Scot McKnight recently posted a blog on Christian realism quoting long sections from Lee Camp’s new manifesto Scandalous Witness. It all sounds quite similar to what Hauerwas and Co. have been saying. The view of so-called Christian realism in the blog is notable solely for being the most caricatured account of Christian realism I have yet read. Apparently, Christian realists have gone over to the dark side, abandoned the faith, embraced “effectiveness over faithfulness,” and sold their souls so they could rule the world. Or not. Here are some theses to help those trying to figure out how a Christian realist might view the Gospel, written with the hope of producing a better conversation between Christian pacifists and realists. Not all Christian realists will view it this way, of course. My position is very much informed by Reformed social thought, Augustine, and elements of Catholic social thought, as well as other Christian realists.
1. The Kingdom of God Is Not a Movement or a “Politics.”
Neo-Anabaptists, inspired by John Howard Yoder, believe Jesus taught a distinctly different sort of politics that governed God’s people exemplified through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Notice: this is not just ethics, but a specific political program that eschews exercising power and use of the sword. The new way of the kingdom of God is embodied in the church. Christian realists simply say, “No.” The love and example of Christ are authoritative for the church, but they are not simple prescriptions for a political movement or a practice for politicians and governments to emulate. Every other Christian tradition (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) more or less agrees with each other, though each views the relationship between the kingdom of God and politics differently. The line from the imitation of Christ to political policy, legislation, and enforcement is direct for the Neo-Anabaptist. The Christian realist believes that politics ought to seek justice and peace, but does not believe that Christianity has bequeathed a completely new political program. Rather, the faith chastens and restrains politicians, pointing them toward their temporary and provisional task.
2. The Gospel Is What Is Done to Us, Not Something We Do.
The Gospel, for many Neo-Anabaptists, is a movement, something that you must join up and be a part of. It’s about living in a new way—the way of Jesus. For the Christian realist, the Gospel is something that is done to us; it is the power of God in Jesus Christ for salvation. We are passive; God is active. It is not something we do. We respond in gratitude, repent, and believe. We are regenerated by God’s grace through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. So we are humble receivers. God does the Gospel; we respond to it. If we think the Gospel has to do with us living more holy or what we do, then we’ve made a category mistake.
3. There Are Two Kingdoms, Not One.
God has willed that there should be two kingdoms: one to wield the sword, another to preach forgiveness.
One kingdom punishes; the other seeks mercy. One kingdom is temporal and enacts provisional judgments under which all are ultimately accountable. Lutherans use the terminology “the left hand of God” to describe the rough justice and coercion that God requires the state to enact. The other kingdom is one of forgiveness in which the first hints of God’s new creation come to realization in mutual service, love, unity, and worship. God rules over and works through both kingdoms, though they must remain distinct in this life.
4. The Church Is Not the Kingdom of God on Earth; It Witnesses to the Kingdom.
How much the church embodies God’s kingdom is ultimately not knowable. We may say the church witnesses to Jesus Christ and the dawning of his kingdom. But the church is not the kingdom and should not be simply identified with it. Imagining that the church is the kingdom or represents God’s rule on earth invites pride and delusion. God shall bring his kingdom and its establishment through his agency. Christ shall return to judge the earth and bring about the fullness of his reign.
5. Witness to the Gospel Takes a Different Form within the Context of the Church than It Does in the Context of Society and between Nations.
The church has a mission to witness to the Gospel, but government can also witness to the rule of God through carrying out its ordained function. The government’s witness to the Gospel is to serve its temporal function of harnessing power to govern, in all its facets, toward the establishment of peace and justice. But serving in a limited and provisional fashion is itself a witness, though an indirect one: God denies government its tendency toward idolatrous claims of ultimate loyalty.
6. The Persistence of Sin within the Human Heart and the Tensions within Human Community Shall Persist until the End of History.
Because societies are filled with sinners, they are imperfectible and prone to pride and collective delusions. Society and governments must act in restrained and sober ways, realizing their fallen tendencies that often express themselves in utopian fantasies of innocence and self-righteousness. Government must restrain sinful behavior, which destroys the conditions for society, but government must do so cautiously. It must not be overbearing and realize that its job is to restrain sin and not regenerate the person. Government is run by sinful persons and must itself be held accountable for its actions.
7. Government Is a Common Grace that Is Distinct from Regenerating Grace.
Common grace is a particular Protestant term that is somewhat analogous to Catholic natural law thinking about the distinction between God’s grace—which he gives to all humans regardless of their status before him—and the regenerating grace or “special grace” that he gives to those whom he regenerates through his Spirit. The two graces serve different roles, though they are linked to God’s providential governance of the world. Government serves a specific purpose as a common grace that sustains and preserves order and the common life of humankind, blessing it and restraining the negative and destructive effects of sin. Therefore, while government should preserve and sustain common life, citizens should not use government to bring about impossible radical change and transformation.
8. Christian Realists Reject the Church vs. World Binary that Suffuses So Much Rhetoric from Christian Pacifists.
Christian realists do not believe it is wicked or antithetical to work in government for the good of the city, state, or nation. The false binary that undergirds Neo-Anabaptist rhetoric and thinking between church or kingdom and “the state” or “the nation-state” is imagined but not real. It’s a gross oversimplification that denies that government has any purpose within God’s providence. Working in government—whether on the local, state, or federal levels—or serving in the military is a noble Christian vocation.
9. Christian Realists Believe Power, and Sometimes Violent Force, Is Not Evil and Is Properly Ordained for the State to Exercise to Promote Justice and Peace.
Stanley Hauerwas frequently uses the phrase that Christians are called to faithfulness, not effectiveness, but that is a defective notion of justice and charity. Charity exercised on behalf of one’s neighbor is about enacting beneficence that effectively serves them and meets their need. Effectiveness is an essential part of charity and justice. Government itself has been ordained for the effective use of power on behalf of its citizens. Power is not a dirty thing; it is a gift of God to be exercised responsibly.
10. The Force of Arms Does Not Advance the Kingdom of God.
The use of military means or other forms of coercion can never have the object of serving salvific purposes. The use of violence is for punishing evil and sustaining peace, order, and justice in this world. These are great and valuable goods, but they are temporal and not eternal. One does a noble thing when fighting in a just war, but we must always recognize that this is a tragic undertaking, even if it is necessary to preserve human life and peace.