New from N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird...
An urgent call for Christians everywhere to explore the nature of the kingdom amid the political upheaval of our day.
Should Christians be politically withdrawn, avoiding participation in politics to maintain their prophetic voice and to keep from being used as political pawns? Or should Christians be actively involved, seeking to utilize political systems to control the levers of power?
In Jesus and the Powers, N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird call Christians everywhere to discern the nature of Christian witness in fractured political environments. In an age of ascending autocracies, in a time of fear and fragmentation, amid carnage and crises, Jesus is king, and Jesus’s kingdom remains the object of the church’s witness and work.
Part political theology, part biblical overview, and part church history, this book argues that building for Jesus’s kingdom requires confronting empire in all its forms. This approach should orient Christians toward a form of political engagement that contributes to free democratic societies and vigorously opposes political schemes based on autocracy and nationalism. Throughout, Wright and Bird reflect on the relevance of this kingdom-oriented approach to current events, including the Russian-Ukraine conflict, the China-Taiwan tension, political turmoil in the USA, UK, and Australia, and the problem of Christian nationalism.
Table of Contents
- The kingdom of Jesus in the shadow of empire
- The Church between Jesus and Caesar
- Power and the ‘powers’ in early Christianity: John, Paul and the paradox of biblical politics
- The kingdom of God as vision and vocation
- The Church between submission and subversion
- The Church resisting the powers of today
- Liberalism and love in a time of fear and fragmentation
Praise for Jesus and the Powers
"In our unsettled and polarized world, it is as easy to be tempted by the solutions offered by those on the extremes as it is to put our heads in the sand. Bird and Wright remind Christians that Jesus truly is king and the hope of the world, and they encourage us toward steady faithfulness when it is easy to be swept away by the shifting winds of historical and political circumstance. Read this book, remember ‘the old story,’ and pursue public faithfulness while resting in truth."
—VINCENT BACOTE, professor of theology, director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, Wheaton College
"In Jesus and the Powers, N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird draw on a wide array of historical, biblical, and theological resources to offer a much-needed contribution to discussions regarding Christian faith and politics. They present a broad theopolitical vision of how the church should relate to empire that will exhort, challenge, correct—and at times likely provoke—their readers. Their arguments reach an international audience and transcend the particularities of contemporary politics to point readers back to the heart of Christian life and witness: serving Jesus our king and advancing the kingdom of God."
—AMY E. BLACK, professor of political science, Wheaton College
"At a time when discussions about Christian nationalism and debates over religion and politics too often involve more heat than light, Jesus and the Powers offers something different. Drawing on their expertise in biblical theology and on two millennia of global Christian history, Tom Wright and Mike Bird present a defense of liberal democracy that pushes back against the extremes of the Left and the Right. There are no easy answers here, but readers across religious and political spectrums will find much to grapple with in this sharply written text, and perhaps also a framework for the pursuit of mutual human flourishing in a polarized age."
—KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ, professor of history, Calvin University, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
"Tom Wright and Michael Bird’s individual contributions to New Testament scholarship, church life, and practical Christian living are immeasurable. This dynamic duo teams up again to draw attention to the relevance of Jesus and the Bible for our divided and fracturing world. Unthinkable only a decade ago, the very fabric of democracy is under threat. What was once stable and reliable is now in danger of collapse. Although this may be new to us today, it is not new to God’s people. In some ways, topics and emphases in Scripture that were important for the earliest church are now relevant again. Wright and Bird help us reorient ourselves to implications of the gospel message for today’s climate. Topics discussed include the kingdom of God, power, and the relationship between the church and secular authority. Wright and Bird’s purpose is neither to promote some political agenda nor inform Christians how to vote. Circumstances and the Bible demand a more nuanced approach. Rather, they wish to help us understand the implications of the gospel for our daily interaction with the world and to act accordingly. In the end, this is a call for Christian action and a source of hope for the church today."
—JOSEPH D. FANTIN, professor of New Testament, Dallas Theological Seminary
"The rise of Christian nationalism in the United States, the rise of Buddhist nationalism and the coup in Myanmar, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Israel-Palestine conflict all pose moral challenges in how Christians should faithfully witness to Jesus as the global lord of freedom. N. T. Wright and Michael Bird, whose lives have both been shaped by world empires in some way, have written a timely book on Jesus and the powers. Using the Bible as source and the kingdom of God as a theological foundation, they innovatively demonstrate how Jesus and his disciples’ political witness against powers in the first century should be used as a contextual guide for the contemporary church’s public witness against political powers of the regimes for the common good in the twenty-first century. This brilliant book is a fresh contribution to New Testament political theology today. It offers readers a nuanced understanding of the relationship between Christ, the kingdom, the church, and politics. This book is academic yet accessible, political yet pastoral. I highly recommend it to anyone working in the global academy, grassroots church, and public society."
—DAVID THANG MOE, Rice postdoctoral associate and lecturer in Southeast Asian Studies, Yale University, review editor, International Journal of Public Theology
"In a time when Christians face pressure to either remain silent about God’s kingdom or conquer their opponents in its name, Wright and Bird call the church to choose neither. Christians have a vital role to play in politics at all levels of government. Yet as Wright and Bird explain, those who bear the name “Christian” represent Jesus in their service and sacrifice, boldly speaking truth to power when necessary, neither in dominating their neighbors nor capitulating to evil. Can Christians defend pluralism and liberal democracy and remain faithful to King Jesus? Not only is it possible, Wright and Bird explain why they must."
—SAMUEL L. PERRY, professor of sociology, University of Oklahoma, coauthor of The Flag and the Cross: Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy
"Wright and Bird help us situate where the church sits between presidents and principalities. Keeping politics out of Christianity is impossible, for Christianity is inherently political. Too many books on politics shortchange the biblical text. This book brings you back to the first century and then back again to the twenty-first century with tools pertaining to our public witness."
—PATRICK SCHREINER, associate professor of New Testament and biblical theology, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, author of Political Gospel: Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World
"An excellent, short pilgrimage in biblical political theology! With divisions and animosities running high within and among nations and with autocrats increasingly in charge, we need this book acutely."
—MIROSLAV VOLF, professor of theology, Yale University Divinity School, founding director, Yale Center for Faith and Culture
"Almost every Christian today struggles at some level to understand the political implications of the gospel: What have kingdom concerns to do with cultural crises, or the good news with the daily news? Under what circumstances is civil disobedience warranted? Can a Christian wholeheartedly support any political system? In Jesus and the Powers, you will find Mike Bird and Tom Wright neither fence-sitting nor drumbeating, but guiding Christians thoughtfully, practically, and jovially through a minefield of contemporary political and social questions with a careful commitment that draws deeply on the wisdom of the Bible."
—CHRISTOPHER WATKIN, associate professor of French studies, Monash University, author of Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture
"Jesus and the Powers helps us think clearly and deeply about what Christians are called to be and do in our present day. It casts a vision that takes seriously God’s call to engage in the work of service, sacrifice, and reconciliation to the benefit of everyone around us—in Wright and Bird’s words, to “build for the kingdom.” Any fellow Christians wrestling with the question, “Where do we go from here?” would do well to receive what is shared within these pages."
—ANDREW L. WHITEHEAD, associate professor of sociology, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, author of American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church
"This is an ambitious book of the sort that only two seasoned theologians and (equally important) true lovers of Jesus could conceive of and write. And it is a book Christians need in this time of war, political turmoil, and threats to human flourishing around the world—many of these, the fruit of arrogant earthly empires. What should the church’s response be to such profound brokenness? And what should the response of individual Christians be? The book’s arguments marry political theology with sound history, both ancient and modern, all to show that “the kingdom of God is not from this world, but it is emphatically for this world.” History shows that other lords and kings will rise and fall, trampling others underfoot in the process, but there will always, only be one lord and king. And that is a call to action for us all."
"Jesus inaugurated his ministry by proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. What does that long-ago event have to do with us today? Everything, say the authors of Jesus and the Powers. The fundamental character of authentic Christian political activity, they argue, is “building for the kingdom.” Using their skills as esteemed New Testament scholars, the authors first illuminate what Jesus would have meant by “the kingdom of God” and then explore how present-day Christians can build for the kingdom. I know of no other book that comes even close to locating, so insightfully and in such rich detail, Christian political activity within the context of the coming of the kingdom. Given what is happening in politics today, their call for Christians to engage as workers for the kingdom could not be timelier."
—NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
"Many Christians are asking afresh whether the Bible can be helpful for us in the 2020s to be fully committed followers of Jesus, on the one hand, and yet also be engaged in the political realm, on the other hand. The authors of this book have spent much of their lives attempting to understand the New Testament and here bring their decades of academic expertise, accumulated wisdom, and Christian convictions to bear on some of the most difficult but relevant questions at this nexus today, in particular how the church should retain its witness to the gospel while interfacing with the state and its various kinds of governments. Their invitation to explore what faithfulness means between Christian separatism and Christian nationalism is a gift especially to believers that hold Scripture to be normative for Christian faith and practice in a pluralistic world."
—AMOS YONG, professor of theology and mission, Fuller Seminary
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From the preface:
The aim of this book is not to be like most publications on Christianity and politics. We are not going to tell Christians what they should think about abortion, gun control, Brexit, Trump, climate change, racial justice and other hot-button issues. But neither are we offering an abstract theory of statecraft and faithcraft that never quite comes in to land in real life.
Jesus and the Powers has one objective: to say that, in an age of ascending autocracies, in a time of fear and fragmentation, amid carnage and crises, Jesus is King, and Jesus’ kingdom remains the object of the Church’s witness and work. That is true today, tomorrow, the next day, until death and despots are no more, until such a time when ‘he has put all his enemies under his feet’ (1 Corinthians 15:25). Such a conviction means that the Church needs to understand how it relates to empires biblical and burgeoning, how to build for the kingdom in our cities and suburbs; to understand the time for obedience to the State and the time for disobedience to the State. We need to grasp where the Church sits between presidents and principalities. We must think deeply as disciples, without partisan prejudice, unbeguiled by the deceptions of demagogues, in order to attain ‘every good thing that is at work in us to lead us into the Messiah’ (Philemon 6). We want people to consider how we can pursue human flourishing, how we might work towards a common good, and how we can pursue the things that make for peace in a time of political turmoil such as has not been seen since the 1930s.
We hope that such a book will help Christians begin to discern how to respond with wisdom to the situations in places such as Ukraine, Nigeria, Gaza, Myanmar and Taiwan. Help them to discern how to think about constitutional monarchy and democraticrepublics. Teach them to fear the seduction of political power. Call them to seek to build something that carries over into the new creation, as well as to rest in the goodness and faithfulness of the one who is King of kings and Lord of lords.
To such ends, our book begins by noting the political upheaval and emerging empires of our own day. It then describes how Jesus and his followers came on to the scene at the height of the Roman Empire and had to negotiate their own way around various imperial horrors (chapter 1). Thereafter, we point out that the Church had to pivot from being under the threat of the empire to enjoying its many benefactions. The Church’s relationship with emperors, and then with kings and princes in the Middle Ages, fashioned a host of complications about Church and State relations with which we are still living today. Christianity brought about a revolution in European civilisations and is now part of the political and moral DNA of the West. But the Church was also party to unholy alliances with Western rulers, not least in its complicity with European empires that wrought colonial violence all over the world. Yet whatever the good, bad and ugly of history, the Church cannot retreat from politics. If we are to speak truth to power and stand up to the powers, then we must do kingdom-business with the business of political power (chapter 2).
On the topic of the ‘powers’, these loom large in the scriptural narrative, with spiritual and political forces intersecting across the tapestry of history. Looking at Paul’s letter to the Colossians and especially at John’s Gospel, we see that the powers of this age will be pacified by Jesus and then reconciled through him. The back story here is that God had always intended humans to be partners in his dominion. Yet the powers of the age fomented rebellion and wreaked havoc so that creation itself now groans for deliverance. God’s solution is to telescope authority into one human being, one child of Abraham, one Israelite, one son of David – the Messiah. His death makes atonement for sins and brings a victory that results in the ruler of the world being cast out and the powers of darkness being disarmed. In the here and now, governments might have power; but they are merely granted power, and they will be held to account for how that power is exercised.
The Christian vocation is neither pious longing for heaven nor scheming to make Jesus king by exerting force over unwilling subjects. Instead, Christians should be ready to speak truth to power, being concerned with the righteous exercise of government, seeing it bent towards the arc of justice and fulfilling the service that God expects of governing authorities (chapter 3).
Following naturally on from that point, we must address more concretely the topic of how to build for the kingdom in what is becoming a frightening and fraught world. The kingdom might not be from this world, but it is most certainly for this world, so we cannot retreat from the world with our kingdom-mission. So, we proffer some suggestions as to what building for the kingdom looks like in actual practice (chapter 4).
We next discuss the topic of submission to governing authorities (chapter 5) and when Christian witness requires us actively to disobey them (chapter 6). Th ese are difficult and complicated subjects, and we are concerned to affirm the goodness of government as much as to explain what we might do if governments revert from public service to predatory tyranny. Finally, we set forth the case for a liberal democracy. It is the ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal democracy’ that enables us to live with political and cultural differences, not despite being a Christian but precisely as a Christian. Nothing is straightforward, diversity breeds conflict, but we are called to love our left-wing and right-wing neighbours, and to build a better world for people of all faiths and none (chapter 7).
That is the journey that lies ahead of readers. It is something of a short pilgrimage in political theology, undertaking a mixture of biblical overview, zooming in on church history highlights, centring on Jesus among the powers, offering reflections on Church–State relations, and wrestling with knotty topics such as ‘secularism’ and ‘civil disobedience’. The task is about trying to think and pray through the missional vocation and kingdom witness of the Church in our contested political theatres. The Church carries a gospel which is not reducible to this-worldly political activism, nor so heavenly minded as to live aloof from the trials and terrors of our times. If the gospel announces that ‘Jesus is King’, then we must wrestle with what Jesus’ kingship means in Tiananmen Square, on the floor of the US Congress, in the lunchroom of Tesco or Walmart, or in choices we make at the ballot box. There will be a day when politics is no more, when all things are subject to ‘the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah’
(Revelation 12:10). Before then, we need wisdom, for the Church has much work to do to prepare for such a day.
—N.T. Wright & Michael F. Bird
About the Authors
N. T. WRIGHT is research professor emeritus of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and senior research fellow at Wycliff e Hall, Oxford. He is the author of more than eighty influential books, including The New Testament for Everyone, Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, The Day the Revolution Began, Paul: A Biography, The New Testament in Its World (with Michael F. Bird) and Into the Heart of Romans.
MICHAEL F. BIRD is deputy principal and lecturer in New Testament at Ridley College, Australia. He is the author of numerous scholarly and popular books on the New Testament and theology, including Evangelical Theology, What Christians Ought to Believe, Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: A Christian Case for Liberty, Equality, and Secular Government, and, with N. T. Wright, The New Testament in Its World.