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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Christian political witness and the stone of stumbling

What is Christian political witness? In an age of both political upheaval and the headlong marginalisation of the church it’s a good question to ask. In a cogently written piece on Political Theology Today Alastair Roberts argues that:

Christian political witness must be built around and declare Christ as the great eschatological stone laid by God. He must either be approached as the stubborn obstacle, arresting the development of all idolatrous political visions, or as the chief cornerstone, the sure and solid basis from [which] all else can take its bearings.

He arrives at this conclusion by way of a reading of 1 Peter 2:4-10. The passage is a call to those who are “elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet. 1:1) to become part of a living, eschatological temple, built on the stone that was rejected by the builders but which God used as “the very head of the corner”.

The passage knots together three Old Testament stone motifs (1 Pet. 2:6-8), with a possible allusion to a fourth, in Roberts’ view at least.

1. Isaiah berates the scoffers in Jerusalem, who think that they will escape catastrophe. YHWH says:

Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ (Is. 28:16)

He will establish justice, and “when the overwhelming scourge passes through”, the smug scoffers will be overwhelmed: “do not scoff, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord GOD of hosts against the whole land” (Is. 28:22).

2. The psalmist has been in great distress, attacked on all sides by nations, but the Lord has been his strength and salvation. He is therefore like a stone rejected by the builders, which has become nevertheless the cornerstone. “This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:22-23).

Christian political witness must always begin with and always come back to the question of the internal political condition of the church.

3. With invasion by the Assyrians in prospect, God tells Isaiah not to “call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread” (Is. 8:12). Rather he should fear the Lord of hosts, who will “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offence and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Is. 8:14–15).

4. The fourth, more remote Old Testament stone is the one, cut without hands, that smashes the Babylonian empire and the kingdoms that will arise after it down to the Greeks, in Daniel 2. This stone will be a kingdom set up by the God of heaven “in the days of those kings”, that “shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people”—in the way that Babylon, for example, would be left to the Persians (Dan. 2:44).

So the church is a community built on Jesus who is the stone rejected by Israel but chosen by God, a stone that signalled disaster for Israel, and perhaps implicitly the stone that would put an end to pagan empire. Personally, I don’t think the Daniel passage is relevant.

Roberts then moves the argument into the modern context in order to make of it a model for Christian political witness:

Christ’s presence in the world continues to have a character similar to that which he represented in first century Israel. He is either the rejected stone upon which we stumble or the chief cornerstone from which all else takes its bearings. One way or another, we have to reckon with him, either as a stubborn and dangerous obstacle or as the one whose claims must take priority over all else.

Here’s where I have some reservations, much as I like (most of) the biblical analysis.

1. What is the basis for shifting from Christ’s presence in first century Israel to Christ’s presence in the world? The stone passages deployed in 1 Peter 2:6-8 all have reference to Israel. There is no stone of stumbling for the nations. Why not just leave it at that?

2. Historically speaking, the line of pagan kingdoms descending from the archetypal idolatrous empire of the Babylonians came to an end with the fall of Babylon the great and the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē to worship of the God of Israel on account of his Son. How do we get from that storyline to the present?

3. Peter does, in fact, attribute wider eschatological significance to the idea that the church is a living temple built on the stone of Christ, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, etc. It is that such a people will be vindicated in the eyes of the nations, and the nations will glorify God, “on the day of visitation” (2 Pet. 2:12). The church has been built on a stone that was rejected by the Jews (Roberts notes the problem of supersessionism), but it is neither this stone nor the church that will hold the nations accountable. God will judge the oikoumenē, and when he does, the believers, if they have kept their conduct honourable, will be vindicated. In the meantime, they are to “Honour the emperor” (2:17).

4. What this suggests to me is that the “stone” is part of our story, or better, part of our history. It is something that happened to us in the first century, with massive consequences both for Israel and the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

5. The story, however, did not stop with Jesus or with the destruction of Jerusalem or with the victory of YHWH over Roman paganism. So my proposal would be that Christian political witness must be grounded, in the first place, in the telling of this story as a political narrative about the living God and his people through history, right up to the present. We have to get to grips with who we are as a historical people.

6. A significant part of this story, whether we like it or not, was the reign of Christ over the nations of European Christendom. This was obviously a political story in its own right, and a messy one at that, but we also have to grapple now with the fact that Christ’s position as pantocrator has been usurped by an aggressive pantheon of secular values. We are again “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11).

7. Jesus is still Lord over all things in the sense that he will safeguard the life and witness of his people, until the last enemy has been subjected to him (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

8. He is also our Lord. If we confess that God made him head of the corner, then we admit that he holds us accountable. Christian political witness must always begin with and always come back to the question of the internal political condition of the church. In the end, it may come down, as it does with Peter, simply to the moral, social and political integrity of an improbable people that has been chosen to serve as a “priesthood”, proclaiming the “excellencies” of God.

9. Perhaps when we’ve got these foundations in place, we may begin tentatively, in learning mode, to speak out prophetically about justice and truth and human flourishing.