The Good of Politics
February 2, 2015
James W. Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. $22.99/£16.99
A welcome addition to Baker Academic's "Engaging Culture" series, James Skillen's The Good of Politics offers an accessible, probing introduction to the issues and histories at play in a Christian approach to government. With a balance of nuance and narrative it deftly traces recurrent concerns without dwelling on them so that it can provide a sweeping review of the biblical and historical contexts that inform and compel our contemporary engagement. As such it commends itself to classrooms and churches as a prompt for group discussion and deeper study, cultural awareness and social activity.
The book is arranged in three parts, moving from biblical to historical to current concerns. In a move that is much to be appreciated, part one utilizes the "biblical drama" not only to frame a Christian approach to politics but also to problematize it. This sets readers up to unlearn a proof-texting approach that presumes to know the questions and rushes to thumb for answers.
Among other things Skillen asks "why Israel was wrong to ask for a king" in 1 Samuel 8 (p. 12); how Jesus can say to "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's" in Matthew 22 (p. 10); and how Paul can tell Christians to "leave room for God's wrath" in Romans 12 only to have them look to governments as "agents of wrath" in chapter 13 (p. 29). It is helpful that these tensions are raised by the witness of Scripture itself rather than merely thrust upon it from today's geo-political thorn-bushes. This opens readers up to see the pertinence of careful and collaborative Christian political theology.
The basic dilemma that emerges from part one is this: What does it mean for Jesus to say the Kingdom of God is near? Skillen holds John 18:35 (wherein Jesus' kingdom is "not of this world") next to Psalm 8:4 (wherein the Messianic King has "everything" underfoot) in order to ask what Jesus' "ascension and invisible lordship have to do with the governing of modern states and nations" (p. 5). Does this call for reserve or activity, separation or engagement?
Commendably, the question of engagement is not separated from a more fundamental question: Is political governance itself a good thing? If so, how? Answering this would go a long way to guiding interaction with the world.
With close attention to the creation mandate in Genesis 1-2, Skillen does well to point out that human governance on earth is not only good but is meant to be interdependent and multi-generational, and thus attuned to historical and cultural developments. This sets the stage for part two, where broad trends at the cross-section of historical theology and societal governance are explored in order to give a better understanding of the issues that arise when Christianity expresses itself in the political realm.
If there is a drawback to part one it is that the introductory nature of the book leaves some potentially decisive theological questions unexamined. For instance, while Skillen does inform readers that no particular aspect of being human monopolizes what it means to "image" God, he does not give much treatment to the reality of Jesus as the true image-bearer, therefore leaving unmined the ramification-rich insight that we bear that image as a Body. To be sure, the social aspect of human being is well presented - but this is done mainly on natural rather than Christological grounds, thus leaving room for a diminishment of the place of church qua church in whatever political trajectories emerge.
In three chapters of part two the historical survey moves rapidly from the days of Constantine through to the Reformation. Here Skillen draws out a general tension between the views of Augustine and Luther on one hand and Aquinas and Calvin on the other; namely, a "two cities" versus a "grace perfects nature" approach to the relation of Church and State (pp. 76, 87). While it is acknowledged that the construal of each theologian may be debated, the force of the presentation is to sharpen the dilemma between focusing on salvific rescue from or redemptive engagement with the orders of this world.
In the last chapter of part two the survey touches on three major political dynamics outside the West, concluding with a picture of dominant Western assumptions today - tracing them to their Enlightenment roots and highlighting their bent toward the promotion of individual freedoms. Although the treatment is brief, after such a wide-ranging sweep of history the reader is set up to see the "American Experiment" more clearly for its presumptions, preferences and problems. Skillen does not shy away from offering criticism and constructive proposals in this regard. This grounds the book in its Western context and makes it an especially poignant and compelling read.
Had there been another section or two added to this book it would have been helpful to have inserted them here. Even for an introduction the review of political realms outside the West is probably too brief, but even with the space allowed it would still have been good to see some description of the governance models of aboriginal and tribal peoples. This endeavour might have been aided by a larger section on political typologies.
In part three the contemporary situation is explored according to some hot-button issues, including the influence and motivations of secularism, the diverse effects of globalization, the place of marriage and family, the considerations of education, economy and environment, and the appropriateness (if any) of the use of force. This allows for an introduction to the relevance of theological deliberation and a test-case for the leanings of readers. For me it also exemplifies the importance of attentiveness to Christ's prophetic office. Whether or not there is a form of governance to be preferred from the guidance of Scripture, it still behooves Christians to engage in the political good with an ear to the contextual guidance of the living, active and eternal Word of God.
During a recent conference Q&A a renowned theologian quipped that if the people of God listened better to their Kings and Priests then they would not have needed the Prophets. It was an off-the-cuff remark and there was no occasion for follow-up, but it seemed to me that this betrayed an essential misunderstanding of the role of prophets in the people of God. The prophetic office does not arise because of failures of priesthood and royalty; rather, it undergirds and perpetuates those aspects of the people's life. As much as Christians should be able to participate in the common good, they must continue to draw from other resources, most notably the dynamic of the church's inner life.
Skillen is not unconcerned with this, but in presenting the good of politics his book does put more weight on the goodness of creation than the intervention of Christ. With an underlying assumption of creation's revelatory capacity, this book may be less attentive to the need for divine interruption in the affairs of this world than some political theologians might desire. In the back and forth between competitive and collaborative accounts of Church and State, the book leans more to the stability of the institution than the dynamic of the prophetic.
That said, Skillen offers a worthy critique of those who emphasize the polis of the church as an outright alternative to the politics of the world. He points out that unless it plans to coerce faith or cloister itself then the church will have to engage in world politics with a willingness to operate on common ground. To that end it must be able to pursue and communicate its goals more broadly than where its faith-commitments are shared, even if its goals are informed by distinctly Christian motivations.
Perhaps this is where we return to the fundamental question of the book, which has to do with the goodness of politics. Is political life a created good or is it merely a temporal restraint on sin during this time of God's patience and mercy? Inasmuch as it takes part in the fallenness of humanity, it seems clear that political life is both and neither at once. Yes, it is a created good, but tarnished by sin it is unreliable as a good in itself. Yes, it offers a restraint on the spread of injustice, but it does so as a positive function of humanity and not just as the reaction to a negative. All of this begs for intentionality about the nature of Christian engagement.
Politics is good because it can be engaged hopefully by those who are compelled by the love of Christ to participate in his ongoing reconciling work. In this the goal is not a fixed and flawless form of governance, but a society wherein the justice, self-giving love and mercy of God may thrive. Christians and churches are called to contribute to this just as they are called to seek the salvation of the lost.
In The Good of Politics James Skillen has done well to express the importance of promoting social justice and operating in a patient and merciful way. The book recommends hopeful action for good in this world - without promoting triumphalist naiveté about what we achieve apart from the return of Christ. As such this book serves as an excellent introduction to the issues at play when we consider a Christian's role in the political affairs of this world.
This should in turn call for reflection on the uniqueness of the church's own politic, causing us to ask: In the ways it governs its affairs (both locally and ecumenically), does the church offer a witness to the reign of Christ? By begging questions like this and embedding them in an array of historical and biblical-theological considerations, James W. Skillen helps readers unlearn partisan politics and lazy alignment with talking points, inviting them instead into an examined, hopeful, and actively Christian political life.
Jon Coutts is Tutor in Theology at Trinity College Bristol, England