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Whose authority, whose politics? John the Baptist’s Advent warning

By David Widdicombe

How is the Christian to engage politically in the present age? This is not an easy question or task. Claiming that your politics are Christian, as so many do, does not make them so. Karl Barth famously and frequently warned that no political party or program directly represents the kingdom of God. Oliver O’Donovan’s version of Barth’s rule makes it clear how challenging it is to get this right. “Pending the final disclosure of the Kingdom of God, the church and society are in a dialectical relation, distant from each other as well as identified” (The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p. 251). To shield theology against political programs and principles that undermine or betray the Gospel, while acknowledging that the Gospel does bear some authoritative relation to the public sphere, is no easy task.

But it is a task that the Gospel of Matthew can help us with.

Notice the our Gospel set for today (Matt. 11:2-11) establishes a “confessional circle” comprising the question that John puts to Jesus and the question that Jesus puts about John. Notice also that within that circle Jesus outlines two principles: The first principle undergirds a program of Christian practices that constitute the Church as a political community, that is, as a community that takes up space in the world with practices that function as the answer to the question about the identity of Jesus. Following on such public practices, the second principle refers us to a discipline of prophetic speech modeled on the mission of John the Baptist and introduced by the thrice repeated question: Who did you go out to see?

We must attend first to the confessional circle established by the text.

Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

Here we are confronted with the fundamental confessional question, fundamental for the Church since it lies at the heart of the gospel’s identity in early Judaism. John is the last of the Jewish prophets. For him the Messiah will certainly come. The question is: Has he? There can be no Christian answer without that Jewish question. As the German Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, was to write sometime after the First World War: “If the Christian did not have the Jew at his back, he would lose his way.” His argument turns on the concrete communal identity of Israel (against what will become the corrupted communitarianism of an idolatrous and lethal nativism) in relation to the true, emancipatory universalism of Christian values and mission (against the false universalism of an increasingly secular, individualistic, and abstract liberalism).

Now it may seem odd that the critical confessional moment for the Church takes, at least here, the form of a question, even a doubtful one: Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus does not object to this. Jesus’ later question to the crowd about John does not disparage this uncertainty, but makes it clear that the question is rooted in an earlier and definitive answer.

But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 

John the Baptist had, before this episode, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, made his witness and borne his testimony. There on the clammy banks of the Jordan River, surrounded by men and women on muddy knees, soldiers thigh deep in the water, desperate tax collectors up to their greasy necks, and argumentative Pharisees trying to keep their skirts dry, there on the banks of the river at that time appointed time, he saw God rend the heavens and come down, rend the heavens and come down in the person of the Holy Ghost upon the man from Galilee. Behold the Lamb of God, the Gospel of John remembers the Baptist saying. I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.

But that was then. Now John wastes in the prison of one of Herod’s palaces, the vulgar big talking insecure king whose sexual ethics and political theatrics he dared to criticize. Perhaps he knows he will die there. Perhaps he thinks that Jesus does not know or care.

So the witness questions; the believer doubts. But he puts the question to Jesus, not to someone else. For the Church, then, following John’s example, question and answer both turn upon the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, art thou he that should come or are we to look for another?

And in his majestic grace, Jesus answers: the one who questions me has already answered for me, the one who doubts bears witness to me even in his disbelief, of those born among women none is greater than John the Baptist, none, except those who have been born again into the kingdom of heaven, but born again only, according that most famous of prologues, through the testimony of John. There was a man sent from God (John 1:6). There is no way to Jesus but through this man.

This is the confessional circle of Matthew 11. It answers the question of authority for the Church. Whatever it might mean to say that Jesus Christ is the final and only authority for the Church, it must include the knowledge that Jesus is king of our believing and captain of our doubts. The Church, as it lives in the particular time and place that make up the sphere of worldly politics and culture, must attempt to act mercifully and speak prophetically within that “confessional circle.”

Notice then the church practices that are sketched out in the confessional circle.

Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.

What does that mean for our politics? Don’t expect to have a ready answer for that question. What you need as a Christian —concerned about the possible corrupting influence of foreign sources of authority over the Church, no matter how attractive they may seem — is to know that that is the question. Whatever it means in practice, this “it” is the touchstone. This is the key to the kingdom, however difficult it may be to find the door it unlocks. This is the secret, however difficult to express the mystery it answers. While more must said than this to fill out any “politics of Jesus,” something less or other than this must not be said or hoped for.

The lame walk, the dead are raised: To the woman or man who says that this is enough to show us the direction in which we must go, that it is enough to show us that some things, some goals, some programs are not acceptable, that some costs are too high, that some lies are too dangerous, that some “Herods” are scoundrels at best — to that woman or man Jesus says,B blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. Perhaps it is enough merely to say that within the confessional circle of Matthew 11, the Church understands itself not to have a political theology, but to be a people who practice mercy and wait upon the ultimate reconciliation of justice and mercy in the resurrection of the dead.

That is to take up space in the world. The world is free to call it political or not as it wishes.

Notice next the speaking: “And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?”

The reed was the symbol on the coins minted by Herod in commemoration of the founding of Tiberias. Is this reed today the hollowed out and deeply shaken reed of a liberal political and cultural universalism, or exceptionalism, that may be coming to its end, as Rome and its client kings once came to their end? “But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses,” and they used to work for Goldman Sachs, their boss’s pretended populism notwithstanding. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.”

What could be more than a prophet? The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:

the church can serve the world in which we find ourselves by attending to our speech. Well-formed sermons may turn out to be the most important contribution Christians can make for a politics that has some ambition to be truthful.

Perhaps we could say that what the Baptist said does not matter as much as the fact that he said it, how he said it, to whom he said it, in whose name and by what authority he said it, and at what cost he said it. Perhaps what Jesus says about his own good works and about John’s confrontation with the authorities, even if it hardly amounts to a political philosophy, is what the Church needs to sure of before it can have a political philosophy. Perhaps if we have a problem with Matthew 11 it is that it is just too clear and simple to be ignored.

But now you may ask: why the (gratuitous?) reference to the liberalism and populism of our present circumstances? The point is not to cast aspersions on either the globalist left or the nationalist right in the present world turmoil. For in fact there are more than simply two binary options in contemporary geopolitics. The populist nationalism of Marine Le Pen in France, for example, has a stridently individualistic tone that marks her as far more liberal than the left-wing populists of Greece or Spain. Or to take another example, the Chinese, while benefitting mightily from economic globalism, have protected their population’s sense of identity and security far more effectively than the Americans have; they might for just that reason be the most farsighted of those who wish to preserve the best of the globalist ideology.

The point rather is this. In the present climate Western Christians seem divided into two groups: first, those who are fed up with the sexual, economic, and militaristic politics of Western exceptionalism and are tempted to accept the authority of populist extremists for the sake of traditional community values and identities; second, those who are terrified of creeping authoritarianism and the loss of the emancipatory universal principles of equality and freedom (so deeply rooted in the theology of St. Paul), and who want to rush to the defence of liberal democracy. Yet, where Christians seem thus divided, it is important to remember the danger inherent in a policy that says that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend.

Christians love their enemies and acknowledge no final authority among their friends. Christians love their enemies but Jesus Christ is their only Lord and Master, and that is how they know that they are to love their enemies in the first place. No friend of the Church ever taught us this, unless it were some saintly Hindu or pagan pacifist sent by God to remind us that the Church must forever relearn this lesson from Jesus. 

The Church must love its enemies and should learn from its friends, but may only do either of these things because they are authorized to do so from within the confessional circle of Matthew 11 in accordance with the merciful practices and the principles of prophetic speech outlined therein.

The point was made this way in May 1934, when a group of German theologians — already warned as early as the publication of Karl Barth’s revolutionary Commentary on Romans in 1919 not to entrust the Church’s gospel to the tender mercies of modern secular liberalism — would proclaim in the Barmen Declaration that neither would they entrust the gospel or the Church to the growing authoritarian populism of Adolf Hitler. Having been advised once not to submit to the foreign authority of the liberal state they were now by the same theologian warned not to submit to the authority of the illiberal state. And so they wrote:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine that the church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures, and truths as God’s revelation.

On the contrary, the writers said that the Church belonged solely to Christ and owned no other authority.

Jesus never told his disciples that discerning the signs of the times from within this confessional circle of authority would be easy. This passage begins with John the Baptist in Herod’s prison, and a great many members of the confessing church in Germany would end up in Hitler’s. As Oliver O’Donovan has written recently, “Nothing can spare us the task of discerning the prophets.” This is hard work. But it will avail us nothing if we do the work in the wrong way on the wrong assumptions.

Merciful practice and prophetic speech take place in the confessional circle where answer and question, where reservation and witness, where faith and doubt, hope and despair are alike referred to the person of Jesus Christ, Lord of the Church and Israel’s Messiah. Stand in that place and however inadequate our work may be, however grievous the metaphorical prison of our own mistakes or the all too literal prisons of our leaders’ mistakes and stupidities, yet it may be said of us as it was said of John the Baptist:

This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

Come Lord Jesus, come, establish us in your authority and save us from our own.

The Rev. Dr. David Widdicombe is rector of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg.


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