Two ways to politic – Michael Jensen on a Biblical recipe for politics

Given the noise from the US Presidential campaign, one understandable reaction might be that there’s been too much linking of the Bible with politics – and that maybe it’s time to take a break from linking the two. Politics appears to have fragmented Christians, with the polarisation everyone observes in Western societies turning up amongst us, with a third group just sick of it or seeing political engagement as a distraction from what we should be focussed on.

But Sydney pastor and author Michael Jensen has written a book, Subjects and Citizens: the Politics of the Gospel suggesting that the Bible has political content and that there is a sensible way to read it.

Jensen is not attempting a political manifesto. Instead, he turns to what is a manifesto of Christianity, the book of Romans. He writes “When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, they, too, were living in turbulent times. They lived in the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, and that empire was just starting to take notice of them –and not in a good way.

“They were seen as a weird and defiant sect. They were to be accused of undermining public morality.

“They were also divided in a particularly obvious way. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians struggled with one another at a profound level.”

So it appears that at the present moment, the leap into the Bible viewpoint may not be as great as it was while Christendom was still around and Christians were not seen as weird and fractious.

Jensen assigns the label “Politics 1.0” to the Roman power structure and “Politics 2.0” to the way of living within the empire that Paul commends to the readers of Roman chapters 12 to 15.

What is the difference? If Jesus is Lord, it means the Roman Emperor is not. And that makes worshipping Jesus a political statement. But what about today?

“I think that in many instances, Christians become more passionate about a certain type ofpolitics (Politics 1.0, that is) than about the gospel of Jesus the Lord (Politics 2.0). Politics 2.0 has strong implicationsfor Pol­itics 1.0, but the two mustn’t be confused, “Jensen writes. “The sad thing about this is that Christians have too often become another one of the anxious tribes battling for power.”

Politics 2.0 should make us different. Jensen recalls the punks he encountered during part of his boyhood living in Britain. But Christians are called to be the real counter culture.

“Christians are called to maintain the rage not by getting outrageous hairstyles, or by sticking safety pins in our noses, but by living a life that isn’t shaped by what the world thinks of power and pleasure. Because we are called to a different allegiance—a “higher loyalty”, as King called it—we have a different understanding of what a human life is for.

“Our pattern is the loving sacrifice of Jesus himself. We simply should not accept that being poor makes you a loser, or that it’s admirable to get the top by using people. We simply don’t accept that the point of being human is to be as beautiful as you can or that we are fulfilled as human beings by acquiring things or paying for experiences. That’s as counter-cultural and revolutionary as sticking a needle in your lip.”

But living differently, not getting trapped in cycles of revenge, and showing respect to all – values Jensen links to Politics 2.0 – is not a recipe for quietism, even though it comes with a quiet, non-anxious spirit. While Jensen is an Anglican, a Christian group that still retains the vestiges of centuries of accepting the divine right of kings, he does not regard Paul’s direction in Romans 13, that Christians be subject to (or submit) to governing authorities, as a slavish approach to rulers. Instead, he makes one of the most important if subtle points in the book.

“God’s appointment of human rulers is indirect. He works even through the sometimes questionable processes that we humans use to establish ruling authority. This is a vital theological principle for understanding the Bible’s view of human politics. Paul knows from the Old Testament that it is God’s providential hand that makes empires rise and fall. He outlines this in Romans 9–11 when he ponders the future of Israel. God governs all of history, but he does so in a hidden way, using the mechanisms of power and politics.

“Very often, what human beings intend for malign purposes God intends for good.”

State power is not ultimate in Politics 2.0. This means that while Paul commends respect even for brutal government like the Roman emperors, we can and should engage in politics 1.0.

“Is it wrong to hope for a change in the person who governs us, or the method by which we are governed? Is Paul giving undue weight to the status quo? Not at all. Debate and reform are entirely legitimate means to change and improve government. Indeed, they are part of the process God himself uses to establish governing authority in the world, for the good of human beings. It would certainly not be wrong to criticize a totalitarian government for its corruption and abuses. On the other hand, advocating for a change in political authority is not the same as the mission of the church. The two are not to be confused. Neither is the improvement of a political situation—which is much to be desired—the same as the coming of the kingdom of God. The church’s role is rather to call others to recognize the reality of Politics 2.0 (that Jesus is ultimately Lord) by declaring it, and by living accordingly.”

This implies a separation of church and state. While Jensen argues that Christians can and should be involved in politics and government, he sees a problem for the church. “The instruments of the state are naturally coercive, whereas the method of the church needs to be persuasive, and these two have a complicated relationship.’

If Jensen sees problems for the church being too close to the state, he sees issues if churches set up in opposition and promote civil disobedience. He tackles a recent hot potato, Covid lockdowns.

“Some citizens, including some Christians, felt that governments had exceeded their mandates by shutting down church meetings and by requiring mask-wearing, particularly in the church. Some questioned the science on which the lockdowns and mask wearing were based. However, was this a valid case for disobeying the civil authorities? Was this an instance of obeying God rather than human beings? After all, Christians are enjoined not to give up meeting together.

“And yet, the point was not to restrict Christians per se but to protect public health, which certainly is within the government’s purview. It was a temporary injunction for a particular purpose. Even if you disagreed with the policy, this disagreement was not enough to license unlawful resistance. These were not evil laws, even if you felt that they were misguided. Even so, I recognize that other church leaders have come to different positions on this. In fact, that’s one of the principles I am trying to highlight: that this kind of issue requires a process of discernment.”

But Jensen is not suggesting quietism. He makes the point by pointing to the failure of evangelical Anglicans. The Church of England in South Africa (CESA), a conservative evangelical body alligned with Jensen’s Sydney Anglicans, confessed that they had fallen into quietism during the struggle against Apartheid.

He quotes CESA Bishop Frank Retief at a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Having cited Romans 13 as an influence in CESA according to the white regime of too much respect, Retief confesses, “Our failure to be involved in the political struggles of our land was a major error in both understanding and judgement, and this mistake has caused us a great deal of embarrassment, heartache and pain.”

It set that church back. It took until this year for a black South African, Siegfried Ngubane, to become the Presiding Bishop of the church now known as The Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa.

Politics 2.0 sets us to a high standard. As Michael Jensen’s book shows we struggle to get our Politics 1.0 to line up with our Politics 2.0. But the struggle is worth the effort.

Subjects and Citizens The Politics of the Gospel: Lessons from Romans 12–15 Michael Jensen, Matthias Media 2024. Available from The Wandering Bookseller $15.99