I had the pleasure of reading Dr. Bevere’s book, The Politics of Witness, as well as have having breakfast with him at SBL this past year. I thought that it might be a good to do an interview with him, and the more so as this election cycle goes on. Make sure you visit his blog.
Dr. Bevere, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
1.) The blog allows one to establish their first impressions pretty easily, I think. Tell us what sort of impression you want readers to have of you?
I hope that one thing that is obvious from my blogging is that I am an unashamed follower of Jesus Christ. To affirm Jesus’ lordship is to insist that all of life is ordered according to that claim. I would also hope it is clear that my theology is not only Christologically centered, but ecclesially oriented as well. Scot McKnight refers to me as an ecclesial theologian. I wear that label proudly.
2.) You recent book, The Politics of Witness, has made some waves in the biblioblogosphere. We have an election coming up. What role will you take in guiding your parish, which no doubt includes your students, congregation, and blog readers, in trying to discern the issues to stand for or against with violating your standards as you stated in your book?
I will take no active role. I do think it is important for Christians to vote. I have been in parts of the world where Christians are unable to do so. As long as we are able to exercise that freedom, I think we should do so. I think it is silly and counter-productive for pastors to recommend to their parishioners whom they should vote for. It only makes some people angry and it loses sight of the conviction that the church is where the real political action is.
As I argued in The Politics of Witness, the church’s central political methodology is as a witness. So if there is any point I want to get across in this American season of election politics is that when Christians hear the word “politics” they should think “church,” not “state.” But that is not what most Christians hear. In the end, what matters most for the world is not who is in the White House and which political party controls Congress; what matters most for the world is the faithfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ in being God’s kingdom come for the world. That is the church’s true politic.
3.) Any real negative reactions to your book? How is the Left handling it?
There has been some very fair critique which I hope to address in a future expansion of the book. There has also been some criticism which entirely misses the point of what I am trying to argue. That, of course, is not a surprise. Christians have been so imbued with both Constantinianism and Christendom (these are not synonymous but they are intrinsically related) for centuries that it is almost impossible for many of them to imagine what I am suggesting in the book. I understand this. It took me many years to unlearn the deleterious effects of both.
In my book, I pick up James Hunter’s argument (in his excellent book, To Change the World) that the religious left and the religious right are simply two sides of the same coin. The reaction of the religious left to this is continued denial that this is the case. As Hunter notes, the religious right wants to keep America Christian, the religious left wants to make America Christian; and both want to utilize the power structures in order to bring to fruition their Christian vision of the United States. At least the religious right does not deny their agenda. The religious left continues to do so. In that respect the latter is more insidious.
I argue that in embracing the politics of witness, Christians must reject the political agendas of both the right and the left. In allowing themselves to be co-opted by both sides, Christians make the church irrelevant as a body politic and push the politics of God’s kingdom to the periphery in favor of the central significance of an earthly kingdom. I think that once we do that we are pushing the envelope toward idolatry.
4.) Now, let’s get controversial. Give us your impression, sorta built around The Politics of Witness, on any Republican Candidate and President Obama and their use of religion in their campaign. What would you recommend to them and to their supporters?
First, let me say that the one thing that bothers me greatly about partisan politics is that we make one’s political views a personal matter and a matter of character. This is not a new thing. It has been around since the beginning. We think politics has gotten nastier over the years, but that is an idyllic view of the past aided by a severe case of collective amnesia. The presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was brutal.
Having said that, I find it selfishly arrogant to think someone is a person of questionable character because they don’t agree with my politics. No one’s personal political views are a test for the character of another. Partisans on both sides personalize politics on a daily basis. I will have no part of it.
I have no advice to give to either the president, nor the one who will oppose him in the up and coming election, nor do I think they care what I think. I offer my words to their Christian supporters. Stanley Hauerwas rightly notes that in the name of being politically relevant the church has become politically invisible. There is no doubt that good Christians will support and vote for different candidates this November, but I would ask those good Christians to seriously ponder that in the long run, they are not nearly the influential players in nation state politics as they believe; and that they are being used by the candidates and their political parties simply to get their vote and the votes of those they can influence. Historically, politicians and political parties are interested in manipulating Christians for two things—to help put them in power, and then to be their lackeys to forward their agenda. (Yes, I said “lackeys.” I’m serious about that.) I take this matter up in a little more detail in The Politics of Witness.
In the temptation story, Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. He tells Jesus that they have been given to him and he will give them to Jesus, if Jesus will bow down and worship him. Of course, Jesus rejects the offer, but I would not be surprised that if the religious right and the religious left were made such an offer, they would take it in the name of doing good with the power they have been given.
5.) What’s it like working with Energion? How did you get started with them?
I love working with Energion. Henry and Jody Neufeld, the owners of the company, are great. Christian publishing, like everything else Christians do, should be a ministry. Energion is a ministry. Interestingly enough, I have never personally met Henry and Jody. In this Internet age we now develop friendships without needing to have face-to-face encounters. Henry is a blogger as well and he is a fellow United Methodist. That is how we became acquainted. As an author I like having the close and direct contact with a publisher. I have that with Energion. Moreover, with the huge changes currently taking place in the publishing industry and the continued change that will take place, Energion is right on top of those changes and they are acting accordingly in anticipation of what is to come.
6.) Give us some of your influences in writing, political thought and theology?
When it comes to politics and ethics, the influence of my teacher, Stanley Hauerwas is obvious. I have also been influenced greatly by the late John Howard Yoder. Indeed, one of my concerns as been the recent liberal appropriation of Yoder in an attempt to turn him into a progressive political activist. But to read Yoder in that way is to grossly misinterpret him. I have also found the writings of William Stringfellow and Jacque Ellul most helpful. I think it is unfortunate that few are reading these latter two thinkers anymore.
In reference to theology, I really have no one major influence. I am a Wesleyan, so the influence of John and Charles should be obvious. I find the theology of Karl Barth to have been formative in reference to his Christological and Trinitarian reflections. Hauerwas has helped form my ecclesiology. Geoffrey Wainwright has given me an orthodox theological foundation from a Methodist perspective. I am very eclectic when it comes my theological appetite and I intentionally seek out authors whose perspectives I will not find congenial. How can I truly know what I believe until I know what views I reject?
7.) Any plans for the future in books?
I am currently writing a volume on Colossians and Philemon for the Participatory Bible Study for Energion. After that, I am slated to write a book (also for Energion) that is provisionally entitled, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Others: Essays in Christian Biography. In the book I hope to examine how one’s context shapes one’s theology. For example, I plan to do a chapter on Anselm and atonement and how his living in the feudal system of medieval Europe shaped his views on that one doctrine.
8.) You are a fellow United Methodist. Can you give us insight on what to expect at the 2012 General Conference?
General Conference is very important, but I am not a GC animal. I would never make a good delegate to General Conference since I am singularly focused on the local church. I do not expect any earth shattering changes this year.
9.) In a private conversation, you’ve made mention of the issues which arise when people choose activism over shepherding. What role can a pastor play in issue activism and local or national politics? Where or when is the danger when a pastor becomes too active?
I’m not completely comfortable with the wording of your question. It is not a matter of activism vs. shepherding—it’s a question of the emphasis on where the activism happens. My concern in reference to the church and politics is not activism, but that we think political activism primarily takes place in the halls of secular government. When it comes to politics, I am an activist pastor—I am active in leading a congregation in kingdom work in the world; and that kingdom work bears witness to the world what God expects of it. I am not suggesting that Christians have no place in the private or public sectors of a society. I am saying that our primary posture toward those sectors is as witnesses who embody Christ in the church for the world.
While we are on the subject, let me say one other thing. Persons who take the position of what I call the politics of witness are often accused of being sectarian. I reject that. I am not sectarian. Those who call me sectarian are guilty of embracing the false assumption that the politics of the nation state is primary and that is where God primarily acts in the world. I insist that where God primarily acts in the world is not in Washington DC, or London or Rome, but in each local congregation where the kingdom is moving and growing like the mustard seed Jesus mentions in his parable. Thus, if I am right, then the religious left and the religious right are the true sectarians because God has not vested the politics of the kingdom in the nation state, but in the church. The church is where the action is; for it is God and not the nations who rules the world.
10.) You are a blogger. What have you learned from blogging and how do you see it being used for the Gospel?
When I started blogging at the end of 2005 it was simply a way to start a conversation with my parishioners at the time and my seminary students. It has morphed into something beyond my imagination. Effective blogging takes time and discipline, but it is a wonderful way to have substantive conversation and it brings people with diverse perspectives together. When Christians have substantive conversation about the important things of Christian faith that does further the gospel. And now we can have these discussions with Christians all over the world in an instant.
The other thing I love about the Christian blogosphere is that solid scholarship is now available for mass consumption. Years ago such scholarship was only available at a library or in purchasing print media. Now anyone who so desires can find plenty of good theological and biblical reflection online. The difficulty, however, is that there is much in the way of theological garbage that is also available, and anyone who thinks she or he has something to contribute can now do so. Discernment is becoming more and more difficult.
11.) Dr. Bevere, thank you again for this interview. First impressions and final impressions are somewhat easily manageable on the blogosphere. Can you give my readers one last impression of you – the floor is open.
I think I have written enough. Thanks, Joel, for the honor of being interviewed.