Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part Two

My investigation of the links between Christian theology and democratic politics continues. It follows my exploration into the Bible’s emphasis upon the rule of law, and the contribution this emphasis has made to modern legal concepts in democratic states.

The law’s normative status over a community of people is one strand which links democratic political cultures and the Judeo-Christian ethic which has shaped them. But in exploring this link, I have also anticipated another crucial connection – namely, the idea that leaders are the servants of those they lead. The conclusions adduced in the first essay of this series suggest that within a biblical frame of reference, even pre-eminence in human rulership was relativised. Indeed, even if ancient Israel was no democracy (a point that was true of all its neighbours), we should not be distracted from this fundamental point.

The rule of law and the notion of leaders as servants are linked in a consequential way. The law’s supremacy is intended, in part, to constrain the power of any one individual or group. In this context, any such governor is still subservient to legal strictures maintaining an independent normativity. Even if he has amassed a great deal of power, he is nonetheless charged with the responsibility of upholding the law and maintaining the order and integrity of the community he rules. That represents a kind of minimalist version of the concept of the leader-as-servant. A fully-fledged account of democratic government would hold that leaders’ authority is grounded in the consent of a particular people. Of course, how that is parsed is often a matter of debate, but for modern liberal democracies, the usual mechanism is universal suffrage and regular elections.

This represents a unique arrangement in the history of human cultural and political evolution. For most of that period, the relationship between the governed and governors was one of utter asymmetry, with the former living in subjection to the latter. What democratic states seem to do is dramatically upend the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. On this view, governors do not “lord” it over citizens; nor is their authority grounded in themselves. It is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. As an ideal, they are there to labour on behalf of the citizenry – for its betterment and security, and at its behest – and it is upon this that the legitimacy of governors rests. Democratic leaders are, in theory, restrained and relativized. On the one hand, they are restrained, because they are bound by the legal framework within which they operate. They cannot act with untrammelled power, because they are servants of both the people who have given their consent to be so governed, and because they themselves are susceptible to legal sanctions if they overstep the boundaries of their authority. On the other hand, leaders in a democracy are relativized, because they are not the ultimate ground of that authority. Again, the citizenry and the rule of law (which provides for consensual government) together ensure that this is the case.

As noted, those who steer the ship of state, at least in a democratic setting, are charged with the responsibility of providing for the betterment of others – not as an adjunct to their role as governors, but as the very essence of what they do. Indeed, the reason elected officials exist is so that (in the absence of radically participatory politics) the interests and wishes of the people may be carried out on their behalf. It is what one might idealistically designate other-regarding, as opposed to self-regarding, power. Democratic leaders are by definition servants of those they lead; they are agents and instruments of the public will. This partly explains the notion of accountable government: if those who lead are meant to do so for the benefit of the citizens of a particular political community, it is but a short step to argue that they ought to be answerable to the ones in whose name they claim to govern. Again, none of this springs forth spontaneously; equally, it cannot be sustained by the intrinsic virtue or good will of its practitioners. A whole web of checks and balances ensures that orientation towards service of the citizenry, and the fundamental conception of democratic governance, are upheld. By contrast, in many traditional dictatorships, leaders exercise power, and are free to do so, largely for their own benefit (regardless of the nature of that benefit). To be sure, they may pay lip service to the idea that the needs and interests of the citizens need to be attended to – if only to make the accumulation and preservation of power that much easier. According to democratic principles (if not democratic reality), ministers and elected officials exist chiefly for the sake of those who have chosen them; they are meant to serve.

Of course, these are ideal types; actual leaders invariably fail to neatly conform to them. Moreover, the reality frequently fails to match such lofty ideals: modern, Western politicians sometimes appear to be just as susceptible to venality and corruption as authoritarian ones; and democratic politicians can be very adept at using “pork-barrel politics” to cling to power, in a manner that is reminiscent of the crudest kind of populist strongman. Still, this should not distract us from the larger point, or the fundamental principles we use to judge such failings in the first place.

Servant Leadership in the Old Testament

One may discern the seed of such an idea in (amongst other places) the OT. If the (divine) law was “king”, then any human ruler, no matter how powerful, was obliged to defer to something greater than himself. He was, in some sense, a servant. He was not called to live for his own aggrandizement; rather, he was selected for the sake of the community, providing a focal point of obedience and devotion to Torah. At the same time, the king was appointed to his position by God. An OT theology of kingship presents Yahweh as the ultimate sovereign, from whose authority any Israelite ruler derived his own. Of course, one might assert that this simply upholds a theory of the divine right of kings. But, aside from the fact that arguing for royal absolutism on the basis of divine providence appears to be a medieval development, the counter-argument does not reckon with the way both Testaments portray rulership generally. In tandem with its insistence regarding the supremacy of law, the OT contains a germinal understanding of the leader-as-servant. We have seen how royal disobedience led to the activation of divine curses, narrated particularly in Kings and Chronicles – clear demonstration of the king’s relative, and indeed relativised, status. This is complemented by the fact that he was not viewed as the final ground of his own position of pre-eminence. The book of 1 Samuel presents this clearly: Saul, who had been chosen as king, becomes a “stench” to Yahweh due to his recalcitrant disobedience, whilst David’s parallel rise – and ultimate acclamation – as Yahweh’s true representative is depicted as the unfolding, not of human machinations, but of the sovereign designs of Israel’s god. On one level, the narrative presents David as the unique recipient of divine favour. However, on another level, it represents a subtle reminder that the king himself stood on authority that was in the hands of another. He was a leader, yes; but he was, in the final analysis, an instrument, used by Yahweh with the intention of mediating his just and wise order – inscripturated in Torah – to the community.

The New Testament and the Flowering of an Idea

Having been germinated in the soil of the OT, the idea of servant leadership blossoms in the NT. The basic resources for a democratic understanding of governance – one which reverses the relationship between those in power, and those over whom power is exercised – are to be found there. We may begin with one of the clearest “political” texts in the NT, Romans 13:1-7. It is a notorious passage. Commentators over the centuries have often interpreted Paul’s statements here in purely reverential terms: having traversed other topics in Romans 1-12, they aver, he now deals explicitly with questions of the believer’s relationship to governing authorities, and does so by counselling quietism and acquiescence. Countless interpreters, not to mention politicians, have dragooned this passage into service, as they have sought to substantiate the untrammelled, unquestioned power of the state. In more recent times (and in an example of religion frustrating the advance of emancipation and egalitarianism), the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa deployed Romans 13:1ff to argue for acquiescence towards the political structures sustaining that country’s apartheid system.

All this, however, fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s point. True, a prima facie reading supports a so-called “conservative” interpretation, such that the apostle is heard to be saying that it would simply be better for a basically oppressive system of government to remain in place, than for Christians to be seen as subversive. Indeed, he seems to simply enjoin submission, with nary a word (apparently) on whether or not the authorities to which one ought to submit are legitimate. However, probing its contents more deeply yields a very different conclusion. To this end, a few points may be considered. Whilst it encourages some degree of deference to the governing authorities, Romans 13:1ff is quite deliberate in the language its uses to describe them. This is particularly clear if we gather up vv.1-2, 4-6, which speak of the nature (as opposed to the activity) of governing authorities. In those passages, Paul quite clearly states that (1) those who govern have been instituted by God, and (2) they are God’s “servants”. What this means is that although the apostle encourages the Roman believers to eschew rebellion and subversion, he nonetheless betrays a relativized view of government and human political institutions, consistent with a Jewish view of God as the world’s sole sovereign. Caesar, according to imperial ideology, owed allegiance to no one, save perhaps for the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods (who could probably expect nothing more than superficial reverence). The emperor stood at the apex of a totalising system, which acknowledged no other authority, no other rival who might qualify or check his untrammelled power. Paul, on the other hand, argues that every governing authority, from Caesar on down, has been instituted by God (v.1b-c). The power and legitimacy they bore was rooted in an external authority. For all their pomp, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, et. al., were but instruments, whose positions, according to Paul, depended entirely on the largesse of the world’s true King. If not for him, we might hear the apostle saying, they would be nothing. The apostle exhorts submission to governors, certainly; but lying behind this counsel is the basic assumption that they in turn were subject to God. Underlying – indeed, overshadowing – their authority was an authority transcendent and unmatched (metaphysically speaking). Far from re-enforcing a totalitarian system, Paul significantly qualifies it.

That qualification is reflected in the apostle’s conviction that governors are “servants” of God (vv. 5-6), charged with the responsibility of bringing order to the political community. Not only have they been bequeathed authority (such that it is derived and relativized); neither the emperor, nor his legion of proconsuls, magistrates and provincial governors, were to wield power for its own sake. For Paul, they were merely agential figures, whose positions were only legitimate to the extent they discharged their duties as guarantors of justice and order (v.4b). The apostle is quite emphatic on this point, though it would be easy to miss, given popular (and facile) readings of the overall tenor of the passage. Twice he labels the governing authorities “servants”; once, he calls them “agents” – language that most certainly undermines pretensions towards universal sovereignty, particularly as that comes to expression in the figure of the emperor. On this view, power is circumscribed, for those holding it do so as instruments of the final sovereign. In Paul’s mind, governors occupy a demoted (though nonetheless important) position, such that their raisons d’etre rest on service to a purpose higher than the accumulation of power for its own sake.

Of course, it would be folly to suggest that in the wider Greco-Roman world, governors lacked any sense of what it meant to provide for those they governed, or that they had no obligations towards citizens and subjects (though this obviously excludes the massive population of slaves within the Roman Empire). What I think is distinctive about the NT portrait of leadership and power is the way it drastically re-draws the vocation – the benefits of which are so completely externalised that true authority is defined as, and manifested in, service to others. This is particularly so as it is embodied in the NT’s portrayal of the ministry and life of Jesus himself. Even in the absence of direct historical links, it is still possible to discern certain parallels between, and echoes of, a Christological ethos and later principles associated with democratic governance. Some of the key texts in this regard are Mark 10:40-45; John 13:1-5; and Philippians 2:5-11.

Mark 10:40-45: Of the three passages I have selected, Mark 10:40-45 draws perhaps the clearest distinction between worldly, secular expressions of power, and the kind of power Jesus counselled and exemplified. In that passage, James and John approach Jesus, and ask him to give them high places of honour on either side “in [his] glory” (v.37). Clearly, they want to be exalted alongside Jesus, to attain positions of primacy and acclamation. But the other disciples are little better, becoming indignant with the brothers’ request – not because they believe it to be wrong, but because they are angry their own opportunity for honour has apparently been robbed (v.41). Verses 42-45, however, form the crux of Jesus’ statement on power and authority. He explicitly contrasts the way in which earthly rulers wield their power, “lording” it as they do over their subjects, and the model he presents (cf. v.45). Indeed, he is categorical and his disavowal of secular convention, calling upon the disciples to eschew the haughtiness of secular rulers in favour of a servant’s approach to leadership. More than that, he states that if any of them aspire to such positions, they must adopt the posture of a slave (v.44).

Slavery in the Roman Empire was a mixed bag; some slaves were able to do quite well for themselves, accumulating property and even acquiring slaves of their own. Others, however, were treated shamefully, stripped of everything, and utterly dehumanised by the reigning economic system. For Jesus, the significance of this kind of language lies in its basic connotations: whether a slave enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence, or suffered under the crushing weight of constant oppression, his life was ultimately not his own; it was limited, corralled – inextricably bound to the expectations and whims of his owner. The slave was not his own person; he was, in many respects, an appendage of the paterfamilias. And yet, remarkably, it was this very image Jesus chose to use when describing the nature of true leadership. For him, the authentic expression of power could be summed up as a kind of servitude, as those who followed his example were enjoined to give up all rights as they sought to lead. He commanded them to yield everything in service to others, thereby upending conventional notions of power, and subverting long-established hierarchies between the governed and those who govern them. Jesus used himself as the exemplar of this attitude, offering up his own crucifixion as its climactic embodiment. Mark 10:45 has long been seen as a classic expression of the significance of the atonement. It is certainly that, of course, but as Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has said, this passage houses a political theology inside its atonement theology – namely, a critique of the shape and nature of contemporaneous articulations of authority via Jesus’ own explication of the meaning of his death. In place of worldly analogues, Jesus substituted a picture of leadership that was deeply, radically, centred upon the welfare of others (“…give his life as a ransom…”). On this view, the leader’s life was, in effect, “enslaved” – bound to the duty he had to the community he oversaw. The accumulation of power was not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, but for self-emptying.

John 13:1-5: The Marcan Jesus’ presentation of himself as the epitome of servant leadership leads naturally into John 13:1-5. That episode is justly famous for featuring his rather surprising act of foot-washing in the upper room, only hours before his arrest, trial and execution. In John’s hands, Jesus’ determination to wash the feet of his disciples proleptically symbolizes the cross. Now, for the Fourth Evangelist, Jesus’ crucifixion is, amongst other things, an act of service, issuing in great benefit for others. We may deduce this from the deliberate link he makes between Jesus’ foot-washing and his later death. Christ’s references to cleansing plainly function on more than one level, where the concrete reality of feet being washed with water points to the greater reality of cleansing from sin by virtue of Jesus’ self-oblation. But of course, the responsibility for foot-washing lay with servants, who waited on the guests of a feast. Such a menial task would not have been conducted by the guests themselves, for it was utterly beneath them. However, what Jesus commanded didactically in Mark 10, he here offers up in visual, parabolic form. Moreover, he pairs his example with an exhortation to the disciples to do likewise (13:14-15), thus setting out the importance of his own life as an ethical paradigm for those who would claim to follow him.

What is important for our purposes, however, are the specific links between the passage and the notion of servant leadership. These have already been clearly intimated by the very fact of Jesus’ adoption of a servant’s posture. But the prelude to the act is a revealing comment from the author himself, which provides both a theologically rich portrait of Jesus’ identity, and a startling reinforcement of the radically unconventional expression of power and authority attributed to him. Verse 3 has the evangelist tell us that Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God, and was returning to God”. This is crucial; the very next verse continues by saying, “so he [Jesus] got up…” in order to wash the disciples’ feet. The seemingly insignificant word “so” signals the consequential relationship between Jesus’ knowledge of his complete sovereignty (delegated, to be sure), and the subsequent act of humble service which he performed. For the Fourth Evangelist, the foot-washing was not an obstacle to Jesus’ comprehensive authority; it was a clear, if paradoxical, expression of that theological truth. Similarly, Jesus did not stoop to the level of a servant despite being the incarnation of the Father’s very wisdom (cf. John 1:1-2); rather, he did so precisely because of it. The message seems clear: true power is not expressed through tyrannical coercion, but through the complete abnegation of self and status. Via his surprising act, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel taught the disciples that leadership in the redeemed community could not wielded in the same manner as earthly expressions, for it meant the complete reversal of expectations and convention.

Philippians 2:5-11: Philippians 2:5-11 seems to point in much the same direction as the foot-washing episode in John 13. As such, the passage also has important implications for a NT understanding of authority and power. In this chapter, Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to adopt the same mind and attitude as that of Christ Jesus (v.5). He then launches into a wonderful soliloquy about the various stages of Christ’s humiliation (completed with his exaltation): first, in taking on human flesh; and second, by walking the road to Calvary, and suffering a shameful execution in the manner of a criminal (vv.6-8). Verses 6-7 are particularly important, for they offer the reader a window into Paul’s paradoxical view of the identity and revelation of the world’s true sovereign. To be sure, there has been much debate as to how this pair of verses should be construed: did Jesus “make himself nothing” despite enjoying “equality with God”; or did he, rather, condescend because he participated in the divine identity? In other words, was Christ’s (two-stage) sacrifice a move away from the proper expression of divinity, or the culmination thereof?    

In his stimulating work, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Michael J. Gorman argues that both interpretations are valid, and for that reason, proposes a synthetic treatment of the passage. He contends that they are really two sides of the same coin, and that Paul is working with both a “counterintuitive” stream and a “cruciform” stream as he rehearses the revelation God in the downward trajectory of Christ’s life. The apostle implicitly points to the paradoxical character of Christ’s incarnation, jarring as it did with conventional understandings of power and divine identity. For a king, emperor or god to stoop to the level of servanthood in this way – not to mention submitting to the dishonour of so humiliating an execution – was almost completely unthinkable. It was a category mistake of the highest order. The novelty of Paul’s depiction of godhood was to say that, contrary to expectation, the kind of self-abnegation seen in Christ’s humiliation was in fact a key moment in the disclosure of the identity of the divine. In sharp contradistinction to the prevailing norms of Greco-Roman culture, what the tenor and conclusion Jesus’ earthly life showed was not a tragic negation of power, but its true expression. We see here the present passage’s conceptual and theological connections with Mark 10 and John 13: the paradoxical – even polemical – depiction of what genuine authority actually looks like. Jesus’ descent into slavery was, according to Paul, the strange, yet climactic, unveiling of God’s character.

Moreover, as Gorman and others have plausibly argued, Philippians 2:6-11 contains a number of cultural echoes that strongly suggest a critique of imperial power, and all the pomp and arrogance associated with it. By implicitly pitting Caesar against Jesus, Paul is arguing that the “form of God” – which Augustus and others arrogated for themselves through military prowess and claims of universal lordship – was actually made visible in the voluntary servanthood of the man from Galilee. In that act, Paul seems to be saying, God in Christ turned imperial notions of power and leadership on their heads. The ethical import of the passage is properly contextualized by the opening verses of chapter 2, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to look out for the “interests of others”, and to tend to each other from positions of humility and deference. Philippians 2:6-11 caps the apostle’s exhortation by providing the church with the paradigm of humble, self-effacing service, of power wielded on behalf of, and for the benefit of, others.

Together, these three passages offer the reader a relatively clear picture of one key aspect of Christology. More to the point, they help crystallize the NT’s conception of leadership. In fundamental ways – seen implicitly in Philippians 2:6-11 and rather explicitly in Mark 10:40-45 – the resultant picture of Jesus constitutes a categorical rejection of the prevailing expressions and examples of power. It not only functions as a critique of empire and imperial arrogance, but also undermines all self-regarding and self-aggrandizing claims to power. The passages I have surveyed here all promote the idea – radical at the time – of servant leadership, where the hierarchy between governed and governor, leader and led, is dramatically blunted. That the subject of these passages is also seen as the very embodiment of God – the world’s true creator and sovereign – only adds to the significance of their complementary portraits of power. What they capture is the notion that leadership functions primarily as a form of service to the community over which one governs. On this view, positions of power do not exist for the ones who possess them; rather, a NT theology (and Christology) of leadership requires the bearers of such status to toil, labour – indeed, expend themselves – for the betterment of those they lead.

How does all this translate into the way power and leadership is conceived in modern democratic states? The relationship, like that between a biblical commitment to the law’s transcendence and evolving principles concerning the rule of law, is certainly not a direct one. And I don’t want to overplay my hand: Jesus was, according to the NT, the agent of God’s coming kingdom. He himself is depicted as God’s vice-regent, who rules the cosmos. This, of course, is not very “democratic”, if by that we mean a Lincolnian government “of the people” or “by the people”.

On the other hand, what I have examined is consistent with government “for the people”, the third leg in Lincoln’s democratic triumvirate. The idea of power and authority which came to expression in the figure of Jesus resonates at a deeper level with principles governing the exercise of political power in modern Western democracies. Moreover, given the deep cultural and philosophical shafts Judeo-Christian ethics have sunk into the bedrock of those communities, we should expect various features within those countries to bear traces – however faint – of that legacy. I think the example and ethos of Jesus is one such legacy. His embodiment of servant leadership upended the conventional and assumed power structures that prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Similarly, Jesus articulated a new definition of power, one characterised by self-abnegation and self-expenditure in an effort to meet the needs of others. It’s difficult to overstate the massive, indeed tectonic, shift in the relationship between the governed and their governors that was generated by the singular influence of Jesus. Later developments concerning accountable government (which I have already touched on) are genetically related to the idea – exemplified so crisply in Jesus’ example – that power and authority are corralled by service, and ought to be measured against that standard.

None of this occurred in isolation, of course; other intellectual streams were powerfully important in the evolution of democratic leadership. Moreover, the mere example of Jesus could not become an influential source for the later flourishing of democratic culture apart from its preservation, transmission and adaptation in later Christian communities. It was here that the ethic of Jesus was “practised”, and where its social and communal utility could be tested. The early church, as seen in Acts, is seen as a radically egalitarian society (e.g., Acts 2:42-46; 4:32, 34-37), and the legitimate heir to the message and teachings of Christ. Later Christian history provides examples of participatory and communal living, presaging (by some centuries, to be sure) subsequent values associated with, and undergirding, democratic politics.

For instance, theologian and anti-apartheid activist John de Grucy has noted that fourth-century monasticism provides strong evidence for the presence of a proto-democratic culture in some streams of early Christianity. Monastic figures such as Basil of Caesarea (and later, Benedict of Nursia) formed equalitarian communities that sought to counter the highly-stratified worlds in which they existed. Class distinctions between aristocracy and the poor were erased (or at least dramatically muted), whilst members of the clergy from wealthier families, deliberately invoking the figure of Jesus, would take vows of poverty – the better to serve and identify with those they led. Political philosopher, Larry Siedentop, says this development heralded a remarkable transformation in the was authority was conceived. Under the aegis of people like Basil, monastic leaders were obliged to act humbly, meekly. Siedentop argues that this version of authority — existing as it did in a culture awash with hubristic notions of power — was “unprecedented”. The early centuries of the church witness to a formative matrix, which provided key cultural and structural resources for the development of democratic politics, and which can be traced back to the example and teachings of its founder. That matrix was to prove decisive for both later Christian communities and the societies in which they existed. As but one example, we may note the way sections of the Radical Reformation self-consciously sought to emulate the social egalitarianism that Jesus espoused and practised.

All this lies in the future, and I shall return to some of these points in later essays. For now, it is important to consider the historically and culturally mediated connections between crucial biblical themes related to leadership and government, especially as they are crystallized in the NT’s portrait of Christ, and the conceptualisation of leadership in contemporary democratic states.

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One comment

  1. Gr8 piece Scott,We’d be interested in using it as a paper some time. Particualrly like the double interpretation of Phil 2. Have always argued for Charlie Moule’s interpretation that Jesus emptied himself because it is the very essence of God’s nature to serve or give himself away sacrificially, as well as the other less provocative interpretation. I’ve only just skimmed your essay but have you read Yoder on Revolutionary Subordination in the Politics of Jesus, drawing on the household codes. If not I think it would strengthen your argument.regards,Gordon

    Date: Thu, 7 Jul 2016 13:02:14 +0000 To: preecegordon@hotmail.com

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