While reading through Nicholas Wolterstorff’s powerful book Lament for a Son, I came across this moving description of how tragic loss leaves a hole that cannot be replaced. In this book Wolterstorff, who taught philosophy at Calvin College, the Free University in Amsterdam, Notre Dame, and Yale, chronicles his own journey through grief after the loss of his 25-year-old son, Eric, to a mountaineering accident.
These words helped put words to a loss our family is dealing with as my 21-year-old nephew died tragically just over three weeks ago. While we hold firmly to the faith-filled hope of eternity in Christ, we also wrestle with the painful reality of living without one we love so much. Wolterstorff gives a word for that which I find so real and fitting: the “neverness” of loss.
Gone from the face of the earth. I wait for a group of students to cross the street, and suddenly I think: He is not there. I go to a ballgame and find myself singling out the twenty-five-year olds; none of them is he. In all the crowds and streets and rooms and churches and schools and libraries and gatherings of friends in our world, on all the mountains, I will not find him. Only his absence.
Silence. ‘Was there a letter from Eric today?’ ‘When did Eric say he would call?’ Now only silence. Absence and silence.
When we gather now there’s always someone missing, his absence as present as our presence, his silence as loud as our speech. Still five children, but one always gone.
When we’re all together, we’re not all together.
It’s the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us—never to sit with us at table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to cry with us, never to embrace us as he leaves for school, never to see his brothers and sister marry. All the rest of our lives we must live without him. Only our death can stop the pain of his death.
A month, a year, five years—with that I could live. But not this forever.
I step outdoors into the moist moldly fragrance of an early summer morning and arm in arm with my enjoyment comes the realization that never again will he smell this.
As a could vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return, he will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more. (Job 7:9-10)
One small misstep and now this endless neverness.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 14-15.
Most of the time as I study for different preaching series there is a good amount of preparatory work that never makes it into a series and sermons. One of the hardest decisions as a preacher is what not to include in a sermon, even if you think it is so good that everyone should hear it.
That reality was abundantly evident to me than in the most recent preaching series on the kingdom of God that we recently concluded here at Eastbrook. In preparation for the final message in that series, “Faith-full Public Engagement,” I ran across an excellent essay, “Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy,” by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. While the entire essay is worth the read, near the end of that essay Wolterstorff shares thirteen theses on faith and politics in relation to government that I found particularly helpful. Here they are:
In conclusion, let me state some theses concerning government that a broad range of evangelicals can agree on—acknowledging that at some points, those representing Anabaptist tradition would disagree.
1. Government is not a merely human creation, nor is it a work of the devil. Government is instituted by God as part of God’s providential care for his human creatures.
2. The task assigned by God to government is twofold: to promote justice, both primary and corrective, and in its coordinating activities to enhance the common good.
3. Government, thus understood, belongs both to God’s providential care for us as creatures and to God’s providential care for us as fallen.
4. When government acts as it ought to act, it acts with genuine authority. That authority is to be understood as not merely human but as mediating Christian authority.
5. The corollary of the exercise by government of genuine authority is that its subjects are obligated to obey that authority.
6. Among the things that governments are authorized to do is apply retributive punishment to wrongdoers—provided that the punishment is itself of a just sort.
7. Though government, along with such other social institutions as marriage, family, and economy, is instituted by God as part of his providential care for human beings as creatures and as fallen, government, along with these other institutions, is itself fallen. That is to say, government and other social institutions never fully carry out the tasks assigned them by God.
8. Though not every failing on the part of government—or any other social institution—justifies disobedience, all too often governments do fail to such a degree that disobedience is required. The starkest examples of such obligatory disobedience are those cases in which government demands that something other than God be worshiped.
9. The Christian may serve in the offices of government; in doing so, he is mediating the rule over the state of that very same Christ who is the ruler of the church.
10. When the Christian occupies some governmental office, he or she must not be guided by customary practice but by the God-assigned task of government: to promote justice and the common good.
11. It is the duty of the Christian always to call his or her government to its proper task. Especially is this true for those of us who have some degree of voice in our governments.
12. Such calling of government to its proper task will ordinarily include proclamation. But whenever possible, it will also include the promotion of governmental structures that make it less likely that the government will fail in, or violate, its task.
13. Christians will honor and respect government; they will not talk and act as if government has no right to exist. And they will support government by paying taxes. They will not talk and act as if government, in assessing taxes, is forcefully taking from its subjects ‘their money.’ Financial support is owed government.
From Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy,” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, eds. Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 160-161.
When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share the resources I used to help me study and prepare my sermons. Here is the second of two bibliographies for our recently completed series, “The Kingdom of God” (you can find the first one here). This bibliography has a backstory.
Before the pandemic we had a two-week series entitled “Faith and Politics” on the schedule with guest speakers NT Wright and Vince Bacote. As an extension site for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School we worked on a wraparound class for that series and I helped develop the first bibliography and reading list for that class, which was the genesis for what I’m sharing below.
As the pandemic accelerated, NT Wright was unable to travel in April (we rescheduled him for 2021) and we delayed the series on politics. I eventually re-worked the two week series on faith and politics into a broader five-week series on the kingdom of God. Thankfully, we were still able to have Vince Bacote join us and you can watch his lecture, as well as a follow-up Q&A, here: “The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life.”
It should go without saying that I do not agree with the perspective shared within all of these works. However, many of them which I disagree with are still important for any discussion of faith and politics.
Bibliography for “Faith and Politics”
Augustine.City of God. Edited and translated by R. W. Dyson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. (1278 pages – Augustine’s magisterial exploration of the relationship between the city of God and the city of earth)
Robert Benne. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010. (120 pages – written out of frustration with current failures of thinking, Benne offers some core convictions about Christian political engagement and how that should shape public policy and political action)
________, ed. Five Views on the Church and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. (240 pages – part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, this book offers outlines of political thought from Anabaptist, African America, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed perspectives, with responses to each outline by others)
Gregory A. Boyd. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. (207 pages – written around the 2004 election, Boyd’s central thesis is “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry”)
John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. (1059 pages – Calvin’s treatment of law and government were defining for Protestant theology since his time)
D. A. Carson. Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012. (255 pages – an evangelical New Testament scholar offers a revision of Niebuhr’s typology of Christian cultural engagement with a chapter on church and state)
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Jesus for President. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. (355 pages – the authors offer a progressive evangelical theology that critiques American Christianity’s subjugation to empire)
Andy Crouch. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. (284 pages – while not strictly about politics, Crouch offers a modern approach to broader cultural engagement for evangelicals)
Patrick J. Deneen. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. (264 pages – an evaluation of why liberalism – in contrast to communism and fascism – is the only remaining viable ideology of the 20th century, but also how inherent features of the success of liberalism are generating its own failure)
Jacques Ellul. The Subversion of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986. (222 pages – Ellul was an influential and iconoclastic 20th century thinker, and this book specifically looks at the deviation between the life of the Church and the teachings of Jesus)
________. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018. (238 pages – a historian’s evaluation of factors, particularly a politics of fear, that contributed to 80% of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump)
Frances Fitzgerald. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. (740 pages – a Pulitzer-prize winning historian offers an insightful history of how evangelicalism has shaped American culture and politics)
George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, eds. Christian Political Witness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. (240 pages – a collection of essays on biblical, historical and theological proposals for thinking responsibly about the intersection of church and state in the contemporary cultural situation)
Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003. (736 pages – a collection of the most important writings and speeches by the premier leader of the American civil rights movement, including his invaluable “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”)
Richard J. Mouw. Political Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973. (111 pages – Mouw reflects on the inadequacies of separatism and activism, while also pointing to an alternative of appropriate political engagement as part of the evangelistic – outward – activity of the church)
Reinhold Niebuhr. Major Works on Religion and Politics. Library of America. New York: Library of America, 2015. (850 pages – Niebuhr was one of the premier thinkers of the early 20th century and his political thought continues to influence writers and practitioners, including Barack Obama)
H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. (259 pages – this classic work provided the most enduring typology for evaluating Christian engagement with culture since its publication)
Mark A. Noll. God and Race in American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. P., 2008. (226 pages – the premier historian of American evangelicalism evaluates the way that religion and race have factored into American politics)
Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology. New York: Cambridge U. P., 1996. (304 pages – a work of systematic Christian political thought, combining Biblical interpretation, historical discussion of the Western political and theological tradition, theoretical construction and critical engagement with contemporary views)
C. C. Pecknold. Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. (196 pages – a brief guide to the history of Christianity and politics, showing how early Christianity reshaped the Western political imagination with its new theological claims about eschatological time, participation, and communion with God and neighbor)
Elizabeth Phillips. Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum Boos, 2012. (208 pages – This is a concise and accessible advanced introduction which distinguishes various approaches to political theology, and which explores several of the central issues addressed in political theologies)
James K. A. Smith. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017. (256 pages – the third part of Smith’s cultural liturgies series offers an Augustinian model for engaging the current political situation in our culture that is rooted in worship)
Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. (128 pages – demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised because of Jesus entrance into the pain of the oppressed)
Tom Wright. God in Public: How the Bible speaks truth to power today. London: SPCK, 2016. (190 pages – a little known work of NT Wright that, while somewhat English in application, offers an approach to biblical theology that throws fresh light on political and ethical problems of our day)
A striking feature of how the Old Testament writers talk about justice is the frequency with which they connect justice, both primary and rectifying, with the treatment of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. Alike in the presentation of the original legal code, in the accusations by the prophets of violations of the code, and in the complaints of the psalmist about violations, some or all of the members of this quartet regularly get special attention when justice, mishpat, is under discussion.
In Deuteronomy 24:17 Moses enjoins the people, “You shall not deprive the resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (cf. Exodus 22:21-22). In Deuteronomy 27:19 the priests call out, in a ritualized cursing cermony, “Cursed by anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” to which the people say, “Amen.” In Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah of Jerusalem says:
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
And in 10:1-2 (a passage already quoted) he excoriates those
who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice,
and to robe the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
The theme is too pervasive in these writings, and too familiar by now to most readers, to need further elaboration.
The widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished were the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly. That is how Israel’s writers spoke of them. Given their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice. They were downtrodden, as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and the powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as “lifting them up.”
The prophets and the psalmist do not argue the case that alleviating the plight of the lowly is required by justice. They assume it. When they speak of God’s justice, when they enjoin their hearers to practice justice, when they complain to God about the absence of justice, they take for granted that justice requires alleviating the plight of the lowly. They save their breath for urging their readers to actually practice justice to the quartet of the vulnerable low ones.