One thing that hinders the modern reader from properly understanding the Bible and the nature of biblical religion is the predominance of Christianity, or at least some form of it, on the world stage. Because much of Western culture is regarded as being based on a Christian foundation, the authentic biblical message has become a victim of its own apparent success. Here is what I mean.
Critics of Christianity in today’s world see a cultural hegemony that uses the authority of Christianity (or the Judeo-Christian tradition) as a way of preserving or enhancing the power of those who appeal to that authority. Christianity is seen by these critics as the majority religion whose adherents have a vested interest in keeping control of society, culture, politics, and law. Indeed it would be hard to deny that there are now, and historically have been, Christian leaders who share this view of Christianity’s role in society; in fact the prevailing view for centuries has assumed a positive and complementary relationship between church and state. In our own time there are plenty of voices which lament the extent to which the controlling elements in government and society are no longer explicitly in the hands of Christian powers or institutions.
Since these critics see themselves as oppressed by a Christian majority, they fear the very increase in the power of Christian viewpoints and institutions which some prominent Christian leaders see as necessary for the well-being of civilization as we know it. These conflicting sets of fears lead to arguments about the relationship between religion and government, disagreements over the issue of separation of church and state, and ultimately what has come to be called the culture wars.
I believe that both the proponents and critics of cultural Christianity would do well to take a long and serious look at the ancient documents which lie at the root of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the collection of books we call the Bible.
It is a commonplace maxim that history is written by the winners. Most often, that is true. Most of ancient literature, certainly, was written by and for the ruling classes or the winners of military campaigns, from the Gilgamesh epic of ancient Babylon, to the musings on good political order by Confucius and Plato, to the histories and travelogues of Herodotus and Thucydides. But in this respect the Bible is a curious exception. It is consistently a history written from the underside, the viewpoint of some of history’s losers.
From the wanderings of Abraham in a land far from his birth, to the imprisonment of his great-grandson Joseph, to the enslavement of his whole family in Egypt, to the story of a nation of slaves being led to a freedom in which they only lukewarmly believed, to the story of David who was a youngest son and a fugitive outlaw long before he became king, to the prophecies of Isaiah who saw his capital city under siege and Jeremiah who saw it overthrown, to the many prophets whose messages were not welcome in the courts of the powerful, to Esther who risked her life for her people, to John the Baptist who came as a voice in the wilderness and was beheaded, to Jesus whose birth tells of homelessness and whose death was that of a criminal, to Peter and Paul and all the apostles who were arrested, imprisoned and killed by the authorities of government, to John the Revelator whose visions of God’s sovereign victories came as he languished in exile on a small island — the stories of the Bible all tell of men and women whose hope in God did not rise or fall on their position in the world or its institutions. To such as these was often given the vision of a God who rules over all the nations, who sets up kings and lays them low — but it is significant that such visions of power were not given to comfort those who ruled, but to give hope to the poor and the oppressed.
Few prophets of the Old Testament wielded political power. None of the writers or principal actors in the New Testament did so, and there is no reason to think that they ever sought to. Jesus refused to be made king by force, and when asked to arbitrate even a family dispute, refused.
Thus those who look to the Bible, or at least to the New Testament, for a blueprint on how to run a national government on Christian principles are bound to be disappointed. The reason is simple: Christian principles are not about institutions or laws, but are about human beings and relationships. The good news of the Kingdom is that God rules from the vantage point of the powerless, from the underside of history.