The Renewal of the Political? The Holy Spirit and the Public Square

The Renewal of the Political? The Holy Spirit and the Public Square

By: Amos Yong
Tuesday, October 1st, 2013


The legacy of what historians now call “Christendom” certainly casts a long shadow in the ongoing discussion of Christianity and its relationship to the public square (by which I mean the all-inclusive spaces of the political, economic, social, civic, and international). Some commentators have certainly been, especially recently, very critical of the “Christendom” posture, and for good reason. When Christians have wielded political power, -going back to Christianity becoming the religion of the state in the post-Constantinian West, they became enmeshed in the politicking mechanisms of statecraft which focus mainly on worldly matters with little capacity to appreciate, much less account for, the spiritually important aspects of human life. The blurring of lines between church and state, with all of the difficult consequences that played out through the medieval, Reformation, and early modern periods, is testimony to how, even with the most sincere leaders in both domains, the commitments and priorities of church and state often pulled in contrary directions. This is not to say either that “Christendom” itself is irredeemable or that it cannot be managed more successfully under different circumstances. Certainly its achievements can be appreciated, as Oliver O’Donovan has so eloquently argued. It is to say that because the documents of the New Testament were written by those situated in very different political circumstances, it is difficult to clearly articulate a biblically-informed “political theology of Christendom.”

In part for this reason, reformist projects have perennially arisen amidst and on the margins of Christendom. The Radical Reformation and its legacy bequeathed a powerful vision of “political Christianity” which locates the political activity of Christ-followers not first and foremost, or even at all, within the machinery of the state, but as embodying a ecclesiological vision of what Anabaptist and Mennonite theologians have called an “alternative politics.” The church living out its discipleship under Christ provides a witness to alternative construals of life in the public square (e.g., Stanley Hauerwas). Some have countered that this is no more or less than a sectarian withdrawal from Christian responsibility to work toward the common good. Others have said that within a Christendom climate, such an “alternative society” is needed so that Christians themselves do not forget that while they are in the world, they are not supposed to be of the world.

My own response is informed largely by reflection on my upbringing in a classical pentecostal environment. Such traditionalist “sectarianism” rejected overt political involvement and was motivated less by a clearly articulated notion of Christianity or even Pentecostalism as an “alternative Civitas,” than it was by a profound and intense commitment to living out the Great Commission. As grateful as I remain for this emphasis, I think that its historical unfolding has been handicapped on at least two fronts: first, its less than holistic understanding of what the gospel means and its implications for Christian mission, and second, its presumption of a dispensationalist-eschatological frame of other-worldliness which undermined any concerns for the present public square.

Pentecostal theologians of the last two decades have mounted a withering critique of the founding generation’s adoption of a dispensational eschatology whose historic rejection of charismatic spirituality was otherwise antithetical to the heart of the modern pentecostal revival. But how then to sustain the movement’s missionary sensibilities if eschatological urgency is undercut? As importantly, how might an authentic pentecostal political theology emerge for the movement into its second century?

I have argued elsewhere, especially in my book, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2009), that the “Five-fold Gospel” of the early pentecostal pioneers – Jesus as savior, healer, sanctifier, baptizer in the Spirit, and coming king – is conducive toward formation of a pentecostal political theology. Jesus as savior of souls and bodies invites thinking about how the spiritual dimension interfaces with the socio-economic and political domains of human life; Jesus as healer suggests that the gospel addresses embodied creatures and that a theology of embodiment has inextricable political aspects. Jesus as sanctifier urges that Christianity is set apart and therefore not of the world, while Jesus as Spirit baptizer motivates Jesus-followers to actively engage every part of the created order. Last but not least, Jesus as coming king anticipates not necessarily a “rapture” from history and the cosmos but the divine intention to redeem and renew history and the world.

This scheme, I have proffered, is consistent with the Day of Pentecost message that heralds the redemption of the many tongues of the world as part of God’s “last days” (Acts 2:17) or eschatologically saving work. If the tongues or languages of humanity are representative of its many cultural traditions, then their redemptive retrieval suggests that the divine work of salvation holds forth unimagined possibilities for the purification, sanctification, and glorification of the public square as it finds fulfilment in the work of Christ. A pentecostal political-theological motif thereby emerges: many tongues, many political practices – each relevant to distinctive historical, contextual, and situational realities which demand particular responses that participate in the renewing work of the Spirit and in the coming reign of God.

If the foregoing has any merit, then a pentecostal political theology belongs not just to pentecostals but to all those who claim to be filled with the Spirit poured out by the Son from the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33). And if that is so, then such a pentecostal political theology contributes to and perhaps provides performative dynamism for the renewal of Christian political theology and Christian theology of the public square. This is because the Five-fold gospel is not parochial or sectarian but plays out the logic of the work of the Spirit of Christ as it has political and public impact. Hence, the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, considered in terms of political theology or theology of the public square, potentially revitalizes and renews Christian reflection in these areas. Yet such renewal thinking inspires discernment in the many political and public circumstances Christians find themselves in throughout time and space so that they may respond appropriately, not just as if guided by inflexible and absolute laws built into the political order of things.

For me, the point in the end is not a political theology in the abstract but a political way of thinking and living the footsteps of Jesus as messiah. This requires nothing less than life full of the Spirit of Jesus, which is attentive to contextual realities and demands, and capable of seeing how the message of the gospel has distinctive political and public consequences that require action and discerning embodiment. Followers of the Spirit-inspired Christ who proceed in this vein will themselves initiate a renewal and renovation of the political realm – and this is itself nothing less than participation in Jesus’ prayer that the reign of God scatters the darkness of the present world.