Contextualization Juris Civilis

Angie Chen argues in the The Stand that relinquishing the political realm to the status quo, and to godless principles (e.g. in China), will enhance the Church’s evangelism. Although Christians on mission trips, lacking important cultural understanding and knowledge, do indeed hinder understanding of God’s word and misrepresent the Church as ‘ignorant imperialists’, I think the accommodation Chen urges will disable Christian witness, the same witness that drove prophets to criticize the people and the rulers of Israel, as well as foreign nations who didn’t pay worship to YHWH.

Christ is King of kings

Seeing the ways in which people have blasphemed the holy Name, I agree in this point with Chen’s advice: ‘We are crusaders for the Lord and not for our own political beliefs. The Word of God can live, survive and flourish in all political and social climates. We should not perverse the name of God and use the Christian message to accomplish our own political agendas rather than God’s spiritual agenda.’ Pointing to certain superficial freedoms, however, she claims that the mainland Chinese régime is no obstruction to the practice of the faith:

The truth of the matter is the Chinese government holds little interest in the personal religious beliefs of its people. Bringing a Bible into China will not get you arrested and the Chinese government will not torture you for praying in public.

It’s true that Bibles are printed in China (by Amity Press no less), in the same translation as is used by Chinese Christians worldwide, and praying in public calls forth no persecution. To interpret these liberties as indicating full freedom of obedience to God, however, is no more theologically sound than to interpret the mouthing of words as true prayer of the spirit. This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. Early Christians in Rome were not killed for having or giving Bibles, nor for praying in public: they were killed for refusing to offer incense to the emperor, and the Apocalypse of John bids us take heart when ungodly rulers take up arms against the will of God.

Chen’s claim, it seems, is that the Christian faith, rightly practised, is a non-threatening personal relationship with no theory of its own on what a godly state does, and therefore that separating God’s word from politics is a good PR measure:

Separating the word of Christ from politics can also help break the ties of Christianity from the stigma of Western imperialism. China, along with much of Asia has [sic] long been victims of colonial imperialism. But Christianity is not a Western religion but a personal relationship that God has offered to his children of all nations in all corners of the world.

This claim, while widely believed, is false, and so I find it unconscionable to banish God’s law from politics. To do so, indeed, is to banish God from the earth, from the commonwealth of men, and to ‘put him in his place’ in the ethereal realms.

God’s providence, which we must trust in all our doings, is enacted by the very laws through which he governs the cosmos. And so the Son of God, through whom the Father made the world, being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. We cannot part the Son, our Saviour, from his identity as Lord of the world from beginning to end. Having ascended into heaven, the God who’s put himself into covenant with Israel for her salvation (through a promise to Abraham) is the same God who rules the nations from on high by the word, the principle, the law, the 道 (dao), of his power. This law, which issued the words of the holy prophets and brought judgement upon Nineveh and Babylon, is the symbol and the reality of God’s power and authority, ever world without end.

But if God’s providence is law, so is his moral law. Indeed, the two have always been inextricably tied in the destiny of nations as Sodom and Gomorrah, and after them the Canaanites, have been destroyed for their injustice. It behoves all nations to hear the voice of YHWH and hope in his mercy and so repent, lest our Nineveh be utterly destroyed.

A failed attempt to qualify accommodation

Her inclination against challenging the status quo notwithstanding, Chen does recognize God’s rule in some measure and thus set limits to political acquiescence. She draws a line, though an ill-defined line, at some purportedly obvious measure of ‘acts against humanity’:

That is not to say that we always separate Christianity from politics, accept all cultural practices and remain silent should individuals or a government be committing acts against humanity. We should cry out against acts of genocides such as the ones in Sudan and Bosnia. We should protest against forced labor and concentration camps under Pol Pot in Cambodia. We should object to the practices of voodoo and human sacrifice in Uganda. We should reproach cannibalism in Papua New Guinea.

Having invoked the principles of cultural relativism, however, Chen has hardly a cogent objection to forced labour and human sacrifice: if the law and the existence of a certain nation is founded on the principle of scapegoating, of human sacrifice, who are we to condemn such practices, except by the authority of God’s word? If ‘Asian values’ have stronger claims than the principles of God’s law, we have no defence but public opinion against a régime identifying genocide as an Asian value. Indeed, because of human depravity, the seed of genocide is a universal human value, not just an Asian value. Cosmic law alone – God’s law, sometimes known as natural law – can restrain the perversion of the laws of nations in favour of justice and peace.

The Christian struggle for political freedom

Having argued that God’s law restrains our sinful wills, I dissent from this assessment of political freedom: ‘As much as we would like to believe that democracy and the preservation of human rights advances mankind, this not dictated in the Bible.’ Aristotle identified monarchy, aristocracy and democracy as three forms of government that could all be perverted. While I have no interest in calling absolutely for democracy – indeed, I have high Tory monarchist sympathies and largely agree politically with Jonathan Swift – it was the bishops, in an England still learning to be Christian (isn’t every Christian still learning to be Christian?), who made the Magna Carta happen. The document begins,

John, by the grace of God, king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all his bailiffs and liege subjects, greeting. Know that, having regard to God and for the salvation of our soul, and those of all our ancestors and heirs, and unto the honour of God and the advancement of holy church, and for the reform of our realm, by advice of our venerable fathers, Stephen archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England and cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Henry archbishop of Dublin, [et al., both bishops and nobles], In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs for ever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs for ever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs for ever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs for ever.

No imperial crown will equal the dignity that God bestows upon everyone, and so acknowledging the Church’s liberties compelled the king also to recognize the liberties of the kingdom’s every member. Not only does the Magna Carta set the brake to detestable enormities, but it bows to God’s standards regarding the rights of the English crown’s subjects.

Unnecessary as it is (and indeed unsuitable) that any nation be a theocracy modelled after Israel, the Christian faith takes and transforms traditional rights and privileges, gradually changing an England of adulterous separation and an Ireland of idol-worshipping druids and a Scandinavia of marauding Vikings and a China of autocratic rulers into a catholic fellowship of nations. Each Christian’s responsible for his own duties to the polis on earth, whether in the ecclesiastical or the magisterial realm. The setbacks induced by ungodly Christian rulers will not let us put away the Christian vision for the world. We cannot do justice to our faith by retreating from our cities into the backwoods only to emerge for soul-winning, ‘spiritual’ activities. After the example of St Paul, we may be free not to advocate the immediate abolition of slavery, but allowing the powers of the world to set the agenda is not an option.

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