Alastair Roberts

Essays

The witness of the land cannot be escaped. Whether in its memorials of divine faithfulness, or its testimony to our sins, it will not be silent.

The clear distinction between the Christian works of mercy and generic social activism and charity work is often forgotten, leading to a fraught relationship between them and the Christian gospel message. In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers us a better way.

The gory fate of Judas is an unsettling feature of the narrative of Acts for many modern readers. Yet recovering the New Testament authors’ sense of the fearful consequences of opposing the reign of Christ is a necessary task for political theology.

The Authority of the Book

…any consideration of the question of the political implications of naming certain scriptures ‘sacred’ will be severely limited if it is not attentive to sacred scriptures qua material (or digital) books.

One of the most striking features of Jesus’s teaching and practice was its authority, which both liberated and bound his hearers. Does the Church dare to speak with authority today?

The story of the sign given to the shepherds—the Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger—both recalls and anticipates other scriptural events in significant yet surprising ways. It also reminds us of our vocation, as those who must declare the good news of the sign of Christ to the shepherds of our age.

We do not know when our day of judgment will come, when our nations will rise or fall, or when the times of testing in which we are either proven or broken will hit us. Yet Peter exhorts us to be found ready in vigilant holiness when they do.

The Apostle Paul’s discussion of the dynamics of his gospel ministry in relation to the Thessalonian Christians offers us arresting images for considering the reality of the truth and the bonds of trust by which societies are formed and held together.

The prophetic parables of the vineyard afford their hearers an illuminating vantage point upon the intergenerational peoplehood and unified moral agency of a nation. They offer us a new way of perceiving our national selves beyond the stifling frame of secularism.

King Solomon’s desire for wisdom to equip him for just rule establishes him as the paradigm of the Wisdom tradition and as an example for us to follow. The scriptural emphasis upon wisdom in rule may contrast strongly with contemporary emphases upon technique.

Psalm 8’s presentation of human dominion and politics as a creation of God has significant ramifications for our posture towards the various forms of human rule and authority. The juxtaposition of divinely appointed power and human weakness humbles arrogant ambition, encouraging a spirit of meekness and modest service in our politics.

Christian political witness must be built around and declare Christ as the great eschatological stone laid by God. He must either be approached as the stubborn obstacle, arresting the development of all idolatrous political visions, or as the chief cornerstone, the sure and solid basis from all else can take its bearings.

The call and blessing of Abram in Genesis 12 is the beginning of a thematic thread that is developed over the rest of the scriptural witness. As the heirs of Abram, we are both the recipients and the bearers of his promised blessing to the nations.

In taking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve attempt to gain rule before they are ready to exercise it. Their example may be a cautionary one for a church that too precipitously throws itself into the political arena.

A competent sentinel must be vigilant, alert to and able to read the faintest signs upon a distant horizon, perceiving the most miniscule of details and discerning their greater import when they finally appear. In the opening chapters of both Matthew and Luke, we encounter a series of watchers and signs, presented in part as examples to the readers of the gospels in their own watching.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is situated against the backdrop of the promise of the coming kingdom and the vindication of the righteous that will come with it. We too can look for future vindication and Jesus’ parable may speak to our own convictions about being on the ‘right side of history’.

As in the case of the unjust steward in Luke 16, a radical change in our handling of money is required, if we are to survive the great day of accounting that is to come. We must use the limited time and opportunity remaining to us to escape the clutches of our greed and expend our dirty money to pursue true and incorruptible riches.

The meal table is a political site, where new manners, communities, and values are cultivated. In his radical teaching concerning proper conduct at feasts, Jesus unsettles prevailing social politics and calls us to transform our behavior to correspond to the inbreaking order of his kingdom.

In the radical changeability and uncertainty of our world, the collapse of our political projects and the apparent futility of our labors can tempt us to despair. Ecclesiastes grapples with these difficulties and presents ways in which to maintain hope within the vapor of our lives.

In the narrative of Abraham’s conversation with God concerning the destruction of Sodom we find an example of the faithful fulfilment of the calling of the people of God. We are to be those who seek to preserve the world from condemnation by our righteous and life-giving presence within it, tenaciously refusing to abandon it to its destruction.

In a powerful hymn of praise, Paul discloses the truth that must lie at the heart of all Christian political theology: Christ the first in and over all of the creation.

Proverbs presents a vision of political wisdom that calls for deep moral integrity of political actors, both in their most public and in their most private behavior. It offers an alternative to the cynical demoralization of contemporary entertainment-driven politics, with its celebration of permission and transgression.

In maintaining a faithful Christian presence in the political realities of this age, few things are more important than living and acting in God’s good time, being people who find their life in the living memory of a sustaining past, who patiently wait in hope for a promised future, and who are kept in the present through faith in the daily mercies of One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Christ’s institution of a memorial helps us to do just this.

The donkey plays a surprisingly significant role in the history of Israel’s kingdom. Entering into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, Jesus performs a symbolic action that manifests his true identity and the character of his kingdom.

Spectacle has always played an important role in establishing power, authority, and sovereignty. In the unity of the dazzling body of the Transfiguration and the brutalized body of the crucifixion, the integrity of the spectacle and that which lies beneath is made known and our own polities’ lack of such integrity is challenged.

Paul’s argument that spiritual gifts are the manifestation of the one Gift of the Spirit, given for the service of the common good, provides a useful starting point for reflection upon the meaning of representation in society more generally. The ecclesiological vision of 1 Corinthians 12 resonates in challenging ways in our polarized political cultures, summoning us to new modes of engagement.

The political significance of Paul’s charge to the Colossians to give thanks to the Father in all things that they say and do is surprising in its far-reaching implications. The proper direction of our gratitude to God, the giver of all good gifts, limits the power of those who would dominate by indebting others, encourages us to release others from their debts to us, and frees us to give to those who cannot repay: it is one of the most radical political actions the Church engages in.

As political theologians we may be peculiarly vulnerable to the error of neglecting—or even denying—the significance of the obscure and personal struggles and victories of the faithful that do not assert themselves onto the grand public stage of society. We have much to learn from Hannah’s recognition that, in God’s answer to her prayer for a son, the seeds of a dramatic social and political upheaval had been sown.

Through a startling act of code-switching, Jesus opposes the pattern of rule among his people to that prevailing among the Gentiles. Our politics must take its cue from the model of greatness and rule through service that Jesus articulates.

Moses taught Israel that its primary calling as a people before the nations was not conflict but witness through its showcasing of the goodness, wisdom, and righteousness of the divinely given law. Likewise, the chief political task of Christians is found in the cultivation of a quiet extraordinariness in the most ordinary affairs of life.

The formation of a new international polity is integral to the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the gospel. The Church provides a model for transformed international relations.

The book of Samuel’s unembarrassed portrayal of a form of political rule suffused by eros—a politics displayed in David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan—may provide an illuminating challenge to our attempts to pursue a rational politics beyond such dynamics.

Luke’s account of Pentecost frames it as the installation of a prophet. As we reflect upon the shape of the prophetic vocation and the content and shape that Luke’s narrative gives to the Church’s calling we will be empowered for our political vocation in the twenty-first century.

The familiarity of the 23rd Psalm can blind us to the striking political dimensions of its message: YHWH is the shepherd of the king, protecting him from enemies and granting his kingdom prosperity. Close reflection upon this psalm may also suggest some significant applications within the contemporary world.

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains political dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional political utopias and idealized societies.

The promise that Abraham will become a great nation is connected with the circumcision of his foreskin, forging a connection between sex and politics. This connection has controversial and unsettling resonances in a liberal society that would often separate the two.

In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Paul articulates the reality of eschatological imminence. Against this background, he advances an ethic that maintains a delicate balance between occupation with and preoccupation with our present world order.

At moments of crisis, it can be the responsibility of committed individuals to secure and represent the self-understanding of the community or nation to which they belong, to provide the seed from which the entire social body can be renewed. Within easily neglected political dimensions of the baptism of John we may be recalled to our potential and vocation as political individuals in this regard.

Jesus introduces a new principle of division into history, forcing all to show hands previously held to close to their chests. As Jesus precipitates division and judgment in history, he shapes the destinies of societies and nations and explodes the myth that he is an apolitical Messiah.

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats presents hospitality to the poor as a test of a society’s welcome of Jesus. How would we do?

Privilege is a ubiquitous reality in our world, though one to which we are often oblivious as privileged persons. In Paul’s description of his posture towards his privilege he gives us a worked example of what conformity to Christ can look like and poses the challenge to us to follow the same path in our own situations.

In the Passover we find a myth of the foundation of a nation that differs markedly from the contractarian myths of the Western liberal tradition. It disclosure of the sacrificial basis of the political order offers us a hermeneutical key for understanding the roots of our own nations and helps us to understand how we might be established as communities of faithful witness to them.

Isaiah offers us a startling vision of a society beyond scarcity and gross inequalities of wealth, leading to a subversion of all our economic logic. If we are prepared to re-conceive our world as a divine gift to all, we will be prepared to work towards a day when no one is excluded from God’s bounty.

As the people of Pentecost, our political vocation is to manifest the reality of God’s worldwide kingdom, to be a place where the enmity between peoples is overcome and the many tongues of humanity freely unite in the worship of their Creator. Amidst the Babelic projects of the ages, the Church proclaims by its existence that the kingdom belongs to God, that there is no other true ruler over all the nations.

In the face of the thoroughly known god who sponsors our political ideologies and patriotic projects, we must join with the Apostle Paul in proclaiming the unknown God. Cutting across our speculation, superstition, and listless curiosity in the revelation of Jesus Christ, this God punctures our comfortable idolatries and calls us all to give account.

John’s account of Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples differs from that of the Synoptics in illuminating ways. Through an understanding of the relationship between Jesus’ own commission and that of his disciples, we can gain a richer appreciation of the primary character of our political task.

The encounter of Mary Magdalene with the risen Christ provides us with a model for understanding political theology. The elusive presence of the resurrected one and the emptiness of his tomb forbid all our attempts to secure his presence in our praxis and open up new ways of perceiving our social task.

The contagious violence of a frenzied mob brings about the sentencing of Jesus to crucifixion by Pilate. The operations of the scapegoat mechanism are revealed in the record of these events and, as we reflect upon them, we will learn to identify its operations within our political life. In Christ we find an alternative model for desire, which can enable us to resist the seduction of unity through violence.

As Christ speaks the truth of his kingdom to power, it is heard as if it were a foreign tongue. In Jesus’s cross-examination before Pilate we see two misunderstandings of the nature of his kingdom and a central challenge of Christian political theology is brought into clearer focus.

The growing power of government to trace everything that we do and to reveal our most compromising secrets has been an increasing source of public concern over the last year or so. In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well we see an example of such omniscience employed to liberate, rather than to enslave. While such godlike power in the hands of our governments is a scary prospect, in God’s hands it need not be a cause of fear.

The contemporary exploitation of word of mouth in political and advertising campaigns on social media can encourage a degree of cynicism. At the outset of Jesus’ ministry in John 1:35-51 we see an account of the use of word of mouth that overcomes scepticism and rewards trust. This can provide us with a standard and ideal for our own involvement in political campaigning.

Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dead bones of exiled Israel brings life and restoration to a people who considered themselves beyond hope. Faced with lost causes, recognition of the creative power of the prophetic word can extend the horizons of the possible and inspire a wider range of political action.

In Isaiah’s prophecy a young child serves as a sign puncturing the gloom of a dark political situation. The use of infants and young children to draw attention to God’s future within the book of Isaiah has significance for our own political visions. In regarding the sign of our children we can accomplish an existential turn from a politics driven by the selfish interests of our own generation to one of responsibility and hope for the well-being of those to come.