Whatever Happened to our Concerns about Empire?

Church and state Remember when Christian theologians were concerned about an "unholy" alliance of church and "Empire." I do. It was just last year.

From roughly 2004 through the election of 2008, I noticed a surge in articles, conferences, and books (largely academic) that expressed grave concern that America had been co-opted by the Christian right, and that Christianity and "empire" had formed an illegitimate relationship. We were told rightly by some of theology's biggest names and most typically thoughtful practitioners that the church should maintain it's alternative witness in culture and avoid too intimate a relationship with the State (renamed "Empire" for effect).

I wonder, whatever happened to those concerns? Those books have stopped coming off the press, the articles have dried up. They have been replaced with books, articles, conferences, and on-line manifestos articulating support for various government policies for everything from environmental protection to health-care reform.

Now, it's almost en vogue to say what I heard an MSNBC pundit say this morning, "Jesus would be for the public option." Al Gore can use Matthew 25 as a proof-text for why universal health care must happen…the implication being that those that don't might miss out on heaven…and no one says anything.

Ron Carrico (not a theologian) echoes Gore in the San Diego Daily Transcript:

It is amazing that churches are not crying out
for universal health care. It should be part of Christian core beliefs.
Jesus was the king of was empathy for all mankind and he would have
insisted on health care for all. When Jesus was asked about conditions
to enter the kingdom the bible tells us he replied, "Whatever you
neglected to do unto one of the least of these, you neglected to do
unto Me! … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least
of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew: 25)

In other words, he was saying that if you do not
care for the poor it is the same as not caring for Jesus himself. How
do believers expect to talk their way into heaven if they do not fight
for health care for all?

So now, it's appropriate to use the Bible to shape public policy? "Talk their way into heaven?" Hmmm. So, I am I to believe that since America has never had or supported en masse a universal health-care system, that no American has ever crossed through the pearly gates? Hmmm. And what about the the "in-prison" part of that passage. Are we in danger of hell because we don't have a government run and sponsored prison visitation program? I think it's a decent question…and it's similar to those I've raised in the past whenever the subject of the intersection of government and faith has come up.

My frustration here isn't with bad exegesis by Al Gore. Nor am I being critical of those who support universal health-care reform. I being critical of theologians–for hypocrisy. I'm frustrated with those who cautioned the church about it's relationship with Empire so well until eight months ago who have now gone MIA. Actually, they haven't gone MIA. They've just changed sides.

In mid-August, President Obama spoke to "liberal" (Reuters news' language) religious groups by phone. “The call was sponsored by 40
Days for Health Reform, an umbrella group whose Web site says is led by
PICO National Network, Sojourners, Catholics in Alliance for the Common
Good, Faith in Public Life and Faithful America,” according to The New
York Times. Since then, a lot of those groups have publicly endorsed President Obama's plan. Many of these were the same groups that decried what they saw as the co-opting of Christianity by the Bush White House…and ridiculed religious groups for their support of anti-stem-cell legislation and marriage amendments. The church had been co-opted by Empire, and Empire by the church, we were told. But now, what?

Which is it?

For me, while I embrace a strong separation of church and state, I think Christians do have a moral obligation to support or not support certain things. So, understand here that my point here has nothing to do with views on the health-care debate, environmental issues, etc.. The question I'm asking is, "Does theology have integrity today?" Specifically, is it ethically consistent? Or, do we only practice situational theology?

To some extent, I believe ethics must be situational (as in Jesus' teachings on Sabbath observance). However, theology is different. Theology is what we believe about God.That shouldn't move as quickly. When I see such rapid change in position and behavior among some of today's leading theologians and academics, I feel an obligation to ask, "Is our theology only good until the next election or bill hits the Senate floor?"

If church and empire need to stay separate for the reasons described in the literature/conference boom of the 2000's (because of who God is and what He has commanded of the church), then it seems to me that applies no matter what bill goes to the Senate floor, or who is in the White House.

Caveat: I've tried to address the issue in blog-length form. This post can't address all the questions raised by the claims I make. I leave that to the discussion. Also, some of the theologians of whom I speak are among my favorites. Hence, my disappointment.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.