Christ, Culture and Politics - Part 4

The place of justice and righteousness in the Kingdom and how it shapes our politics.

Deut. 10:18 reminds us that God “executes justice [mishpat] for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” Again in Deut. 27:19 God’s concern for justice is clear when we read “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice [mishpat] due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.”

The idea of mishpat is that of rectifying justice where we punish evil, protect the weak and care for the poor. The idea of tzedaqah is that of primary justice or righteousness which requires us to be in right relationship with both God and others, expecting that we will conduct ourselves in family and society with fairness and generosity.
 
Of course, if Israel did righteousness it would not have to do justice. If Israel conducted itself in all their relationships with fairness and generosity, there would be no need for rectifying justice against evil, or any need to protect the weak or care for the poor.

Good kings did justice and righteousness. David was a good king according to 2 Sam. 8:15, “David administered justice and equity to all his people.” Even his son, Solomon, started well. 1 Kings 3:28 everyone stood in “awe of the king because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.” And that was the role of the king, to keep covenant and to execute justice and righteousness in the kingdom. 1 Kings 10:9 reminds Solomon that God had “made [him] king over them, that [he] may execute justice and righteousness.”

And where there was misphat, and tzedaqah there was the shalom [peace] of God. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. Like an enduring Sabbath of joy and well-being. 

So, the biblical witness is that when misphat and tzedaqah were executed, the result was the shalom of God – a biblical view of human flourishing. Of course, Israel’s kings failed miserably as the prophets made clear. 

However, the prophets also spoke of another king to come, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice (mishpat) and with righteousness (tzedagah) from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isa. 9:7)

And again, in Isaiah 42:1ff, “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice (mishpat) to the nations…”

So rightly understood, Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of justice and righteousness that leads to peace. And the people of his kingdom are called to live that good life of shalom, doing justice and righteousness. 

The N.T. reflects this though the language changes slightly. It speaks of being a good Samaritan, a man who does misphat (Luke 4 and 10); loving your neighbour (Matt. 22:39); doing good to all (Gal. 6:1); seeking first the Kingdom and his righteousness (Matt. 6:1, 33) or the ministry to the Saints (2 Cor. 9:1, 6). In fact, I would say all the household codes are the outworking of righteousness that requires us to be in right relationship with both God and others, expecting that we will conduct ourselves in family and society with fairness and generosity. 

Now, if you lean to the conservative side of politics, my guess is that your natural bias is towards issues of righteousness (sexual issues, ssm, abortion, etc.). If you lean towards the progressive side of politics, my guess is that your bias is towards issues of justice (refugees, DFV, climate change, etc.).

Now, of course, we should do both, but the nature of politics is both polarising and distorting. So, issues like abortion are framed as righteousness issues (killing) but they are also justice issues (defending the weak and vulnerable). The issue of refugees is often framed as justice (defending the weak and vulnerable), but it’s also a righteousness issue (living generously with others). SSM can be framed as a righteousness issue (sexuality) as well as a justice issue (children). 

Additionally, politics doesn’t always deal well with the relationships between righteousness and justice issues. For example, it is imperative to be concerned with justice issues like ‘domestic and family violence’, but to disconnect that from righteousness issues like marriage vs cohabitation, and alcohol and substance abuse would be unwise. You can’t lament poor educational and health outcomes for children but not be concerned with strengthening the institution of marriage that offers the best outcomes for children. In other words, the more concern we have for righteousness issues will mean a corresponding drop in justice needs. There is a clear link between unrighteousness and resulting injustice. 

Of course, in previous generations, it was easier to discuss issues of righteousness in our culture as there wasn’t the chasm there is today between the biblical understanding of right relationships and that of our culture. It is of course much easier to do justice in our culture than it is to do righteousness, but we are called to live and witness to both. 

If you are interested in public Christianity consider attending the biennial colloquium held on Oct. 20-21 at Scots Church. Details of all the speakers and topics can be found at: religioninthepublicsquare.org 

By Darren Middleton

Christ, Culture and Politics - Part 3

James Smith in his excellent book “You are what you love” lays out the spiritual power of habit, what he calls 'cultural liturgies' that package and promote a cultural view of human flourishing. This is, the picture of what we think society should look like, Smith’s point in doing so is twofold, to show that culture is not neutral and nor are our cultural liturgies.

Smith argues we are all immersed in cultural practices that over time (through habituation) re-calibrate and re-shape our hearts. Every cultural practice is doing something; from shopping to sports, computers to phones, movies to music, from business to politics. These cultural liturgies are all doing something within us - pushing or pulling our love (desire) in a certain direction, shaping us implicitly, even unwittingly. 

Smith points to developed automated behaviours like learning how to drive a car, or how to play piano or violin showing how actions repeated often enough move from the conscious to subconscious. Likewise, because we participate in cultural practices that are habituating in us (habit forming) we need to be mindful that they are re-calibrating or re-shaping our hearts (desires). Whether that is normalising greed, violence or sexual immorality, culture is not neutral. It offers a rival view (to the gospel) of what social flourishing looks like. 

So, what are those cultural narratives of the good life? In the West, there have been two dominant themes of social flourishing. The first picture of social flourishing is that of consumption as redemption. That is, culture has told us that to flourish - to be happy or content - then consumption is redemption. Owning your home, having an annual holiday, the joy of new car or new clothes all speak to us of the good life - it's the narrative of materialism.

It’s why when we feel lonely, bad or depressed we logon eBay or head down the shopping centre for some retail therapy.  As Smith says, I AM BROKEN - THEREFORE I SHOP. However, perhaps a more dominant theme of social flourishing is that of sexuality. Or more specifically, sexual freedom and fulfilment. Freedom to have sex without consequences (children), the freedom to have sex with anyone you want (homosexuality) and the freedom to be who you want (transgenderism and erotic plasticity). 

Of course, these two dominant cultural narratives are not at odds. The is a symbiotic relationship that results in the commodification of sex evidenced in the explosion of pornography to validate and fulfil all our sexual desires. The pandemic of porn addiction also testifies to the power of habit (liturgy) regarding smartphones. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones means the omnipresence of pornography and its ugly sister addiction. 

And at the risk of sounding shrill, if you ever doubted the power of habit and how pornography rewires the brain then study the crime statistics In NSW schools regarding child on child sex attacks. It will make you a believer.

In 1995 in NSW, 89% of all sexual assaults on school grounds were committed by adults; 11% were committed by children (on children). In 2005 in NSW, 70% of all sexual assaults on school grounds were committed by adults; 30% were committed by children. In 2015 in NSW, 44% of all sexual assaults on school grounds were committed by adults; 56% were committed by children.

In just 20 years we have witnessed a 500% increase in child on child sexual assaults. What could possibly explain such a phenomenal change that would encourage children to sexually assault other children? And while correlation is not causation, the proliferation of mobile phones and as a consequence - ready access to pornography – has great explanatory power. Smith is onto something – culture is not neutral and its liturgies are re-calibrating our hearts. 

If you are interested in public Christianity consider attending the biennial colloquium held on Oct. 20-21 at Scots Church. Details of all the speakers and topics can be found at: 
religioninthepublicsquare.org

By Darren Middleton

CHRIST, CULTURE AND POLITICS - Part 2

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHRIST AND CULTURE.

So how do Christians who largely make up public Christianity see the relationship between public Christianity and the public square or for want of a better word, culture? How might we describe the different approaches to the relationship between Christianity and the public square?

A neo-orthodox German theologian called Richard Niebuhr (pronounced - Kneebar) wrote a classic book called Christ and Culture. In it, he describes a five-fold taxonomy of cultural interaction largely shaped by their prepositions. 

1. Christ AGAINST culture
2. Christ OF culture
3. Christ ABOVE culture
4. Christ AND culture in paradox
5. Christ TRANSFORMING culture

The first two are usually dismissed quite quickly. In their purest form, an isolationist 'Christ against Culture' model leads to complete seclusion resulting in an inability to fulfil the church's Great Commission. And the 'Christ of Culture' model so equates Christianity with culture that it leaves no external ground or authority by which one could critique society. Essentially, we have quickly dismissed fundamentalism and liberalism.

While 'Christ of culture' is hard to defend biblically, 'Christ against Culture' is the uncompromising view that we have no loyalty to culture but to Jesus Christ only. Surely that is the view of the Book of Revelation when John, referring to Babylon, tells his people 'come out from her lest you share in her sins' (see also 2 Cor. 6:14). In its less extreme forms, the general idea of 'Christ against culture' is that contact with our culture is to be minimal, a what contact there may be is for the purposes of evangelism. These first two positions are usually dismissed as the two extreme positions, leaving us with the three mediating alternatives.

'Christ above Culture' is a synthesis of the first two views where culture is basically assumed good but needs to be augmented and perfected by further revelation and the good works of the Church. 'Christ above culture' is the classical Catholic position and Niebuhr argues the majority position of the Church for most of history, underpinning Christendom thinking. Niebuhr claims Justin Martyr, Clement, Tertullian, and in its most comprehensive form, Thomas Aquinas as supporters of this view. After all, did not Jesus say, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21)? The biggest problem with this view is that many of the proponents did not face up to the powerful and distorting presence of sin in all human work. It’s as if they imagine that the fall (sin) only affects us from the neck down.

Now, 'Christ and Culture' in paradox is also seen as a response to polar positions of 'Christ against Culture' and 'Christ of culture'. While the Catholic proponents of 'Christ above Culture' were synthesists, those who take this view are dualists - their dualism is between God and man. Unlike the 'Christ against Culture' group who tend to place emphasis on 'them against us', the dualist position says we are the same. We are all sinners. All human culture is corrupt, including all human endeavours.

To understand the dualists, we must appreciate they are not passing judgement on other human beings; they are passing judgement on ALL human beings, including themselves. When they speak of corruption, they assume their own and culture's while accepting that they cannot be removed from culture. The dualists defining mark is that they believe that God rules in the church with special revelation, but rules the world (culture) by natural revelation (common grace). This is the view of Martin Luther and European reformers, among others.

The last view is that of 'Christ transforming Culture'. If the previous two were synthesists and dualists – this group are conversionists. While that includes personal conversion, the primary idea centres on the conversion of culture itself. This is a much more positive stance towards culture. They place far more importance on creation and the initial goodness of culture while accepting it is corrupted by the fall. They are heavily influenced by the Old Testament trajectory of justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedeqah) and the concern of Rom. 8:19-22 where redemption benefits the whole of creation. Likewise, they lean heavily on New Testament imperatives to love their neighbour, be salt and light, do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their God (Mark 12:31; Matt. 5:13-16 and Micah 6:8).

Niebuhr seems to push us towards the last option of Christ transforming culture - but it is questionable if anyone should hold exclusively to just one position. While Niebuhr's work is a classic, it is mistaken in viewing each position as a discreet model to be adopted or rejected. This is where Don Carson and Tim Keller nuanced the different options to reflect aspects of a whole.

If you are interested in public Christianity consider attending the biennial colloquium held on Oct. 20-21 at Scots Church. Details of all the speakers and topics can be found at: 
religioninthepublicsquare.org

By Darren Middleton

CHRIST, CULTURE AND POLITICS - Part 1

A BRIEF SURVEY Of PUBLIC CHRISTIANITY in OZ.

This Sunday in Geelong, less than 5% of the population of Greater Geelong will be in a Church, that's around 10,000 people. The other 200,000+ won't be. Let that sink in.

Public Christianity (any place Christians can assemble where we can tell our story or make our case, church, public talks, digital media, TV, radio etc.) has been in decline since the 60's. Having said that, this Sunday there will still be well over 1 million Australians who go to church. That's twice as many Australians attending worship services than AFL and NRL games over the same weekend (around 500,000).

What we are witnessing is the post-Christian cultural push to remove Christianity from the public square. British missionary Lesslie Newbigin argued - the "decisive feature of our culture" is the "division of human life into public and private" along with the "separation of fact and value." Increasingly, people in the West today tend to divide the world into two broad categories - a public domain and a private domain. The public domain is supposed to be for the sciences and reason, while faith and values belong to the private domain.

Now, this has real-world implications. If you accept that faith and values only belong to the private domain, not the public, then a corollary of that is freedom of religion is weakened to freedom of worship. The desired result is for religion to be pushed out of the public square into the private sanctuaries of church and home. In other words, while no one is been forced into a monastery, there is a cultural pressure to take a vow of silence - at least in the public square.

If you are interested in public Christianity consider attending the biennialcolloquium held on Oct. 20-21 at Scots Church. Details of all the speakers and topics can be found at: 
religioninthepublicsquare.org

By Darren Middleton