there are other icebergs floating nearby in addition to volatile circumstances and persecution. Francis Schaeffer has warned us about one of those icebergs when he saw American Christians being too concerned about their personal peace and prosperity. Schaeffer, who merits much criticism in some of his other teachings, correctly criticized American Christians for seeking a self-centered life of comfort. We should note that those who have yielded to a life full of selfishness and self-centeredness face some of the most severe judgments anyone can receive. In addition, when people who claim to follow God live this way, they cause God to be cursed (Romans 2:8ff).

Can we say for sure that VanDrunen is encouraging us to pursue the personal peace and prosperity that Schaeffer warned against? No, but neither can we say that he discourages such a pursuit. For, as far as I can tell, VanDrunen's ambiguity allows each reader to project their own desires onto what the Bible calls a "quiet and peaceful" life.

VanDrunen does make some valid points in this book. Though for some, his book will function as a "Mother May I" permission for Christians to participate with non-Christians on joint cultural ventures, his warning that these ventures can never bring the Kingdom of God is an important reminder to activists like myself. At the same time, some 2K proponents mistakenly see any effort to improve life by changing the system as an attempt to bring a long await utopia to earth. Activists like myself who are working for a better world have no delusions regarding our capabilities. We know that all we can do is to work more than enough hours to simply improve on what our predecessors have done. And we should note that most improvements take place in small increments. This makes being an activist like being a soccer or hockey player who has to put in so much effort and work in order for his or her team to score one or two goals.

But VanDrunen aside, each of us American Christians must ask ourselves if our working definitions for the two kingdoms in which we must participate come from God's Word and His commands to love Him and our neighbor or from our desire to maintain our current level of spiritual and physical comfort. For if our thinking is dictated by the latter, we misrepresent God's Word and possibly deceive ourselves regarding our relationship with God. 

This letting personal comfort be the key to interpreting the Bible cuts across the three previously mentioned Christian approaches to reconciling our earthly and heavenly connections. Some who withdraw from the world as well as others who think they can usher in the Kingdom of God could be holding to their beliefs because they cannot tolerate being connected to or even be with those who are different. So they believe that the Bible tells them to either withdraw or make others conform.

VanDrunen's 2K model is a fallible but useful tool to correct those who are either too cold to or too hot toward the world. It rightly tells us about the limits of what can be done. These limits are important to constantly remember lest we get caught up with ourselves or a particular cause. But, it could say more about and recognize the political implications that an ever advancing technology and democratization have on how the second great commandment to love our neighbor must be applied.


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