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Book review: Jesus and the Powers: Christian political witness in an age of totalitarian terror and dysfunctional democracies, by Tom Wright and Michael F. Bird

28 March 2024

Peter Selby considers Jesus in relation to the empires of this world

THE Feast of Christ the King — in full, and even more grandly, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe — will soon have its centenary. Many sermons have sought to soften or even explain (away?) the notion of Jesus as King, but many worshippers are left with discomfort. Speak, or sing, of him as “servant king”; but “King” still seems to sit uneasily on the shoulders of the one whose principal self-description was as “Son of Man”, whose kingdom references were mostly of the Kingdom of God, and whose mission was accomplished on the cross.

Tom Wright and Michael F. Bird take up the challenge of witnessing to the “Kingdom of Jesus”, located in the “shadow of empire”. How are contemporary Christians to follow Jesus and the Church to witness in the face of the “powers” so turbulently and disturbingly at work in the world?

The authors take their readers with zest and verve on not just one, but many, high-speed tours through the histories of Greece and Rome, their politics and their philosophy, and the interactions between those civilisations and the unfolding biblical story of salvation. They seek to show how, in the midst of all the turbulence of the present day, it is still true that Jesus is King, and, therefore, in a frequently repeated phrase, the primary task of Christians is to “build for the Kingdom”.

That means specifically relating to empire, the alternative “kingdoms” of this world. So, we are not, pace Francis Fukuyama, at “the end of history”; Christianity cannot be understood without bearing witness among the world’s empires, something that the Church since Constantine has done variously by confronting, accepting, submitting — and often colluding.

The headings of the seven chapters — “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”, and “Liberalism and love in a time of fear and fragmentation” — are signals, together with the assertive subheadings, of the book’s somewhat scatter-gun approach to its theme: various theological, historical, and political topics are briefly produced and sometimes reappear later on.

On the positive side, this book of fewer than 200 pages is a mine of information. Ideas and practices current in the ancient world are ranged alongside some 200 biblical citations, placing Jesus and the Church on the one hand and the surrounding empires on the other. There are, however, some negative results of the way in which the authors carry out their task: the approach is so breathless and rapid that there is frequently the impulse to ask for the enterprise to pause long enough for serious reflection: making connections between biblical faith and political issues really needs their repeated rhetorical assertions of the kingship of Christ to be worked out in relation to the complexities of global and national political choices.

A particularly serious omission in a book on Jesus and “the powers” is any serious examination of the economic and financial questions that are central to our current politics. The words “financial crisis” occur more than once, but only as one among many current challenges that receive a mention but without the serious reflection that makes engagement so important and so theologically challenging.

The authors claim that their book is not like others’ forays into political theology, neither advising Christians on the appropriate way to think and act on specific issues of today nor merely abstract and theoretical. That is not a fair description of the wealth of political theology, but, given that claim to be different, I find it a bit disappointing to find at the end of the journey that liberal democracy and its companion, “confident pluralism”, is their destination; many others have argued for that resolution.

To end with just repeating Micah’s vision of people each under their own vine and fig tree is extraordinary: not, surely, a realistic account of modern-day capitalism as it is or realistically ever could be. Given the welcome proliferation of radical Evangelical social thinking, it is a pity to find that so racy a journey and such an erudite and wide range of sources and topics leads to so bland a conclusion.

Two matters, not directly to do with the content, cannot be avoided. First, the authors, having an uncontrolled addiction to alliterative pairings (I counted 17 before the end of the preface), seem unaware that this is a device whose over-use becomes just wearisome and adds to the sense of a rhetorical tract. Second, it is uncomfortable not to be told what kind of collaboration between the authors this book represents: Wright’s name is printed on the front cover in a fount nearly twice the size of that allotted to Bird. The authors may think that this discomfort is unfounded, but, lacking an explanation, a reader is entitled to wonder whether this really was a collaboration.

There is no doubt about the need for theological material to inspire a new generation of Christians in general, and Evangelical Christians in particular, in facing the political challenges of this time; but this book, sadly, fails to offer that. Informative and engaging as it is, its content needs to breathe more slowly and, like much contemporary political theology, provide more detailed resources for facing the complex politics of our world with wisdom and courage.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is an Honorary Visiting Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London. He is a former Bishop of Worcester, Bishop to HM Prisons, and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.

Jesus and the Powers: Christian political witness in an age of totalitarian terror and dysfunctional democracies
Tom Wright and Michael F. Bird
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

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