Scott Ritsema tackles the current controversy surrounding issues of faith and political power in his new book, The Way, the Truth and the Sword: A New Christian Civics in an Age of Coercive Power. I recently caught up with him to discuss the book, which is available online at http://www.lulu.com/content/3160866
RLTV: Your book has a fascinating take on current events. Can you give us a hint on what The Way, the Truth, and the Sword about?
SR: The Way, the Truth and the Sword is about the church’s unholy alliance with state power. It is about Satan’s tempting offer for us to rule the kingdoms of the world, which has lured us away from the kingdom of God and toward coercive human governments. Whether the subject is militarism, dominion theology, Christian Zionism, the Social Gospel, the moral crusading of the religious right, or the social crusading of the religious left, all attempts on the part of Christians to utilize government power as a means to advance an agenda come under criticism.
But the book doesn’t merely critique, it also sets out to form a framework for how Christians should view, and operate within, the civic realm.
RLTV: It seems like you list a lot of groups there. Some religious people think it is only natural to use political power to advance a religious agenda when people in the secular world do it all the time. What’s wrong with it?
SR: Using political power to advance an agenda is wrong simply because no New Testament scripture gives us permission to use force at all. If Christians use government force to advance an agenda, we are participating in violence in clear contradiction to what the Bible teaches. The entire New Testament is filled with teaching and admonition about how we are supposed to make disciples, save souls, care for the poor, etc., and in the process, change the world. The kingdom of God that Jesus taught us about transcends human kingdoms, and it gives us a blueprint for a better way to operate in the world through love and invitation, not coercion and violence. Christians are, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, and we are to obey the dictates of the New Testament, among which include many clear admonitions to love, to serve, to put down the sword, to turn the other cheek, to leave vengeance to God, to love our enemies, and to even feed our enemies-all of these attitudes run contrary to the way that human governments, by their very nature, operate. The New Testament leaves no room at all for Christians to pick up the sword, looking to the political process to advance our goals, like the secular world does. We are required to advance the Christian way in a Christ-like way; we need to trust in the efficacy of the methods that Jesus commanded us to use.
The New Testament leaves no room at all for Christians to pick up the sword, looking to the political process to advance our goals, like the secular world does.
I reject the idea that since the secular world supposedly picked a fight with us, that we have to fight back on the world’s terms. Paul tells us that the weapons we use are not the weapons of this world. We “fight” by loving them back, and leaving vengeance to God. We ought to lead the way in attempting to make peace with our “enemies,” not resorting to force and coercion in violation of the Scriptures.
RLTV: Given the rhetoric in the last election, this is certainly a controversial subject. What drew you to this issue?
Shortly thereafter, I began to get the sense that one of the greatest impediments to the advancement of the gospel was the conduct and political ideology of Christians in the political realm. When talking to non-believers, it seemed that they perceived the church as a threatening political force, rather than a group of people who want to love and serve and incarnate the risen Christ. (In 2007, a Barna study confirmed this suspicion; the results are published in the book Un-Christian.) The gospel being my central love and hope, this really troubled me. I was astonished that Christians were as likely, or even more likely, than non-believers to support an unnecessary war of aggression and even torture! I realized that the evangelical church was married to another husband other than Christ, and I set out to play my part in attempting to annul that marriage. This desire to disassociate Jesus from the evils done in his name, and to repair the reputation of the church, and to help make her more holy and set apart, is the most important objective within the civic realm.
When it comes to the civic realm, Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the American republic (and their philosophical influences like Locke, Rutherford, and others) have convinced me that the American form of government is the best form of government-what I call in the book, the most “relatively good” form of human government (since a human government cannot be truly GOOD). In other words, the classical liberal philosophy and its cousin, the natural rights/natural law tradition, have influenced me heavily.
Additionally, 19th and 20th century economic theorists such as Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, and Rothbard have also impacted my understanding of the nature of government and what freedom really is (I can credit Lew Rockwell.com and the Mises Institute).
Also, the New American Magazine had a major influence on my understanding of current events and the original intent of America’s founders. And most recently, Greg Boyd (The Myth of a Christian Nation) and Ron Paul (The Revolution: A Manifesto) have influenced my thinking significantly. Those two books – despite some significant theological differences with the former – might top my list of recommended books for Christians interested in the subject of politics.
However, we are called 1) to be humanitarian-to defend the cause of the poor and the victim-and 2) to play the prophetic role of speaking out against evils perpetuated by the powerful. So, to the extent that the church participates in the political process, we should work to non-violently restrain the oppressive power of the state over individuals’ lives and liberties and property, as well as “speaking truth to power” in defense of human life and liberty. This is our “prophetic” role when it comes to the evil of the state, particularly when members of that government claim to represent Jesus in their aggressive acts.
What does this look like, exactly? I think that Christians should be the first to speak out against unjust wars and torture, and even to advocate for a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention. We should know our Constitution and hold our representatives accountable to it (after all, the Constitution is our government in our rule of law system, and the Christian is called to submit to the government, which in this case means helping our public servants submit to the Constitution). We should promote freedom in the economy, since each individual, not the state, is a steward of his wealth. We should work to keep the state from legislating on matters of religion and personal conscience. When it comes down to it, nearly everything the state does is beyond its proper bounds of punishing aggressors, and so I think that the natural ideological thrust of the peacemaker who opposes coercion (i.e. the Christian) should be in the libertarian direction. Certainly a libertarian government will perpetuate fewer acts of theft, murder, and other forms of aggression than a government that is tasked with running the world or redistributing wealth or manipulating peoples’ behavior, and so our humanitarian impulse will drive us in this direction as well. But it’s important for the church to not confuse any particular political ideology with the Kingdom of Heaven. Keeping the church separate from the state is the most important thing.
Scott Ritsema currently teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History, American Government, and Economics at Woodcrest Christian High School in Riverside, California, where he resides with his wife, Cami.
He holds a single Master’s degree in History, Political Science, and Economics from California State University, San Bernardino, as well as a Bachelor’s in U.S. History from Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Ritsema runs the news and activist website, CIVICS NEWS.com, which exists to present an alternative Christian voice in the political realm and to advance the cause of liberty and humanity.