Cleanliness Is Next to Impossible: Why Christians Must Get Down and Dirty in the Culture Wars
This essay is excerpted from chapter 9 of Dave’s forthcoming book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon
Believers in Jesus Christ are those who apply the lordship of Christ to every area of life—politics and prayer, government and church, society and spirituality. Institutions of human government comprise an integral part of the world into which Jesus sent His followers (John 17:18). They are to minister in this world as salt (Matt 5:13), light (Matt 5:14), and leaven (Matt 13:33). All of these metaphors point to transformation by penetration, change by involvement—not isolation. Just as salt interacts with meat to flavor or preserve it, light infiltrates darkness to dispel it, and leaven mixes with the lump to expand it, so Christians are to penetrate the world, government included, with the gospel.
While the Christian experience is always personal, it is never private. Confessing “Jesus is Lord” inevitably intermingles with counterclaims made by earthly potentates and the allegiance demanded by civil authorities. As citizens of two realms—the earthly and the spiritual—Christians must understand that their dual citizenship includes rights and responsibilities in both. This is what the apostle Paul was saying when he wrote to the Philippians: “The only thing that matters is…that you behave as good citizens [of heaven] in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). The verb translated “behave as good citizens,” politeuomai, means more than “conduct yourselves” or “live” (so most translations). Paul is reminding the Philippians that they are a new community in Christ in the midst of a Roman military colony. They are citizens of a new order of being that will continue while Rome’s will crumble entirely. They are to live in the midst of the old order as worthy citizens of the new one.
It is this concept of dual citizenship that is the biblical basis for civic participation by Christians. In the New Testament the believer’s civic obligation is emphatically commended alongside the obligation to serve God. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” said Jesus (Mark 12:17)—a thought echoed by the apostle Peter when in one breath he says, “Fear God; honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17). Hence, while Scripture pictures believers as pilgrims on earth passing through a foreign country on their way home, it forbids them to be indifferent to matters of human government. As J. I. Packer has said: “The more profoundly one is concerned about heaven, the more deeply one cares about God’s will being done on earth.”
Of course, there are dangers to be avoided, most notably the politicized intentions of the social gospel movement as represented by the more liberal Protestant denominations, and the pietistic “come-out-ism” of some Christian separatists. Neither will do. The goals of Christianity can never be reduced to a socio-political scheme whereby God’s kingdom will be established on earth through political activism alone. The Bible declares Jesus Christ to be, first and foremost, our Savior from sin, delivering us from the wrath to come. His kingdom is not of this world in the sense that what we experience in this life as Christians is preparatory for the life to come. However, neither will pietistic separatism do, which often takes the form of political passivity and unwillingness to be involved in any level of civic activity. The root problem with this view is a faulty eschatology that sees the world as getting inevitably worse until the coming of Christ and tells us, therefore, that there is nothing we can do about it. Whatever truth there is in this view (and there is much truth in it), and however true it is that evangelism should always be our first concern, there remains a social and political task for the Christian, as Jesus, Paul, and Peter said.
The most serious threats to the American way of life do not come from overt opposition or hostility—not yet, at least. The most serious problems are the realities of an ever-expanding federal government that squeezes freedom out on a piecemeal basis—regulation by regulation—justified by “public policy concerns” or “compelling state interests.” As many paleoconservatives and libertarians point out, the regulatory state can be just as destructive as the hostile state. In fact, the regulatory state can often be worse because at least the hostile state is open about its opposition and invites prophetic response and, when necessary, civil disobedience (“We must obey God rather than man”).
If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that the state that is out to do “good” is the most dangerous of all. Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) has noted: “Most of the damage to liberty and the Constitution is done by men and women of good will who are convinced they know what is best for the economy, for others, and foreign powers. They inevitably fail to recognize their own arrogance in assuming they know what is the best personal behavior for others. Their failure to recognize the likelihood of mistakes by central planners allows them to ignore the magnitude of a flawed central government directive, compared to an individual or a smaller unit of government mistake.” Likewise, C. S. Lewis observes the dangers of “do-goodism”: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
There is no doubt that from a biblical viewpoint the republican form of government as originally established in America is a fitter and wiser form than any other the world has even known. By limiting the power of elected officials, it correctly acknowledges the fallenness of human nature and the tendency, as Lord Acton put it, for power to corrupt and for absolute power to corrupt absolutely. Evangelical Christianity as a whole has always repudiated state absolutism, which imposes on the masses the whim of political tyrants. Thus, when Christians speak out against a bloated federal bureaucracy, what they are undermining is not civil government per se, but false gods and a counterfeit vision of freedom and justice.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Cost of Discipleship
Nazi Germany provides us with a classic example of state power run amok. I have always been fascinated—and put to shame—by the courageous example of the young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Our life paths have been similar in some respects. He belonged to a music-loving family and enjoyed athletics. He had a talent for learning foreign languages and took an early interest in theology. He was blessed with a good university education (his was Tübingen, mine Basel). He traveled widely. In fact, it was during a visit to Libya that he was confronted for the first time with the brutal logic and incomprehensibility of war. The decision to pursue a theological career was not an easy one for him, but it was always his relationship with God that gave him the most joy and satisfaction in life.
There the similarities end. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is justly remembered not only as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century but also as a courageous individual of faith. For participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at Flössenburg Concentration Camp in the last month of World War II. He had been arrested two years earlier for helping 14 Jews escape to Switzerland. What led him to risk it all?
Few would have thought that the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-Partie, starting as a gang of unemployed soldiers in 1919, would become the legal government of Germany by 1933. In fourteen short years, Adolf Hitler, a once obscure corporal, emerged to become the Chancellor of Germany. World War I had ended in 1918 with a total of 37 million casualties, including nine million dead combatants. German propaganda had ill prepared the nation for defeat, resulting in a sense of injured national pride. The military and political leaders who were responsible for the defeat claimed that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by its leftwing politicians, Communists, and Jews. When the Weimar Republic tried to establish a democratic course, political parties from both the right and the left struggled for control, at times violently. The new regime could handle neither the depressed economy nor the rampant lawlessness. Into this void appeared Hitler and the Nazi Party, promising to right all wrongs and reestablish Germany as a great national power.
In his discussion of the church in Nazi Germany, Professor Michael Moeller shows how Bonhoeffer’s religious contemporaries succumbed to the delusion that the church had to be ushered into Nazism. As Moeller puts it, “To speak against what was regarded as a proper Germanization of the church evoked passionate opposition in a time when the majority of the populace was drunk with nationalism.” For Bonhoeffer, however, the gospel could never be found in worldly ideologies.
On May 28, 1933, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. It was a defining moment in history. The Nazis had just seized power and were tightening their grip on the nation. Political developments happened quickly in the first five months of Nazi rule in Germany. As Moeller has shown, the Nazi takeover was a textbook example of a revolutionary movement’s successful exploitation of an unstable situation to consolidate its power. Moeller summarizes the chronology of events as follows:
January 30, 1933: Hitler sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.
February 27, 1933: The Reichstag set on fire.
February 28, 1933: A State of Emergency proclaimed.
March 23, 1933: “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich” (“Enabling Act”) enacted. Legislative power transferred to the Executive.
April 7, 1933: “Law to Harmonize the State Governments and National Authority” enacted and the federal structure dissolved.
The “Enabling Act” curtailed the constitutional freedoms of Germans, based on peril to the homeland, with a promise that they would be fully restored in four years. The German parliament, which was similar to our U.S. House and Senate, was also promised that the new powers used would be only those “essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures” for the protection of the state and people, and that the “recourse to such a law [would be] in itself a limited one.”
In bringing about these sweeping changes, the Nazi government enjoyed broad support from the public. After the chaotic end of the twenties and Germany’s terrible economic crisis, it seemed that national pride was finally possible again. Law and order had been restored. Hitler was regarded by many as the new Führer (leader) who would bring Germany out of the chaos of the Weimar Republic and create a stable society.
As Moeller notes, Hitler’s rapid ascendancy was greeted with enthusiasm by church leaders who felt that the radical change in the nation’s political system should also take place in the church. If the new Germany needed a new leader, the church also needed a new Reichsbishof (national bishop) to usher it into the new era. The party working for the Nazification of the church called itself the Deutsche Christen (German Christians). In this movement, Hitler was considered a German “prophet,” and racial consciousness was considered a source of revelation alongside the Bible. The German Christians affirmed Hitler as a new Messiah and accepted Nazism’s anti-Semitism. It was in reaction to the excesses of the German Christians that another group, calling itself the Confessing Church, was formed, chiefly out of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. The Confessing Church took its name because it clung to the church’s great historical confessions of faith. The Barmen Declaration was the work of this group, written at its initial synod in Barmen, Germany, in May 1934. Although the declaration focused on concern for the church and ecclesiastical renewal, it was also considered a political document with clear political implications. This is obvious even in the initial affirmation, which reads, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” This affirmation is meant to motivate Christians to greater trust and obedience, regardless of the consequences—and the signers of the declaration knew that the costs might be high.
Bonhoeffer, now an ordained pastor, immediately distanced himself from the German Christians and their program. In his sermon of May 28, 1933, Bonhoeffer addresses the changes being advocated by the German Christians. Basing his sermon on the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between the church of Aaron and the church of Moses. The church of Aaron, he says, is the church of this world. It answers the demands of humans by encouraging them to go their own selfish ways. The Aaron church may well ask for sacrifices, but the sacrifices themselves are self-serving. The Aaron church is the church of idols and will ultimately be destroyed by God, because “in the cross all making of gods, all idolatry comes to an end. The whole of humanity, the whole church is judged and pardoned. Here God is God.” The statist fervor of the German Christians impelled Bonhoeffer to say that the true church must constantly defend itself against idolatry. Long before the excesses of the Third Reich forced Bonhoeffer to join the political resistance, acceptance by the German Christians of Nazi ideology had driven him into a state of protest against the church in which they were so dominant.
What, then, was the role of the pastor for Bonhoeffer? And what is the responsibility of church leaders today? Moeller, who carefully studied this issue, concluded: “The pastor has to speak the truth. Not the truth of ideologies, but the truth of the Gospel which the world does not like to hear. The role of the pastor is not to be the master of ceremonies for the world celebrating itself. The role of the pastor might be more the role of the fool, the one who is set aside to speak the truth even though nobody really wants to hear it.”
Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the plot against Hitler wasn’t an easy one. But his realization that the truth requires suffering enabled him to take the fateful step. “I believe that God can and wants to create good out of everything, even evil,” he said. “For that he needs people who use everything for the best. I believe that God provides us with as much strength to resist in every calamity as we need. But he does not give it in advance, so that we trust him alone. In such a trust all anxiety about the future must be overcome.”
Do We Need a New Barmen Declaration?
George Orwell arrived at the title of his novel about totalitarianism by reversing the last two digits of the year in which it was published. Ever since then, 1984 has become a symbol describing a dreadful world of thought control. Interestingly, 1984 was also the 50th anniversary of the Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration that was issued in 1934, well into Hitler’s second year in power. This declaration was one of only a handful of challenges to what the Nazis were doing in Germany.
The German people had sinfully acknowledged that truth was to be found only in the Nazi Party—apart from “the one Word of God.” Germany’s salvation was now located in Nazi ideology. Racial purity and anti-Semitism were now the twin “truths” of German society. For the signers of the Barmen Declaration, to accept Jesus Christ meant to reject these “truths” and especially Adolf Hitler. The same attitude was taken by Martin Niemöller in a book he published during this period entitled “Christus ist mein Führer,” or Christ Is My Leader. The use of the term “Führer” was intentional, since everybody in Germany referred to Hitler by that title. For Niemöller, “Christ is my Führer” implied its negation, “Hitler is not my Führer,” and for stating this Niemöller spent seven years in Dachau. The signatories of the Barmen Declaration clearly felt that they were living in a time when the true church could no longer say, “We affirm both Christ and Hitler.” They had to proclaim, in effect, “The debate about Hitler is now closed. We have rendered our verdict. The matter is no longer negotiable.”
Are we in America actually facing, or are we close to facing, a similar situation? The indications that we may be on our way to a totalitarian society concern mainly our doctrine of national security. With the United States engaged in the military occupation of Iraq, our president emphatically insists that the necessity of a war against that sovereign nation was based on a real and imminent threat against the United States of America, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. We are told that in the interest of national security we must all be willing to sacrifice our personal freedoms in the name of the Patriot Act and other measures that reduce the Bill of Rights to a worthless scrap of paper. In the name of security we are told that a government must not let its people know too much or they will be in danger of losing their influence in the world.
A spirit of wild jingoism seems to have infected the Bush administration. Men who are supposed to look at world events in a calm and dispassionate way now talk only of “war” and “liberation,” as though these were the sole thoughts of the American people. If you attempt to argue with such gentlemen they will tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, accuse you of unpatriotic conduct, and sneer at your reasonings and conclusions. I cannot help but feel that a rude awakening is in store for these self-constituted apostles of freedom and humanity.
One of the most disturbing recent examples of this attitude has been the Bush administration’s willingness to used flawed intelligence to make its case for the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s posture on the war—including the fact that he invaded Iraq without constitutional authority to do so—is the beginning of what appears to be a growing totalitarian mentality that says, “We are above the law. We are not accountable to a world body or even to our own government. We don’t need to tell people what we are doing, and we will accuse those who challenge us, even in Congress, of making us weak.”
The Barmen Declaration claimed that there is only “one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” For Christians, that Word is Jesus Christ. In the name of that same God it may become necessary for us to protest today, as the signers of the Barmen Declaration did in 1934, when the leaders of our government say, “Hear, trust and obey us in life and in death. We’ll tell you what to think. If we withhold information, it’s for your own good. And if our arguments don’t make sense, be assured that there are reasons behind them that we can’t share with you.” When government says such things, it begins to look frighteningly like a Caesar trying to elicit unquestioning and docile loyalty from an unthinking populace. Government becomes a god, and demands to be worshipped as such. As that begins to happen, our response must be to say No because we have already said Yes to the one Word of God whom we are obligated to trust and obey in life and in death. For both Bonhoeffer and Niemöller, action by the church was justified on the basis of ensuring that the state fulfilled its God-given function as state and not as god. Tragically, the Confessing Church in Germany acted too late. I hope we do not repeat their tardiness.
Beware of the New Patriotism
America is but a fleeting actor on the stage of history. As Walter Lippmann once put it: “When Shakespeare was alive, there were no Americans; when Virgil was alive, there were no Englishmen; when Homer was alive, there were no Romans.” Much of what I have said in this book is addressed to my fellow conservatives, trying to review the biblical truths that gave birth to this nation and the political blunders that have led us off the pathway. Here I want to direct my comments particularly to pastors and other Christians in every state across the land.
Our forefathers founded this nation on principles basic to our Judeo-Christian heritage. And their greatest fear for the future of the nation was that one day the people would turn from these principles. That day has come. Christ demands our complete devotion, but the church has lapsed into a Christianity of custom and tradition. The result is that the church has allowed itself to be used for worldly purposes. Well-meaning but deceived believers are working around the clock to assimilate church and state. I would rather the church be thinned down to a tiny band and go into the catacombs than make a compact with this doctrine! Whoever today preaches a Christianity rooted in American nationality binds God’s Word to an arbitrarily conceived Weltanschauung, thereby invalidating it, and places himself outside the evangelical church. Whoever talks this way imagines that he is able to serve both Yahweh and Mammon, which is utterly impossible.
The evangelical church of today deserves sharp criticism for its flabby, compromising attitude toward what I call the New Patriotism and because of its enthusiasm for the nation’s arrogant empire-building. Under the guise of contending for liberty it is actually perpetuating the old compromise of nationalism and gospel. Paganism in the form of state worship has invaded the church, yet its leaders are silent. We who proclaim the Good News owe it to our congregations to oppose this falsification of the gospel with all of our being.
In this light, I have four brief suggestions to offer. First, the New Patriotism/Neo-Paganism is to be protested against because it is heresy and because it has become the prevailing doctrine in the church through usurpation. Secondly, the protest has to be directed fundamentally against the source of all errors, namely, that adherents to the New Patriotism place their faith in government as a second source of redemption, and thereby show themselves to be believers in another God. Thirdly, the protest can be raised only where there is a clear agreement about the essence of this sickness. And finally, all this should take place within the bosom of the church and in such a way as to call the church and its individual members to repentance.
The choice to become actively involved in politics is costly. Speak out on public issues, and the road you travel will become bumpy indeed. But who ever said the Christian life was easy? No one has put this better than Leslie Newbigin in his book, The Other Side of 1984:
Christian discipleship is a following of Jesus in the power of his risen life on the way which he went. That way is neither the way of purely interior spiritual pilgrimage, nor is it the way of realpolitik for the creation of a new social order. It goes the way that Jesus went, right into the heart of the world’s business and politics, with a claim which is both uncompromising and vulnerable. It looks for a world of justice and peace, not as the product of its own action but as the gift of God who raises the dead and “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). It looks for the holy city not as the product of its policies but as the gift of God. Yet it knows that to seek escape from politics into a private spirituality would be to turn one’s back on the true city. It looks for the city “whose builder and maker is God,” but it knows that the road to the city goes down out of sight, the way Jesus went, into that dark valley where both our selves and all our works must disappear and be buried under the rubble of history. It therefore does not invest in any political programme...the hope and expectations of which belong properly only to the city which God has promised.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it, said Yogi Berra. America is indeed at a fork in the road. Our nation’s history is filled with devout men and women who made an impact on government. Today it is up to Christians like you and me to get on our knees and pray, educate ourselves, and mobilize for action. If we are to win the culture wars, we must become salt, light, and leaven in the political arena.
 Leslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984 (Consul Oecumenique, 1983) pp. 36-37.
December 26, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.