I was recently chided by a good friend for my frequent and (I was told) vague use of the terms “politics,” “political,” and the like. The point was well-made: if everything is political, then how does the use of such a term help us in any way at all? I want to try to respond to this question with the claim that the peculiar nature of Christian allegiance calls for a use of such terms like in theological discourse, even if such use is hard for those in other disciplines to understand.
My widespread description of many things related to church, faith, and identity related as “political” is, I think, not unusual to me, but is widespread in theological literature. I acknowledge that there is probably some semantic laziness here that evacuates the term of useful meanings; I spot it in my own writing. However, I claim that it is primarily something else that is going on.
Politics usually describes the governance of the conduct of our public life together in practice and ideology. There are a variety of organizations and institutions that perform this function. These are the bodies that write, pass, adjudicate, and oversee the enforcement of a society’s laws. Therefore, terms like “political” and “politics” are most helpfully employed when they refer to these bodies and our direct participation in them.
However, if this is the only way that theology conceives of politics, then such theology will not be up to its task. This is because it is allegiance to Jesus Christ that governs the conduct of Christians’ public life together. Furthermore, allegiance to Jesus is an allegiance to certain ways of doing things together as a group. Such allegiance takes the form of a society that organizes itself differently (and similarly) to the various forms of social organization around it, especially the kinds of social organizations that write, pass, adjudicate, and enforce the laws for a particular region. Hence, practicing “church” is well described as the practice of an alternative politics, as the church discerns and enacts a certain kind of public life together and the governance of this life together. The church’s internal governance and practices are a form of politics, and the formation of its identity is the formation of a political identity.
Beyond this, such a society’s primary mode of engagement with societies governed by different politics politics is grounded in the same ecclesiology. That is, Christians engage with proper legislative bodies for a particular region(what we commonly call “politics”) through, with, and as members of the church. This does not only mean that Christians practice regional politics with the recognition that they claim primary allegiance to a Lord that others in that realm of politics do not recognize, but also that it is primarily as a social body that Christians should engage in other politics. John Howard Yoder, for example, speaks compellingly of the church being an alternative to, a paradigm for, and a laboratory ground of “broader society,” and from this social setting being able to effectively advocate within other political arenas.
Now it may be that all of what I describe is, empirically, only rarely the case. If so, then it might be wise to ease up on empirically descriptive uses of the term political for what happens when we do church. On the other hand, this also suggests that there is all the more need to speak prescriptively and ontologically of church and the political.
As a closing note, I will add that Christians are, quite plainly, far from the only people who claim primary allegiance in something other than their official regional political system. And many of these people likewise form and attempt to form alternate societies with a different set of political norms. All of which leads me to suggest that there may indeed be something useful about closely linking notions of group and individual identity with the “political.”