Active, Effective Theology: A Response to J. Denny Weaver

Recently, J. Denny Weaver spoke of his conversion from “passive” non-resistance and two-kingdom theology to an active stance against evil (reflection: can Mennonites use the term “evil”?) in Wisconsin. http://www.themennonite.org/issues/14-4/articles/Protesting_and_the_reign_of_God
While I approve of his stand, I must disagree with the theological conclusions of his article.

In speaking of two kingdom theology, Professor Weaver emphasizes the passive inaction of the theology. That it has nothing to say to oppression, that God is the God who empowers violence and the non-resistant have nothing to respond to injustice. Perhaps this is the form of two-kingdom theology that Professor Weaver learned, and I can see with a title like “non-resistance”, a theology might be prone to inaction. Certainly passivity is a concern among many who are raised “non-resistant”.

But two-kingdom theology is not about passivity. Certainly there is a passive aspect to it, even as Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting.” So there are actions that those of Jesus’ kingdom do not take. However, the foundational law of the kingdom of Jesus is active: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love isn’t passive, but active. Like the Samaritan in Jesus story, the one of Jesus’ kingdom cannot look at one hurt in the gutter and not act.

When I learned two-kingdom theology, I did not learn it as J. Denny Weaver did. Dr. William Higgins, former teacher of the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference and currently pastor of Cedar Street Mennonite Church summarizes two kingdom theology thusly: “The church is a separate social entity from the rest of society which is ‘the world.’ These two kingdoms have different standards. You are either among the people of God or you are a part of the world. There is no neutral ground. This is a rejection of the Christendom conception of a church that is fused together with the state into one social entity, living by one standard.” http://26anabaptistdistinctives.blogspot.com/2008/09/distinctive-14-two-kingdoms.html

This idea of two kingdom theology is not about passive inactivity at all. Rather, it is saying that since the world is about violence, greed, polytheism and lust that its principles cannot operate in conjunction with the principles of people who live according to Jesus’ rule. It states that any attempts to fuse the ideals of Jesus and the ideals of the world end at best with compromise and at worst a hypocritical church. Two kingdom theology implies that the will of God cannot be accomplished by the methods of the world. That human systems of government, bureaucracy, power structures and oppression are inadequate to the task of producing the justice and mercy of God. This must be done by God’s people. Finally, two-kingdom theology implies that any church that works in tandem with the systems of this world are a part of the world, not the kingdom of Jesus. The two kingdoms are exclusive and we must choose one or the other.

The main criticism that two-kingdom theology would bring against Professor Weaver’s promotion of non-violent resistance is that the Professor’s theology assumes that justice can be accomplished by systems as they currently stand. Even more, he assumes that it is the only way that justice can be accomplished. Two kingdom theology is much more revolutionary than that. Two kingdom theology insists that justice and mercy must be accomplished in spite of the governments and bureaucracies of this world, which, in the end, only perpetuate one oppression or another. To think that simply “resisting” a system will change it to create justice is naïve, and misunderstanding the deep corruption of the powers.

Perhaps instead of speaking of “non-resistance” which implies passivity– which clearly neither Jesus nor the early Anabaptists held to– perhaps we should speak of two kingdom theology as “positive action.” This implies two things: First, that we refuse to take action that is negative: action that harms another or acts in a disrespectful way to authority. When Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil one”, he was speaking of responding in an evil way to evil. To be a person who refuses to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” or who actively participates in violence is a part of the world’s solution, not Jesus’. Thus, the citizen of Jesus’ kingdom refuses to participate in those actions.

Second, the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom act positively toward justice, using the methods of peace and mercy, without the aid of the systems of this world. The primary method is by creating communities which act in justice despite what the powers say or do. Because the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom have as their primary law, “Love”, they will love even when the governments, churches or bureaucracies of this world command them not to. They do not bow to the forces of oppression, nor do they expect them to necessarily change. Thus, the citizens of Jesus must create the change they must see.

How does this actually work? Well, in all humility, I propose the example of my own church, Anawim Christian Community. We are a community church for an oppressed minority, the homeless and mentally ill of Portland, Oregon. Because of the help of the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference and local churches, we have been able to organize day shelters for the homeless and night shelters when the weather is dangerous and when there isn’t shelter permitted by the city. We do this to provide sanctuary for the oppressed from the police and stakeholders of the local government who oppress the homeless. We do this to provide mercy for those considered unworthy of assistance by the majority of our community. We do this to make the dehumanized human again, and to help those who wish to become active citizens of Jesus’ kingdom because they have been rejected as citizens of the community they were raised in.

This is two kingdom theology in action. Yes, it is a quiet revolution. But we consider it more effective and immediate than picketing city hall. We do not participate in violence, in protests or even in anger. But we act. And because of our acts, people eat, receive shelter, receive protection and live to see another day.

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10 Responses to “Active, Effective Theology: A Response to J. Denny Weaver”

  1. Protests, Politics and the Reign of God « Thoughts on theology and biblical studies Says:

    […] Here is a response. […]

  2. Phil Wood Says:

    Despite the different cultural settings I can see a lot of common ground in the choices we face vis a vis solidarity with homeless people. I’m a member of Wood Green Mennonite Church here in London but also a trustee of Housing Justice, the leading national Christian housing and homlessness charity. At the moment we are opposing Westminister City Council’s proposed ban on rough sleeping and ’soup runs’ (i.e. mobile food distribution) in Westminster. I blogged about this recently (http://radref.blogspot.com/search/label/soup%20runs)and have had material running on the Christian thinktank ekklesia.

    There are hundreds of people involved in the campaign and we have thought, prayed and worked very hard to make clear case against the Council’s proposed course of action. At the same time we sought to keep up communication with the Council in the hope of a an appropriate settlement. The campaign in wholly nonviolent but does involve direct action. We do not demonise Councillors. At the same time we are angry. We do protest. We are not deferential towards the Council, who are acting despicably.

  3. SteveK Says:

    I certainly wouldn’t deny your, or anyone’s, actions for the homeless in a community. The main point of the post is about the effectiveness of two kingdom theology. Weaver claims it is passive, and I say it is active.

    I still have questions about trying to successfully change government to support the oppressed. If a group is actually oppressed, such as the homeless, then it is hard to see that a group that is paid by homeowners and corporations would stand against them in order to support the rights of a group which cannot, for the most part, even vote. There’s no benefit for them.

  4. John Arthur Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I found it difficult to distinguish between your active non-resistence and Weaver’s active nonviolent resistence. Both favour non-violence and both seek to be faithful to Jesus.

    Also, I found it difficult to distinguish between your two kingdom model and Weaver’s one kingdom model. The reign of God and the non-reign of God used by Weaver seems similar to the concept of the two kingdoms: The reign of God and the reign of the world.

    You both seem to reject passive non-resistence. So is the difference that your view of active non-resistence puts its emphasis on overcoming evil by doing good? If so, is Weaver’s view really different from this?

    Shalom,

    John Arthur

  5. SteveK Says:

    Sorry it’s taken so long to respond, I’ve been ill.

    The real difference between Weaver’s theology and two kingdom theology has to do with pessimism or optimism concerning current ruling institutions, especially government. Weaver’s actions are consistent with his theology– working to change government so that it would be more like the reign of God.

    Two kingdom theology supports a break from compromised, often evil human institutions. Not that these institutions couldn’t be improved, but that greater good can be done if organizations without the bureaucracy and corruption could be established to do good more directly. This would be especially the case to establish communities based on the principles of the reign of God to offer demonstrations as to what the reign is like.

  6. Phil Wood Says:

    This is an interesting issue and I’ve continued to work on it over the past week or so: http://radref.blogspot.com/2011/05/malignant-goodness.html. Increasing, I’ve moved away from two kingdoms theology. Broadly, I don’t know if it incarnates a genuinely transforming ethic for the ecological and nuclear age. The blog post unpacks my concerns.

  7. SteveK Says:

    Phil, that was a great article. However, it doesn’t actually address the concerns about two kingdom theology, which, as I stated, is (can be and should be) very justice-minded. It seems that you are speaking to devotional theology and martyr theology, and your concerns are well-marked. I think that there is a place for these theologies, but you offer a reasonable critique.

    I think that an ongoing concern is theology with no real context in the world. This does not mean that theologians have to have the same concerns as our newspapers, for example, but it does mean that theology needs to take place in the context of justice issues. “Salvation” is the establishment of “shalom” which is not “peace” in one’s heart, but peace/justice in community. Given the rampant injustices in the world, our theologies need to address them more than just as a result of sin, saved by the blood of Jesus. These are issues that must be addressed, but we are mistaken if we think they are the whole show. Jesus’ blood, by itself, has not eradicated injustice. So what theologies will help us achieve justice? I think that’s the real question you’re asking.

    I think Jesus and the New Testament has an answer. But that would require a long conversation.

  8. Peter Says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for this very insightful and compelling article. The language of two kingdoms theology carries with it the evocative freight of apocalyptic categories. Clearly there is a strong NT two kingdoms theology, and a strong Anabaptist tradition growing out of it. Yet I also wrestle within myself to hold this together with the conviction that all things have been placed under Jesus’ feet (Eph. 1).

    I share your pessimism and caution regarding current powers. And I also wonder about careful public policy advocacy:

    * How might one describe the Civil Rights movement from a two kingdoms perspective?
    * Are we truly caring for the impoverished and hungry if we do not also address the structures, patterns, and policies that keep them poor?
    * Should we in Kansas continue to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, especially since it is becoming more and more of a possibility?
    * Does two kingdoms/one kingdom theology look different in a democracy, as opposed to the Roman Empire, or the Holy Roman Empire?

    Sometimes I wonder if we hold our apocalyptic categories or our policy advocacy — our two kingdoms or one kingdom theologies — too tightly, they might break. Might JH Yoder’s vocabulary of “middle axioms” be helpful to us?

    Grace and peace,
    Peter

  9. SteveK Says:

    Peter, those are a load of excellent questions. Let me make some general statements and then deal with a couple of your specifics.

    First of all, I don’t want to say that two kingdom theology is the only way to go. I just think that Professor Weaver’s description of it was incomplete. If we have any theology as an “all or nothing” proposition, then we exclude love and that’s the last thing any of us should want to do.

    Two kingdom theology doesn’t mean we don’t ever speak to governments (or church institutions or corporations). It is just that we do it from outside the institutions, rather than as insiders. If an institution is moving in a Jesus direction (like the abolition of the death penalty), then by all means we should support them. In the same way, we should inform institutions about unpopular policy changes (like immigration reform that is pro-immigrant) and make sure that we stand on the side of Jesus and let it be known.

    My only caution, on a two-kingdom side, is that we think that lobbying institutions will actually change institution. If we pour a lot of our resources into changing institutions that refuse to change, when we could have actually created a small amount of change outside of the institutions, then is that the wisest course?

    As far as the Civil Rights movement, I see that as an example of a two kingdom movement. It was a group outside of institutions that were pushing for change of people’s hearts. The government (in the person of LBJ) listened to them, somewhat. But when MLK shifted his focus to the Vietnam war, he was ignored and kept outside the loop. Some change institutions can accept, others they cannot. But we need to enact the change in our communities no matter where institutions are.

    As far as the impoverished and hungry, they are mostly being helped by non-profits and ngos. I will tell you, the governments and institutions aren’t interested in hearing the perspective of the poor or knowing what will really help them. Groups like MCC do more for the poor than any self-perpetuating system ever will. Right now, recognizing that we will never get the finances to get people to help us, our homeless community is working on the education and resources to help ourselves. As long as the government stays out of our way, we’ll be fine.

    Finally, about the different structures. Jesus didn’t speak to Roman governmental issues, but Jewish governmental issues, almost exclusively. His task was to reform the priesthood and the temple. He was able to see the injustice and evil in his own institution and made the attempt to change that. I think we are called to change our own churches for justice. To help them see the poor, to get them to see the outcast. If we, as churches, use our resources to benefit the wealthy and not the poor, if we support institutions that oppress, if we are only about maintaining our own status quo instead of being open to those in real need, then we have bigger problems than trying to speak to larger institutions. We need to evangelize each other so we actually live the gospel instead of just talk about it. But as long as we harbor injustice in our midst, we have no place to try to create change elsewhere.

  10. Peter Says:

    Wow, Steve, thanks for your very thoughtful response! I especially appreciate the distinction of speaking to worldly powers as outsiders, rather than insiders. Great observations about the Civil Rights movement aiming to change hearts — I think we too often forget that. And becoming the alternative community we, or even better, God dreams of — right on, brother!

    Sounds like the Holy Spirit has been up to some really exciting work in your community. Strength and grace as you keep on being that salt and light!

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