Which citizenship? Whose kingdom?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
11 Mar 2008

Good citizenship is not about flag-waving, metaphorically or otherwise. It's about the just practices, shared habits and practical ways of organising our public lives which enable people to belong to one another across boundaries like those created by nation states, not in subjection to them. What we need is global citizenship to frame our commitments to family, group and nation. In this sense, the government, which has found itself in a pickle over a suggestion by Lord Goldsmith that school pupils should swear allegiance to Queen and country, has got it the wrong way round. The bones of my response on behalf of Ekklesia are here: Good citizens question ‘national pride’, says Christian think tank. It will not escape people's attention, I hope, that there are profound theological questions bound up in all this.

My own position is clear: as a Christian, my primary loyalty is established and defined for me by the rite of baptism, through which I am joined to a new kind of community: one forged on the basis of the suffering solidarity embodied in the crucifixion of Christ and in the gift of risen life beyond-all-limits. This community holds out a vision of restored relationships created by the imagio Dei - which, in essence, means that no human institution or formation (no race, class, gender, or state, say) should compromise the freedom and equality made available to all people through their origin and destiny in God. [1] In this sense, the New Testament variously suggests, companions of Jesus are called to live as "citizens of the kingdom of God", as "a holy nation" and as "members of one another through the Body of Christ." This has sometimes been interpreted in a sectarian or narrow sense, but I would argue that the central trajectory of the Jesus-movement is very much in the opposite direction - toward embrace not exclusion. In that sense, thoroughgoing Christian radicalism is based on surprisingly traditional commitments.

The question is, what happens to those commitments when the claims of state, empire, the global market or the military complex are seen to be divisive, warlike and oppressive? Christians may be able to accommodate to the civic order in a wide range of circumstances (even if we know that the Pax Romana presumed by Romans 13 proved far more problematic than St Paul anticipated). In this sense good citizenship is a Christian virtue. But "the good" is very much the defining feature in this formula, and when it goes wrong (as in Revelation 13, which depicts imperial power in demonic mode) resistance is just as much a duty.

The Christian's relation to the state and to human authority is therefore necessarily conditional if we are true to the narrative that shapes us, and if the church is to remain distinctive and refreshing in civic life - rather than functionalist and conforming. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu and others show what this can mean in terms of costly action. [2] Similarly, nonconformists, both religious and not so religious, have been right to resist the Christendom church's practice of moulding baptism into a ceremony of state obedience, which fundamentally corrupted it and led to Anabaptists, Quakers and other dissenters speaking out for free faith not state religion.

The whole issue of citizenship and religious allegiance is highly sensitive right now. In spite of being a 'son of the manse', Gordon Brown recently made it clear that in his political purview religious commitments should always be secondary to civic ones. But this is not a position many of us find remotely credible. I certainly don't expect the state to support, privilege or subsidize my Christian commitment, but I am equally clear that my final loyalty is not to any state, and that if a government (or corporation or political movement) acts unjustly, wages war indiscriminately or seeks to get me to kill in its name, I am bound to say "no". Does this make me a threat, or a model of what good citizenship is about? (On an individual basis it would be arrogant to claim either, but I am using the personal question to pose the wider one.)

At the moment the primary fear is not over Christian peacemakers, of course, but about bombers claiming allegiance to Islam. But to render the former wholly safe is to misunderstand the subversive nature of citizenship in the Body of Christ, which takes its shape and identity from Jesus' execution at the hands of imperial politics and religion. The new kin-dom for which Jesus speaks and acts in the events that make him a threat to authority may not be "of this world" in terms of its order of being (as St John puts it when Jesus, in his last words to his followers, tells them to put away their swords), but it cannot avoid being in it, and often at considerable odds with "the powers that be".

When certain kinds of secularists talk about "keeping religion out of politics", they usually mean the Church as an institution seeking to wield power in ways that I too want to criticise from a post-Christendom theological viewpoint. But I don't kid myself that they are keen on people like me, either. Not for nothing do groups like the NSS so consistently fail to distinguish those lumped together as "religious" from one another, no matter how strange the attempt to do otherwise may look when you compare, say, Martin Luther King with theocrats and tyrants.

As the issues of community cohesion, citizenship and civic pluralism press, and as the question of rethinking religion and society gets hopelessly distorted by groups on all sides with narrowly factional agendas, so the need to offer a different, liberating vision of "Christian citizenship" (other faith and non-faith communities of conviction need to address the issues in their own way) grows more urgent. Christian faith is a public commitment, and Christians can be good citizens. But in the changing world institutionally that may mean the church relinquishing unjustifiable privilege in relation to governance, while personally it may involve rather more risk-taking for those who would seek to be disciples not subjects.

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NOTES

[1] To talk of our origin and destiny in God as the basis of our freedom is not just to de-limit other claims to define us, but to pin our identity on a love and justice which is ultimate and unconditionable, rather than a kind limited by power, politics and bargaining among those with different interests. This is why God, from the perspective of the believer, makes a fundamental difference to what is possible. I appreciate that if you do not believe in God that understanding will not be an option, and of course (by its nature) it cannot and should not be imposed on anyone. But it is worth spelling out, as a reminder to both Christians and those of other convictions, about precisely what is entailed - and why suggesting that the state comes before it is makes no sense to those freely bound by it.

[2] As the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which put the Confessing Church on a collision course with Hitler, made plain: "We repudiate the false teaching that the church can turn over the form of her message and ordinances at will or according to some dominant political or ideological convictions." In the Kairos Document of 1984, churches in South Africa similarly set out the utter incompatibility of institutional racism with the Gospel, and repudiated as heretical forms of Christianity that provided an ideological buttress to the apartheid state.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com, as well as contributing to the Guardian's Comment-is-Free, OpenDemocracy and other media outlets.

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