Friday, July 28, 2006

The Bible and Politics, 5.2

Here's the final post on the use of Scripture in political situations in the Bible itself. I'll be out of town for the weekend, and will begin our lesson on theological perspectives on the use of the Bible in politics early next week.



As a story about the expansion and dispersion of early Christian communities, Acts is as explicitly political as the Gospels. Christians are constantly coming into contact with political officials, and their discourse is often recorded (or ‘created’) by the author. The speeches of Peter (4:8-12) and Stephen (7:2-53) before the temple council are preeminent examples of the use of scripture in political situations. Drawing on the shared narrative of the Jewish scriptures, both Peter and Stephen retell parts of that narrative, naming Jesus as its culmination. Paul continues this pattern of scriptural debate in synagogues around Turkey and Greece, and in his prison cell in Rome. Interestingly, in Paul’s own trials before Jewish and Roman leaders, he argues more out of his conversion experience than out of scripture (22:1-21; 24:10-21; cf. 26:2-27 where Paul urges King Agrippa to believe in Jesus out of a shared belief in the Jewish prophets).

The Epistles

Since the epistles were written to encourage and guide specific churches in their communal life, there are no examples in them of scripture used to directly address political situations outside of the churches. Nevertheless, many of the epistles seem to counsel churches on how to act within their political settings. Hebrews is an especially interesting example, as it is basically a commentary on Old Testament scripture. Jesus is depicted both as the great high priest who opens up the inner courts of the tabernacle to us, and as the exalted Lord who rules the world and judges its rulers, just as portrayed by Psalms 2 and 110. These meditations are to strengthen the community’s resolve to be a kind of alternative political community that is ‘receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ (Hebrews 12:28). This community is to be marked by the welcome of strangers, care for prisoners, peace, and detachment from money, among other things (see chapters 12-13).


Though Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret, I understand it as a political document denouncing the authority of the Roman Empire in favor of the authority of Christ. There are few quotes from the Old Testament in Revelation, but the book’s form and genre draw heavily upon Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Daniel. As in Daniel, the great empires of the world are portrayed as violent beasts that are overcome by God, but in Revelation it is specifically the slaughtered Lamb that overcomes the beast. By lifting up the Lamb as the paradigm for Christian political engagement, Revelation teaches us the centrality of non-violence in our political action.

Reflect on the various ways the biblical authors use Scripture in political situations. Are the authors consistent? Are there multiple ways to use Scripture in political settings? Do the uses change with the context?

As always, think about how political situations in biblical times are similar and different to our own (see past posts for questions).

1 comment:

Christian Wright said...

There's an interesting piece on Alternet today about faith and politics. I can't figure out how to insert a hyperlink in this comment, so here's the url: