Tim Suttle doesn’t like to simplify the complex. While both of his books are relatively short, he navigates gracefully through a few tricky areas, avoiding many of the pitfalls of such a task. One would think that with a title like Public Jesus, his chapter on political life would end up looking more progressive than conservative or libertarian. Yet Suttle treats the issue of political life by looking at the nature of baptism and Christian citizenship.
Our heavenly citizenship began, says Suttle, ever since we renounced our citizenship in the kingdoms of this world by being baptized. Being raised with Christ is a new identity, an advanced citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But here’s the rub for Americans: being a citizen of an earthly country “makes many demands upon our lives that we rarely think about.” Suttle laments that American Christians all too easily conflate the Christian “we” with the American “we.” He then warns us of the dangers of political engagement because “our primary concern is not the advancement of a country, but the advancement of the Kingdom of God.” Then he uses a phrase that I find tremendously helpful if we but stop to reflect on their meaning. He says, “Participating in the organization of society is a sacred calling, part of our original vocation to have dominion, to fill the earth, subdue it, till it, keep it, and cause it to bear fruit. The call to organize our common life so we image God to all creation involves polity and organization” (italics mine). That phrase, “the organization of society,” was used deliberately. Suttle wants us to know that organizing society is sacred work, but he’s also careful to not say that the state or governments are in and of themselves sacred.
If this weren’t enough to make the libertarian in me smile, it gets even better: “Politicians and parties on both the right and the left operate upon the very same underlying assumption. They each believe that they should be running the world.” The question I wrote in the margin was, “What about a movement or party whose goal is to stop acting like it can run the world?”
Ultimately, Suttle argues, the Christian has to stop trying to fit on a political continuum of left-right or fundamentalism-secularism, but to begin identifying with Jesus. Because we are resident aliens whose citizenship is the Kingdom of God, identifying with Jesus will make us permanent outsiders to the world, for better or for worse. To identify with Jesus means to take up a mission to serve the world, and “we have to accomplish our mission without government-sanctioned power.”
While governments promise the security of freedom, justice, and peace with no way to deliver them, the way of Jesus will bring us all three through the mission of the church embodying the cross in community for the good of the world. That’s why we say that in the Kingdom of God, up is down and down is up.
Tags: conservativism, libertarianism, progressivism, public jesus, Tim Suttle
Growing up I was taught to value the greatness and splendor that is The United States of America. For a variety of reasons, The United States was the greatest and best country ever in the whole world and anybody who disagrees was suspect of treason (or hellfire and brimstone). Even in church we learned that we are citizens of God’s Kingdom while at the same time were citizens of a really awesome country (even now, we have to admit there are a lot of awesome things about living in the United States). At vacation Bible school we pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible (none of which are actually in the Bible itself!).
For a long time I reconciled dual allegiance by seeing my Kingdom citizenship as superior to my earthly citizenship. So long as my allegiance to my country didn’t dominate my allegiance to King Jesus, it was okay to pledge allegiance to my country. Unless my country asked me to disown or disobey my True King, I was free to be an active or supportive participant in my country’s agenda.
I can understand the appeal to a “dual citizenship,” and in many aspects there is no conflict of interests to claim citizenship to both. Some country on earth claims us as its citizen. So what? For many, renouncing their citizenship is not an option, and sometimes there are many benefits to citizenship in a particular country (I’m sure many world-traveling Canadians are proud they aren’t Americans!). Even the Apostle Paul leveraged his Roman citizenship when necessary to advance the Kingdom of God.
Allegiance, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter altogether. Allegiance is far more involved than merely acknowledging the claimant of our earthly home. Allegiance is announcing by our acting and living day to day in the real world. According to New Testament scholar and historian of the first-century N.T. Wright, living as Christians in the world is not merely living lives where fewer sins are committed than those who don’t claim Christ as Lord. Rather, living Christianly is walking and proclaiming with all we are that Jesus is Lord—and if we are to take seriously the first century context in which the gospels were written, that means that we are implicitly agreeing that Caesar is not Lord! That is, we do not claim allegiance to Caesar but to Jesus the Anointed One.
The trick to understanding our citizenship on earth and citizenship in the Kingdom of God is to be wary of our allegiances to another king. If Jesus, through his life, death, and especially the resurrection, has announced and demonstrated that God’s new world is breaking through into our world, then our allegiance is to anything and everything that displays that in-breaking of God’s reign. Where God reigns, the kingdoms of this world do not.
Somebody once asked me if I care about the United States remaining a nation. I replied, “I don’t really care what we call it or how big it is or how long it lasts. I simply want people to be free!” As a Christian, there’s certainly more to my desire than for people to be just free. My desire is that everyone will discover their place in God’s movement in the world. But that movement can take form in whatever manner God sees fit, from whomever from whatever country in any place on earth.
(The thoughts above were inspired by my reading of Tim Suttle’s last chapter in Public Jesus. In my next article I’ll wrap up my live blog of each chapter in the book, including a discussion on what it means to be politically-involved followers of Jesus.)
Tags: allegiance, dual citizenship, Kingdom of God, N.T. Wright, Tim Suttle
G.T. asks a great question on the Christian Libertarian FAQ:
It’s one thing for adults to be left to make their own choices and live with the consequences, but when it comes to children, does society not have certain responsibilities for their proper care (if parents are unable/unwilling)? For libertarians who believe that education should be privatized, how does this practically work for these “forgotten” children?
Candidly, if I knew how a market in X works in practice, an accurate and comprehensive answer would be the most valuable proof that statism would work. Knowing how things work in practice ahead of time is impossible. We can guess and offer possibilities, but if education were privatized, it would probably look very different from what we now expect. At the same time, we don’t have just theories or principles of economics to look to for answers on how education could work without the state. We have a history of markets with millions of examples of how goods and services “work in practice.” We also have a history of markets that show us how the poor are provided goods and services that in prior decades on the wealthy could afford or have access to. While it will always be true that the wealthy will have access to the best, since the advent of freed markets the poorest have had access to reliable and quality substitutes for those products or services. In the early 1990s, “car phones” seemed to be the envy of the wealthy, completely out of reach to the poorest. Cellular phones are now ubiquitous and nearly universally affordable. A computer used to cost thousands of dollars in 1980s money, but now are merely a few hundred dollars in today’s money. These are but a few examples.
Education is one of the most complex social phenomena throughout history because of its rather fundamental nature of life. The bare minimum of learning is for mere survival, and so broadly speaking, education has always existed where survival was necessary! Just as there have always been many ways to learn, there are many ways to acquire education—apprenticeships, schools, labor market, reading, to name just a few. The first thing to keep in mind with education is that what we usually think of as “education” today is relatively new. Schools as we think of them are a recent historical practice.
The most difficult endeavor in proposing a society that operates completely on the foundations of peaceful interactions is to imagine a world nearly upside down from today’s experience. Examples throughout history are full of those who objected to social change. Certain industries may thrive in new conditions and leave old industries obsolete, yet life continued and humanity adjusted. It moves on. And most of us are the better for it. But social change is not without its hurdles. The biggest one is opening the imagination of others who cannot see what ought to be done. This takes courage and perseverance. It doesn’t happen overnight.
For most who question the privatization model of education, the children who will presumably be “left behind” (i.e. they fail to get adequate education) are the focus of concern. Add to this the Christian responsibility to concern themselves with the wellbeing of what Jesus calls “the least of these,” and the question becomes a bit more important. If Christians advocate something that leaves the poor behind, it might need to be reconsidered.
A Honda Civic will get me to work just as well as an Aston Martin. An iPad will send emails, but so will the cheapest tablet on the market that costs a fraction of the price. You can buy expensive cabinets made of exquisite wood shipped from exotic locations around the world, or you can shop at IKEA. Both add functionality to your kitchen. Markets have a proven track record of providing reliable and socially acceptable goods and services for those who have very little. In many areas, even those who were very wealthy could not afford such things a decade prior.
Once we keep in mind that education is not just “schooling,” we can begin to imagine ways that educating the poorest in a free society is not just a prediction but is feasible.
The question isn’t really about who owns and operates the school system. The question is, “What kind of ‘system’ do we need in order to see access to education to as many people as possible?” Do we even need a formal system, or does an emergent order of educational providers make more sense (the Hayekians among us would have plenty to say here!)?
It is often stated that it is the job of “the church” to assist the poor and not the job of anyone else. But for the same reason I reject the idea that “schooling” equals “education,” I would also reject the idea that “Church” equals “institutionalized Christianity.” Those who follow Jesus should be pushing the way forward that helps those in need, by whatever peaceful means necessary. That could mean starting a school funded by donations from those who have extra to give. That could mean starting a business that provides apprenticeships to the poor in exchange for inexpensive labor. That could mean working in the political system to privatize schools as we now know it. It could also mean working toward dismantling the current system so that it reflects a less institutionalized approach to educating.
A remaining concern to address is the neglectful parenting that can happen, leaving children “behind” the rest of society. What I would caution against is considering “society” as an entity with a purpose as if it were an individual. If by society you mean “the people living in society,” consider this: when a society is ready and willing to “go private” with education (face it, that’s a long way off!), that society will be ready to take care of those who are being neglected without a need for a federal or state institution to do so.
(UPDATE: Mises.org Wiki has a great page called Private Alternatives to Public Goods.)
Tags: children, economics, education, FAQ, free market, free society
I usually avoid making comments about tragic events, mostly because there are many astute authors who produce more profound thoughts than I have (here and here). I really have nothing new to add. Both sides of the “gun debate” have valid concerns, valid complaints, and valid points. The sad reality is that the few who provide level-headed arguments are unlikely to convince the incorrigible.
My emotions often make it difficult for me to watch news coverage and learn more details about such tragic events such as school shootings. As a father with young kids in school, my eyes well up when I give more than five seconds consideration for the families of those whose children were murdered. Writing this article weighs very heavy on me.
When I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting, I was in a very focused task at work, with little time to reflect. But my first thought—before I knew any details—was, Our country is responsible for the official murder of innocent people, including children, nearly every week. Yet we mourn only our own.
Don’t get me wrong. We ought to mourn. It’s human to do so. What is also human is to fail to consider everyone but “our own” (however that is defined). Americans are often quick to ignore the rest of the world, and are incredibly reluctant to consider others as better than ourselves. Christian nation? I don’t think so.
President Obama claims to follow Jesus because Jesus asks society to take care of “the least of these.” I’d really like him to take Jesus seriously on everything, not just his domestic social agenda. Not long after the shooting was reported, Obama took aim at gun ownership. No surprise there, and (to be rather honest) I don’t blame him. He’d look like a pretty pathetic President if he didn’t lift a finger to cast blame somewhere and promise to craft a plan to make us safer than we feel. But as Greg Boyd has recently pointed out, finger-pointing is in high supply these days. In light of this, let’s take Jesus seriously.
Luke 6:42 is the famous “log in your own eye” passage. Here’s the original text (ESV):
How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.
Let me offer a loose reconstruction of Luke 6:42 for President Obama:
How dare you say to your country, your family, ‘People, let me take away those guns and ammunition that are in your homes and your right to own them,’ when you yourself do not consider the missiles and drones that are in your own arsenal? You hypocrite! You authorize attacks upon innocents—including children—in the name of freedom or protection, yet you seek to disarm those who wish to protect themselves and live freely! First, examine your own actions abroad so that you can even begin to walk worthy of the “change” you ask of others.
It is a tragedy all of its own that we are quick to mourn the victims of random acts of violence on our soil while we ignore or even justify the deliberate and intentional acts of violence carried out by our own government overseas. We ought to mourn both, because it’s not just Americans who are made in God’s image. We all are. Even Pakistani school children feel it in their bones.
Special thank to Art Carden and Isaac Morehouse for providing me valuable feedback on earlier versions of this article.
Tags: Barack Obama, Drones, Gun Control, gun rights, Jesus Christ, Luke 6:42, Missiles, Obama, Sandy Hook, US Foreign Policy
(This is part six of a series liveblogging Tim Suttle’s book, Public Jesus. You can read the introduction to the series here, my post on the first chapter here, and a discussion on Suttle’s Introduction here. Each chapter will be liveblogged.)
Have you ever read a novel so captivating that you find yourself lost in another world? Watched a film so enthralling you were literally on the edge of your seat? Heard a sermon or lecture that challenges your way of thinking, not in a confrontational way, but in a way so refreshing you find yourself not caring that it just questioned everything you’ve previously believed? If you’ve tasted of this kind of “languaging”, you will have a sense of the Christian vocation.
Artisans of written word and the craftsmen of stories know intimately the power of language. Language can be a weapon or an instrument of peace. It can tear down or build up. It can unite and divide. It can reject and accept. We are communicators swimming in the ocean of language, yet many of us often fail to recognize how poorly we use our language in ways that honor God.
While we certainly have the power to shape our language, it is also true that language shapes us as well. Without getting too philosophical about it, a simple example will do. Libertarians often stop an argument between a conservative and a progressive by saying, “You both are framing the argument in the wrong way.” The key here is framing. (By the way, I’m not claiming libertarians don’t poorly frame arguments.) In the same way our simple debates are shaped by the words we use, language itself is so deeply rooted that it affects our world view.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, followers of Christ ought to be willing and able to do what Jesus did: use the power of language to describe a different vision of reality. When we do, Tim Suttle believes that “God just appears and happens in the moment and leaves us forever changed.” Most of us tend to ignore nuance and look at the world in binary: conservative/progressive, rich/poor, black/white, attractive/unattractive, and so on. But think about what Jesus did; he sided with the unclean, the outcasts, earning himself the title “friend of sinners.” Somehow, Jesus was able and eager to say “yes” to those on the “wrong” side. In doing so, he was able to communicate a vision more radical than a mere elimination of “them” (the bad ones). He came into the world to redeem it, to rescue it, to bring it new life.
Suttle’s chapter on “languaging” God could be condensed into this: “The Christian’s most sacred vocation when relating to another human being is to try to become the conduit through which that person comes into contact with the risen Savior. As we relate to one another, God can ‘happen’ to us over and over.” The whole point of the incarnation is that “God can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace…” When we pay attention, we can be a part of that. But that’s the hard part, this paying attention business. Without being hostile, we often treat those unlike ourselves indifferently, being inattentive in an equally dehumanizing way. The first step to languaging God is to refuse to ignore the world around us.
There are two things we’re supposedly not to talk about in polite company: religion and politics. Why? It’s divisive, almost inherently so. Good dialogue about such topics takes time. Discussing controversial topics thoughtfully is an art, and takes patience. It takes little time to rouse the passions of the opinionated. It takes gracefulness and humility to dialogue meaningfully. This is why how we speak and how we listen is so important.
Instead of using our words to divide, we ought to use them to embrace. Do we frame discussions in such a way that tilts the conversation our way? Or do we use grace and humility to hear out the other person? When we look into helping those in need, are our words and actions showing them pity or love?
When we become artisans of a new way of speaking, we language God to our world in a way that honors God and respects our neighbor. In this way we bring peace while we preach peace, something both libertarians and Christians are passionately committed.
Tags: Jesus, Kingdom of God, language, peace, public jesus, Tim Suttle, vision