A Word to evangelicals from Alister McGrath and John Webster on Being Citizens from Another World in This World During this Political Season

In this rather intense political season I found this little thought-experiment from Alister McGrath instructive; particularly with reference to how we as Christians coram Deo (before God) ought to handle ourselves relative to our place in the culture at large. McGrath essentially argues for an ‘ambassador’ or ‘alien’ like posture as we live in this world system that is contrary to the dictates of christthekingthe heavenly-kingdom from whence we derive our citizenship and character. McGrath writes:

But let me end with a Pauline image, lent new importance by trends in secular moral philosophy. It is the image of Christians as “citizens of heaven,” developed with such force in Phil. 3:20-21. The model is that of a colony, an image familiar to the Philippians, Philippi then being a Roman colony. It was an outpost of Rome on foreign territory. Its people kept the laws of the homeland, they spoke its language, they longed for the day when they could return home to the patria, the motherland.

Let us think of ourselves, our seminaries, our churches and our families as colonies of heaven, as outposts of the real eternal city, who seek to keep its laws in the midst of alien territory. C.S. Lewis gave us many helpful ways of thinking about the Christian life, and one of the most helpful is that of the world as enemy territory, territory occupied by invading forces. In the midst of this territory, as resistance groups, are the communities of faith. We must never be afraid to be different from the world around us. It is very easy for Christians to be depressed by the fact that the world scorns our values and standards. But the image of the colony sets this in its proper context. At Philippi the civilizing laws of Rome contrasted with the anarchy of its hinterland. And so or moral vision—grounded in Scripture, sustained by faith, given intellectual spine by Christian doctrine—stands as a civilizing influence in the midst of a world that seems to have lost its moral way. If a new dark age does indeed lie ahead of us—indeed, if it is already upon us—then it is vital that the Christian moral vision, like the torch of liberty, is kept alight. Doctrine, I firmly and passionately believe, gives us the framework for doing precisely that. It can be done—and it must be done.[1]

There are aspects of this that might sound like Reinhold Niebuhr’s against culture, but I think it is actually for culture with a proper perspective. It really is a call for Christians to see themselves properly related to this world system; while we live in it we ought to operate as a leavening force by way of our perspective and posture as we draw our life blood from the other worldly kingdom we come from in Christ.

I think one consequence this can have for the Christian is that our relation to this world system will be quite loose. We won’t tie all our hopes, dreams, and aspirations as Christians into the politics of human governments, but we will learn to trust in the government of God’s Kingdom in Christ; we will walk by faith rather than by sight. I think this is the struggle we are currently witnessing right now; particularly in evangelicalism. Older evangelicals, or those of that mind-set (the mind-set I grew up in, I’m 42) have been conditioned by and brought up as culture warriors; as such, I think, they have come to tie their identity too closely to a certain sense of patriotism and nationalism—and a golden age perception of that—that becomes too determinative for their personal security and identity; to the point that that can lead to some pretty out-landish behavior when it comes to supporting this or that candidate. John Webster, as he comments on Karl Barth’s theology, has this pertinent word to offer as he comments on the German Christian’s relationship to the German state during the WW2 period. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

While ‘liberal Protestantism’ is referenced I think this kind of cultural confidence can be applied across the board to North American evangelicals, and of course, to mainline North American Christians. Two sides of the same coin, both “sides” fighting for their rights as determined by their moral and absolute selves, this mind-set has too infected the body of Christ. I think it is high time for Christians to lose confidence and hope in their nation’s successes and focus solely on the successes of God’s in-breaking Kingdom; a Kingdom that actually speaks  judgment to this world system wherein the poor and desperate among us will finally be vindicated by the coming of Jesus Christ at the final consummation (the whole theology of the book of Revelation).

I honestly can say that this political season is making me sick at this point. I cannot believe what it is revealing about evangelicalism, in particular, in my home country of the United States of America. But the good news is that properly oriented all the ugliness being revealed through this election can be and has been redeemed by the super-abundant grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in Christ.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” in David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics. Volume 1: Theory and Method (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 90-1.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

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3 comments

  1. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    As the German Christians became beguiled by Hitler so the evangelicals in America seem bewitched by Trump. Even Metaxas et al have lost the plot. We here in Australia and New Zealand cannot believe the utter gullibilty of the American public to even accord Trump with credence let alone kudos. Perversity seems to roll off his teflon complexion?

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  2. It isn’t just Trump, it’s Hillary too!

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