by John D. Rempel
In 2020, MCC celebrates 100 years of relief, development and peace and one way we want to mark this anniversary is by sharing articles and stories from the archives. Calling for change and for a more peaceful and just world has been foundational to MCC’s work for decades. MCC has published articles about economic justice, domestic violence, land claims, military spending, conscientious objection, peace theology, and many more.
This week, we want to share an abridged version of a 2003 article written by John D. Rempel, which was published in the Peace Office Newsletter called ‘Talk about Shalom’.
Christian work for justice needs no justification, ultimately, beyond the biblical mandate to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is good to keep this simple thought in mind as we grapple with the challenge of turning love into justice for our neighbor in a broken world where the form love must take is often unclear.
The goals of my article are (1) to outline, from a biblical point of view, how love is possible, and (2) to explore the role of the church in advocating specific principles and actions to the state so that it can act more justly.
The definitive claim of the New Testament is that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the potential of the universe was restored to what existed at creation. The power of evil to thwart God’s purposes has been overturned; God’s rule over the world is being reestablished.
Grace is stronger than fate. This claim makes us gasp for air! As a flat statement—especially in dealing with problems like poverty and war—it is seldom true to our experience. Working in the public sphere is the most withering test of theological claims imaginable! Still, if God’s mandate for his fallen yet beloved creation is to turn love into justice, theology is accountable to politics.
What is “justice”? What is “politics”? Justice is treating people according to principles of fairness and equality. Politics is the principles and mechanisms we pursue to further the common good. I have offered the simplest possible formal definitions. But in a pluralistic world their content cannot be assumed. In the course of the twentieth century, “internationalism,” cooperation among nations, has developed universal norms and institutions—most importantly the United Nations.
Even though moral preference is given to concepts like “democracy” by the West, whose cultures and economies dominate the world, they cannot claim universal assent. But Western political notions are problematic for Christianity as well because capitalism and socialism both assume human autonomy. In them the chief end of humanity is humanity and not God.
This problem becomes explicit in the church’s public witness to institutions of power (government, business, civil society). But it is implied in the church’s overall responsibility to the world. Let me try to relate the mission of the church to this fundamental problem. Its mission is to demonstrate and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate grounding of goodness in the world. Our question here is how to do that in relation to institutions of power.
But other questions need to be dealt with before we can approach the one that interests us. I name only two: How does advocacy express the church’s calling? How is the church’s social witness shaped by the social order it inhabits?
The life of the church as an alternate society is the precondition of an authentic witness. The church is credible to the extent that it lives out what it calls public institutions to implement (fairness, equality, inclusiveness, preferential option for the poor). Thus, church-based advocacy derives its integrity equally from the community it represents and from the causes it gives voice to. This leads us to the question nobody seems to have an answer for: Can the church ask the state to practice the Sermon on the Mount or similar imperatives in other religions?
Are there social orders whose values are more compatible with the gospel than others? Are there states in which church and state are partners, or at least collaborators rather than rivals? As Western Christians, we claim that democracy is closer to Christian faith than is totalitarianism because it accepts the rule of law, safeguards individual freedom, and fosters the pursuit of truth. But democratic countries are also relativistic, individualistic, and materialistic in the extreme.
State and Church
The state is part of the fallen but restored order of Christ’s rule. On the cross the powers, among them the state, sought the defeat of God’s reign, but were themselves defeated (Col. 2:13–15). In the resurrection God’s ordering of the world was restored. In it the state has a derivative and provisional role. When it is faithful to that calling, the state is an agent of God to preserve good and limit wrong. By contrast, the church is a direct representative of God’s reign but it is the means and not the end of God’s purpose.
The state and the church almost always think that the other one does not realize certain givens of the human enterprise. The state is convinced that the church does not grasp the workings of evil in the world; the church is convinced that the state does not grasp the workings of good in the world. Both of them believe that the other one misunderstands the nature of power. Both compete for the loyalty of those in their sphere of influence.
The church errs when it declares, in an eschatological rush, that the state is no longer necessary. The state becomes apostate when it makes absolute claims for itself or presumes to make absolute judgments about historical realities, such as the idealizing or demonizing of any given social order.
Both of them can forfeit their role as agents of the resurrection. Thus, there can never be a conclusive partnership between them. This is where the notion of middle axioms is of value. A middle axiom is an assumption shared by two parties to which they are both accountable. In some countries, for instance, society and church agree that women are the equal of men and should be treated that way. Where this is an agreed-upon assumption, the church has two mandates. One of them is to “walk the walk,” practicing gender equality in the community of faith. The other is to “talk the talk,” calling the state to foster a value it has accepted as just.
The state does not have the role of conquering evil in the world or bringing about the ultimate good. As a church, we need enough humility and love to work with earthly rulers on a next step toward justice, but we do so out of the hope and passion of the heavenly kingdom.
John D. Rempel was Mennonite Central Committee liaison to the United Nations.
This article was originally titled ‘Prophetic Ministry and Political Realism: Toward a Pacifist Theology of Public Witness’. Read the full article here.
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