The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Churchby Gregory A. Boyd
Arguing from Scripture and history, Dr. Boyd makes a compelling case that whenever the church gets too close to any political or national ideology, it is disastrous for the church and harmful to society. Dr. Boyd contends that the American Evangelical Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the political right (and some by the political left) and exposes how… See more details below
Arguing from Scripture and history, Dr. Boyd makes a compelling case that whenever the church gets too close to any political or national ideology, it is disastrous for the church and harmful to society. Dr. Boyd contends that the American Evangelical Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the political right (and some by the political left) and exposes how this is harming the church’s unique calling to build the kingdom of God. In the course of his argument, Dr. Boyd challenges some of the
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The Myth of a Christian NationHow the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church
By Gregory A. Boyd
ZondervanCopyright © 2005 Gregory A. Boyd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE KINGDOM OF THE SWORD
My kingdom is not from this world. John 18:36
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Luke 22:25-26
For the church to be a community that does not need war in order to give itself purpose and virtue puts the church at odds with nations.... The battle is one we fight with the gospel weapons of witness and love, not violence and coercion. HAUERWAS AND WILLIMON
Shortly after Jesus' arrest, Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" (John 18:33). To be a king, one must have a kingdom -a king's domain-and Pilate wanted to know if Jesus thought the Jews were his domain. It was a straightforward question, requiring a simple yes or no.
But Jesus, typically, did not give the expected response. Rather, he told Pilate that his kingdom "is not from this world" (John 18:36).
Pilate assumed Jesus' kingdom could be understood on the same terms as every other earthly kingdom-along geographical, ethnic, nationalistic, and ideological lines. But he was mistaken. Jesus' kingdom is radically unlike any kingdom, government, or political ideologyin the world. To appreciate Jesus' radically unique kingdom, we need to know about the worldly kingdoms it stands in contrast to.
THE "POWER OVER" KINGDOM
Wherever a person or group exercises power over others-or tries to-there is a version of the kingdom of the world. While it comes in many forms, the kingdom of the world is in essence a "power over" kingdom. In some versions-such as America-subjects have a say in who their rulers will be, while in others they have none. In some versions, subjects may influence how their rulers exercise power over them-for example, what laws they will live by-while in others they do not. There have been democratic, socialist, communist, fascist, and totalitarian versions of the kingdom of the world, but they all share this distinctive characteristic: they exercise "power over" people.
I refer to the power that the kingdom of the world wields as "the power of the sword." I'm not referring to a literal sword necessarily -though that has often been true-but rather, to the ability of those in power to inflict pain on those who threaten or defy their authority. The power of the sword is the ability to coerce behavior by threats and to make good on those threats when necessary: if a law is broken, you will be punished. Of course, the laws of the different versions of the kingdom of the world vary greatly, but the raised sword behind the laws gives them their power, and that keeps every version of the kingdom of the world intact.
Though all versions of the kingdom of the world try to influence how their subjects think and feel, their power resides in their ability to control behavior. As effective as a raised sword is in producing conformity, it cannot bring about an internal change. A kingdom can stipulate that murder will be punished, for example, but it can't change a person's desire to murder. It may be that the only reason a person refrains from killing is because he or she doesn't want to be imprisoned or executed. Their motives may be entirely self-serving. The kingdom of the world doesn't really care, so long as the person conforms to the law. Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.
GOD AND THE KINGDOM OF THE WORLD
The "power over" that all versions of the kingdom of the world exercise is not altogether bad. Were the world not fallen, the threat of the sword would be unnecessary. The sword is part of our common curse, yet God uses it to keep law and order in the world. For this reason, followers of Jesus are to be obedient, as far as possible, to whatever government they find in power over them. The apostle Paul puts it this way:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted [tetagmenai] by God.... Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:1, 3-4)
The government "does not bear the sword in vain," therefore, for it is a divine means of keeping fallen people from wreaking havoc on each other. God's intent is to use any given "power over" government as his "servant for ... good." This doesn't mean that worldly governments are created by God or that governments always use their God-given authority as God intended-as though Hitler and Stalin were carrying out God's will! Paul rather says that God institutes, directs, or stations (tetagmenai) governments. John Howard Yoder's comment is insightful:
God is not said to create or ... ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved domination, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it that by ordering this realm God specifically, morally approves of what a government does. The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create nor approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves. Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious "powers that be" or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that God orders them, brings them into line, providentially and permissively lines them up with divine purpose.
As he did with nations in the Old Testament (for instance, in Isaiah 10), God uses governments as he finds them, in all their ungodly rebellious ways, to serve his own providential purposes. As Paul describes in Romans 13, this general purpose is to preserve as much law and order as is possible. Insofar as governments do this, they are properly exercising the authority God grants them and are, to that extent, good.
Because of this good function, disciples of Jesus are commanded to "honor the emperor" (1 Peter 2:17) and live in conformity to the laws of their land as much as possible-that is, insofar as those laws do not conflict with our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; and specifically Acts 5:29). Whether we find ourselves in a democratic, socialist, or communist country, we are to pray for our leaders and seek to live in peace in that country (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We are, in a word, to be good citizens of whatever version of the kingdom of the world we find ourselves in.
SATAN AND THE KINGDOM OF THE WORLD
But we need to know another important dimension of the biblical teaching about the kingdom of the world. While God directs governments for the good of fallen people, Scripture also teaches that another cosmic force exists, one that is hostile to God and influences governments to accomplish evil. Indeed, sometimes the scope of authority granted to this cosmic adversary, Satan, in Scripture is astounding.
For example, in Luke 4 the Devil tempted Jesus by showing him "all the kingdoms of the world" while saying, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours" (Luke 4:5-7, emphasis added). Jesus, of course, would not worship the Devil to acquire these kingdoms. But note: he doesn't dispute the Devil's claim to own them.
Apparently, the authority of all the kingdoms of the world has been given to Satan. It's not clear from this text whether we humans gave the Devil this authority when we surrendered to him in the Garden (Genesis 3) or whether God originally entrusted Lucifer with this authority before he rebelled. What is clear is that, however it came about, God's cosmic archenemy now owns the authority of all versions of the kingdom of the world and gives this authority to whomever he pleases.
This teaching is in various ways found throughout the New Testament. John goes so far as to claim that "the whole world lies under the power of the evil one" (1 John 5:19) and refers to all the kingdoms of the world as a single kingdom under demonic rule that is in the process of being delivered over to Jesus (Rev. 11:15). This kingdom is symbolized as "Babylon," the violent world empire that opposes God at every turn, in the book of Revelation. Her servants are the world's rulers, and "all nations" are "deceived" by her "sorcery" (Rev. 18:23)-the deceptive lure of power. Certainly some governments are better than others, for they carry out God's purpose of preserving law and order better than others. But no earthly kingdom, however good, is exempt from the scriptural teaching that it is part of "Babylon," a worldwide kingdom ruled by Satan.
Along these same lines, Jesus three times refers to Satan as the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The term "ruler" (arche) was a political term used to denote the highest ruling authority in a given region-and Jesus applied it to Satan over the whole world! Functionally, Satan is the acting CEO of all earthly governments. Paul agrees, for he refers to Satan as "the god of this age" and as "the ruler of the power of the air" (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). We see, then, that while God ultimately gives authority to governments to preserve law and order in a fallen world, and while God orders and orchestrates governments as he finds them to his own providential advantage, Satan-"the destroyer" who "deceives the nations" (Rev. 9:11; 20:3, 8; especially 13:14)-is heavily involved in all of them and works at cross-purposes to God.
I know of no way to resolve the ambiguity involved in this dual analysis of the kingdom of the world-but simply recognizing that there is, at the very least, a strong demonic presence polluting all versions of the kingdom of the world has to significantly affect how followers of Jesus view earthly governments. Minimally, this recognition implies that we can never assume that any particular nation-including our own-is always, or even usually, aligned with God. We may be thankful whenever our government wields the sword in ways that are just and that punish wrongdoers. But we must also always remember that fallen principalities and powers (Eph. 2:2; 6:12) strongly influence our government, and every government, however relatively good that government may otherwise be.
To accept this teaching means that, while believers should strive to be good citizens, praying and working for peace and justice, they must always practice a healthy suspicion toward the "power over," sword-wielding government they are subject to. While a particular political ideology may be better than others at preserving justice, law, and order, we must never forget that even the best political ideology lies under the influence of a "power over" cosmic ruler who is working at cross-purposes to God.
THE GODS AND FALLEN PASSION
When we accept that the destroyer who has been "a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44) is the functional ruler of all versions of the kingdom of the world, we can make sense of the fact that the history of the world has been one of violent conflict. In all of recorded history, only a few decades have seen no major wars-and even during these times of relative peace, much local violence existed. Historians estimate that in the twentieth century alone over 200 million people died as a result of war and political conflict. The history of the world is a massive river of blood, and this waste of life testifies not only to the violent tendencies of the fallen human heart but to the destructive nature of the ruler of the kingdom of this world.
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey brilliantly capture the violent nature of Babylon. In Homer, as in much Greek tragedy, humans are driven by passions they can't completely control-passions to secure and acquire power and possessions, to sacrifice for (and to) certain gods, to uphold religious traditions, to acquire a personal legacy, to protect loved ones, and to advance the cause of tribe or nation. The trouble is that other people have their own power they want to secure and expand, their own possessions they want to acquire and protect, their own gods to sacrifice to, their own traditions to defend, their own legacies to build, and, perhaps most importantly, their own tribal and national interests to advance. This, for Homer, means that sooner or later, war is inevitable.
Furthermore, in Homer "the gods" are always involved in the affairs of humans. Some gods, for their own reasons, inflame certain individuals with passions that lead them one way, while other gods, for their own reasons, inflame other individuals with passions that lead them an opposite way-and the result is a bloodbath. For Homer, the inevitability of war is not just the result of conflicting passions-it has a supernatural dimension.
And all the while, Zeus sits on Mount Olympus, amused by the sport of it all.
The brilliance of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey lies in how powerfully they express truth, especially when understood from a scriptural perspective. We fallen humans have passionate convictions that control us and lead us into conflict with others who have equally passionate convictions. We believe in our nation over and against their nation, our religion over and against their religion, our culture over and against their culture, our political ideology over and against their political ideology, and so on. And insofar as we are influenced by the kingdom of the world, we express these passions by attempting to exercise "power over" others as their nation, culture, religion, or political ideology conflicts with or threatens our own. Violence is the inevitable result.
Homer was also right about the gods. Though secular people give it no credence, from a scriptural perspective we have to grant that our tribal, territorial, and ideological passions have a demonic dimension to them. The Bible speaks much of rebellious gods, fallen principalities, powers, and demons that affect what comes to pass in this world. There are gods over particular nations that are not on God's side and thus do not exercise their dominion in ways that promote peace and justice. From a scriptural perspective, these fallen gods are behind and involved in the conflict that occurs between nations.
And all the while, Satan, the ultimate "power over" god of this age, watches the bloodshed with a demonic sense of amusement.
THE TIT-FOR-TAT KINGDOM
It's hard not to get pulled into the fallen passions that fuel the violence of the kingdom of the world. Indeed, the demonic, tribalistic passion that sets "us" over against "them" seems completely natural to us in our fallen condition. If you hit me, my natural (fallen) instinct is to hit you back-not turn the other cheek! Tit for tat, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth-this is what makes the bloody kingdom of the world go around.
Excerpted from The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory A. Boyd Copyright ©2005 by Gregory A. Boyd. Excerpted by permission.
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