Reviewing “Jesus and the Powers”: Part Three

In the first and second posts on Jesus and the Powers, I challenged certain pieces of historical analysis that I think fall short of the mark. For this third entry, I’ll explain what this book does well and why potential readers should consider picking up a copy. Finally, the last piece will pull on contradictory or unresolved lines of thinking in the books.

So what does Jesus and the Powers achieve that outweighs the aforementioned historical problems? For this reader anyway, who has leaned increasingly toward quietism in the last decade, Wright and Bird persuaded me that Christians should in some sense remain “politically” engaged, which is no mean feat. Far more of the book’s real gravity, in my judgment, hangs over these ideas, and less so the fraught or incomplete interpretations of the ancient-but-post-NT church. To wit, this book is most cogent when it broadens its “political” scope as widely as possible. For the failures of ugly episodes such as the Crusades or Inquisition, millions of unheralded Christians have lived out their calling of discipleship (72). Elsewhere, they remind Christian readers of this vocation in the present, that

every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely disabled child to read or to walk; every act of care for a dying patient; every deed of comfort and support for refugees; everything done for one’s fellow human beings; everything to preserve and beautify the created order; all spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the Church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, every prayer for the heart’s longings, and the worship that makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God (86).

All of this, according to Wright and Bird, is profoundly “political” in the economy of God. How could it not be? And if there is a prescriptible cure for “Christian political witness in an age of totalitarian terror and dysfunctional democracies” (the book’s subtitle), I suggest it will be found here, in remembering that God’s Kingdom exercises authority chiefly “from below” in the present evil age. If the devil offered top-down power over the kingdoms of the earth (Matt. 4:8–9), the risen Jesus inaugurated a program of discipleship and inculturation (Matt. 28:19–20). Sometimes—and this is where Wright and Bird clarified my thinking—this will indeed still require getting involved in those spheres we normally define as “politics”: elections, governance, public policy, and those fiery “culture war” issues.

When it then moved over to handle more timely questions, Jesus and the Powers surprised me with some sections of sharp and occasionally biting social commentary. I imagine not a few pastors will find the book especially helpful in marking off dangerous ideological shoals, both on the Left and Right alike. Nor did these sections of the book feel like milquetoast both-sides-ism, couched just so as to ensure nobody’s coalition feels singled out. While the combination of certain off-the-cuff opinions feel like a bit of an ideological hodgepodge (more on this below), the book’s sustained arguments generally stay evenhanded while still pushing forcefully from a particular perspective—which is refreshing. Throughout but particularly toward the end, the authors endorse liberal democracy, albeit not in absolute terms as the prescribed political system forever henceforth without end. Accordingly, they especially underscore ideological threats to that system from the present or fairly recent past, such as fascism and communism. Here, I was pleasantly jolted to see the book correctly point out that fascism plays a disproportionate role in the Western conception of political evil compared to, say, the sheer body count of the communist regimes (124). The authors don’t explore why that is the case, and I would have liked to see a few more sentences pulling on that thread, but not everything can be covered in a short paperback.

Looking more to 2024, the authors decry both Christian nationalism and what they call “civic totalism.” In one of the clearer definitions I have seen, they frame the former as “the government trying to enforce Christian hegemony combined with civil religion,” where civil religion means “an outward and merely cultural version of Christianity” (130). Even if the substantive Christian nationalism debate among Christians themselves is currently ebbing—and I sense it is—the underlying problems are here to stay, and some will still find this “Christian nationalism” appealing even if they call it something else. Wright and Bird make a case for why their Christian nationalism is a bad idea, and I expect most open-minded readers will find it broadly persuasive.

But frankly, far more of the book’s fire fell on the civic totalists, which presents “soft authoritarianism under the guise of being ‘progressive’” and in which “nonstate-centric forms of life are corroded by constant surveillance and deliberate over-regulation” (136–7). Wright and Bird sketch a few alarming trends, one of which (important for what I say below) is that the state becomes the “ultimate power with jurisdiction over every facet of life” in order to achieve “the State’s progressive vision.” The authors also point out a sociological dynamic animating this civic totalism, and here they apply some rather acrid criticism to the “bohemian bourgeois” or “bobos” who push this intolerant iteration of progressivism. In short, Jesus and the Powers pulls no punches to the Left, which is decidedly not something that can be said of all books in this genre today.

Other various interesting elements also stood out to me. For one, the book devotes a lengthy section to the difficult questions of violent resistance and revolution. This came paired with some helpful historical context, such as the problem of Christian revolutionaries (especially the Reformed) squirming vigorously but often unpersuasively to get around Romans 13. Elsewhere, the authors insert some shrewd commentary about how media has arrogated certain social roles once played by the church (63). Or in another worthwhile passage, the book leaves the Western context to consider the plight of Christians in Hong Kong and their internal disagreements about appropriate Christian witness in the face of tyranny there. For me, these and other facets of the book ultimately surpassed its weaker parts; again, for pastors or intelligent laymen who might otherwise feel overmatched by this subject swirling with history, theology, political theory, and the bearing of it all on today’s partisan issues, Jesus and the Powers is not a bad place to start thinking about these questions.

To conclude, however, on a slightly more critical note: inasmuch as Wright and Bird have their decided and informed opinions about the politics of Christianity in 2024, it was not always clear to me that they are offering compelling or coherent “second principles.” Put differently, the core biblical Kingdom-of-God-oriented politics (noted above) supplies the first principles. Meanwhile, avoiding Christian nationalism, civic totalism, and communism are “third” or “fourth or principles” very much adverted to the specific moment in time. But Jesus and the Powers remains fairly silent about high-order political questions that might lie between those two tiers. Should Christians be conservative or progressive? How important is economic freedom? How far should governments go in redistribution and regulation? Are democratization and egalitarianism goods to be pursued politically, and in what circumstances? How should stronger, wealthier nations relate to weaker and poorer ones in a wise, sustainable manner that avoids “empire” on the one side and paternalism on the other? How should Christians think about historical injustices against certain demographics?

Of course, the authors were not necessarily obligated to address such weighty matters in a comparatively short text. Even so, they do not refrain from pronouncing on certain issues that cannot but be informed by unstated “second principles.” And that is where the books sometimes feels like a political chimera. One can find extended touches of recent populism in criticism of the 2008 financial crisis (3) or career politicians who have never worked in the private sector. Wright and Bird can also state as fact leftward axioms on empire and colonialism (e.g., “The riches of the West were acquired through the exploitation of African and Asian colonies”), which some will find to be questionable sweeping generalizations.

The authors come closest to articulating a set of “second principles,” I think, in their extended discussion of the “powers and principalities.” In short, God desires order and has imbued creation with a hierarchy of officia both angelic and human, permeating governments and cultures alike. Despite all their foibles—even their sometimes demonic tendencies—God does not wish to annihilate the powers but to reconcile them under the rule of the Jesus (60). “Anarchy,” declare the authors, “is hopeless because the bullies will always prey on the weak” whereas authority is merely “problematic” (48). Such a description of cosmology would seem to have inevitable downstream consequences for those “second principles.” God’s justice assumes and cannot exist without God’s order, while order seems to constitute a kind of implicit justice unto itself. I find that to be a remarkably conservative (in multiple senses) bit of theological reasoning, and if sound, it would seem to ground a Christian predilection for preserving order even in the face of imperfect justice and foster a prejudice against social, economic, or political revolution.

If that’s a fair assessment, then Wright and Bird have actually said something much more ideologically freighted than they themselves appreciate on most pages. For the final post on Jesus and the Powers, I’ll consider further this and other unresolved issues raised or highlighted by the authors.


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