André Trocmé on the witness of the church to the state

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October 29, 2013 by jmar198013

The appropriate relation of church to government has been a perennial source of tension since there has been a church (for instance compare Romans 13 to Revelation 13). Over and against those who equate their partisan political allegiances with biblical faith on the one hand; and those who advocate withdrawal from the public arena or even a revolutionary “smash the government” ethos on the other, the vocation of the church is faithful witness. Allegiance to partisan interests is giving what is holy to dogs. Violent resistance fails to love neighbor and enemy. Withdrawal frustrates the task of witness by default.

So how should we understand our witness to the state as Christians? I believe that André Trocmé was on the right track when he appealed to Luke 18.1-8:

Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

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Trocmé observed that:

Had it not been for the widow in this parable, all would have gone on as usual. But she was an obstacle…The church is the widow, placed in the town to carry out her mission. She is poor, without influence and without rights, like the early Christians. She is the little flock described by the prophets as “the remnant of Israel.” She is among the humble celebrated by Mary in her song (Luke 1:46–55). This is the true nature of the church.

But the poor widow is not resigned to her lot. To be sure, she is no revolutionary waiting to overthrow the judge’s authority. She respects his authority even in its injustices, and she appeals to him to grant justice. But she will not give in and does not seek alms. She is oppressed, taken advantage of by her adversary, and seeks justice.

The church is called, like the widow, to speak up for justice in the public arena. The church is called upon to appeal to to those in power to do rightly and administer fairly. If we are in bed with partisan interests; if we are set in violent opposition to the powers that be; or if we withdraw from the public square into our comfortable personal piety, we are in no position to so act. But our first appeal is to God, in prayer–the church is called first to be constant in prayer. That is how Jesus introduced this parable: he was instructing his people about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. And of course, Luke’s Jesus had already taught his disciples the substance of their prayer (Luke 11.2-4):

Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.

“But,” Trocmé rightfully asked, “is the prayer that Jesus taught us, ‘Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ simply an affair between God and the individual soul? Is it only concerning their own salvation that the elect cry day and night to God? Is it only for their forgiveness, for assurance of their redemption?” In short, the answer is, No. Whether we recognize it or not, although Christians may be called upon to pray this prayer in the privacy of a closet (Matt. 6.6), it is hardly an expression of private piety. It’s implications are local, they are national, they are universal:

In this parable Jesus speaks of the need for a justice of a far broader kind. He is saying to the church: Pray, pray the prayer I have taught you, that is, claim from God the restoration of justice on the earth, a resounding victory over evil. The church is not just a little flock of souls saved from death and awaiting God’s final judgment of the world . . . Our prayer is a lever, its fulcrum God. Bearing down on it with all their weight in the name of divine justice, the believing ones move the mountain of injustice in the world.

So what ought we to expect from such a witness–a robust intercession that calls on the powers that be to do right, animated by an engine of constant prayer? Do we suppose that Caesar will beat his sword into plowshares and declare a Jubilee? No, for then he would cease to be Caesar. But what do we see from the unjust judge of our parable?

The judge yields. He does not henceforth adopt the Sermon on the Mount as his norm, yet he gives in on one point. And so other plaintiffs, and the widow herself, will be able to invoke the precedent to obtain justice once again. In this way the church will fulfill its function in society. It will not itself govern, but it is the cornerstone of divine justice, and the state must either build on it or else stumble over it to its own condemnation.

Trocmé understood the nature of power, and the way the cosmos is ordered. It is said that the universe bends towards justice. The prayerful witness of the church bends with the universe before the justice of God, exerting upon Caesar pressure from below along with the downward pressure God will gladly exert from on high.

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One thought on “André Trocmé on the witness of the church to the state

  1. […] André Trocmé on the witness of the church to the state […]

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