by Berry Friesen (July 5, 2016)
In an essay published on U.S. Independence Day by the Christian group of which I am a member (Mennonite Church USA), author Ryan Ahlgrim briefly describes the two failed forms of political organization he sees in the Bible: “decentralized theocracy” (the Hebrew people before King Saul) and “monarchy.”
A third form of political organization—“democracy”—never appears in the Bible despite flourishing in Greece before the entire Second Testament and a large section of the First Testament were written. Surprisingly, this doesn’t trouble Ahlgrim. Instead, he breezily asserts that “despite the lack of democracy in the Bible, it is a better form of national government than any that we see in the Bible.”
Ahlgrim then concludes by pointing to the way “the government of Jesus’ disciples—the church—is supposed to be run” as the ideal because it avoids coercion, protects the vulnerable and utilizes consensus decision-making. He ends by calling “on the church—not the United States—to truly be God’s government in this world.”
I cite Ahlgrim’s essay because it reflects conventional political thinking among western Christians. In the realm of practical politics, democracy is lauded and honored as better than any alternative. In a parallel realm of aspirational idealism, leaders are servants, exercise no coercive power and enjoy no special standing. This dichotomy enables Christians to remain steadfastly loyal to the US-led empire (it regularly holds elections, after all) while piously pretending we really “believe in” another kind of politics altogether.
I read the same Bible as Ahlgrim and see there two political realities Ahgrim doesn’t find necessary to mention.
First, though theocracy is present in the First Testament (especially in Leviticus and the writings of Ezra), the political vision of Exodus, the prophets, Genesis, Paul and Jesus was built on a vision of statelessness and did not assume a centralized political entity at all. In fact, those texts criticize the desire to organize ourselves as nation-states and trust a nation-state for protection.
To put it another way, when we assume that the nation-state is fundamental and then proceed to ask how it should be operated, we have headed off in a different direction than the Bible points to. This is the tragic error of Zionism, as well as the error of most of the entire Christian enterprise.
The second important political reality to note when reading the Bible is the fact that early Christian congregations are called “assemblies” by the earliest Second Testament writings. In that context, “assemblies” referred to open civic gatherings to discuss public business. The use of the term signifies that the first Jesus-followers understood themselves to be a political movement whose purpose was to bring into the world a new way of organizing and exercising power. Jesus called this movement "the kingdom of God."
This suggests every Jesus-following congregation today should regard itself to be a political body too.
Of course, this does not negate the nation-state, nor does it cancel out the fact that we may have preferences in how the nation-state in which we live is organized. But it explains why the Bible ignores the emergence of state-based democracy. And it reminds us that trust in any particular nation-state is incompatible with trust in YHWH. In fact, the biblical prophets called trust in the nation-state “idolatry.”
So how would I describe the politics that biblical communities of faith will practice in a time such as ours when nation-states continue to be important and one nation state (the USA) dominates the world?
1. Faith communities will publicly claim political authority that precedes and succeeds that of the state. While this claim will often be ignored and even suppressed by nation-states, it will remain the primary witness of those whose lives are rooted in their belief in god.
2. Faith communities will engage in compassionate economic practices that provide livelihoods to local people. These practices will be decentralized and sustainable without state assistance, thus suggesting it is possible to thrive on Earth without a state.
3. Faith communities will root their affiliation practices (both locally and globally) in a shared understanding of authority and justice. In other words, national origin, ethnicity, race, heritage, gender, sexual orientation and even religious differences will not be used to exclude people. Again, faith communities will embody an alternative to the state’s way of avoiding civil strife, showing there is another way of running the world.
4. Faith communities will publicly oppose all uses of power for imperial purposes of conquest and control. Anti-imperialism (which translates to nonviolence in practical terms) will be a more important value than democracy, in other words.