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Interview: Rev. Michael F. Bird on the Role of a 'Christian Political Witness' in Our Perilous Times

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What are Christians called to do in our politically charged society?

When are we to be obedient to government, and when are we to resist or even revolt? Where does the Church sit amid the intersection of politics and faith? And is it incumbent on every Christian to get political?

These are weighty questions that harken back to Jesus’s teaching and well before. And they are ones preeminent theologians N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird brilliantly examine amid our unique and perilous times in their recently co-authored book “Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies.”

To begin with, that really all comes down to where you are in the world, whether you are living in one of the totalitarian terrors or dysfunctional democracies the book’s title describes.

“The issues faced by Christians in Myanmar are very different to the issues faced by Christians in Texas or Nebraska. …. And the same thing whether you’re in Nigeria or France,” Rev. Michael F. Bird told The Western Journal in a video interview. “So we’ve got to be careful not to over generalize.”

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“Christians historically tend not to purely politicize their fight, but nor do they retreat from politics,” said Bird, the Deputy Principal and Lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College in Australia. “It’s how you get that balance and how that balance works in different places. In some places, like the apostles in the Roman Empire, they had to be a small target. So they weren’t necessarily out there in the streets with signs saying, ‘Hashtag Christian Lives Matter.’”

To be sure, acting as a Christian political witness involves as much prayer and discernment as it does activism, according to Bird. But even under the darkest of regimes — and certainly in the Western world — it means neither fence-sitting nor sitting on your hands. At its most basic level, it means acknowledging that government holds a purpose and that ours is to hold it accountable according to a biblical morality.

“You know, we can we can grieve and lament the things we see around us. Or we can get up, get off our backside and do something about it,” Bird said. “If you can email or write letters to local member of Congress or the Senate, that is something. You can donate money to the causes that you think would benefit. There are things you can do with your time, your money. … Doing little acts of what you might call micro activism — buying by how you pray.”

Even if you lack motivation, one of the main things you can do “is simply to speak biblical truth to a particular situation,” Bird advised. “The other thing I think we do as a political witness is to remind people of the theological capital that their democracies are built on.”

Here are more of the theologian’s deep insights on what it means to be a Christian political witness today, and — more critically — why to succeed in speaking truth to power we must first understand the critical difference between “building for the kingdom” and “building the kingdom.”

TWJ: Why did you and N.T. Wright decide to write this book now, in a political climate you described as the most precarious and perilous time in human history since the 1930s?

Rev. Michael F. Bird: I do think we live in an age that’s very combustible. We’ve got major conflicts in Ukraine, I mean, the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War. We now have the Gaza conflict, spanning across the Middle East, with Israel and Iran going toe to toe. We also have the prospect of a very hot war in the Taiwan Strait if China decides to invade. The world does feel very combustible, and people are very confused. What should they think of all this? What is a Christian’s relationship to the state, to the political order? What do we think of the powers, political and spiritual, that seems to inhabit everywhere around us and at the moment feel very predatory and pernicious?

Navigating the church vs. state issue has been pretty tricky, and there has been a long-standing fight to keep Christianity out of the public square. Things seem to be changing a bit now. Do you agree?

You know, there have been some very prominent Christians who have served in the public square, like William Wilberforce, who helped end the transatlantic slavery trade. You can also look at Martin Luther King Jr, who was both a Baptist minister, but also overtly political. And his speeches are really sermons invested with religious imagery. … So there is something very prophetic and very powerful when Christians do speak up and when they speak with integrity, without self-interest and show they have a genuine concern for others.

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Much of the book involves the critical idea of “building for the kingdom” as opposed to “building the kingdom.” Can you explain?

The idea that we can “build the kingdom” is a little bit presumptuous, if not arrogant. The idea we can manufacture the kingdom of God on earth — as if the new creation will have a sign on it, saying, “From the same people who brought you New York” — I don’t think that’s going to be the case at all. I’m not a post-millennial, so I don’t think we can simply manufacture the heavenly realities in their totality or in their fullness.

That said, I believe we are called to colonize Earth with the life of heaven and earth, which is what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. You know, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What Christians can do is create conditions in this world that reflect the beauty, grandeur, worship, justice, peace — the divine atmosphere of the new creation.

We do that through the proclamation of the gospel, reconciliation, redemption, and justification by faith — all of those good things. But also when we advertise for justice, when we stand up against evil, when we do anything to bring institutions, even government, to operate according to their divinely intended purpose, that, in a way, is “building for the kingdom.”

Speaking of “divine purpose,” at times you say Christians are to submit to earthly authorities and at others you say we are called to disobedience. What’s the distinction?

Yeah, that’s a good one. I tend to use the comparison of Romans 13 and Revelation 13. Romans 13 is where Paul says submit to governing authorities, and Revelation 13 is when John the Seer says, let’s just pray that God brings this whole evil edifice to the ground. … It is a dumpster of destruction. But do you obey? And when do you pray for the destruction of the government? Often it depends on your preferred party or your preferred candidate. So when your party is in power, then you’ll be all Romans 13. But when the other party gets in, we tend to be all Revelation 13.

Generally, I would say, government is divinely appointed because God wants his world to be wisely governed. Government — even bad government, tyrannical government — is better than anarchy. You know, we none of us have really experienced anarchy. Maybe the closest thing you could see in the American context is what’s unfolding in Haiti at the moment. And you could look at that. That’s really ruled by gangs with guns. Even a communist or a fascist government is better than just thugs running around doing what they like to who they like. So, you know, government is a good thing, and it’s something we can thank God for.

That said, governments are meant to govern wisely, to administer justice, to act with the interests of the people, not merely the interests of a ruling elite. And they’re also meant to put limits on their very own power and meet with the consensus of the people. So where government does that or gets very close, you could say it’s worthy of our respect, our obedience and our taxes. … Where a government does not do that and begins to abuse its people, infringe on their civil rights, begins to take punitive actions against them on the basis of their religion, their ethnicity or some other particular feature, you could argue that civil disobedience is warranted. And you could even perhaps escalate that to uncivil disobedience in extreme cases where the government is taking extreme and violent actions against its own citizens.

You were very careful to point out, as the Bible explains, that the Lord permitted certain kings and kingdoms. But when they acted unjust or improperly, they suffered the consequences.

That’s exactly right. God appoints pharaohs — appointed Nebuchadnezzar. He appoints Roman Caesars, presidents, prime ministers. All that kind of thing happens in the Bible. God can use any form of government, any type of king or monarch. And that can be the tricky thing because we want the Bible to say, “Well, this is the type of government you should have.” … The Bible does not give us a single system of government that we should support.

That said, I do think some systems of government are more conducive to a biblical worldview than others. I genuinely believe liberal democracy, which allows us to love God and love our neighbor — the attempt to balance rights with responsibilities — is something of a Christian project. Liberal democracy only takes root and, I would argue, only really works in countries shaped by Missional Protestantism.

You point out there are some major parallels between Communism and Christianity, which is why so many people are seduced by the former. Can you elaborate?

The problem with Communism is, it’s both too Christian and not Christian enough. It’s too Christian in the sense that it wants to realize some of the biblical promises. Like when Jesus says the first will be last and the last will be first. That’s kind of like an inversion of power, a reordering. … These are themes or words you could easily find on the lips of a Marxist activist. So Marxism, I think, looks at the biblical model for justice and for economic equality and says, “We want to do that now. We want to create that kind of heavenly reality in the here and now.” Or, as they would call it, a dictatorship of the proletariat.

You could argue that the idea of all humans being equal, everyone having everything they need, no one’s left behind, no one’s forgotten, is, in one sense, a biblical vision. But that’s where it’s almost too Christian, because they think they can create that by their own efforts with one good violent purge. Like, “Hey, that guy’s iPhones are better than mine. Let’s get him!”

Where it’s not Christian enough is it doesn’t have a doctrine of total depravity. It believes evil resides in others. Evil is in the bourgeois. It’s in the factory owners. It’s in the middle class. It’s in the shopkeepers. It’s in the Kulaks that have more property than I do. It doesn’t recognize that evil, greed, depravity exists within ourselves, within party members, within the Politburo, within the variations of their own. … A propensity to exploit people is not limited to the others. It’s also found within themselves.

And that is generally why I think Marxism is too Christian, because it’s trying to achieve the lofty ideals of Christian justice — but without Christ and without God. It wants to do a supernatural work through its own violent revolution. And it’s not Christian enough because it doesn’t understand that the human propensity for evil does not go from left to right, red or blue, elephant or donkey, but it goes through the very middle of everyone’s heart. Each of us has our own capitalist exploiter and communist dictator, if given the opportunity.

You call us to be proper Christian political witnesses. How are you defining that term, and what is our mission today?

I think there are a number of things we can do. One of the things is simply to speak biblical truth to a particular situation. Let me give you one example. In Canada and Belgium, there is now, I believe, legislation that’s come into effect that means people with autism can seek to be euthanized. … So, yeah, that’s a post-Christian world when you’re encouraging — not just permitting — but encouraging people with various disabilities to go. I think Christians can speak to that out of our convictions that all life has value, even if life may be dependent upon other people.

The other thing I think we do in a political witness is to remind people of the theological capital that their democracies are built on. You know, liberal democracy did not emerge in a vacuum. It emerged in the Christian tradition. And we treat things like human rights as if they are self-evident or as if they are obvious. But I guarantee you, if you look on the periodic table, there is no symbol for human rights. These are not natural entities. You can’t prove them through a mathematical formula. You can’t find them through a scientific experiment.

The whole notion of human rights is something that has emerged from the Christian tradition. I think it’s important for us to demonstrate the Christian roots of many of the dividends … things like slavery is wrong. That’s something that that grew very much out of the Christian tradition. It wasn’t evident to the to the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans or Aztecs. But for us, we treat it as self-evident because we’ve been shaped by the religion of the crucified Nazarene.

It’s important that you caution people who think they’re too insignificant to make a difference that, “One must be wary of indifference masquerading as humility.” You argue against presuming God can’t use you, and you go so far as to say such a view should be looked upon as a sin. Can you explain?

Yeah, I stand by those words. You know, I think it’s the case that we often want to be so heavily minded. Look, it’s one thing to say, “I can’t vote for the political party. I feel very disenchanted with politics. I’m not going to vote in this election because I don’t like any candidate. I can’t.” That’s fine. That’s not what I’m talking about. But, you know, there’s a Chinese proverb, which I like, that says, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the dark.”

You write that being a Christian political witness is really about “holding worldly power to account.” But you also write that the church has often remained unaware of this aspect of its calling. What do you mean?

The church is called not to be chaplain to the empire, not to be a department of the state. But we are called to occasionally say to the emperor, the king, the prime minister, the president, “This is not wise. This is not just. This is an idol. This is a grave sin.” So that’s what I think it means to speak truth to power in the halls of power.

When we’re talking about faith going up against power and notions of law and order, many fail to acknowledge that the concept of justice originates in the Bible.

That’s exactly right. Order only comes because there’s a God who wants the world to be orderly ordered. I mean, it’s a bit of a tautology, I know. But again, God wants government, not pure anarchy. And we’ve got to have law. We’ve got to have order. But we’ve also got to have love and liberty to balance it out. And that’s why there’s wisdom in the biblical tradition to help us understand the balance between the two.

While you say Christianity must advise government you also say Christian influence on government should never be absolute. Correct?

That’s correct. I mean, we don’t want to create a theocracy because that’s bad for Christianity. It’s bad for the state. It leads to a superficial Christianity where people merely feign or pretend to be Christians, so they can get access to power or benefits. You know, being in a Christianized society is shallow at best, and, at worst, it turns Christianity into a huge iron grip that then presses down on other groups, whether that’s nonbelievers, Muslims, Buddhists, all the other religions of the world. And you’ve always got the problem of which type of Christianity should be hegemonic.

Can you explain your point about “civic totalism” and how that applies to where we are today?

Civic totalism is a term created by the American political philosopher Stephen Macedo. And basically what it refers to is the idea of a government that believes it is invested with the authority to direct its citizens toward goals, targets and values, which are congruent with a progressive state. In other words, if the state doesn’t like your religion, it can ask you to change your religion and get with the state’s program. Or if it doesn’t like the social media sites or the new sites that you like reading, it can take them down or can stop you from sharing them — that kind of thing.

It’s basically a government that believes it has the right to use somewhat more coercive and intrusive tactics to make sure that everyone in the state is getting with the state’s program and objectives. Religion can interfere with that a little bit because people might be more loyal to their God than they are to the state.

That sounds very familiar. This book is a call to action to Christians in a world that you describe as perilous. What are your fears about not being able to rouse enough to become more vocal and fight back in a nonviolent way?

It’ll be different if we can or if we won’t. I do think we need to stand up against anything that is authoritarian. … In some places it can mean protesting in the streets. Other places, it may mean fleeing the country. Other times, it may mean trying to create your own subversive political or — dare I say — paramilitary entities, where you’re trying to stop a government from committing ethnic genocide or something like that. We should be able to discern in the precincts of our own conscience what that means in any given location. It’s going to be different all the time.

It’s hard to be prescriptive because every local circumstance is different … which calls for different types of resistance. I think we can be subversive without being violent. That’s one of the key things I said in the book.

Note: Questions and answers from the video interview may have been edited and condensed to remove random utterances, such as pauses or filler words that are a part of speech, and for brevity and clarity.

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