Israel and the Body of Christ

Unless we anachronistically read a Weberian definition of politics - that is, the idea that politics is defined as having to do with attaining and maintaining power over the apparatus of the state - back into the scriptures, then Israel/the church are clearly political entities in the general sense that they give order through law and ritual to the social life and everyday practices of a distinctive community of people. The political significance of the church cannot be told from a merely sociological viewpoint, however, but must begin from its theological significance in the history of salvation. At the heart of the modern reluctance to see the church as itself a type of politics is the inability to see it as more than a gathering of individuals, who are assumed to be the real subject of salvation. In the biblical witness, however, salvation is inherently social. The Jewish and Christian conviction about salvation is remarkable precisely in that salvation has a history. Salvation is a fully public event that unfolds in historical time before the watching eyes of the nations. Salvation is not a matter of pulling a few individual survivors from the wreckage of creation after the Fall, but is about the re-creation of a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3: 13; Rev. 21: 1). The history of salvation is not told separately from the history of politics. In the scriptures the story of salvation takes flesh on a public stage and interacts with pharaohs, kings, and Caesars. Salvation itself is imaged as a coming kingdom and a new city.

Indispensable to the history of salvation are Israel and the church. God calls a community of people to be a foretaste of salvation, one concrete community called to live differently, so that others may taste and see God's peaceful revolution and be blessed too. Even political theologies that try to keep political history and salvation history together tend to neglect the centrality of the people of God to the history of salvation. "How odd of God / To choose the Jews" remains the unspoken refrain, for the idea of a chosen people is an affront to the universal-ism of modern politics. It is nevertheless a basic theological datum, one that in the recent past was often elided by supersessionism: namely, the argument that the church opens up and universalizes the particularism of Israel. As Gerhard Lohfink's important book Does God Need the Church? argues, however, the theo-logic of the salvation of the whole world through one particular people (Gen. 12: 3) is implicit in the logic of a creation with freedom:

[H]ow can anyone change the world and society at its roots without taking away freedom? It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God's plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have the opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating . . . What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed. (Lohfink 1999: 27)

To avoid supersessionism, some such explanation of the logic of election is necessary, given the basic scriptural datum that Israel and the church are central to the history of salvation and therefore of political history.

The Israelites, of course, most often did not in fact look much different from other communities. The Old Testament tells the history of salvation in a penitential key, highlighting the sin of the Israelites from which salvation is promised. The claim of the Israelites to be the people of God is not a claim of moral superiority for the Israelites, but a claim that the very drama of sin and salvation is being embodied to the world in Israel. Central to this embodiment are covenant, liturgy, and law. As Walter Brueggemann writes, "Deuteronomy offers covenant as a radical and systemic alternative to the politics of autonomy, the economics of exploitation, and the theology of self-indulgence" (Brueggemann 2000: 48). Indeed, theology and politics are inseparable, for the autonomy of royal power -in this context both Israelite and Assyrian - is an autonomy vis-a-vis God, and therefore a form of idolatry. Liturgy is never merely "religious" or other-worldly, but is the enacted drama of the different kind of power and the different kind of political order that YHWH wills over against the oppressors of Israel: "This distinctive community is invited to affirm that the world constructed in liturgy is more reliable and more credible than the world 'out there'" (p. 43, emphasis in original). The Torah likewise is not "religious" law, but covers every aspect of life, from "civil" and "criminal" law to body hair, from governance to birds' nests.

Nevertheless, Israel in its self-understanding is not a political entity of the same order as other ancient political units. Israel's experience of what we would call "statehood" is relatively brief, from the reign of David to the conquests by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and Israel's experience of statehood is not what gives it identity or continuity. The preceding period of tribal confederacy (1200-1000 bce) was not merely the "prenational" period, as if it were just a primitive form preliminary to monarchy. Tribal confederacy may have been a deliberate counter-model to the monarchies of the Canaanite city-states (Lohfink 1999: 107-8). When the Deuteronomist tells the story, the shift to kingship is cast in a negative light (1 Sam. 8). The social order codified by the Torah reaches back behind kingship for its norms and avoids any connection with the Davidic "state." Both in the forms of its post-exilic temple community and in the federation of synagogues that follows, the people of Israel is a tertium quid. The synagogal community is neither a polis nor a koinon. A koinon, or association, was a subset of the whole polis. A koinon was a club formed around particular or special interests. The concern of the synagogue, however, was for the whole of life, as mandated by the Torah. Synagogues maintained communication with each other and were concerned to remain connected to the land of Israel. The Roman Empire recognized their peculiar status, and granted them exemption from military service and from the imperial cult (Lohfink 1999: 116-18).

The church adopted this model from the synagogue and began to employ the term ekklesia to denote the peculiar political status of the people of God. The ekklesia was the "assembly" of all those with citizen rights in a Greek city-state. The church's use of the term ekklesia may have its ultimate roots in the Deutero-nomic phrase "the day of the assembly" at Sinai (Deut. 9: 10, 10: 4, 18: 16). In adopting the term ekklesia, the church was making a claim to being more than a mere koinon. The church was not a mere part of a whole but was itself a whole, whose interests were not particular but catholic; they embraced the fate of the entire world. The church saw itself as the eschatological fulfillment of Israel, and therefore as the witness and embodiment of salvation to the world. The church was not polis, and yet it used the language of the kingdom of God to describe the very concrete and visible fulfillment of Israel that was "at hand" in the event of Jesus Christ (Mark 1: 15). The church was not polis, and yet it used the language of citizenship to describe membership in it (Eph. 2: 19; Phil. 3: 20). In the church, citizenship was available through baptism to those excluded from such status in the polis, namely women, children, and slaves.

The scholarly recovery of the Jewishness of Jesus over the last few decades (e.g. Sanders 1985) has important implications for the political significance of the church, because it puts to rest the (often antisemitic) spiritualization and interiorization of the Gospel. Jesus does not come to replace the crudely external Law and make it a matter of personal faith and motivation; he comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5: 17-18). Baptism and Eucharist now become the center of the ritual fulfillment of the Law, enacting a liturgical drama that recalls the confrontation of Christ with the powers and calls the participants into the body of Christ. The eucharistic body and the body of the community are so closely connected that Paul is convinced that divisions in the community along socioeconomic lines threaten to turn the Eucharist into an occasion of condemnation (1 Cor. 11: 17-34). The Body of Christ was not a mystery cult but a new way of living reconciled lives in the world, and this way included all aspects of life. The church was to be the visible eschatological sign of God's plan of salvation for all of creation. That it often was not demanded, as Paul saw, that the story of the church be told penitentially.

It should be no surprise that the Romans treated the church as a political threat whose practices were subversive of good order in the Empire. Pliny, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan (c. 110 ce), reports that he applied Trajan's ban on political societies to the Christian communities of Asia Minor. In the Roman view, Christian failure to worship the pagan gods and their assumption that allegiance to Caesar conflicted with allegiance to Christ was not simply a religious matter, but concerned imperial political order. As N. T. Wright notes, Christians did not attempt to defend themselves from persecution with the claim that they were merely a "private club" or collegium for the advancement of particular interests. They continued to proclaim the kingship of Christ, even if such kingship was not based on the model of Caesar's (Wright 1992: 346-57). That Christ's kingdom is not of (ek) the world (John 18: 36) was regarded as a statement of origin; the kingdom is not from the world, but it is in the world and deeply concerned with it.

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