A Little Political Manifesto for Christians
- ISBN: 9780802877352
- Published By: Eerdmans
- Published: March 2020
Lee C. Camp views Christianity’s relationship with the United States as characterized by the nation’s manipulation, co-optation, and abuse of a religion that has lost its prophetic edge and is subjugated to the nation, if not headed toward obsolescence altogether. In response to this relationship, Camp argues that American Christianity is being redefined in one of three ways: first, as a “cult of greatness and imperialist power” (of which the evangelical fandom of Donald Trump is sufficient evidence); second, as an ahistorical spiritualizing of Christianity concerned only with the afterlife (which, Camp reminds the reader, for the early Christians was a “grave heresy”); or third, a reduction of Christianity to social action (5–8, 11). But in Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christianity, Camp is unwilling to accept these options. Denying the faith’s apparent impotence, Camp begins with a bold claim: “The faith of the Christian is the last great hope of earth” (1). Yet, he offers evidence that such hope can only be realized if Christians get out of their own way. To do so, Camp’s book advocates for a fourth option: Jesus’ “socio-spiritual-political option” (8).
Camp draws broadly from a diverse set of evidence to assemble a cumulative and comprehensive argument that culminates in a concise and compelling rationale for Christians to reclaim the “scandalous” identity Paul considered intrinsic to Christianity (3). While some might balk at Camp’s proposed end goal (after all, the majority of Christian denominations have assimilated quite well to American culture), Camp earnestly denies any attempt at originality. He claims only to be stating “noncontroversial assertions, simple restatements of orthodox Christianity” (9)—arguably one of Camp’s most effective assertions.
Camp’s propositions—among them that history is not merely time passing but has a telos, an end, that the substance of Christian hope is not the US but Jesus Christ, that the corruption of Christianity largely comes from within itself—are intended as a “syllabus” for Christians to “reconfigure their faith” and wrest it from the US empire’s grasp (9). Contrary to the more typical apologetic argument for Christianity’s congruence with one particular party, Camp states that the tradition is “neither right, nor left, nor religious,” but a “politic” (4–5; see also proposition 11). After all, Jesus was not crucified because of spirituality (18, 134). Central among Camp’s propositions is the view that Christianity is an interpretation of history, a perspective from which Christians can see and understand history in its context. For Camp, that context is the coming of the Kingdom of God already inaugurated by Christ and the expectation of God's ultimate victory. In light of this, Christians should live proleptically (23).
However, Christian assimilation to US culture has gutted Christianity’s own claims (30–31). In spicy language, Camp asserts that acts evidencing this assimilation, such as the mechanical blessing of US policies, are the faith prostituting itself out to the nation (48ff). Further, Camp reminds us, assimilation ignores that, as all empires before it, the US will also someday fall (90ff). The politics of recent years seem to indicate that the end may be approaching more rapidly than initially thought. To continue to treat faith as a private, spiritualized, and ahistorical aspect of Christian life that makes no demands upon the faithful to work for positive change in history will only serve to hasten the United States’ demise.
But Camp’s critique is not advocacy for anarchism. While he warns that praising the state too much can lead inevitably to a violence-provoking idolatry of the state (66-67) or the temptation to affirm the US as a “Christian nation”—a myth he handily debunks (69–72)—Camp affirms that the state can be an agent of good. The institutions of power (or the “powers”) work to “stave off chaos” and “keep wickedness in check” (113). In this relative peace, Christians must, first, “show to the powers the wisdom of God . . . [and] bear witness to the powers the public goods and sociopolitical relevance of the way of Christ” (114). Second, Christians are called to “percipient cultural discernment”—contextualizing cultural phenomena to discern for society “a path forward that bears witness to the good news of the kingdom of God in our midst” (160). In an age of an insatiable hunger for power, the erosion of truth, and the growth of anti-intellectualism—not to mention the increasing reliance on short-form, nuance-lacking social media posts for reality’s interpretation—Camp’s Christianity is an important antidote (169).
In light of these identities, risks, and responsibilities, Christian participation in the nation ought to be ad hoc (164ff), sometimes focused internally on the church’s own need for conversion and sometimes focused externally on the nation’s, but always willing to work with those acting consistent with the more authentic—and critically distant—mission with which Christ tasked his disciples.
If there are any weaknesses to Camp’s argument, it is that he raises two important concepts that could have been developed further: fear and imagination (78 and 104ff, respectively). While he acknowledges the role both play, he leaves the reader without much discussion of them. Fear has been explored significantly in recent years, especially as it relates to politicians who peddle it. Contributing to this fear, however, is the deeper impact of imagination, which frames our capacity to see, interpret, and understand the world around us. It seems that the imagination is the source from which flows our political predilections and is the element that would most need reformed to facilitate any change toward the Christian politic for which Camp advocates. Without more, the propositions remain solidly informative, but their capacity to effect the desired change may be insufficient.
Despite these negligible shortcomings, Camp’s volume is important, a pleasure to read, and written in such an accessible manner—though not at the expense of being intelligent, illuminating, and challenging—that it would serve as an excellent text in graduate or undergraduate courses, church book groups, and even upper-level high school classes. And not only could it be used in those settings, given the state of Christianity in our current political environment, it ought to be.
R. Zachary Karanovich is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Boston College.R. Zachary KaranovichDate Of Review:August 9, 2021