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A discussion guide from the editors of Sojourners magazine

This series is designed to

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cles, questions for discus-

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3333 14th Street NW,
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SOJOURNERS on the issues
A discussion guide from the editors of Sojourners magazine

The fledgling Christian

communities of the New
Testament lived under the
Christians and Politics
thumb of the Roman
Empire. Early church lead-
ers’ lives and epistles por-
tray the functions of the
state as a partial good—
Biblical Foundations
when it is doing good.
• “Paul’s View of the State (Part I),” by Robert A. Sabath
Where does a careful study
of Romans 13—in which
• “Biblical Politics,” by Jim Wallis
we are to distinguish
between the “honor” due
the government and the SESSION 2
“fear” due to God—lead
us in evaluating our social Honoring the Government, Serving God
and political actions today?
Combining Bible study, • “Paul’s View of the State (Part II),” by Robert A. Sabath
political analysis, and • “We Pledge Allegiance…,” by Gerald W. Schlabach
reflections on current
events, this collection of
Sojourners articles is part SESSION 3
of a series designed to
spark discussion, thought, Why Vote?
and action about how to
live out the call to serve • “The Values of Voting,” by Marie Dennis
God in our world. • “The Miracle of South Africa,” by Jim Wallis


© Copyright 2007
Religion in Public Office
Sojourners/Call to Renewal.
Purchase of this discussion • “The Courage of Conviction,”
guide includes permission to an interview with Mark O. Hatfield
print up to 10 copies for use in
a group study. If you need more • “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s Theology of Empire,”
than 10 copies, we ask that you
purchase an additional license
by Jim Wallis
for each 10 copies needed.
Please do not distribute either
the original PDF or printed
copies beyond your group’s
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SOJOURNERS on the issues
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Biblical Foundations
• “Paul’s View of the State (Part I),” by Robert A. Sabath
• “Biblical Politics,” by Jim Wallis

obert Sabath examines the relationship between the New Testament church
and the government under which it lived—the Roman Empire. He argues that
church leaders’ lives and epistles portray the state as a partial good, serving
God when it works well, but Satan when it goes beyond its right boundaries. Jim
Wallis applies these insights to the United States in an essay written shortly after the
Vietnam War. He suggests several things of which the United States might be called
to repent, including runaway consumerism and support for dictatorships.

Questions to Consider

1. What formed your own view of the relationship between religion and the state?
Faith and government? Personal conversion and politics? Has your perspective
changed over time?

2. Under the Roman Empire, according to Sabath, “it was not possible to divide the
‘religious’ and the ‘political’ into two neat, separate realms,” because the state
demanded religious worship of Caesar. Today, the state makes fewer overtly
religious demands, but Christians still believe that the state is “not the real center
of power and authority.” In light of Paul’s perspective, what are the similarities
and differences between the Roman Empire and the government under which you
live? How do these differences affect your faith community’s relation to the


3. Wallis writes that “the fallenness of the world and the presence of the kingdom [of
God] live in fundamental tension,” and that the church must live in this tension.
What are specific examples of this tension in your experience? How have you
observed different people and communities of faith respond to this tension?


• For up-to-the-minute political commentary from a Christian perspective, subscribe

to Sojourners’ free weekly e-mail newsletter, SojoMail (subscribe at

• For a comparison between Sabath’s reading of Revelation (in which Babylon repre-
sents Rome and earthly governments generally) and other popular readings of
Revelation (in which Babylon represents various modern-day countries), see Wes
Howard-Brook’s two-part study, “Apocalypse Soon?” (Sojourners, January-February
1999) and “Come Out of Her My People” (Sojourners, March-April 1999).

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by Robert A. Sabath
(13:1) Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no
authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (2)
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those
who resist will incur judgment. (3) For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but
to bad. Would you have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will
receive its approval, (4) For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong,
be afraid, for it does not bear the sword in vain; it is the servant of God to execute
its wrath on the wrongdoer. (5) Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid
God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (6) For the same reason you also
pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. (7)
Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is
due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)

ew passages of scripture have been as consistently misused and misunder-

F stood as Romans 13. Such passages as this have forced Christians on both
the right and left to wonder whether “biblical radicalism” is a contradiction
of terms. Those on the right balk at talk of a discipleship that at times neces-
sitates resistance to particular actions of a given state. They wonder whether such
talk is being biblically irresponsible, because doesn’t Paul plainly say, “Whoever
resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will
incur judgment?”
Many Christians on the left, sensitive to the need for a Christian resistance and
often wanting to be biblically responsible themselves, have tended to downplay their
biblical roots out of embarrassment from Paul in such passages as Romans 13. Or
they have dealt with such passages in a way that ultimately undermines the meaning

of biblical authority in any practical sense, by arguing that some biblical teachings
are culturally conditioned, but offering no criteria for determining which ones, except
their own offended sensitivities (which are themselves culturally conditioned).
The concern of this article will not be a detailed treatment of Romans 13 or an
extensive examination of any one problem, but a more comprehensive general view
of Paul’s teaching, attitude and action as it pertains to the state. The indirect teach-
ings of Paul will be examined to show how he himself interpreted and acted upon
his direct statements, and a contrasting historical situation in Revelations 13 will be
considered to indicate the attitude of other biblical writers toward the state. In part
two, the terminology and context of Romans 13 will be looked at in some detail.

THOUGH ROMANS 13 is the most extensive single passage of direct teaching on

the state in the New Testament, it is not the center of biblical teaching on the sub-
ject. Biblical teaching has been consistently misunderstood by making Romans 13
absolute and considering it in isolation from the rest of the New Testament material.
The extent and diversity of material is larger than one at first might imagine. There
are not only four other passages of direct teaching (1 Timothy 2:1-7, Titus 3:1-3, 1
Peter 2:13-17, Mark 12:13-17 and parallels), but numerous other passages of indi-
rect teaching with secondary reference to the state. By showing how the authors
themselves interpreted and acted upon their direct statements about the state, such
passages shed a qualifying light on the passages of primary teaching and show how
the state was viewed in differing historical circumstances.
The record of Paul’s encounter with civil authorities in Acts suggests that what

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Paul’s View he meant in Romans by “submission to the governing authorities” did not mean a
passive acceptance of whatever the state did or a submission to their illegal acts.
of the State One of the clearest instances of this is Paul’s difficulties with the magistrates at
(cont.) Philippi in Acts 16. When the economic interests of some enterprising businessmen
of the city were undermined by the work of Paul and Silas, they were dragged
before the magistrates and charged with the following: “These men are throwing our
city into confusion, and are proclaiming customs which is not lawful for us to
accept or observe, being Romans” (Acts 16:20-21). As a recent study by Boyd
Reese shows, the officials then departed from legal procedure and ordered Paul and
Silas to be flogged and thrown in jail, plainly contradicting the rights of Roman citi-
zens for protection from summary punishment without trial. The next day, when
they were told they could leave, Paul announced that he was a Roman citizen and
had been treated illegally. He was highly indignant that as a Roman citizen he had
been treated in such a fashion and demanded that the officials themselves come and
personally escort them out of jail. Boyd Reese summarizes as follows:

...Paul is seen exercising his rights as a Roman citizen in a way that is much more
than mere passive, unquestioning submission to the authorities of the state. In
Romans 13:3 he taught that good behavior had nothing to fear from the magis-
trates. In these instances in Acts, he held the magistrates to their duty to protect his
rights, the exercise of which one would assume would be considered as good behav-
ior. He forced these men to be in practice what he understood they were supposed to
be, both as representatives of the Roman government and as servants of God.

C.E.B. Cranfield (in his book Romans) writes that submission and honor to
authorities does not “forbid one to claim whatever legal rights one has over against
the government. Paul was not showing disrespect for the magistrates at Philippi, but
was rather paying them true respect, when he insisted on his legal rights and thereby
summoned them to a proper sense of their own dignity.”

Another illuminating example is Paul’s experience with city officials at
Thessalonica recorded in Acts 17:1-9 and reflected upon in 1 Thessalonians 2:18.
The charges brought against Paul at Thessalonica are similar to those brought
against him at Philippi: in both cases he was accused of being “un-Roman.”
“These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has wel-
comed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is
another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). The unintended political nature of Paul’s relig-
ious activity is obvious in such a charge: to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a political
threat. F.F. Bruce in his commentary on the Book of Acts wrote, “Jason and the oth-
ers were charged with harboring political messianic agitators—men who had been
guilty of seditious and revolutionary activity in other provinces of the Roman
Empire and had now come to Thessalonica with their propaganda, which was not
only illegal in itself but actually proclaimed a rival emperor, one Jesus by name, to
him who ruled in Rome.”
When Paul and Silas could not be found at Jason’s house, Jason and his compan-
ions were dragged before the city authorities and forced to “receive a pledge.” Bruce
wrote, “Jason and his companions were made responsible for seeing that there was
no repetition of the trouble; this probably meant that Paul had to leave the city and
that his friends guaranteed that he would not come back—at least during the present
magistrates’ term of office. It is probably with reference to this situation that Paul,
some weeks later, wrote to assure the Thessalonian Christians that he greatly desired
to go back and see them, but ‘Satan hindered us’ (1 Thessalonians 2:18).”
Here in some of Paul’s earliest correspondence we see the beginning of a theme

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Paul’s View that is to take on greater prominence with John at the end of the century—the gov-
erning authorities are in some sense regarded as agents of Satan, doing Satan’s “hin-
of the State dering” work. Though the New Testament recognizes the state as willed by God and
(cont.) as a divinely ordained principle to protect human life from the powers of chaos, it is
also aware of the demonic possibilities inherent within the state. The paradox and
the tension of being at the same time both “minister of God” and “instrument of
Satan” is fundamental to an understanding of the state in the New Testament. These
two sorts of assertions which seem to be contradictory actually proceed from one
and the same fundamental attitude toward the state as necessary, but provisional and
This same attitude of ambivalence toward the state and its functions is seen in 1
Corinthians 6:lff: “When one of you has a grievance against another, do you dare go
to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?…If then you have such cases,
why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church?” It is false
to read Romans 13 apart from such passages as above, or to read 1 Corinthians 6
apart from the passages of direct teaching. The one is the complement of the other.
Oscar Cullmann wrote, “Whoever interprets Romans 13:lff without reference to the
context must necessarily find a complete contradiction between Romans 13:1ff and
1 Corinthians 6:lff...What is said in Romans 13:1ff stands in the background of 1
Corinthians 6, but is not explicit here, just as what is said in 1 Corinthians 6 stands
in the background of the Romans passage, but is not explicit there.”
1 Corinthians 6 deals with the same function of the state mentioned in Romans
13:3-4, the administration of justice. In Romans, Paul assumes that the Roman state
knows how to judge, that it knows how to discriminate between good and evil, and
that it punishes only the evil. In 1 Corinthians 6, however, Paul orders the
Corinthian Christians not to bring their lawsuits before the state’s courts of justice,
but to keep away from this institution. Cullmann wrote,

Here we see clearly that for Paul there exists a limit to the recognition of any state.

Even to the extent that it remains within its legitimate limits (and the administration
of justice in the Roman state is a legitimate function), the state is nothing absolute,
nothing final...This chapter shows us in an especially clear manner that it is false to
ascribe to Paul in Romans 13:1ff the opinion that the state is by nature a divine
form and that its principles are equally valid as those Jesus deduced from the
expectation of the Kingdom of God...If it were of divine nature, then according to
Paul the Christians could bring their litigations before the state just as well as
before the congregation. Here we see the limit which is set to all affirmation, even
of the legitimate state: It is a temporary institution.

THIS APPARENT CONTRADICTORY stance of the first Christians toward the

state is nowhere more clearly indicated than in the contrast of Revelations 13 and
Romans 13. That John describes the state as in some way the special incarnation of
the power of evil on earth and the most tangible embodiment of Satanic power of
his day seems to be in conflict with Paul’s view of the state as a “minister of God.”
John describes the Roman Empire in Revelation as a “beast from the abyss”
empowered by the dragon Satan and endowed with the full powers of the Devil for
the Devil’s work in the world (Revelation 13:1, 2; cf. 17:7-18 and 12:9).
John adopts the imagery of the four beasts in Daniel 7, which represent the four
kingdoms of the world, and concentrates the features of all four into one. The beast
of Revelation is thus an abstraction of all the world powers that had gone before and
has reference to that which is universally true of all world powers (cf. the tempta-
tion narratives, where the kingdoms of the world are in Satan’s power to give to

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Paul’s View Christ). The symbolism of the beast thus suggests that it is archetypical of the
demonic in triumph in any nation.
of the State
(cont.) SOME OF THE apparent conflict arises from contrasting historical situations in the
writings of Romans and Revelation. The persecutions of both Nero and Domitian
were subsequent to Paul’s writing of Romans, which was written about A.D. 57 dur-
ing that period of Nero’s reign when there was relative calm throughout the
provinces and before the subsequent persecutions broke out in A.D. 64. Revelation
was not written until the last decade of the first century, at the end of Domitian’s
reign, when Rome had reached the height of both its power and its moral insensitiv-
ity. The empire’s enormous wealth and extravagant luxury were offset by a back-
ground of extreme poverty (18:11-16; cf. 6:5, 6). Already the corrupting influence
of its power and affluence was experienced worldwide (18:3) under the banner of a
rampant nationalism that proclaimed Pax Romana.
Domitian (A.D. 81-96) was the first Roman emperor to take seriously his own
divinity and to insist on emperor worship as a loyalty test. Against every form of
resistance he unleashed one of the most intense political persecutions that history
has known. A stubborn resistance group, first called Christians in Syrian Antioch,
bore the brunt of Domitian’s wrath. They believed that another should be wor-
shiped. While a political prisoner in exile on Patmos, a small barren island in the
Aegean Sea used as a penal settlement by the Romans, one of the early Christian
leaders wrote “the revelation of John,” perhaps the most political piece of literature
in the entire Bible. Here was a political-religious manifesto that declared open
resistance to the Roman Empire. Here was the Christians’ first tractate against the
hellish iniquities and arrogant nationalism of the world’s most powerful nation.
Thus, according as the state remains within its proper limits or transgresses them,
the Christian will describe it as the servant of God or as the instrument of the Devil.
That just 35 years elapsed between the writing of Romans 13 and Revelation 13
suggests that even a legitimate state which knows how to “distinguish between good

and evil” is always in danger of becoming Satanic. There is an inevitable drift
toward the demonic: Caesar always and irresistibly tends toward demanding for
himself not only that which is Caesar’s but that which is God’s.
The seven heads of the beast (Revelation 13:1) are later explained as seven
kings (Revelation 17:10). Commentators are divided over whether these seven kings
represent the succession of Roman emperors from Caesar to Domitian or whether
they are simply symbolic, representing the Roman power as a historic whole. In
either case, the same emperor that Paul described as the “minister of God” in A.D.
57 is included in these seven heads as part of the beast that from beginning to end is
the manifestation of Satan’s presence on earth and the Devil’s special instrument.
Again we can see the paradox and the tension of being at the same time both “min-
ister of God” and “instrument of Satan” as fundamental to an understanding of the
state in the New Testament, teaching both the necessity of the state as willed by
God to meet the emergency of a fallen creation as well as the demonic possibilities
at all times inherent within the state.
The book of Revelation also highlights a much ignored input in constructing a
politically responsible discipleship in the 20th century: that is, the political signifi-
cance of all of scripture. Major doctrines have crucial political implications and a
critical significance in translating New Testament teaching into a changed cultural
context. Nowhere in the New Testament is the relationship between worship and
politics more clearly seen than in Revelation.
The pervasive sense of worship in Revelation reaches maximum intensity in
chapters 17-19 where the fall of Babylon (= Rome) occasions a celebration in heav-

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Paul’s View en. The death of a society, once the richest and most powerful, does not seem to be
an appropriate time for rejoicing. Yet the destruction of this powerful city is associ-
of the State ated with the salvation of the world (19:1) and is a sign of the sovereign rule and
(cont.) justice of God over nations (19:2,6). Only those who profit by its power and afflu-
ence mourn its fall. Only the heavens and the people of God who have “come out of
her.” who have disentangled themselves from implication in Babylon’s corruption
(18:4), have occasion to rejoice. Thus is made a bold contrast between the silence
that is the sole remain of a once mighty city and the thunderous celebration of the
heavenly multitude. And in contrast to the three dirges of woe uttered by the “kings
of the earth,” “the merchants of the earth,” and the “shipmasters,” there are three
outbursts of hallelujah by the heavenly chorus (19:1,3,6): Hallelujah! Salvation and
glory and power belong to our God. Hallelujah! Her smoke rises up forever and
ever. Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.

THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS of worshiping God and the religious implica-

tions of worshiping an emperor or a nation are unmistakable in the third outburst of
praise to God following the destruction of Rome: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our
God, the Almighty, is King” (“reigns” is a cognate verb form of the noun for “king”
and is thus better translated “is king”). The author adopts two titles normally
reserved for the emperor—“Lord God” and “King”—and applies them to God,
imputing to God that which the emperor assigned exclusively to himself.
In the thought-world of the first century it was not possible to divide the “relig-
ious” and the “political” into two neat, separate realms. Religious assertions such as
“Jesus is King” or “Yahweh is Lord God” had necessary political implications that
galvanized civil authorities such as “Caesar is King” or “Caesar is Lord God” had
necessary religious implications that restricted Christians from participation in the
imperial cult and made them a political-religious resistance movement.
For the early Christians to say “Jesus is King” was as much a political as a theo-
logical affirmation. For them to say only “Yahweh is the Lord God” was to register

a political protest. To worship Caesar as Lord God and King was to contribute to
civic stability; the imperial cult was the cement that held the empire together. When
Christians held themselves above the authority of the state by worshiping another
“Lord God” and another “King,” they were therefore completely disruptive and a
threat to the empire. When political powers demand the worship of unconditional
obedience that assumes individuals should assign them ultimate value, then worship
of God and the assigning of ultimate value to his kingdom becomes a radical act, a
political threat.
The first Christians did not try to overturn the Roman Empire by force or to use
it for their own purposes. Simply by believing that Rome was not the real center of
power and authority and by fleshing out that belief in daily, active worship, they so
threatened the system that the Romans felt compelled to exterminate them. For the
early Christians the Roman Empire, then approaching the zenith of its power, was
already “fallen.” So certain was its destruction that in typically prophetic fashion
John employed the past tense (18:3; 14:8) “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”
Living in daily expectancy of its catastrophic end, this small group of worshipers
did not consider their primary allegiance to be to the present order. The empire with
all the “power of its luxury” (18:3) held neither attraction nor threat for the little
band that dared to live as if the emperor and his kingdom were not. ■

Robert Sabath was an original member of the Sojourners community and is the Web site developer at
Sojourners. This article appeared in the April 1974 Post-American, the original name of Sojourners

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by Jim Wallis
merica is a fallen nation. The Fall is the principle spiritual and political

A fact of the American nation. This is what the Bible teaches and it is what
the American church refuses to believe. If we had believed the Bible, we
would not ignore the oppression of the poor, we would not have resisted
the facts of Vietnam, we would not have been surprised by Watergate. The chaos,
the insanity, the brutality that is America can only be adequately explained by the
biblical doctrine of the Fall: the alienation of the whole of creation from God. The
biblical doctrine describes the Fall as pervasive, not only affecting persons, but also
relationships, institutions, nations, corporations, movements, ideologies—all the
principalities and powers. The American church’s doctrine of the Fall is naive, nar-
row, trivial, and misinformed. Our preaching and practice serve to deny the reality
of the Fall and claim a special exemption from the Fall for our own nation.
There are those who are made uncomfortable with the suggestion that their own
nation bears major responsibility for the sufferings of people. They recoil when oth-
ers accuse their nation of military aggression, imperialism, or the exercise of mass
violence for selfish interests. They are angered by the charge that their society is
founded upon national arrogance and pride, racial privilege and property values.
They are defensive of the economic and political structures of their country that
maintain and perpetuate injustice. They reject the notion that their nation uses prop-
aganda to justify its actions and resorts to repression and naked force when neces-
sary to protect its power.
They rather retreat to the more comfortable notion that their nation acts out of
righteous or, at worse, mistaken motivations; that its basic values, institutions, and
intentions are honorable and noble (i.e. that it acts only to protect freedom at home
and around the world). These social mythologies of national pride have character-

ized all nations and have been strongest in those nations that have been most
destructive and violent.
My basic disagreement with such views is not primarily a political one. In other
words, it is not merely that we have a different political analysis. The basic flaw in
such views is theological, in that those who hold such views are theologically naive
by failing to take the Fall seriously. Such views are therefore (at least in regard to
the view of one’s own nation) liberal rather than orthodox in a biblical sense. A
recognition of the Fall is prerequisite for responsible political action.
When I was in the student movement, I believed, along with most other young
activists, that evil resided in the national leadership but that the people would make
basic changes if they really knew what was going on. I no longer believe that. The
issues that confront us, the human atrocities that plead for change, are due to more
than lacks in information and technology; rather, they are moral and spiritual ques-
tions on which choices are continually made by both the national leadership and the
The choices that are made have a great deal to do with what the Bible calls idol-
atry, the worship of idols. This worship takes many forms, some direct and unmis-
takable, some far more subtle. In our times, we witness persons, institutions, and
nations in the grip of the contemporary idolatries—to name a few: a consumptive
mentality, the will to power and domination, a dependence on violence, national
pride and destiny, self-justifying ideologies, and informational systems with the
ability to turn falsehood into truth. The militant power of these contemporary idola-
tries has captured the corporations, the Pentagon, the branches of government, the

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Biblical universities, even the churches. Their presence is deeply felt in our social and cul-
tural patterns, affecting even the way we relate to one another. The Bible says that
Politics those who have experienced conversion through the gospel are to be separate from
(cont.) the world. But we don’t really believe that either. We are separate in small private
ways that don’t cost us very much, but not in a way that makes serious demands
upon our lives. Thus, being separate from the world—a break with the prevailing
idolatries and mythologies of American life and society—is a necessary part of any
responsible political action.
The American public has developed an amazing capacity for tolerating contra-
diction; perhaps that is part of the price of domination. The ironies of it would be
almost humorous were it not for the victims—those who suffer the consequences of
American contradictions. The public grants extraordinary authority and power to the
economic and political managers and gets, in exchange, unprecedented affluence
and a protected sense of national pride and destiny. The nation is thus able to stay
on top of the world heap and still hear its leaders continue to talk of our commit-
ment to self-determination, freedom, and “peace with honor.” The government is
able to kill a million Indo-Chinese and justify it with “saving them from commu-
nism” or “containing the Chinese threat” or “protecting American lives” or
“destroying a village to save it” or “not backing out of our commitments” or “bring-
ing our prisoners home with their heads high” depending on the year of the war and
the official administration line.
The nation’s leaders are exposed lying, cheating, and stealing while still keeping
down the poor and repressing dissent to “preserve law and order.” The United States
is able to maintain two dozen dictatorships and still be the leader of the Free World.
The American people are able to gobble up over half the world’s consumable
resources and still “praise God from whom all blessings flow.” The prophetic func-
tion of “truth-telling” is a central part of responsible political action.
This political awakening we have experienced, this new awareness that pleads
for change, requires a rethinking of basic assumptions about our society and about

ourselves. Yet our protest must include more than negation and refusal; it must also
include affirmation and radical alternatives.
Our affirmation must have an adequate basis for values, vision, and goals that
can provide the motivation, direction, and self-criticism necessary in seeking radical
change. It must provide a vision that can keep us from the bitterness, despair,
hatred, and desperation that causes some to drop out, sell out, or turn their fight for
justice and social change into a murderous crusade. We require total transformation,
a new understanding of society and ourselves. As the analysis of our dilemma must
be radical, so must our solution, going to the heart, the root causes of our problems,
and being comprehensive enough to avoid simplistic pitfalls.

OPPRESSIVE EGO, HATRED, greed, prejudice, and aggression lurk beneath the
surface as motivations of our individual and corporate lives. We must escape the
illusion of every simplistic group that looks only beyond itself for the sources of
human misery. We must realize that the evil we oppose lies also within ourselves.
Herman Hesse said it well, “Now and again I have expressed the opinion that every
nation and every person would do better, instead of rocking himself to sleep with
political catchwords about war guilt, to ask himself how far his own faults and neg-
ligences and evil tendencies are guilty of the war and all the other wrongs of the
world, and that there lies the only possible means of avoiding the next war.”
All this is to say that our affirmation must be a vehicle for personal transforma-
tion, the emergence of new people, as well as embody the basis for social liberation.
To challenge the system, we must be willing to have our own lives changed, and

— 10 —
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Biblical become radical ourselves. To repudiate the old is not enough; we must act on the
basis of a new reality that we have experienced. The conversion of persons to the
Politics gospel of Christ, that is to say, an evangelistic ministry, is central for responsible
(cont.) political action.

THE GOSPEL DEMANDS political involvement that addresses the needs of peo-
ple, that is directed against all these things that bind and oppress people, that con-
fronts the political and economic causes of human hurt. In our political involve-
ment, we must first seek to be a kingdom-conscious movement of Christian people
who by their very existence, presence, and action call into question the values,
assumptions, and very structure of our society and free people to live in alternative
A danger in the growth of awareness in the church is the tendency to embrace a
liberal political philosophy that also accepts the economic, political, and value
assumptions of the status quo, as do conservative philosophies. We must put pri-
mary importance on the active affirmation of the new order in the midst of the old.
The politicization of the church can result in the church becoming a power of the
world and exercising its influence as such rather than seeing itself as that eschato-
logical community that bears witness to the presence of the kingdom in the common
life of the world.
The fallenness of the world and the presence of the kingdom live in fundamen-
tal tension. The church must live in this tension and recognize the opposition
between the world-system and the kingdom of God. The church is thus an inex-
haustible revolutionary force in the world. Its mission is perpetual—not on behalf of
nation, party, program, or ideology, but rather on behalf of the kingdom of God,
which may make it victim of the hostility of both the established order and of those
who seek to overthrow it. Corporately, we must commit ourselves to build a church
that is a sign of Christ’s presence in the world and thus a counter-sign to the values
of American society and power. The recovery of the church’s true identity in the

world is most basic to its political responsibility. ■

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This article appeared in the April 1974 Post-American, the
original name of Sojourners magazine.

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Honoring the Government, Serving God
• “Paul’s View of the State (Part II),” by Robert A. Sabath
• “We Pledge Allegiance…,” by Gerald W. Schlabach

n a revealing study of an oft-misinterpreted passage in Romans 13, Sabath
demonstrates that the “honor” due to government, unlike the “fear” due to God,
does not include unquestioning obedience. Rather, it involves respect for govern-
mental office, even when the Christian must disobey (as Paul does in Acts) or when
the officeholder is a worthy of contempt (as the emperor Nero was). Most of all,
Sabath argues, the church must not give to Caesar what is God’s, because this will
prevent the church from being a prophetic voice for God’s will. In a piece written
before the 2003 war in Iraq, Gerald Schlabach argues that U.S. Christians’ primary
leader is Christ rather than the president, and that our loyalty should be to Christians
worldwide rather than to citizens of our country.

Questions to Consider

1. Immediately before telling the Roman church to honor the governing authorities,
Paul emphatically tells the church not to be “squeezed into [the world’s] mold.”
What, in your experience, is the “world’s mold”?

2. Sabath argues that to “honor” the government in a biblical sense is to recognize its
position in God’s plan for the world. Have you heard the passage in Romans 13
used in a different sense? How did you respond then, and how might you

respond now?

3. In what ways would it change your perspective on world events if you were to
think more about how they affect Christians worldwide? The mainstream media
often reports on how events affect U.S. citizens. What access do you have to
information about Christians outside of the United States?

4. How would Paul’s perspective be read differently in the pre-Constantine era when
Christians were a persecuted minority? In the age of Christendom when
Christians were the main political power? In a post-Christendom democratic era
when other religions are growing in numbers and freedom of religion is a tenet
of democratic values?

• For a theological reading of human institutions and “principalities,” which Sabath
mentions in his Bible study, see Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be: Theology for a
New Millennium (Doubleday, 1999).
• There are many sources of information on Christians worldwide. A few useful ones
are the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical News International (,
Catholic news at Agenzia Fides (, and World Faith News service

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics


by Robert A. Sabath
wo commonly misunderstood motifs in Romans 13 and the other passages

T of direct teaching on the state are “submission” and “honor.” A careful

study of these two terms reveals that there is a significant difference
between “submission” and “obedience,” and between “honor” and “fear.”

Submission vs. obedience. “Let every person be subject to the governing authori-
ties” (Romans 13:1). The term hypotassesthai is difficult to translate; different ver-
sions variously render it “be subject,” “be obedient,” “be submissive,” or “be subor-
dinate.” It is most commonly assumed that the term simply means obedience.
C.E.B. Cranfield’s extensive study of this word in his commentary on Romans
12 and 13 shows that the usage of the word in literature and the examination of how
early Christian leaders interpreted and acted upon this injunction does not allow
such an equation. The word Paul chose is not the best word to use if he meant an
unambiguous “obedience.” Three other words commonly employed in the New
Testament to mean obedience are avoided in this passage. After surveying New
Testament usage, Cranfield wrote: “Though the idea of obedience is sometimes
clearly prominent (Romans 8:7), in the majority of cases, while it may be included,
it is not clear that it predominates.”
Obedience carries with it the idea of completely bending one’s will and one’s
actions to the desires of another. Since obedience cannot be reciprocal, this connota-
tion is excluded in some passages, such as Ephesians 5:22 where the word is used of
a reciprocal obligation (“subject yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ”).
Failure to see the word in its complete context of reciprocity has caused serious
misunderstanding. For similar reasons, hypotassesthai is not best rendered by “sub-
jection,” which carries a connotation of being thrown down and run over, nor by

“submission,” with its connotation of passivity.
What then does the term mean? It appears most equitable with Romans 12:10
(“in honor preferring one another”) and Philippians 2:3 (“each counting the other
better than himself”). The thrust of the word in the New Testament seems to be the
recognition of the other person’s standing in God’s plan. To submit to the state does
not mean to adopt an uncritical and blind obedience to the authority’s every
demand, but to recognize the civil authority as part of God’s plan for the world and
to responsibly act in the light of that recognition.
Cranfield summarizes: “While it will often include obedience, it is never simply
obedience and nothing more, is never an uncritical and unquestioning obedience,
and in some circumstances will not include obedience at all.” That one can be sub-
missive even though not obeying is also argued by John Howard Yoder: “The con-
scientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still
remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it
imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to
put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.”
Submission might normally entail obedience, but as Cranfield goes on to say, “it
also involves a serious and responsible disobedience whenever obedience would
involve disobeying God.” Thus the same man who wrote “submit yourselves for the
Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13) had no problems with stand-
ing before the authorities in Jerusalem and saying: “whether it is right in the sight of
God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge” (Acts 4:19). “We
must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Paul’s View Honor vs. fear. “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to
whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7). Romans
of the State, 13:7 is perhaps the earliest commentary on Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17—“Render to
Part II Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The verb
“render” is the same in both contexts.
(cont.) That which belongs to Caesar and that which belongs to God is not explicitly
defined in Mark 12, though it is certain that “rendering to Caesar the things that are
Caesar’s” does not mean giving him everything he asks, and the arbiter of what
belongs to Caesar is not Caesar, but God. The context is very suggestive: Caesar is
to be given back the coins stamped with his image; perhaps we are to give back to
God that which is stamped with God’s image, namely our whole lives.
Cranfield argues that the Romans 13 passage does explicitly define what
belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God—“taxes,” “custom,” and perhaps
“honor” are due to Caesar, but “fear” is due only to God. He rejects the view that
reads this verse as a list of the four kinds of things due government: taxes, revenue,
fear, and honor. If this latter view should be correct, it would certainly be unique,
since nowhere else in the New Testament is there a general exhortation to fear the
civil authority (Romans 13:4 is addressed to the wrongdoer, not to men and women
in general).
Cranfield’s suggestion is more consistent with the parallel section in 1 Peter
2:17—“Honor all people; love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the king.”
Here Peter altered Proverbs 24:21 (“my child, fear the Lord and King”) to avoid
using the same verb to indicate what is owed to the emperor and what is owed God.
The Carthaginian Christian martyr Donata, asked to swear “by the divine spirit of
the Lord our Caesar,” is said to have replied that she would “honor Caesar as Caesar
but fear only God.” This kind of distinction was probably a settled usage in the
early church.
Thus, proper “honor” for authorities is something quite different from the “fear”
that is to be given God alone. The system cannot threaten the Christian, not by with-

holding its rewards, not even by death. It is precisely the inability of Nero to intimi-
date the Christian that in turn makes all Christians a threat to Nero.
To “honor” those in authority means “to take them seriously—usually much
more seriously than they take themselves—as the ministers of God,” as individuals
thus accountable to God for the solemn responsibility God has committed to them
(see Cranfield). It is believed that Nero was emperor at the time Romans was writ-
ten. For the recipients of the letter, honoring the king meant treating with full seri-
ousness (for the sake of his office) a man who had little or no understanding of the
true dignity of that office and who in himself was contemptible.
That to which honor is due is primarily the office and only secondarily the
occupant of the office. “Honoring” an official does not exclude critical words of
rebuke when the true dignity of the office is lost sight of. We have already seen this
in Paul’s attitude toward the magistrates at Philippi in Acts 16. Jesus’ own behavior
toward Herod might be thought to indicate disrespect by those who misunderstand
the meaning of “honor”: he evaded Herod, sent him a message of contempt, and
when face to face with him at his trial had nothing to say to him. In Luke 13:32 he
called Herod a “fox,” a term used in contrast to a lion to indicate “low cunning” and
an insignificant third-rate person, as opposed to a person of real power and great-
The injunction “render to all what is due them” must not be understood as “ren-
der to the state everything asked.” The contrast in the New Testament between
“fear” and “honor” suggests that ethical discrimination is an essential element of

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Paul’s View “honoring.” Verse 8 confirms the discrimination implied in verse 7. In English we
do not note that the words “what is due” in verse 7 and “owe” in verse 8 have the
of the State, same root: “render to each his due... nothing is due to anyone except love.” Yoder
Part II writes:
The claims of Caesar are to be measured by whether what he claims is due to him is
(cont.) part of the obligation of love. Love in turn is defined (v. 10) by the fact that it does
no harm. In this context, it therefore becomes impossible to maintain that the sub-
jection referred to in verses 1-7 can include a moral obligation under certain cir-
cumstances to do harm to others at the behest of government.

Thus, it is not the Christian’s duty to give the state everything asked, or to do what-
ever it says.
There is often the naive affirmation that whatever government does, it is serving
God and that therefore what it is doing is a ministry in which the Christian should
always share. Yoder challenges this understanding by examining in detail the latter
part of verse 6: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for (rulers) are servants of
God, devoting themselves to this very end.” This latter phrase is taken by Yoder to
be more of a criterion than a description. Thus, he rejects the interpretation of the
participle, “devoting,” as a further predication (“rulers are servants of God and
devote themselves to this very thing—i.e. that of promoting good and of restraining
evil in verses 3 and 4) and takes it as an adverbial modifier (“rulers are servants of
God only to the extent to which they devote themselves to this very thing).
The context of the next few verses makes it clear that the Christian is being
called to ethical discrimination—perhaps this is to be the basis of that discrimina-
tion. This verse gives a criterion by which the functioning of the state can be meas-
ured. We can judge and measure the extent to which the state is accomplishing its
ministry by asking whether it persistently attends to the rewarding of good and evil
according to their merits. Yoder concludes, “The Christian who accepts his subjec-
tion to government retains his moral independence and judgment. The authority of

government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God;
but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is

The powers. One last term should be briefly mentioned. The attitude of Paul toward
the state is seen in new theological depth and is placed in the context of his whole
ideology when we consider the place of “powers” (exousiai, translated “governing
authorities” in verse 1) in his teaching. Many major commentators (Cullmann and
Cranfield are two) have argued that the “powers” of Romans 13:1 is a double refer-
ence to civil authorities and also to the spiritual powers standing behind, and acting
through, the civil authorities. Those who wish to follow this up can find an excellent
treatment of the issues in Cullmann, Cranfield, and Yoder. The value in making this
connection between the state and the demonic powers standing behind the state is
that it helps account for the “ambivalence” of Paul’s attitude in such passages as 1
Corinthians 6. Cullmann writes:

Only in this way can we see in Pauline perspective the simultaneousness of the thor-
oughly positive role of the State on the one hand, and its provisional, in the last
analysis problematical, character on the other. This is roughly the simultaneousness
of Romans 13:1ff. and 1 Corinthians 6:lff. This apparently contradictory situation
belongs essentially to the victory over the angel powers, and it becomes graspable,
so to speak, in this point.

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Paul’s View By this understanding, Cullmann continues, “it becomes especially clear that the
State is now a temporary institution, not of divine nature, but nevertheless willed by
of the State, God; that we must remain critical toward every state; that we must none the less
Part II obey every state as far as it remains within its bounds.”
(cont.) The context. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have
been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Both Cullmann and Yoder reject the view
that Romans teaches the divine institution of a particular government, but each
argues differently. The ordaining of a particular government is what Yoder calls the
“positivistic” view held in certain Lutheran circles, that “whatever government
exists, it is by virtue of an act of institution, i.e. a specific providential action of
God, that it came into being.” Whatever government exists, it is the will of God.
Cullmann rejects this view and argues for the ordaining of the principle of gov-
ernment. He argues that Paul’s teaching on the state in Romans 13 arises out of the
context of the Christian commandment to love: The Christian is not to repay evil for
evil (12:17) or to take their own vengeance (12:19), but the state legitimately takes
vengeance on those who do evil (13:4). The Christians in Rome were perhaps dis-
paraging the government because it was not, indeed could not, operate out of
Christian principles. Paul was saying that because the state does properly the exact
opposite of what the Christian is to do does not mean that the Christian is to reject it
as a matter of principle. The state proceeds according to the principle not of love,
but of retribution and the Christian is not to reject it a priori because it represents
other than Christian principles. The context thus shows that the only thing repudiat-
ed in Romans 13 is “the renunciation of the validity of the state as a matter of prin-
ciple.” The state is still necessary, Paul argues, and is fulfilling a needed place in
God’s plan.
Yoder likewise rejects the “positivistic” view but argues for another position:
the ordering of a particular government. There is a piling up of words containing the
Greek root for “order” in the first two verses that is not readily apparent in the

English translations. “Be subject,” “have been instituted,” “resists,” and “appointed”
are all based on the same root. Yoder argues that there is a difference between
“ordain” or “institute” and “order.” Thus the thought is: “Be subordinate, because
the state is ordered by God.” Yoder remarks:

What the text says is that He orders them, brings them into line, that by his permis-
sive government he lines them up with his purposes.... That God orders and uses
powers does not reveal anything new about what government should be or how we
should respond to government. A given government is not mandated or saved or
made a channel of the will of God; it is simply lined up, used by God in his ordering
of the cosmos.

The broad contextual grid for the entire ethical section of Romans 12-15 is given in
the first two verses: Put your bodies where your doctrines are, by the consistent
worship that demands your very being as a living sacrifice, and stop allowing your-
selves to be conformed and schematized by this world-system. Instead of being
squeezed into its mold, have your minds transformed and keep letting yourselves be
metamorphosized by the renewal of your worldview and your moral disposition, so
that you may be able to discern, recognize, approve, and enjoy the will of God
(Romans 12:1,2 free paraphrase).
Romans 13 is part of the practical outworking of the principles in Romans 12:1-
2. There is a direct connection between cultural conformity and ethical insensitivity:
“be not that you may discern the will of God.” Accommodation to

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Paul’s View the world-system and the adoption of its myths blunts the moral sensitivity of the
of the State, Perhaps the greatest cause of unbelief in our generation is the cultural conformi-
Part II ty and consequent ethical insensitivity of the church. It is not the gospel that is
incredible: the church is. The accommodated church cannot fulfill its proper politi-
(cont.) cal responsibility, because it must render to Caesar only that which belongs to
Caesar, not that which belongs to God. And a conformed church can neither recog-
nize nor approve of God’s will and that which belongs to God.
If the church is to recover its calling in the world, it must once again become
alien, pilgrim, prophet—a countercultural community of outsiders living out their
discipleship in a process of continual disentanglement from the values that dominate
this age, sensitive to those cultural blind spots that mold its thinking and shape its
actions to the standard that is passing away, proclaiming the great refusal to be
squeezed into the world’s pattern, pledging allegiance to the coming reign of God. ■
Robert A. Sabath was an original member of the Sojourners community and is the Web site developer
at Sojourners. This article appeared in the April 1974 Post-American, the original name of
Sojourners magazine.

2 — 17 —
SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

by Gerald W. Schlabach
n a time of crisis, uncertainty, and policy debate, one would think that

I Christians in the United States would agree: When in doubt, we should support
our leader and remain loyal to our nation. Our leader, of course, is Jesus Christ.
Our nation, of course, is the people called church, spread around the globe. Our
pledge of allegiance, of course, is one that can be sung from within “every tribe and
language and people and nation” (Revelations 5:9). Of course?
As the Bush administration prepares for war with Iraq, some matters certainly
are legitimate topics for debate and Christian discernment. Christians of good will
must discern which of the many competing messages about Iraq are coming to them
in good faith, and which are manipulative. At its best, the centuries-long debate
between pacifist and just-war Christians can help deepen a shared commitment to
confront injustice and stand up for the defenseless. In turn, those who believe wars
can sometimes be just are obliged to discern whether this war would qualify.
Meanwhile, those resolved to respond first as Christians will continually wonder
how to live out Christian love of neighbor within overlapping roles such as employ-
ee, passport-holder, family member, office holder.
Yet for all this, one thing should need no debate whatsoever. The first Christian
creed was the simple confession “Jesus is Lord.” Kyrios, lord, king, Caesar—per-
haps today we would say president. Biblically, to confess Jesus as Lord means that
in every nation except the church, whoever is known as king, Caesar, or president is
not really our leader. Leaders of the nations deserve respect and prayer. Ordinary
laws and policies ordinarily deserve civil obedience, not disobedience. But if Jesus
is Lord, no other leader deserves unquestioned support, muting of doubts, or stifling
of conscience. Every Christian must someday expect to obey God, not human

Biblically, this conviction is anything but isolated. It has roots in Israel’s faith
that Yahweh alone was their king. It extends throughout the New Testament, and
bears fruit in the continuing witness of the church. Following Christ’s own death,
the apostles invited Roman centurions to faith and appealed to Rome’s own sense of
itself as protector of justice. Yet they never forgot that they followed a lord who
rivaled Caesar. Indeed, the New Testament closes with fresh and apocalyptically
poignant reminders that through martyrdom, Christians were sharing in Christ’s
nonviolent war against the idolatrous claims of empire.

TO BE SURE, Romans 13 urged Christians living near the heart of the empire to be
subject to governing authorities. They needed that reminder because they were
learning lessons like those in the previous chapter, Romans 12, just well enough that
imprudent, unprincipled resistance to authority could be a temptation. Those les-
sons? Do not conform to the world but allow God’s grace to transform you into a
contrast society; practice hospitality toward strangers, renounce vengeance, meet
evil with good, order all your relationships peaceably. That God was at work placing
the world’s authorities in order was not a blank check for the state, but was simply
one more reflection of early Christian confidence that their lord, the crucified but
risen Christ, was the lord.
If Christians in the United States are confused about who our leader is and
whether we ought to close ranks in support of President Bush, that is probably
because we are also confused about our citizenship. If our first loyalty is to Christ,

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

We Pledge the appropriate way to express it is by identifying with the entire Body of Christ—
the nation called church that spreads across borders and around the globe.
Allegiance The opportunity to relearn this lesson has never been greater. Whatever the neg-
(cont.) atives of globalization, Christians plugged into its new networks of communication
have no excuse for ignorance about how our actions affect fellow citizens in the
worldwide household of faith. Iraqi Christians will die from bombs ostensibly tar-
geted at the Saddam Hussein regime. Pakistani Christians are already under attack
because Christianity is identified with U.S. policies.
The least that American Christians can do is factor in loyalty to fellow
Christians around the globe as we determine our stance toward leaders named Bush,
Hussein—and Jesus. But that is only a minimum. In the lead-up to the November
elections, one secular anti-war group coined the slogan, “Regime change begins at
home—vote!” Christians might better say something else: “Regime change begins
at home—worship!”
If we have forgotten why authentic worship must change the regime that guides
our lives, defines our true nationality, and then charts our international relationships,
then we have forgotten the one we claim to worship as lord, president, unquestioned
leader. ■

Gerald W. Schlabach was associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota
when this article appeared in the January-February 2003 issue of Sojourners magazine.

2 — 19 —
SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Why Vote?
• “The Values of Voting,” by Marie Dennis
• “The Miracle of South Africa,” by Jim Wallis

vote because I am convinced it is worth the effort to try once again to insert
moral values into our political process,” writes Marie Dennis. Even as she
acknowledges reasons for “deep skepticism” that our money-driven elec-
toral process will challenge the status quo, she expresses hope that an informed pub-
lic can move politicians closer to social and economic justice. As Jim Wallis
describes, even the most profound change is often closer than it seems: South
Africa’s peaceful transition to post-apartheid democracy was a “miracle” that had
seemed unimaginable only a few years earlier.

Questions to Consider

1. Dennis argues that citizens of faith should seriously analyze how different politi-
cal policies affect the poor, the environment, and human dignity. She suggests
asking “who is the power behind the power, who benefits, [and] who carries the
burden” of different government actions. What do you prioritize when consider-
ing your participation in the political process?

2. Dennis advocates for “community discernment” about political issues. At the

same time, she says that such discernment “may lead to different decisions for
different people.” Do you discuss politics with friends and in church? How are

these discussions helpful or how could they be?

3. Imagine being a member of the South African opposition who was imprisoned,
exiled, or silenced, and later elected to South Africa’s post-apartheid parlia-
ment? What ideals would you risk your life for? What seemingly stubborn polit-
ical injustices exist in your country or community? How does the example of
South Africa give you hope and inspire solutions?


• Call to Renewal offers public policy updates on legislation that affects the poor.
This information can help you formulate the questions that are important to you as a
citizen of faith (

• For more about South Africa’s continuing challenges, read “In the Wake of a
Miracle,” by Linda Martindale (Sojourners, November-December 2003).

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics


by Marie Dennis
eriodically, the U.S. political scene is subjected to a ritual of readjustment at

P the hands of eligible and willing voters. Our particular species of democracy
rests enormous weight on the electoral process and has regularly made elec-
tions the litmus test of a functioning democracy in other countries.
Many of us who are still waiting for this system of representative democracy to
birth “liberty and justice for all” recognize the complex layers of reality attached to
the voting process. We know very well that, in spite of repeated efforts at campaign
reform and attempts at exacting a measure of ethical and social accountability from
elected officials, those who run for office almost by definition have to come from
among the most privileged in our society, and rarely have life experience in any
measure like that of the majority in our land.
We know too the tremendous influence of money before, during, and after elec-
tion day. While the United States has witnessed little overt fraud in the balloting
process, political power here is manipulated and controlled in more subtle and
equally effective ways. Some of us harbor a deep skepticism about the capacity of
our system to produce elected officials willing to make decisions independent of
special interests. Then why do some people choose to vote?
Perhaps it is an affirmation of the possibility of redemption. Perhaps it is an
abiding belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity. Perhaps we are trying to
claim whatever measure of value and justice remains in our political tradition.
Perhaps it is hope or foolishness or a willingness to risk disappointment once again,
or an unwillingness to risk at all.
From time to time, we say, we have heard truth spoken in high places and have
seen the consequences. Occasionally our hearts have risen to the witness of a vision-
ary in office. Some of us remember the pain of exclusion from the voting process

and the long hard struggle to crack open that door.
Two experiences of my own keep me moving toward the ballot box, however

• In Haiti (1990) and Mexico (1994) I served as an election observer. In those

places, especially in Haiti, I witnessed a people surmount obstacles—illiteracy, dis-
tance and impossible transportation, corruption, and threatened violence—to express
their opinion. I saw extremely poor people, determined to participate in decisions
that would affect their lives, manage the polling process with amazing fortitude and
skill. I saw a jubilant people work their will, even for a time, on the powers that be.
I saw the people of Haiti elect Jean Bertrand Aristide to serve as their president—
against the will of the United States, brutal security forces, an intransigent and pow-
erful elite, and the church.

• Here at home, as a resident of Washington, D.C., I have experienced the frustra-

tion of having no representation in a Congress bent on abandoning the poor. I have
anticipated the impact of dreadful decisions in my own already impoverished neigh-
borhood, a stone’s throw from the Capitol and the White House, and had no official
power to stay their hand. I am tired of false, vindictive accusations being leveled
against the people I love.

WHY, THEN, DO I vote? I vote because too many people can’t. I vote because too
much power is already concentrated in the hands of unaccountable people. I vote

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

The Values because I am convinced it is worth the effort to try once again to insert moral values
into our political process. I vote because I cling to the belief that honest representa-
of Voting tion is possible; that significant changes toward justice in our national, state, and
(cont.) local affairs can be blocked by a few powerful people; that we can articulate a plat-
form based on the common good, cognizant of what impact various policy proposals
have in the lives of the most vulnerable in our midst and around the world.

WHETHER TO VOTE is the first question. How to vote is the next. What and who
will guide this decision?
The first answer to this last question is community, a place for honest dia-
logue—often across differences—that can help us understand the issues and evalu-
ate the various choices. In our individualistic society, important and complex deci-
sions are too often made without sufficient deliberation. Community discernment,
though it may lead to different decisions for different people, can lessen our vulner-
ability to the rhetoric of political discourse and the harangue of biased talk-show
Beyond communal conversation, our decisions will be guided by another ele-
ment too often lost to the U.S. public—serious social and political analysis. While
our educational system has often built skills for mathematical, scientific, literary, or
linguistic analysis, we are largely ignorant of the processes necessary for social
analysis. Yet, as people of the gospel, we are called to faithfulness in this regard.

Every proposal, policy, or political platform should be measured by how it touches

the human person; whether it enhances or diminishes human life, human dignity,
and human rights; and how it advances the common good.—from Political
Responsibility, by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

We cannot support candidates who would exclude the poor from their rights in
our society. We cannot support policies that would further damage the rest of cre-

ation. We cannot vote for a platform that perpetuates racism or sexism, that exacer-
bates the increasing maldistribution of wealth. Before we vote, we must ask funda-
mental questions about who participates, who holds power, who is the power behind
the power, who benefits, who carries the burden. We have to know the issues at
stake in our society and look for the proposals that nurture life.
If we believe in social and economic justice; in the fundamental right of all to a
dignified life where the personal and the public support and enhance each other; and
in the responsibility of the human family to honor the rest of creation, perhaps we
can support those candidates who, with all their flaws, will at least move us in that

OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS can help us identify the values we seek. For
example, the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity offer guidance to the nec-
essary task of blending personal and social, communal and government, public and
private responsibility for shaping the common good. Solidarity is that characteristic
which reminds us of our intrinsic interconnection as family to all other human
beings and to the rest of creation—and of the responsibility that creates for their
Subsidiarity locates decisions and programs, functions of government, as close
to the people as possible (local is better), unless the local community cannot or will
not fulfill its responsibility to the common good. We are simultaneously unique
individuals and members of a community; important members of families variously
described and citizens of a large and powerful nation-state; people profoundly con-

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
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The Values cerned about the neighborhoods and the world in which we live. Each of these iden-
tities must be brought to bear on the political decisions we make.
of Voting Many pathways are open to the Christian community intent on fidelity in the
(cont.) public arena. One of those may lead to the voting booth. If so, discernment in com-
munity about candidates and their proposals, careful identification of key issues and
analysis of the impact of various proposals on the most marginal communities, and
the application of fundamental life values to probe the rhetoric on the campaign trail
may serve us well. ■

MARIE DENNIS was the associate for Latin America in the Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office and a
member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared in the May-June 1996
issue of Sojourners magazine.

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics


by Jim Wallis
he miraculous events in South Africa that surrounded the overthrow of

T apartheid made hope possible for me again. I was there for the transforma-
tion—the inauguration of a new South Africa—and will never be the same.
Never again can I say that hope is not a concrete reality. Never again can I
say that anything is impossible.
The people of South Africa have opened the way for the rest of us to believe.
Having been through the hard times with the South African people, I wanted
now to be there for the celebration. Still bleary-eyed after a 14-hour flight to
Johannesburg, I arrived at the famous FNB stadium in Soweto for what was billed
as a “National Service of Thanksgiving” just two days before Nelson Mandela’s
inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Brigalia
Bam of the South African Council of Churches welcomed the joyous crowd on this
sun-drenched afternoon by describing the recent events in her country as a “mira-
cle.” I would hear that word over and over again in the extraordinary days that fol-
The FNB stadium has been the site of recent memorial services for murdered
African National Congress leader Chris Hani and the ANC’s revered former presi-
dent, Oliver Tambo, as well as countless other funerals over the years. At Hani’s
funeral, a speaker lamented, “We have become accustomed to coming here to share
our grief. May this be the last time we come to express only our sorrow. When will
we come to share our joy?”
This was that day. The black township pastor sitting next to me called it a day
of “celebration and release.” New hope was now bursting forth all around the stadi-
um under the bright blue South African sky.

THE ENORMOUS CONTRAST between the old South Africa and the new nation I
was watching be born was almost overwhelming. I was here previously for almost
six weeks during 1988. All of the freedom movement’s political leaders and organi-
zations had been imprisoned, exiled, banned, silenced, or killed.
Courageous church leaders like Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, Allan Boesak,
and Beyers Naudé had risen up to fill the vacuum and the white government was
cracking down on those churches and church leaders who dared to oppose apartheid.
We had to be snuck into the country after being invited to offer support and to bring
out the story of the church’s resistance.
That visit was a time of both great fear and stubborn hope among the people of
South Africa. The prospects for change looked extremely dismal, the cost of resist-
ance was very high, and the possibility of South Africa ever being free appeared
painfully remote. The ominous presence of the police and military dominated every-
The simplest everyday activities were fraught with tension; all of human life
seemed to be under constant siege for the majority of South Africa’s people. I was
constantly amazed at the spirit of determination I found, despite the predictions of
almost everyone else around the world that a free South Africa was a vain and dis-
tant hope.
Most expected an eventual bloodbath in that tragic land. Even in the days lead-
ing up to the April 1994 elections, many feared massive violence and a plunge into
civil war. The amazing sight of peaceful, patient voting lines of black and white
South Africans together ending apartheid seemed utterly unrealistic just a short time

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
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The Miracle ago. But as someone commented to me during this trip to South Africa, “Oppressed
people cannot afford to be realistic.”
of South Now, a stadium of people who had just voted for a political transformation rose
Africa to pray together and give thanks for their miracle:
(cont.) O God, our loving Eternal Parent, we praise you with a great shout of joy! Your rul-
ing power has proved victorious! For centuries our land seemed too dark for sun-
rise, too bloody for healing, too sick for recovery, too hateful for reconciliation. But
you have brought us into the daylight of liberation; you have healed us with new
hope; you have stirred us to believe our nation can be reborn; we see the eyes of
our sisters and brothers shining with resolve to build a new South Africa. Accept
our prayers of thanksgiving.

Leaders of formerly divided races and churches formed a circle around a rough-
hewn wooden cross for a liturgy of reconciliation. In turn, each read a portion of a
new commitment to one another and to a new South Africa. The entire congregation
then affirmed, “We are all Africans. We commit ourselves to discover an African
solution, under God.”
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu concluded, with unrestrained joy, “We
used to say, We will be free—black and white together. Today we say, We are the
rainbow people of God! We are free!”
At that moment, the peace was shared—across the borders of more than 300
years of enmity in South Africa. There were great smiles, joyous embraces, vigorous
handshakes, long and tearful hugs, until the whole stadium finally erupted in singing
and dancing. In his sermon, a Methodist bishop and former political prisoner on
Robben Island said, “Our beloved country cries no longer.”
President-elect Mandela rose to speak. He asked us to remember “those who
would have liked to have been here today but could not.” The emotion in the stadi-
um was easily felt as we recalled those who had died in the long struggle for free-

For 46 years the people of South Africa had lived under the most brutal forms
of racial oppression in the system of apartheid, Mandela told the crowd.

Nothing I can say can fully describe the misery of our people as a result of that
oppression, but the day we have been fighting for and waiting for has come. We are
saying, Let us forget the past, let us hold hands, it is time now to begin anew. The
time has come for men and women, African, colored, Indian, white, Afrikaans and
English-speaking, to say we are one country, we are one people.

Over and over, during these historic days, the truth about the past was told—then
the past was forgiven. The words of forgiveness and reconciliation were heard from
Mandela and the former president F.W. de Klerk, from the ANC to the National
Party and even the Inkatha Freedom Party, from white suburbanites to black town-
ship youth.
But Mandela set the tone. He invited his former jailers to be special guests at
his inauguration, and he invited his opponents into the new government. He called
on militant young people from angry townships to learn the words to the Afrikaner
national anthem “Die Stem” (“The Call of South Africa”) and challenged whites to
learn the African national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ i Africa” (“God Bless Africa”)—
both of which are the new national anthems of South Africa.

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
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The Miracle ON MONDAY, MAY 9, in Cape Town, former political prisoners were sworn in as
new Members of Parliament (MPs). I spent the night before the ceremony in the
of South violence-torn township of Guguletu with the family of Phumzile Ngcuka Mlambo,
Africa one of the ANC’s new MPs. She and her husband, Bulelani, still in their 30s, are
longtime community activists. Both have been imprisoned and tortured, but they
(cont.) embody the hopeful spirit of the new South Africa. The whole family was very
excited that night, anticipating the next day’s events.
“I’ve never been beyond the gate of Parliament before,” Phumzile said. “And
whenever I went, there were always dogs and I was always in trouble. Now every-
one smiles at me; it’s all very strange.” Barney Pityana, an old friend and former
associate of Steve Biko, came by and we all excitedly talked together, into the night,
about the elections and the new political possibilities. Hope pulsated around the
room. “See,” said Phumzile to her American friends, “don’t give up on humanity!”
The next morning, Phumzile and Bulelani invited another American, Jean
Sindab, and myself to go with them. At the huge fortified gate of the South African
Parliament—a dramatic symbol of the closed system of apartheid—police quickly
came to our car. Bulelani rolled down his window and confidently announced,
“Member of Parliament!” Like a miracle, the gate of the old swung open and we
drove right through into the new.
Inside, we stood together on the Parliament steps as new leaders ascended into
the building to take their places. Thabo Mbeki, in exile since he was a small boy,
now one of the two new deputy presidents, walked up the stairs, as did Joe Slovo,
the ANC elder statesman whose wife, Ruth First, was blown up several years ago by
a letter bomb.
“Were you always hopeful?” the press asked Slovo. “Not always,” replied the
South African Communist Party member. “Sometimes you would ask, How long, oh
Many of these former freedom fighters obviously could still hardly believe this
was happening. More than one person said they were half expecting to wake up and

tell everyone about the wonderful dream they had.
The happiest archbishop in the world arrived. Desmond Tutu told the press, “It’s
a transfiguration—this country has gone through an incredible transfiguration.
Victory is ours—all of ours, black and white, all of ours...Hoo Hah!”
In simple, solemn, and moving ceremony, the new president, his deputies, and
the Members of Parliament from all South Africa’s races and parties took their oath
of office and pledged their loyalty to the new South Africa. Albertina Sisulu, called
by many the “mother of the movement” and now a new MP, was chosen for the
honor of officially nominating Nelson Mandela for president. Eighty women in all
were installed in a Parliament of 400, including Frene Ginwala as speaker.
Afterward, President Mandela, and the two deputy presidents, Mbeki and F.W.
de Klerk, emerged from the Parliament building to meet the press and stand together
for a historic photo. Even the media stood quietly in respectful tribute as the band
played both national anthems. No one said a word; there were more than a few tears
as we watched the emotion-filled faces of the three political leaders who will shape
a new South African nation.
When the band finished playing “Nkosi Sikelel’ i Africa,” a lone voice shouted
the traditional call, Amandla (“Power”), to which the crowd responded, Awethu (“To
the people”). Mandela smiled, and another person began to sing “We Have
One hundred thousand people were gathered at the Grand Parade to hear
Mandela speak. This was the first place he had spoken to the people of South Africa
on February 11, 1990, after being released from 27 years in prison. When Mandela

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The Miracle now appeared on the balcony of the city hall, as president of a democratic South
Africa, a mighty roar went up.
of South “The people of South Africa have spoken in this election,” said Mandela. “They
Africa want change—and change they will get.” The 75-year-old leader continued a theme
of reconciliation: “We speak not as conquerors, but as fellow citizens seeking to
(cont.) heal the wounds of the past.” In a dramatic gesture, Mandela released a flock of
beautiful white doves into the cloudless sky, to the delight of the masses below. In a
land known for blood and death, peace had come to South Africa.

I SPOKE WITH Archbishop Tutu on the flight back to Johannesburg that afternoon.
After serving as master of ceremonies for the city hall event, he was still more
excited than tired. The next day, he would say a prayer for the nation at the inaugu-
ration. “Incredible,” he kept repeating.
I reminded him of what he said to the South African rulers just six years before,
in a packed St. George’s Cathedral: “You may be powerful, indeed, very powerful.
But you are not God. You are ordinary mortals! God—the God whom we worship—
cannot be mocked. You have already lost.... We are inviting you to come and join
the winning side.” Finally they decided to do so, and most South African whites
seemed happy about it. Today was the vindication of faith and hope, the demonstra-
tion that both, in the end, are stronger than political power.
Archbishop Tutu expressed gratitude for the long support by the overseas
friends of South African freedom and said this was our day too. The South African
miracle has the real potential to infuse hope into every other struggle for freedom,
justice, and peace throughout the world. In an irony of history, the nation that was
once the world’s pariah now has the potential to provide the models the world most
On Tuesday, May 10, 1994, more heads of state than had been together at any
time since the funeral of John F. Kennedy came to Pretoria for the inauguration of
Mandela. But they were not the real story. Thousands upon thousands of South

Africans of all races, classes, and ages—men, women, and children—filled the great
lawns of the historic Union Building, while the whole nation watched and a billion
others joined them from around the world. Today the government of South Africa
took on the many colors of the nation itself.
Never have I seen such a large crowd so incredibly orderly, dignified, disci-
plined, cooperative, graceful, and united; never have I been with so many happy and
joyous people. When the crowd wanted to stand up, we all stood up together to
clap, sing, or dance. When people were ready to sit down, we all sat down. Despite
the hot autumn sun, the huge audience never lost its enthusiasm. A thousand South
African artists were on hand to lead the people in the most gala celebration this
country had ever seen.
A giant television screen gave the assembled multitude a close-up view of all
the proceedings. As the national anthems were played and the oath of office taken,
Mandela’s face, projected on the huge screen, captured my attention. His is a face
carved by discipline and solitude. I could see the memories of the struggle in his
eyes, the pain of fallen comrades not here for this moment. His expression showed
quiet determination and dignity, vindication and humility, gladness and serious
recognition of the vast leadership responsibilities that lie ahead. It was the strongest
yet gentlest face I have ever seen, a face you would instinctively trust.
Mandela’s inaugural address was a “rainbow covenant” of promises to his peo-
ple. “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South
Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their
hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

The Miracle peace with itself and the world.” Mandela vowed that “never, never, and never again
shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another.”
of South In a ringing appeal for reconciliation, he proclaimed, “The time for healing of
Africa the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
The time to rebuild is upon us.”
(cont.) The next day in Soweto, Frank Chikane, former general secretary of the South
African Council of Churches, told me, “What happened is a miracle, and can only
be sustained as a miracle.” The conversation has already begun about the enormous
challenges the new South Africa faces and about what the prophetic role of the
church must be. But this was a week for celebration. As long as I live, I will never
forget the feeling of standing with thousands of celebrating South African people,
listening to the words of Mandela. With tears and joy we heard Mandela proclaim,
“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our
Who would have thought that the people of South Africa would teach the world
the power of hope? It is that power which has the capacity to transform us all. ■

Jim Wallis is the editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. This article appeared in the July 1994 issue of

3 — 28 —
SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

Religion in Public Office
• “The Courage of Conviction,” an interview with Mark O. Hatfield
• “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s Theology of Empire,”
by Jim Wallis

ark Hatfield, then a Republican senator from Oregon (and an evangelical
Christian), argues that faith must affect politics—as his faith led him to
oppose the Vietnam War, nuclear escalation, and poverty—but that politi-
cians must never claim God’s sanction, and that political positions must never be
elevated to the status of religious creeds. In contrast, as Jim Wallis argues, President
George W. Bush seems to invoke a divine blessing on his presidency, and America’s
position of power, as part of a divine plan.
Questions to Consider
1. “It’s my view that you commit your life to the Lord and not try to have your
views ratified by the Lord,” says Hatfield. In what ways does the Bush adminis-
tration’s language differ from, or conform to, this principle? What are the chal-
lenges of trying to follow Hatfield’s view, in politics or elsewhere in life?
2. Hatfield argues that no political agenda should ever be presented as a “substitute
for the biblical gospel,” and that this is what the Religious Right—and
Religious Left—sometimes does, to the detriment of the cause of Christ. How
have you wrestled with this in your own life? Are there faith communities that
you belong to that assume a particular political adherence? How can you make
your faith the basis of your politics without claiming that all faithful people

must agree with your politics?
3. Wallis argues that President Bush has made a transition from self-help Methodist
to messianic Calvinist convinced that America can “rid the world of evil”—a
belief that Wallis calls “bad foreign policy [and] bad theology.” How should
people of faith respond to Bush’s mandate to use government to “rid the world
of evil”? How is this understood in light of Robert Sabath’s Bible study on Paul
and the state?
4. Hatfield says that he was able to be faithful to God in public office, in part,
because his constituency in Oregon was willing to re-elect someone who voted
his conscience. What could you do to encourage this kind of behavior in more
elected public officials?
• Mark Hatfield offers first-person thoughts on faith and government in Confessing
Christ and Doing Politics, by Mark Hatfield (Center for Public Justice, 1982). His
autobiography tells the powerful story of his journey as a politician of faith: Against
the Grain: Reflections of a Rebel Republican, by Mark O. Hatfield and Diane N.
Solomon (White Cloud Press, 2000).
• For more discussion on God, politics, and the American experiment see Jim
Wallis’ interview with syndicated columnist, practicing Catholic, and think-tank fel-
low E.J. Dionne in “Our Lady of the 501(c)3” (Sojourners, March-April 2000).

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics


An interview with Mark Hatfield, by Jim Wallis
fter reading the first issue of Sojourners’ precursor The Post-American in

A 1971, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield wrote to the editors, “I believe you may be
helping to ignite a new movement of the Spirit in our land.” Hatfield, an
evangelical Christian and a Republican from Oregon, has remained a
friend (and served as contributing editor) of Sojourners since that introduction.
Sojourners editor Jim Wallis interviewed Hatfield at his Senate office in Washington,
D.C., in July 1996, a few months after Hatfield announced that he would not run

Jim Wallis: It’s hard to believe, in some ways, that you’re leaving the Senate. Ever
since I’ve been politically conscious, you have been, in my view, the political con-
science of this body. You have raised moral questions that no one else was raising.
I remember years ago you gave a wonderful Prayer Breakfast speech about
Vietnam, and President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were there, and you talked
about the war as a sin. You have always been one to raise what you felt to be the
moral question, which derived for you from your Christian faith. Is it possible to
link faith and politics in a place like this?

Sen. Mark Hatfield: I’m not one of those who believes you can compartmentalize
between your public and private life, between your spiritual and secular life. As I
understood my commitment to Christ, it was an integrated commitment in all
aspects of my life. I often say that my first commitment is to the Lord, my second is
to my family, and my third is to my constituents. Keeping them in that order, I feel,
puts me in the best position to serve my constituents.
I’m not suggesting my voting record should be blamed on the Lord. It’s from

my experiences, mixed with study, analysis, and intellect, that I take this position or
have that viewpoint.

Wallis: There are other Christians up here who would say similar things about faith
as related to politics, who would say, “I put the Lord first,” but their voting records
tend to come out pretty much party line. Historically, you’ve angered the leadership
of both parties sometimes with your much more independent stances.

Hatfield: My constituency in Oregon has a very independent attitude politically.

I’m not sure my style could be tolerated very long in some other states.
I have never made a deal with Mephistopheles about my future. Once you start
planning for a career in politics beyond the current term, you have in effect taken a
major step of selling your soul to the political game. Then your staff begins to trim
their sails of counsel, because they say, “Well, that’s not going to play well in the
next election.” So I’ve never committed myself to more than one term at a time, and
that is liberation.

Wallis: Is that a difference that faith makes?

Hatfield: Yes. If you truly commit your life to the Lord, the opponent may end up
getting more votes, but we’ve won, because that would just be another direction the
Lord would be aiming me. That’s different than saying, “Here’s my blueprint. I
want two terms as governor, five terms in the Senate. Now ratify, dear Lord, so that

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
Christians and Politics

The I know it’s your will.” It’s my view that you commit your life to the Lord and not
try to have your views ratified by the Lord.
Courage of
Conviction Wallis: You were one of the earliest and strongest critics in either party against the
war in Vietnam. The nuclear arms race, for you, was a deep matter of conscience, as
(cont.) were issues of hunger. How did you come to those convictions, which are not pre-
dictable for white, evangelical church people?

Hatfield: It wasn’t that I sat down and weighed all the arguments for and all the
arguments against and then said, This is my position. They really were outgrowths
of specific experiences that made indelible impressions.
I was in some of the bloodiest operations of World War II, including Iwo Jima
and Okinawa. In 1945, we were sent up the coast of China, where we saw the bloat-
ed bodies of little kids along the roadways, not killed by bullets but by starvation.
After that, we were sent in to occupy Japan. One month after the bomb, I walked
through the streets of Hiroshima and I saw the utter devastation in every direction
from nuclear power. All of those experiences were really the fundamental begin-
nings of my thinking about those specific issues, of Vietnam, war in general, nuclear
power, and hunger.

Wallis: You became a pacifist or...

Hatfield: Not quite.

Wallis:...committed to nonviolence?

Hatfield: Nonviolence, yes. I can’t be a pacifist because I bore arms and wore a
uniform. When people say, Are you a pacifist? I say, “No, I haven’t reached that
level of thinking yet, but I’m very close.”

Growing up, my parents had the utmost trust in me, but I always got this admo-
nition: “When you’re out, if all the other kids are doing it and you know it’s wrong,
stand alone, or come home.” And that had its impact, that word to stand for what
you believe, to stand on your convictions. So later, it was just natural to say, This is
where I stand.

Wallis: You’ve received lots of criticism for your stands, particularly from
Christians. It must have been difficult.

Hatfield: It was difficult. I knew when I went into politics it would be something
that would divide people. Controversial issues have a tendency to divide people, and
I expected that. But when it came to dividing people in the same church congrega-
tion, that got to be very difficult. In my first term in the Senate, I got a deluge of
mail: “Dear former brother in Christ, I thought you were a Christian. Now I know
you’re not.”

Wallis: For Vietnam?

Hatfield: For Vietnam. My own pastor at home was very critical of me. I felt
estranged from him. I was giving very serious consideration to resigning on that
basis, maybe even before the term ended.
Then Dave Hubbard, president of Fuller Seminary, invited me to give the com-

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The mencement at Fuller Seminary (in 1970). Now I knew Fuller was not just evangeli-
cal, it was really fundamentalist, as we think of the old term. I knew that as a conse-
Courage of quence they saw Vietnam as a holy cause against godlessness and communism. And
Conviction yet I got this invitation. So I immediately said, Yes, I’d be happy to come.
It was evident that among the faculty there was less-than-enthusiastic support
(cont.) for my presence on campus. Then they took me by the graduating seniors. I walked
in and as far as I could see—boom, boom, boom—there were black armbands on
their gowns, a symbol of their opposition to the war.
Dave Hubbard and I led the procession into the First Methodist Church where
they held these ceremonies. We marched down the aisle and up on the platform and
turned around. Up in the balcony there were some students unrolling a sign that
said, “We’re with you, Mark.” I could hardly keep from tears. At that moment I had
a very warm peace of mind. To me, that was the sign I was looking for.

Wallis: My earliest memory of you was when we published the first issue of The
Post-American in 1971. I sent you a copy because I admired your stand on Vietnam,
and we were strongly opposed to the war. You were the only evangelical Christian I
knew of who was against the war in Vietnam except us. You invited us to
Washington, and we came and had dinner in the Senate dining room.
Hatfield: I remember that so well. To find others within the body of believers was
an awfully important reassurance.
Wallis: That began a friendship that’s lasted a long time. You’ve been a kindred
spirit from the beginning. What have been some of the highlights for you of your
Senate career?
Hatfield: What I call the “soul of the office” is basically case work, which has no
news value. It is the ability to make a bridge between the citizen and the govern-
ment. It may be a social security problem or an immigration problem. The fact that

you can make a difference in that person’s life is to me the most important part of
this office.
One of the most significant legislative highlights was, after 27 years, achieving
the underground test ban on nuclear testing. I’d introduced it dozens of times over
the years and never got a hearing. Then in 1992 we finally achieved the
Underground Test Ban Treaty. Another highlight was finally getting the Institute of
Peace established.
Wallis: On a broader level, there is a prophetic quality to the positions you’ve taken
time and time again over the years, which has empowered and encouraged wider
movements for peace. Even when you were losing battles, your stand here was
deeply encouraging to so many of us who were trying to build movements outside
of this place.
Hatfield: I couldn’t agree with you more that the role played by people like yourself
and others outside of the Senate has been very significant. When Sen. George
McGovern and I offered an amendment to cut off the funds for the war, I think we
had seven co-sponsors. To me, it did little good to wring your hands on television
interviews every night about the horrible war and not offer some symbol around
which people could rally. That amendment became one of those rallying points.
Wallis: The amendment that you and McGovern offered was tremendously encour-
aging and empowering to the peace movement all across the country, because here
were two senators, a Democrat and a Republican, who were standing up and articu-

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Christians and Politics

The lating what was indeed a rising sentiment in the country. That partnership we felt
was very powerful.
Courage of
Hatfield: We drew strength from it, and we drew courage to continue. It’s so impor-
Conviction tant to bridge these efforts, to develop that public base of support.
(cont.) Wallis: What do you have to say to the churches about the things you’ve learned
over this period about faith and politics?
Hatfield: I would reassert the basic tenets of pluralism of our society, and that
means pluralism of religion, of politics, of economics. We are getting to the place
where the single-issue mentality, a demand to conform to a certain viewpoint, is
destructive to us as a people—and also counter to our Christian faith.
Wallis: Is this your problem with the Religious Right?
Hatfield: That’s my problem, especially with the Religious Right, which is so pow-
erfully committed to a political agenda. How many times have you heard these peo-
ple relate their agenda to a Christian tenet or a Christian teaching? Political, politi-
cal. It’s either to stop communism or the threat of the liberals, or the homosexuals
are going to take over the government if you don’t send in your $15 contribution.
All of these things they’re expounding don’t have a biblical base. And that bothers
I am basically suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for everyone within
the Christian faith. And I get so uptight about those who purport to speak for the
Lord for political reasons. That to me is saying, Here is the political agenda that is,
in effect, a substitute for the biblical gospel. Peter was asked by the Lord one ques-
tion: “Who do you say I am?” He gave the right answer, and it wasn’t “plus school
prayer,” “plus abortion,” plus any kind of a political agenda.
I’m pro-life, very strong pro-life. But having taken that position, I still feel that
there are those I have run into who may have even a closer walk with the Lord than

I have, and who may be pro-choice. But that’s not what Christ asked Peter, “Are
you pro-choice or pro-life?”
Some people ask me, Aren’t you concerned about your party being taken over
by the Religious Right? I say, I couldn’t care less about the Religious Right as it
relates to my party. It’s an embarrassment, but what I’m really concerned about is
the impact it’s having on the cause of Christ—that somehow I’m going to come into
a relationship with Christ by agreeing to their political agenda. That is not the key to
salvation from the biblical teaching.
Wallis: You’re a problem for them because you’re an evangelical Christian, you’re
pro-life, but you don’t share their political agenda on the economic issues, and on
issues of war and peace. They almost imply that those who don’t agree with them
are not real Christians.
Hatfield: That’s a point. The impression they create is that if you accept Christ,
you’ve got to accept their politics. I just don’t believe that’s biblical, any more than
what Harry Emerson Fosdick of the liberals used to say: You’ve got to be for low-
cost housing, you have to be for civil rights, you have to be for all these things to be
a Christian. I think, frankly, that anything political ought to be an outgrowth of your
own religious convictions.
Wallis: You don’t like “Christian politics”?
Hatfield: I don’t like “Christian politics.”

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SOJOURNERS on the issues
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The Wallis: Of the Left or the Right?

Courage of Hatfield: Nothing. I don’t want to assume that somehow I have the right to take a
very sacred word, the word “Christian,” and have that applied to a specific set of
Conviction political issues.
(cont.) Wallis: At the same time, you insist that faith has political meaning...
Hatfield: Absolutely. For me, you can’t divide your life that way, into the secular
and the sacred. Whatever you do is sacred, or should be.
Wallis: Looking back, what would you say are your greatest satisfactions and your
greatest disappointments?
Hatfield: I feel that I’ve made little impact on the disproportionate amount of our
brain power, our labor, our dollars that have been apportioned to improving the abil-
ity to destroy life, as against those opportunities to improve quality of life. That’s
the greatest disappointment.
As for satisfactions...I’ve seen some advances on peace, because as you have
said so many times in your talks, peace is not just an absence of hostility, it’s fulfill-
ment of the divine creation of humanity. And that means education, housing, health,
opportunities to work, benefits of your labor, all of those make up the totality of
what I think government’s obligations are. And we’ve made some impact there.
Wallis: If you could gather every member of the Senate for a farewell address in the
chamber, what would you say to your colleagues?
Hatfield: I would urge a vision of the future. By that I don’t mean just a platform
for the year 2000. So many things are done on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis, avoiding
or putting off the tough decisions. Get your eyes up and look down the road into the
next generation so that we realize what we do today or what we fail to do has a
tremendous impact on the future. ■

Mark Hatfield was a U.S. senator and Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared in the
September-October 1996 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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by Jim Wallis
Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a
person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either
ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide,
of religion-fueled hate, killing, and oppression is staggering. —Eugene Peterson
(from the introduction to the book of Amos in the Bible paraphrase The Message)

he military victory in Iraq seems to have confirmed a new world

“T order,” Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of

Government, wrote recently in The Washington Post. “Not since
Rome has one nation loomed so large above the others. Indeed, the
word ‘empire’ has come out of the closet.”
The use of the word “empire” in relation to American power in the world was
once controversial, often restricted to left-wing critiques of U.S. hegemony. But
now, on op-ed pages and in the nation’s political discourse, the concepts of empire,
and even the phrase “Pax Americana,” are increasingly referred to in unapologetic
William Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, admits the aspiration
to empire. “If people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine,” Kristol wrote.
Kristol is chair of the Project for the New American Century, a group of conserva-
tive political figures that began in 1997 to chart a much more aggressive American
foreign policy. The Project’s papers lay out the vision of an “American peace” based

on “unquestioned U.S. military pre-eminence.” These imperial visionaries write,
“America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous
position as far into the future as possible.” It is imperative, in their view, for the
United States to “accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and
extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our
principles.” That, indeed, is empire.
There is nothing secret about all this; on the contrary, the views and plans of
these powerful men have been quite open. These are Far Right American political
leaders and commentators who ascended to governing power and, after the trauma
of Sept. 11, 2001, have been emboldened to carry out their agenda.
In the run-up to the war with Iraq, Kristol told me that Europe was now unfit to
lead because it was “corrupted by secularism,” as was the developing world, which
was “corrupted by poverty.” Only the United States could provide the “moral frame-
work” to govern a new world order, according to Kristol, who recently and candidly
wrote, “Well, what is wrong with dominance, in the service of sound principles and
high ideals?” Whose ideals? The American right wing’s definition of “American
ideals,” presumably.

Bush Adds God

To this aggressive extension of American power in the world, President George W.
Bush adds God—and that changes the picture dramatically. It’s one thing for a
nation to assert its raw dominance in the world; it’s quite another to suggest, as this
president does, that the success of American military and foreign policy is connect-

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Dangerous ed to a religiously inspired “mission,” and even that his presidency may be a divine
appointment for a time such as this.
Religion Many of the president’s critics make the mistake of charging that his faith is
(cont.) insincere at best, a hypocrisy at worst, and mostly a political cover for his right-
wing agenda. I don’t doubt that George W. Bush’s faith is sincere and deeply held.
The real question is the content and meaning of that faith and how it impacts his
administration’s domestic and foreign policies.
George Bush reports a life-changing conversion around the age of 40 from
being a nominal Christian to a born-again believer—a personal transformation that
ended his drinking problems, solidified his family life, and gave him a sense of
direction. He changed his denominational affiliation from his parents’ Episcopal
faith to his wife’s Methodism. Bush’s personal faith helped prompt his interest in
promoting his “compassionate conservatism” and the faith-based initiative as part of
his new administration.
The real theological question about George W. Bush was whether he would
make a pilgrimage from being essentially a self-help Methodist to a social reform
Methodist. God had changed his life in real ways, but would his faith deepen to
embrace the social activism of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said
poverty was not only a matter of personal choices but also of social oppression and
injustice? Would Bush’s God of the 12-step program also become the God who
required social justice and challenged the status quo of the wealthy and powerful,
the God of whom the biblical prophets spoke?
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Bush’s compassionate conservatism and faith-based
initiative rapidly gave way to his newfound vocation as the commander-in-chief of
the “war against terrorism.” Close friends say that after 9/11 Bush found “his mis-
sion in life.” The self-help Methodist slowly became a messianic Calvinist promot-
ing America’s mission to “rid the world of evil.” The Bush theology was undergoing
a critical transformation.
In an October 2000 presidential debate, candidate Bush warned against an over-

active American foreign policy and the negative reception it would receive around
the world. Bush cautioned restraint. “If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent
us,” he said. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.”
The president has come a long way since then. His administration has launched
a new doctrine of pre-emptive war, has fought two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq),
and now issues regular demands and threats against other potential enemies. After
Sept. 11, nations around the world responded to America’s pain—even the French
newspaper Le Monde carried the headline “We are all Americans now.” But the new
pre-emptive and—most critically—unilateral foreign policy America now pursues
has squandered much of that international support.
The Bush policy has become one of potentially endless wars abroad and a
domestic agenda that mostly consists of tax cuts, primarily for the rich. “Bush
promised us a foreign policy of humility and a domestic policy of compassion,” Joe
Klein wrote in Time magazine. “He has given us a foreign policy of arrogance and a
domestic policy that is cynical, myopic, and cruel.” What happened?

A Mission and an Appointment

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum says of the president, “War had made
him…a crusader after all.” At the outset of the war in Iraq, George Bush entreated,
“God bless our troops.” In his State of the Union speech, he vowed that America
would lead the war against terrorism “because this call of history has come to the
right country.” Bush’s autobiography is titled A Charge to Keep, which is a quote

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Dangerous from his favorite hymn.

In Frum’s book The Right Man, he recounts a conversation between the presi-
Religion dent and his top speechwriter, Mike Gerson, a graduate of evangelical Wheaton
(cont.) College. After Bush’s speech to Congress following the Sept. 11 attacks, Frum
writes that Gerson called up his boss and said, “Mr. President, when I saw you on
television, I thought—God wanted you there.” According to Frum, the president
replied, “He wants us all here, Gerson.”
Bush has made numerous references to his belief that he could not be president
if he did not believe in a “divine plan that supersedes all human plans.” As he
gained political power, Bush has increasingly seen his presidency as part of that
divine plan. Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls Bush once
saying, “I believe God wants me to be president.” After Sept. 11, Michael Duffy
wrote in Time magazine, the president spoke of “being chosen by the grace of God
to lead at that moment.”
Every Christian hopes to find a vocation and calling that is faithful to Christ.
But a president who believes that the nation is fulfilling a God-given righteous mis-
sion and that he serves with a divine appointment can become quite theologically
unsettling. Theologian Martin Marty voices the concern of many when he says,
“The problem isn’t with Bush’s sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he’s
doing God’s will.” As Christianity Today put it, “Some worry that Bush is confusing
genuine faith with national ideology.” The president’s faith, wrote Klein, “does not
give him pause or force him to reflect. It is a source of comfort and strength but not
of wisdom.”
The Bush theology deserves to be examined on biblical grounds. Is it really
Christian, or merely American? Does it take a global view of God’s world or just
assert American nationalism in the latest update of “manifest destiny”? How does
the rest of the world—and, more important, the rest of the church worldwide—view
America’s imperial ambitions?

Getting the Words Wrong
President Bush uses religious language more than any president in U.S. history, and
some of his key speechwriters come right out of the evangelical community.
Sometimes he draws on biblical language, other times old gospel hymns that cause
deep resonance among the faithful in his own electoral base. The problem is that the
quotes from the Bible and hymnals are too often either taken out of context or,
worse yet, employed in ways quite different from their original meaning. For exam-
ple, in the 2003 State of the Union, the president evoked an easily recognized and
quite famous line from an old gospel hymn. Speaking of America’s deepest prob-
lems, Bush said, “The need is great. Yet there’s power, wonder-working power, in
the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” But that’s not what
the song is about. The hymn says there is “power, power, wonder-working power in
the blood of the Lamb” (emphasis added). The hymn is about the power of Christ in
salvation, not the power of “the American people,” or any people, or any country.
Bush’s citation was a complete misuse.
On the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush said at Ellis
Island, “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind... That hope still lights our
way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.”
Those last two sentences are straight out of John’s gospel. But in the gospel the light
shining in the darkness is the Word of God, and the light is the light of Christ. It’s not
about America and its values. Even his favorite hymn, “A Charge to Keep,” speaks of
that charge as “a God to glorify”—not to “do everything we can to protect the

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Dangerous American homeland,” as Bush has named our charge to keep.

Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again—confusing nation,
Religion church, and God. The resulting theology is more American civil religion than
(cont.) Christian faith.

The Problem of Evil

Since Sept. 11, President Bush has turned the White House “bully pulpit” into a pul-
pit indeed, replete with “calls” and “missions” and “charges to keep” regarding
America’s role in the world. George Bush is convinced that we are engaged in a
moral battle between good and evil, and that those who are not with us are on the
wrong side in that divine confrontation.
But who is “we,” and does no evil reside with “us”? The problem of evil is a
classic one in Christian theology. Indeed, anyone who cannot see the real face of
evil in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is suffering from a bad case of post-
modern relativism. To fail to speak of evil in the world today is to engage in bad
theology. But to speak of “they” being evil and “we” being good, to say that evil is
all out there and that in the warfare between good and evil others are either with us
or against us—that is also bad theology. Unfortunately, it has become the Bush the-
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House carefully scripted the religious serv-
ice in which the president declared war on terrorism from the pulpit of the National
Cathedral. The president declared to the nation, “Our responsibility to history is
already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” With most every
member of the Cabinet and the Congress present, along with the nation’s religious
leaders, it became a televised national liturgy affirming the divine character of the
nation’s new war against terrorism, ending triumphantly with the “Battle Hymn of
the Republic.” War against evil would confer moral legitimacy on the nation’s for-
eign policy and even on a contested presidency.
What is most missing in the Bush theology is acknowledgement of the truth of

this passage from the gospel of Matthew: “Why do you see the speck in your neigh-
bor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your
neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your eye? You
hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to
take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” A simplistic “we are right and they are
wrong” theology rules out self-reflection and correction. It also covers over the
crimes America has committed, which lead to widespread global resentment against
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that every nation, political system, and
politician falls short of God’s justice, because we are all sinners. He specifically
argued that even Adolf Hitler—to whom Saddam Hussein was often compared by
Bush—did not embody absolute evil any more than the Allies represented absolute
good. Niebuhr’s sense of ambiguity and irony in history does not preclude action
but counsels the recognition of limitations and prescribes both humility and self-
And what of Bush’s tendency to go it alone, even against the expressed will of
much of the world? A foreign government leader said to me at the beginning of the
Iraq war, “The world is waiting to see if America will listen to the rest of us, or if
we will all just have to listen to America.” American unilateralism is not just bad
political policy, it is bad theology as well. C.S. Lewis wrote that he supported
democracy not because people were good, but rather because they often were not.
Democracy provides a system of checks and balances against any human beings

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Dangerous getting too much power. If that is true of nations, it must also be true of internation-
al relations. The vital questions of diplomacy, intervention, war, and peace are, in
Religion this theological view, best left to the collective judgment of many nations, not just
(cont.) one—especially not the richest and most powerful one.
In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil—they are too
often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural
clashes, and nationalist dreams. The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for
God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But
God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less
to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests. To confuse
the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a
serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.
It’s easy to demonize the enemy and claim that we are on the side of God and
good. But repentance is better. As the Christian Science Monitor put it, paraphrasing
Alexander Solzhenitzyn, “The gospel, some evangelicals are quick to point out,
teaches that the line separating good and evil runs not between nations, but inside
every human heart.”

A Better Way
The much-touted Religious Right is now a declining political factor in American
life. The New York Times’ Bill Keller recently observed, “Bombastic evangelical
power brokers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have aged into irrelevance, and
now exist mainly as ludicrous foils.” The real theological problem in America today
is no longer the Religious Right but the nationalist religion of the Bush administra-
tion—one that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God’s pur-
poses with the mission of American empire.
America’s foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is theologically presump-
tuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but border-
ing on the idolatrous and blasphemous. George Bush’s personal faith has prompted

a profound self-confidence in his “mission” to fight the “axis of evil,” his “call” to
be commander-in-chief in the war against terrorism, and his definition of America’s
“responsibility” to “defend the…hopes of all mankind.” This is a dangerous mix of
bad foreign policy and bad theology.
But the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is, rather, good theology. It
is not always wrong to invoke the name of God and the claims of religion in the
public life of a nation, as some secularists say. Where would we be without the
prophetic moral leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Oscar
In our own American history, religion has been lifted up for public life in two
very different ways. One invokes the name of God and faith in order to hold us
accountable to God’s intentions—to call us to justice, compassion, humility, repen-
tance, and reconciliation. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin King
perhaps best exemplify that way. Lincoln regularly used the language of scripture,
but in a way that called both sides in the Civil War to contrition and repentance.
Jefferson said famously, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
The other way invokes God’s blessing on our activities, agendas, and purposes.
Many presidents and political leaders have used the language of religion like this,
and George W. Bush is falling prey to that same temptation.
Christians should always live uneasily with empire, which constantly threatens
to become idolatrous and substitute secular purposes for God’s. As we reflect on our
response to the American empire and what it stands for, a reflection on the early

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Dangerous church and empire is instructive.

The book of Revelation, while written in apocalyptic language and imagery, is
Religion seen by most biblical expositors as a commentary on the Roman Empire, its domi-
(cont.) nation of the world, and its persecution of the church. In Revelation 13, a “beast”
and its power is described. Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts it in vivid lan-
guage: “The whole earth was agog, gaping at the Beast. They worshiped the Dragon
who gave the Beast authority, and they worshiped the Beast, exclaiming: ‘There’s
never been anything like the Beast! No one would dare to go to war with the Beast!’
It held absolute sway over all tribes and peoples, tongues, and races.” But the vision
of John of Patmos also foresaw the defeat of the Beast. In Revelation 19, a white
horse, with a rider whose “name is called The Word of God” and “King of kings
and Lord of lords,” captures the beast and its false prophet.
As with the early church, our response to an empire holding “absolute sway,”
against which “no one would dare to go to war,” is the ancient confession of “Jesus
is Lord.” And to live in the promise that empires do not last, that the Word of God
will ultimately survive the Pax Americana as it did the Pax Romana.
In the meantime, American Christians will have to make some difficult choices.
Will we stand in solidarity with the worldwide church, the international body of
Christ—or with our own American government? It’s not a surprise to note that the
global church does not generally support the foreign policy goals of the Bush
administration—whether in Iraq, the Middle East, or the wider “war on terrorism.”
Only from inside some of our U.S. churches does one find religious voices conso-
nant with the visions of American empire.
Once there was Rome; now there is a new Rome. Once there were barbarians;
now there are many barbarians who are the Saddams of this world. And then there
were the Christians who were loyal not to Rome, but to the kingdom of God. To
whom will the Christians be loyal today? ■

Jim Wallis is the editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. This article appeared in the September-
October 2003 issue of Sojourners.

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