Like it or not, politics plays a key role in society

In his witty book The Devil’s Dictionary, the late nineteenth social critic and satirist Ambrose Bierce defined politics thusly: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” He being dead yet speaketh. Certainly, politics in America today would be similarly defined by many people.

I thought about Bierce’s definition recently, after a long conversation with someone who wanted nothing to do with politics. His final words on the subject, said with great conviction, were, “I don’t believe in politics.” End of conversation.

Not long afterward I ran into someone on the other end of the spectrum, who told me, “I’m running for political office.” That reminded me of Noah Webster’s definition. The language reformer famous for compiling a comprehensive dictionary, and a near-contemporary of Bierce, defined politics this way:

“The science and art of government; the science dealing with the organization and regulation of a state, in both its internal and external affairs. The theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties; hence political affairs, principles, convictions, opinions, sympathies.”

Seen that way, certainly politics has an essential role to play in the proper functioning of a city, country, state, or nation.

And yet we hear widespread disillusion of politics in sound bites across the land. “We need to fire this President and hire a new one.” “Government needs to be run like a business.” “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” “They just want your money.” “Government is the problem.”

James Skillen, the president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice (Washington, DC), and a leading political theologian of our time, has a lot of sympathy for people who are mad as a hornet at politics and want nothing to do with it. But he goes beyond sympathy to solutions. Skillen calls for us to rethink how we understand politics and government. This we can do, he says, if we take time to reflect on important, and often ignored, questions, such as what is government for and how should its responsibilities be properly exercised? And what responsibilities are we as citizens to have in political life?

Answers to such questions aid in discovering what government should be. If we don’t know what government should be, how will we be responsible citizens? How will we know what our politicians should be doing? This is true of all other areas of life as well. If we don’t know what families or businesses or schools are for, how will we know how to run them for the good of society? How would we know what parents or managers or educators should be doing?

As parents, managers, or educators, we don’t begin from scratch. From childhood we are situated in a cultural context and have absorbed, or been taught, ideas, values, and principles about parenting, managing, and teaching in that context. If we had lived in ancient Greece or feudal Europe we would have had quite a different view of these areas. In whatever age we are talking about, including in America today, we cannot avoid asking how should we responsibly engage in these areas?

human eyeOf political life, Skillen writes that one of our big problems is that we tend to think more in terms of what government can do, rather than what it should be. And he has thought long and hard about what government should be. His answer in The Good of Politics, his most recent book, is to understand politics and government as “political community.” And he goes further, offering a vision for developing “just political communities,” whether they are local, statewide, or national.

In a just political community, he writes, echoing Webster, not Bierce, “Those who would aspire to become governing officials should be trained in the art of governance, the art of public service, the art of statecraft. As in other spheres of life, officers of government should be servant leaders, that is, public servants. And the politics of such a political community must be organized around the participation and representation of citizens who bear a responsibility for the common good.”

It’s a good vision, worthy of developing and acting on, whether we are fed up with politics or running for office or somewhere on the spectrum between the two poles. Anyone who cares about the good of this country should take Webster and Skillen up on it.

Charles Strohmer writes about politics, religion, international relations, and diplomacy. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

This editorial originally published in The Mountain Press (Sunday, February 18, 2018).

Images: U.S. Capitol/AP Photo John Elswick. Human eye, via Creative Commons, (Cesar R).

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

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Islam and Christianity: A Conversation with James Skillen

The Farthest Mosque JerusalemA leading social and political thinker and practitioner, James Skillen is the author and editor of many books and journal articles, and he is president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice. His new book, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction, has been aptly cited as “a call to political repentance.” Having known Jim for a long time, I have greatly benefited from his biblical grounding and generosity of spirit on a staggering array of topics. Since retiring from CPJ, he is sharing his wisdom by writing, speaking, and mentoring more than ever. This conversation took place at the Terminal Brewhouse in Chattanooga and afterward via email.

Charles Strohmer: Jim, let’s begin with what you see as some core differences between a Christian and a Muslim view of religion and politics in the context of the spread of Islam and Christianity.

James Skillen: Islam is basically a religion of law and its scholars are scholars of the law, and there is no imperial authority. The chief authority is God, who has directed his word through the Prophet. And the Qur’an, in Arabic, is not debatable. It’s the law. Of course Islam has become very complex because you’ve now got all sorts of different schools of interpretation. But what gives it its identity as a whole is the Qur’an.

Where I think it makes the most sense to understand Islam politically is in its view of history, that the whole world should become the dar al-Islam (the abode of the people of God in obedience to Allah). The indisputable idea is that God is creator and sovereign over all, so the dar al-Islam has to unfold, but not necessarily by force, although the early Islamic conquests in the Arabian peninsula and across north Africa and into Spain were seen as satisfying this progress of the dar al-Islam. And this created the idea of the umma, the unified community of Muslims.

CS: Where do militant groups today, such as ISIS/ISIL and al Qaeda, fit in? They are seeking to spread the dar al-Islam through force and violence.

JS: For some Muslims, the big crisis since the end of World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman empire is the shrinkage of Islam. I just heard it again today on the radio: Why isn’t the umma increasing like it should, where is the progress of the dar al-Islam? So there has arisen a radical fringe element that believes you can take up arms to advance the spread of the dar al-Islam, and people like Osama bin Laden and the leader of ISIS [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] have found legitimacy for that militancy in the Qur’an, whether against non-Muslims or even against Muslims, such as those who support democracy and other things of the West.

So there’s this crisis in Islam in which, on the one had, you have those who, like ISIS, want to see rise of a new caliphate that rules the dar al-Islam through sharia law, and on the other hand you have those who have accepted much about the West.

CS: This doesn’t sound unlike the Christian hope for Christianity to spread around the world, for everything to come under the lordship of Christ.

JS: I would say it is very parallel to a Christian view of the kingdom of God that will someday be fulfilled. It can’t be stopped. The gates of hell will not prevail against God’s progress of this. But the Christian community is not called to conquer all nations but to preach the gospel. Christianity itself cannot be brought by force. With Islam, the nations need to come under rule and everybody needs to submit.

I think the parallel that ought to exist in Christianity is to say, and you see this in Isaiah and other biblical prophets, that to come to church regularly but not to live a life of holiness and justice, that’s mocking God. I mean, you can’t have the God who is the sovereign of all just as a Sunday activity. So to bring all things under the lordship of Christ has to be understood as each thing in its God-ordained sphere of activity. So the radical difference from the radical Muslim and the radical Christian, I would say, is that Christians do not see force as their means for bringing in God’s kingdom. God will do that in his own good time.

Wheat and Tares iconCS: Someone once said to me something like: Christianity is a kind of voluntary society and arose as such, but Islam arose as political religion. Would you say that’s an accurate way to describe a radical difference between the two faiths?

JS: I think Christianity is as much a political religion as Islam, but the view of the political is different. In Christianity, Christ is confessed as king and lord of all. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. But the political task of Christians is one of following Christ as disciples, and Christ did not call them to try to clean up this world of all the weeds that fell into the field of good plants (Matthew 13). God will decide when that should be done. In the meantime we are to live as those seeking justice and loving our neighbors in the world that God is upholding in Christ with the same rain and sunshine falling on the just and unjust alike. The Muslim view of human responsibility under God’s law on earth is very different.

CS: This idea about bringing all things under Christ’s lordship within their God-ordained spheres – many university students and graduates are struggling with this. You often call this “sphere sovereignty,” which is quite different than the Islamic view of sovereignty.

JS: I think Abraham Kuyper’s phrase about “sphere sovereignty” places too great an emphasis on the kind of authority the “sovereign” should have. This is understandable in his context, but his main point was that only God is truly sovereign. And he delegates that sovereignty in differentiated measure to the different arenas of human responsibility. No single human authority, whether church or state, can subsume all human responsibilities under its ultimate sovereignty.

The better way for us to think about this today, I think, is for us to emphasize different kinds of responsibility God has given us, most of which exist by the very nature of what God created us to be: friends, spouses, parents and children, gardeners and farmers and shepherds, priests and governors, and so on. What is required is that we learn how to serve God in every sphere of responsibility in accord with what is required of that responsibility.

In our sin we go crooked, backwards, destructively, violently with our responsibilities, such as by dishonoring our friends, rejecting our parent’s responsibility, destroying the earth, and killing each other. In the new life of Christ into which we have been called, the whole of our identity as human beings – the image of God – is called to repentance and to the renewal of all creational responsibilities. And since these responsibilities are diverse, it is a mistake (historically demonstrated) to ask governments to rule families, or to treat a farm like an engineering corporation, or to expect church leaders to tell us how to vote or how to run a business or how to do chemistry.

Jesus healing the blind manCS: What about the secular / sacred split that afflicts Christianity? It has been severely attacked by Muslim intellectuals such as the Egyptian political activist, the late Sayyid Qutb, who taught that the secular / sacred dichotomy is at the root of the world’s ills. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Osama bin Laden before him, and other radicalized Muslim leaders, are absolutely opposed to the split. And the caliphate that al-Baghdadi is trying to create through ISIS/ISIL seeks to rid the world of it.

JS: Christians should not be accepting any sacred / secular dualism, which in a sense goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church established a distinction between the religious and the secular. The “secular” didn’t mean “not related to God.” It meant related to God via the Catholic church, the sacraments. Then after Christendom fell apart and the church could no longer command politically with moral authority, the secularists said: Thank goodness we’re getting rid of God and the priests and the hierarchy. We don’t need priests for the things of this world. And so they have what’s before them: a secular world.

All that remains is for that to be radicalized by saying: There is nothing else that exists but this world. There is nothing transcendent that can lead to faith in the radical secularity of this world, in which humans are totally in charge and the idea of God is dispensed with. In Islam generally and in radical Islam as well, there is no recognition of such a secular reality. There is only what God created and God himself, who calls us to rule everything under God. So ISIS would say: We’re not going to get anywhere just by blowing people up. We need a political entity not only to replace the Ottoman empire but to do better than that by establishing a domain, a territory, in which all who live there submit to shari’a in submission to Allah, who will bless this effort and pretty soon the whole world will be submitted to Allah. And the idea of the “secular” will disappear.

What the Christian would say is that there is no secular if what you mean by it is something separated from God and is on its own. Instead, every vocation should be seen as one of the aspects of human dedication to God, in which you love God with all you heart and your neighbor as yourself. And within that framework we would not accept any duality of life. You can and should accept distinctions, such as between churches and states or schools and families, and between this age and the coming age, but this age is not a secular age as compared to the coming age as sacred. It’s all part of God’s one creation.

CS: So where do we go from here? What do you see as a gospel-shaped-wisdom response to Christian – Muslim relations and to U.S. policy toward Muslim majority countries in the Middle East? The problems can seem so overwhelming that one may be forgiven for throwing his or her hands up in despair.

JS: There is no easy answer, because what is really required of Christians is that we show we agree with Muslims in rejecting any acceptance of the “radical secular.” Christians need to show what this means by living it out in every arena of their responsibility as disciples of Christ. In many cases this requires more than churches and Christian publishing companies, more than Christian colleges and some evangelistic organizations on university campuses. It will mean Christians finding appropriate ways to organize themselves in their responsibilities as attorneys, doctors, engineers, bankers, broadcasters, and much more. We have to learn how to quit treating any part of our lives as “secular” and not part of our Christian walk.

At the same time we need to gain a deep understanding of what Muslims believe and how they live in many different countries and settings. And then we must learn to engage them wherever possible in friendship and conversation – where we work, where we study, and where we vote and pay taxes. And in all of that we need to be bold to contend with them about our disagreements as to what the Bible teaches and as to why we ought to live to obey God.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

For interested readers, this site will help you start discovering the wealth of Jim’s wisdom, much of which is being made available on the Web.

Images by Mohammad Usaid Abbasi, Ted, and Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


SunsetThe evangelist Reinhard Bonnke recently ran a full-page, color advert in Christianity Today. He’s going to be preaching the gospel at a large stadium in Houston, and a headline for the ad read “America Shall Be Saved.” More gospel preaching across our land? I, for one, welcome this counter to the winds of unjust change that blow in. But I had to ask: Can “America” be saved? Advertising can be deceptive, promising what it cannot fulfill. An advert for the gospel should not do that. But this advert is misleading. Here’s why.

Years ago, when my wife and I were hosting a well-traveled British evangelist and his European wife in our home, Alan (not his real name) and I stepped outside into the warm air, where we wandered the yard and caught each other up on our doings. I heard about his evangelistic work in Africa and the modest success he was having there getting people saved. He heard about the “worldview and wisdom” teaching and writing I was doing those years. Eventually, as can happen with old friends on a lazy sunny day, we got to solving the world problems, and the conversation turned beefy for both of us.

I had been complaining about injustice and corruption in politics and went off on a rant about some law or other Congress had passed. “Not much anyone can do about it now,” I said. Sensing his moment, Alan had the answer: “I’d love to preach the gospel in Washington, DC. Just think how cool it would be to get all those guys saved.”

“But that wouldn’t solve the political problems,” I said. “Leaving aside the fact that we can’t save anyone, sure, what a miracle if suddenly they all got saved tomorrow! But let’s think about this for a minute. Let’s say that one Friday evening you held an evangelistic event for a full session of Congress, had an altar call, and everyone there now had their fire insurance. My question is: What do these pols do on Monday?”

“They go back to work.”

“Right. And what do they go back to work with? Pretend you had been preaching to all the teachers and principals of an entire school district or to all the journalists and editors that work for a corporate news network. They all got saved. Next day they would return to work in the same school system or the same broadcasting organization as the day before. What would have changed in either system?”

Here’s the dilemma. In our thought experiment, the pols themselves would have been changed deeply morally as individuals but the political system itself would have remained largely untouched. Sure, most likely some moral transformations in some of the characters would have resulted in some immediate changes. The Speaker of the House might have repented of adultery. A Senator might have resigned after confessing he stole campaign funds. A legislator might have stepped down because he suddenly felt a call to the poor.

But personal individual moral transformations, crucial as they are, do not remove corruption or injustice from the existing system that is its seedbed. So the pols in Congress would simply return to work with the same old system – the good, bad, and ugly of it – that was previously in place. What else is there? God forbid the government should come to a halt and force us to rethink it! No. No. A thousands time No. Just throw more money at it. Keep it going.

Congress in sessionIn an article he wrote many years before I was thinking about this issue, Jim Skillen nailed it: “Just laws and good public policies will not automatically flow from a renewal of individual ethical concern, and public justice will not automatically take care of itself if we simply concentrate hard enough on our families and schools and churches.”

Gospel-shaped moral transformations of individuals must lead to degrees of moral recovery not only of our homes, schools, and news rooms but of all aspects of society. If not, godly obedience is found wanting and the winds of corruption and injustice will blow into every quarter with increasing strength. In other words, a gospel-shaped wisdom will only influence society “by way of dedicated, purposeful action fit for each arena” – including law and politics.

“A republic,” Skillen concludes, “cannot be reformed apart from action by citizens prepared to serve their civic neighbors through laws and policies that do justice to all. Political renewal requires political action. Legal reform requires wise juridical acts and judgments. No shortcuts are available. Nothing human automatically cares of itself.”

Those saved school teachers and journalists and pols would have to move on from individual moral change to the long hard work of going back to the Book, and finding other wise resources as well, for helping to make the systems less corrupt and more just for all. But especially back to the Book.

Scripture, of course, doesn’t carry encyclopedic knowledge for answering every question that will come up. Not even close. But as a professor friend of mine likes to say: “Scripture may impinge on whatever is being tackled, so the right way to begin any investigation is to start by seeing what God might have to say about it.”

Will America itself be saved? Not just its people? Not by what takes place in Houston. Get everyone saved night after night there, and the song remains the same: “What happens the next day when?”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


Swords into plowshares“Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” Ecclesiastes 9:18

The Diplomacy of Wisdom: Agency of Peaceful Change
by Charles Strohmer

In recent decades, the strong, religious-like faith that we have placed in the state to solve all of our social problems has given political ideologies an unprecedented authority to control how these problems are defined and solved. The same is true when it comes to ideological analyses of international problems. This ideological control over foreign policy thinking painfully limits what political imaginations consider wise or foolish analysis and policy, and greatly strains the foreign relations between states with conflicting ideological checklists.

In this second of two articles on wisdom and foreign policy, I want to introduce some ideas about the non-ideological nature of the agency of wisdom by considering three norms of wisdom – personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality – as understood from the biblical wisdom literature. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer us insight into a historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving IR conflicts.

The personal. The most frequent image of wisdom in the literature is feminine, particularly in the book of Proverbs. There, a woman of nearly divine stature is portrayed as attractive, prudent, virtuous, competent, and speaking in the first person, offering sage advice in public squares, in noisy streets, and at city gates. Lady Wisdom explains that she has been with God since the beginning of creation, and we see her engaging with people, crying out to them, insisting on a hearing. She is a “me,” writes Alan Lenzi, “a personal presence” in the world. Here, wisdom is portrayed not as a platonic Form (see part 1), or as any kind of an abstract body of thought, but as a personal-relational agency in human affairs.

The peaceable. Wisdom’s nature as “peaceable” appears in James 3:17, in a New Testament book that Ben Witherington, in Jesus the Sage, argues is “heavily indebted” to the wisdom material found in the Hebrew Bible. And in Proverbs 3:17, the Hebrew Bible indicates that the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom, that is, of the kind of peace committed to producing social, economic, and political well-being, or flourishing. Importantly, as Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff once explained to me, the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but disorder and brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, and souls, are still broken.” The paths of shalom, then, take us beyond cease fires and peace treaties to repairing social, economic, and political brokenness.

The mutual. Simply stated, since time immemorial everyone on the planet has participated in the same creation, shared the bond of what it means to be human, and held the same basic interests, such as to provide for their families, to see their children raised safely and educated, to be healthy, to enjoy economic well-being, to ease sufferings, and to live peacefully with others. People everywhere are so constituted, and the agency of wisdom draws our attention to this human mutuality, that is, to the deep interests, concerns, and goals shared by the human family as a whole before distinctions are made about ethnicity, nationality, or core belief.

global commomsThe wisdom tradition, then, has a vital interest in seeing relationships (domestic and international) established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity (often discussed today using the adjective “common”). The agency of wisdom is normatively committed to the development of peaceable attitudes, forms of communication, and individual and institutional behaviors, arrangements, and agreements that are essential to human flourishing amid its diversity.

Nearly ten years ago, in With or Against the World?, James Skillen wrote that the “American people need to gain a deeper understanding of what it means that the world’s people and states share a single global commons, the governance of which is becoming more and more difficult with each passing year.” He then reminded us: “American failure to think and act cooperatively over the long term for the international common good is part of what threatens even America’s future.”

It will be evident to those who work to ease adversarial international relations and build more cooperative ones that nothing completely new is being introduced in this article. Seeking wisdom, however, might help us to imagine and obtain peaceable arrangements and agreements that we might not intuitively perceive as possible from within ideological frames that have become second nature to us. Even against great odds, that might at least help governance of the global commons to become a little less difficult along the paths toward shalom.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.


sparrow symphony“If we shall not have two states we shall have one conflict. And neither them or us should condemn our children to fight all their lives.” Recent words from Israel’s outgoing president Shimon Peres, who is leaving office at the end of this month. He was speaking to television journalist Charlie Rose at a synagogue in New York City, during an emotion-packed trip last week to the United States.

Peres is 90. His service to Israel spans the entire 66 years of the state’s history. He has worked with 10 U.S. presidents, labored for 40 years for a peace deal with the Palestinians, and seen Israel sign peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “I am leaving office,” he said in Jerusalem before he left for the U.S. “But I am not leaving the battle for peace.” Nor should we.

We have been looking into the distant past of the old-world Middle East (the story of Moses and Jethro), to consider the wisdom of impartial justice as vital to peacemaking. Peres’s remarks gives us a moment to pause and reflect on the current Middle East, specifically on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

A gut-wrenching sense of impartial justice has for decades gripped the majority of both domestic populations. Both have recognized that neither side is going to attain perfect justice in a peace deal. Both have been willing, against great odds, to compromise and to show an inordinate amount of collective patience to reach an equitable solution. Both have absorbed acute pain and suffering, hope deferred, and tragedies of death as a witness to their strong, common commitment to a negotiated settlement. There may be a more poignant present-day illustration of two peoples seeking peace with each other, but perhaps not.

“A two state solution is not an empty desire,” Peres told Rose, as he then immediately reminded the synagogue audience about Moses. Moses, Peres noted, said that all people are equal and that nobody is superior or inferior because all are made in the image of God.

soul symphonyThe perennial drive for a negotiated peace in the Middle East is truly remarkable. I believe we can find a lot of wisdom about it in what James Skillen calls “symphonic justice.” Skillen, president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice, has been a public theologian and a policy adviser for more than thirty years, working with elected officials, advisers, and others on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC to create and implement just policies and agreements for the common good. Some years ago, during some conversations we had about justice in this world, Skillen explained that he had been thinking about justice as symphonic.

“I was trying to find an image,” Skillen said, “to capture the sense of a larger communal whole. When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picking up on Skillen’s analogy, Gideon Strauss, executive director of the DePree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary, wrote that before we vote for political candidates we ought to ask whether they are committed to helping our communities and institutions toward a more symphonic justice. “In a symphony orchestra, there are a multitude of instruments, each with its own tone and timbre. The conductor, working off a common score, makes room for and sets limits to the unique contribution of each section of instruments so that the variety of voices and melodies, rhythms and tones do not result in either an anarchic cacophony or a monotonous conformity, but instead produce a rich and beautiful harmony.”

Strauss, an adviser to portions of the 1996 South African constitution, goes on to argue that a “government has a responsibility to make room for and set limits to the great variety of persons, communities and institutions subject to its authority, so that each can flourish according to its inherent and unique potential, while interacting in peaceful and mutually beneficial harmony.”

Symphonic justice is what Jethro, a non-Israelite, counseled Moses to teach the diverse, exodus orchestra to play in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. And play it they did. Symphonic justice is what the majorities of Palestinians and Israelis desire and work hard at to play today, despite the region’s political cacophony.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by stevehdc & Temari 09, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)