Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Camp’s book, “Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians” (2020, Eerdmans). The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The faith of the Christian is the last great hope of earth.
This must be the case if its most basic claims be true. Christianity claims, at its most basic, that captivity has been taken captive and death has been overcome.
We must imagine Christianity first and foremost not as a religion but as an interpretation of human history or, perhaps more pointedly, an assertion regarding human history.
But it is not and must not be understood simply as an intellectual interpretation of history but as the sort of interpretation that requires a particular way of life.
In other words, it is an interpretation, a claim about history that is inherently political.
Perhaps in all historical epochs there is a sense of crisis. This is certainly true in our own day.
A mere 70 years ago, humans were first faced with the possibility of our own global destruction by technologies of our own making.
This threat has grown ever more palpable, the technical means for such destruction multiplied, and new threats ever on the horizon.
Today, we do not face merely nuclear holocaust but the very undoing of the ecosystem, the destruction of all traditional forms of community, and the potential loss of the very meaning of being human with the rise of artificial intelligence and transhumanism.
Our affluence in the West is correlated with a state of constant war, escalating rates of suicide among the young, and an increasing chasm between rich and poor.
Meanwhile, large portions of the Christian church in America appear to have destroyed its own witness, lacking the inability to speak truthfully or prophetically or carefully.
Political commentators increasingly note the bad public joke that American Christianity has become.
Those on the left see the captivity of the “Christian right” to nationalism, with its ill-fated quest to Make America Great Again.
Those on the right portray the “Christian left” as having reduced the faith to social activism, with their own “woke” forms of shaming and self-righteousness.
Meanwhile, there are others, in pursuit of their privatized religion, who act as if social and political matters are unimportant.
If Christianity in America has indeed become a joke, then at the core of this disheartening development is our failure to rightly understand what Christianity is.
For the Apostle Paul, the message about Jesus was a scandal (Greek “skandalon,” 1 Corinthians 1:23). It was, it is, when rightly understood, a stumbling block, foolishness, a scandal to the powers that be.
Ironically, the good news of Jesus has itself been scandalized in today’s America through the bad news of nationalism and partisanship.
The scandal that once was seems long forgotten. Now the scandal of Christianity is its bastardization.
We must find some way to strip away the facades, acknowledge the ways we have illegitimately scandalized the gospel, and witness anew to the rightful scandal of the reconciling work of God in our midst.
We must deconstruct our own paltry notions about what Christianity itself is and come anew to the conviction that Christianity is not a religion. It is a politic.
Tragically few people – including the majority of Christians, whether liberal or conservative – recognize Christianity as a politic.
I am not suggesting the more palatable notion merely that Christianity has political implications. I am suggesting that it is itself a politic, which has an all-encompassing vision of human history.
By politic, I mean an all-encompassing manner of communal life that grapples with all the questions the classical art of politics has always asked:
- How do we live together?
- How do we deal with offenses?
- How do we deal with money?
- How do we deal with enemies and violence?
- How do we arrange marriage and families and social structures?
- How is authority mediated, employed, ordered?
- How do we rightfully order passions and appetites?
And much more besides, but most especially add these:
- Where is human history headed?
- What does it mean to be human?
- And what does it look like to live in a rightly ordered human community that engenders flourishing, justice and the peace of God?
Unfortunately, Christianity has been relegated to the socially and politically insignificant category of a private religion.
This move to privatize Christian faith, thought to be the height of modern brilliance, has simply resulted in the great triumph of so-called secularism and the Western political tradition.
And Christians – of both liberal and conservative stripe – have contributed to this demise of Christian witness.
The question before us is whether we can even begin to articulate a vision of Christianity that is “neither right nor left nor religious.” The question is whether we can begin to articulate a “liberal orthodoxy” or a “radical conservatism.”
It is, no doubt, possible. And it will require a fresh and imaginative and provocative reengagement with the most basic claims of Christian faith.
In order for the genius of the Christian claims, in order for the truly good-if-scandalous news, to be heard, the propositions in this little political manifesto are put in a provocative fashion.
But if we are to make the most of the time, and bear witness to any sort of true alternative, then such provocation is needful in the midst of the crisis in which we find ourselves.
Author’s note: For a list of the 15 propositions and more information about the book, click here.
Lee C. Camp is professor of theology & ethics at Lipscomb University, and the host and creator of the world’s only long-running theological variety show, Tokens Show.