There is so much important ‘stuff’ packed in this great little book that an overview in one or two paragraphs wouldn’t do it justice. I have decided to embark on a chapter summary.
Schiess introduces us to the idea that being apolitical is an ontological misnomer for a Christian. She posits that it is not possible to be truly apolitical and argues that those who claim to be apolitical may be unexamined, blind to the fact that they are vastly political or choosing to disassociate with active politics, even though they make political decisions all the time. She convincingly starts off by explaining how political Christianity is and demonstrates the nuanced political positions that Christianity occupies within society. She brilliantly highlights the intersection between politics and Christianity by demonstrating how Christianity is a political movement which seeks to further its own agenda albeit this is accomplished through a liturgy of orchestrated and largely historicised rituals.
On Page 7, she gives an example of how in the US, religious conservatives and the Republican party made an alliance which become eventually became ‘unbalanced’. Each party sought to leverage the other to further their ‘interests’ and as such, the alliance morphed into an unrecognisable identity. Here, she introduces the term 'idolatry’ and explains how idols are an attractive and alluring prospect of the ‘good life’ but, they don’t deliver what Christ is able to.
The connection between our spiritual formation and political participation are often undiscussed in our churches and many assumptions are made about what political posturing a Christian should make. Schiess argues that we are woefully unaware of the formative power of political forces and our weakness in counteracting them.
The key message in this chapter is that human systems are flawed, and no human system should therefore receive our ultimate loyalty because our hope cannot be put in, or indeed met by, fallible and imperfect institutions. She invites us to talk about politics and Christianity in all its messiness! Our lived theology is indeed an act of worship (Isaiah 1:10-17).
Chapter two is dedicated to understanding what Schiess calls ‘loves and loyalties’. Here she argues that the lines between our political views, moral beliefs and theological beliefs are much more blurred than we would like to admit. She gives examples of the pervasiveness of politics into our moral, and theological compasses and how they blind spot us into believing that we occupy a neutral space and yet we don’t.
For instance, she used the example of brushing teeth – a daily trivia but one which has been shaped by historical and powerful rhetoric on dental health – related to physical health, as a universal good and technology (toothpaste and toothbrush) to seek that good. The long-term cognitive influence through books, childhood oral hygiene routines, repeated parental prompts, and adulthood adherence to good dental hygiene, all bear a strong ritualistic element but demonstrate clearly how we inadvertently form opinions based on childhood, cultural and societal processes. We do not ever question these behaviours learnt in childhood.
In the case of teeth cleaning, we start to adhere to teeth cleaning before we understand why it is necessary. It becomes an entrenched ritual which cannot be broken easily. Despite adulthood knowledge that may be availed contrary to the routine we have chosen to adopt for teeth cleaning, it may be impossible to change one’s mind. As such, our theological and moral formation is linked to political posturing in such a way that it is very difficult to disentangle.
In chapter two, Schiess further develops and links a compelling argument that we have loyalties and loves that are both Christian and political and she plays around with the tensions that exist in this intersection. For example, formative spaces such as institutions of learning offer both wonderful spaces to learn and grow and yet can be hugely political. What she warns Christians against is complacency towards two sins: idolatry, and social injustice. The key message here is that our response should not be to totally reject but to carefully examine the idols in our lives, the liturgies that we have amassed as part of our daily lives, the thoughts, processes, behaviours, and inactions that may blindside us from engaging in productive self-criticism and pointing people to a redemptive message of the Good News.
This chapter talks about the liturgies that propel us towards a particular political choice – especially within the Church, and camouflages it as authentic and biblical and yet it may be idolatrous! She gives examples of ‘gospels’ that Christianity has accepted as biblical but should warrant further consideration of their true merit. For example, the gospels of supremacy, security, patriotism, prosperity, and capitalism. The morphing of moral values within these gospels seems compelling and yet each may further injustices.
For instance, ‘The American Dream’ and the ‘rags to riches’ American story have propelled a false gospel that rich people are hardworking, morally upright and deserve what they have, and the opposite is true for poor people who are seen as moral squalors. Rich v Poor then become symbols of morally upright versus morally corrupt. The symbols of a picket fence neighbourhood, churchgoing, well-behaved and middle-class parents are seen as pure and godly whereas, the sexually immoral, drug-infected, and broken families, fleecing off the state are considered ‘other’, despicable, and ungodly. This warped view of the world then transforms into societies and national ideological make-up and sips into unjust laws and policies. Furthermore, in the US, the reverence for the Christian faith, seen in the founding fathers, has dominated mainstream politics and politicians present themselves very much as ‘chosen’, deserving, and serving a godly nation.
In this chapter, Schiess goes into detail about the other gospels and how they serve as a distracting log in a Christian’s eye. She urges Christians to focus on ‘kingdom values’ and to carefully deconstruct the concepts of dangerous rhetoric of false gospel, segregation, and injustices. For example, common phrases such as ‘God bless America’, ‘the home of the brave’, and ‘America first’, all create the moralisms of a spiritually upright and worthy nation which is not based on any biblical precedence and yet many Christians affirm and believe these values to be not only true but biblical. This chapter was very important to me personally, and it was able to isolate for me, very specific and common ‘gospels’ which are not biblical or Christian! It is well worth a careful review.
Schiess affirms the Christian vocation to cultivate a godly character and spiritual growth – as both necessary and counter-cultural. Our political participation is an expression of the created order of things and our identity and its revelatory fulfilment of God’s creative redemption. Jesus’ life and ministry were politically charged and many thought that Jesus ought to have taken to human posturing but He never did. For instance, many Jews believed that if He was the Messiah – then He (ought to have) had the powers to deliver them from their earthly tormentors and from foreign domination.
Jesus demonstrated in several ways that political participation is God-given. In John 19:11 – Jesus told Pilate – you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above- He is not denying Pilate’s authority, but He is acknowledging its legitimacy because of God's ultimate sovereignty. Jesus however, submitted to the will of his father which required him to submit to earthly authorities.
The key message in this chapter is that God oversees everything including politics and politicians. Therefore, it is not possible to disentangle politics and Christianity. A Christian lens of politics may offer a different kind of hope to the masses and understanding God’s will for us, within a specific political system, is part of our responsibility and accountability as obedient servants of God.
In chapter five, Schiess advocates for a critical self-reflection on how we view the bible and read scripture. She demonstrates how scripture and political formation are intrinsically linked but also highlights how the reading of scripture is constrained by the political and social influences in our lives. She compels us to look carefully at what matters to God and argues that God doesn’t care more about our relationship with Him than how we treat other people. She uses Jeremiah to demonstrate this point and highlights how God chastises His people and outlines issues that He cares about, and which remain pervasive today – among Christians. Worshipping empty sources of power (2:5) finding security and comfort in earthly nations and rulers (2:13) abusing the poor when they have done no wrong (2:34) denying our sin (2:35) relying upon political alliances for security (2:36) refusing to change (5:3) growing rich and powerful of the exploitation of the vulnerable and poor (5:27-28) and oppression (6:6).
She further illustrates this by highlighting the practices and habits that can shift the needle on our political formation from being primarily outside of scripture. Without a redemptive story to live up to, we’re forced to constantly account for new information and adjust for ideologies accordingly. We must allow scripture to convict us and discomfort us. If we refuse, then we start to look to other sources of moral authority and can isolate biblical stories from the larger narrative of redemption and are in danger of using them to justify whatever we want. She is clear that some sections of society would benefit from a reminder that they are not the main characters in scripture. The American Church is not the main or original beneficiary of the gospel, it is ‘the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
The key message in this chapter is that Jesus is our peace (Ephesians 2:14-18).
In this chapter, Schiess discusses the Church as the training ground for political engagement. She argues that if the commission of the Church is to announce the coming of a new Kingdom and serves as an outpost for the second coming of the true King, how can the Church say – they are not political? She posits that the problems with theories that harshly distinguish between the political and ecclesial spheres separate theology from politics and in doing so create a political ethic untethered to theological considerations.
However, how does one participate in politics without being malformed by it? She gives an example of the Apostle Paul. His missionary journeys were so disruptive to the cities he entered because he was not merely a spiritual leader offering a new religious order but a political ‘attaché’ establishing allegiances to the new Kingdom. His praxis and the socio-political implications of his great commission become the original command to ‘reign and rule over earth’. The Church should be capturing the loyalties of people towards God's Kingdom.
For the Church to ignore the suffering of people and to continue to undertake religious services amid blatant social injustice was considered ‘a stench that God will not accept’ (Amos 5:21-23) instead, let justice roll on like a river, righteous like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:24).
The Christian movement operating as an alternative political agenda threatened Roman social stability – Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus gives his disciples a great commission ‘with all authority in heaven and on earth (v18) and commands them to make disciples in all nations, baptising in the name of the father and the son and holy spirit (v19).
This chapter is themed around the rhythm of our lives. This includes the Church Calendar filled with various activities. One of the liturgies of the Church is preaching and here Schiess proposes that the most important role of a preacher is to enable the listeners to situate themselves within the gospel and to convict and discomfort them. Often, Christians see themselves as the beleaguered righteous and they listen to the preaching as though it is directed elsewhere. Preaching doesn’t have to step into politics, but it needs to be courageous enough to resist the temptation to shy away from the political implications of the text.
Schiess talks about the prominent theme in the scripture where our actions lose their effect and purpose when they are done absent of a struggle for justice. The ethical life of a Christian impacts their worship (Amos 5:21-24, Isaiah 58:3-7, 1:11-17, Jeremiah 7:1-11 and Micah 6). In a way, Schiess pushes Christians to not be too complacent and content with a rhythm that suggests if they live a ‘holy life in church’ then their commission is complete.
This chapter is about being focused on the coming kingdom of God. In doing so she lists the critical components of a wholeness we sense when our true home beckons us. She proposes that Prayer is a critical foundation on which all other disciplines rest. It centres our attention on God, and He directs our desires and places us in a state of dependence and humility. When we grasp the fact that everything we have and we are is from God, we develop a dependence that detracts us away from liberal notions of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
As broken and fallen beings, not only will we not ask for things that go against the character of God, but we will also often practice the discipline of prayer in a way that forms us to believe God is on our side. Therefore, in prayer – we seek social and political situations that sit within the biblical themes of God as a just God, as a loving father who abhors discrimination of the vulnerable. Prayer enables us to seek justice from He who is just and to ask for justice and relief from He who is most merciful and loving. It puts us in the position to hope and to have an open heart towards justice as the ultimate peace and justice have been promised. Our prayers therefore must be made in humility and must be consistent without lived actions.
Schiess also talks about the Sabbath and other kingdom-seeking acts such as fasting – and warned against pursuing these for their own sake without deeply reflecting on the purpose of our actions. For example, Jesus warned against the culture of power-mongering and status-seeking in Luke 14:13. Schiess argues on page 148 that there is a deep connection between practicing our biblical obligations to care for others and understanding our consumption habits which should lead us to advocate for more responsible regulation of resources and more aid to the structurally disadvantaged. In the early church – hospitality was counter-cultural – those who were considered ethnically or socially different came together to worship.
In this chapter titled ‘a confessing city’, Schiess discusses the works of Augustine and compared them to modern socio-political ontologies. She mentions that political work can be good without being successful and/or permanent – so Christians are free to not attach themselves to a particular mode remaining faithful to whatever context promotes Christ. Because we remain on a journey without God’s sovereignty to understand the full experience of our destiny, we can become disorientated. She, therefore, calls for political imagination which requires creativity, and she used Augustine’s vision for the pilgrims in the city of God. They have greater freedom to cooperate with citizens of the earthly city because they know the stories that animate the two cities and this knowledge fosters in them a strong sense of identity and familiar wariness towards the competing stories they encounter.
In her last chapter, Schiess writes about a creation which is redeemed, and she concludes that our eschatology is not just incorrect if it ends in heaven, it has dangerous political and social effects on our world today and the correction to that is right worship. The obsession with the end times keeps our worship and our eschatology separate and that has disastrous political consequences. She further adds that even in Egypt the people of Israel were given the same instructions as Adam and Eve: to create flourishing in the place they have been brought. The vulnerable become victims when we focus on eternity and fail to prioritise their despair and needs now. We need a constant reminder that we must resist world values and see things through the lens of redemption.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and writing a summarised synopsis of the liturgy of politics – I have lifted text from the book itself and therefore this whole piece can be seen as a reference entirely to the book.