01 June 2021

Reading Religion review: the place of the cross in political life

Matthew B. Hale has reviewed the second edition of Political Visions and Illusions in Reading Religion: A Publication of the American Academy of Religion. In addition to his praise for the book, the author has identified what he views as weaknesses. I shall not reply to all of these, but he makes one criticism worth a response, because it turned up in a review of the first edition as well:

Koyzis’s reliance on Herman Dooyeweerd’s modal analysis theologically grounds Koyzis’s interpretations and critiques in a theology of creation. But, strangely, Koyzis makes nothing of the cross. He mentions redemption often, and speaks of the redemptive narrative of the ideologies as they contrast with the Christian redemptive narrative. But the Christian redemptive narrative, centered on the cross, plays no role in Koyzis’s own political critiques or positions. This is an especially odd omission, and even more so given that theologians of many Christian communions have long recognized a profound political meaning in the cross. A theology of creation and a theology of sin are necessary for a Christian critique of political ideologies, but they are not sufficient. Without a politics that is informed by and centered upon the cross, an understanding of politics may be religious, but I wonder how exactly it would be distinctively Christian.

There can be no doubt that the cross is central to the Christian faith. For centuries people have erected crosses inside their church buildings and on top of steeples. People have worn precious metal crosses around their necks, bishops wear weighty pectoral crosses over their regalia, and congregations have carried crosses in procession on feast days. As St. Paul has written, "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Without Christ's death on the cross, we are still in our sins. Unless Christ had died, we would have to bear the penalty for our sins. As those who have been redeemed by the power of the cross and Jesus' subsequent resurrection, we sing hymns such as In the Cross of Christ I Glory and Lift High the Cross.

What does Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection from the dead imply for how we live our lives? There are two basic implications, both of which have biblical grounds. First is that of following Jesus in a way that may bring about our own deaths. Jesus himself said:  

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? (Matthew 16:24-26)

Self-denial is definitely a part of the Christian life. In the immediate context, Jesus' words were heard by his disciples, most of whom themselves would die as martyrs for the cause of Christ. Martyrdom is not merely a phenomenon of the first century of our era; many Christians today risk and suffer martyrdom under regimes hostile to the gospel. Even in North America the demands of the gospel have become increasingly unpopular and unpalatable to the larger society, which celebrates the expansive self and its desires. The call to deny self runs counter to the contemporary redemptive narrative, which Carl Trueman so astutely analyzes in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Following Jesus Christ may indeed bring, if not immediate death, then a possible diminution of one's career prospects and respectability in the larger community.

This is one of the implications of my use of narrative analysis in the second edition. Too many Christians implicitly accept the salvation story of, say, liberalism, socialism, or nationalism and assume they can live as obedient Christians while paying lip service to what are effectively the idols of our time. But if we are to live consistently in obedience to the One who has saved us through his Son, we need to pay close attention to the redemptive narratives that the ideologies tell and to assess them in a spiritually discerning fashion. After all, we serve God not in just one corner of our lives but in the whole of our lives.

The second implication of the cross is that it is unique to Jesus' mission on earth. In this second sense we cannot follow Jesus, who is uniquely Son of God and whose mission is to redeem his fallen creation. As the tenth chapter of Hebrews puts it, Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sins and has "offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins . . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:12, 14). This is the most significant meaning of the cross. Because Jesus paid the one all-sufficient sacrifice, we have eternal life in him, confident that we will share in the resurrection of the righteous and will dwell in God's redeemed creation at the consummation of his kingdom.

In the meantime we live in hope of this kingdom and under the shadow of the cross, which for us, paradoxically, is a source of light. But this is important: the context in which we live out our lives is precisely God's creation! That which the cross redeems is creation, of which human beings stand at the pinnacle (Psalm 8). Human beings engage in economic activities, education, tilling the earth, formal worship, artistic pursuits, athletic activities, political rule, policy-making, singing, dancing, running, jumping, eating and drinking, and so forth. Here is Paul once more: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).

For us political scientists, this means that we explore a field which is an integral part of God's creationa creation redeemed by Christ's work on the cross. We do not necessarily bring the cross as subject matter explicitly into our studies, but we do go about our work in light of the biblical redemptive story for which the cross is pivotal. We look at the data of political science, including legislatures, executives, courts, bureaucracies, military forces, lobbying, constitutional documents, legal systems, electoral systems, and so forth. We may analyze voting statistics or read and critique the great political philosophers. We may assess proposed reforms to our political systems. We may discuss the principles of justice held to underpin our political systems. We Christians read Scripture, not so much as an original source of political data or principles but as "a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path" (Psalm 119:105), enabling us to clarify these principles as they have developed over the ages.

Most important of all, in my view, is that our status as redeemed in Christ offers resources enabling us to discern the spirits (1 John 4:1), that is, to recognize the redemptive stories the ideologies are telling, even if they are not immediately obvious, and to assess them accordingly. We may not be wearing a cross on our clothing or carrying a banner emblazoned with a cross. But we will be living out our redemption in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross that we might live for him in everything we do, including politics.

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