In John 14:30, Jesus is referred to as the “ruler of this world.” If we believe that Christianity is for everyone, it follows that theological questions have implications of the entire globe. A global Christianity requires us to live in communion with over 7 billion other humans, sharing resources and organizing ourselves socially for well-being and peace. Given that we live in a world that must take some shape, whether ordered or chaotic, past Church of the Brethren Annual Conference statements have addressed some of the fundamental questions of world order.
Take any world history course, and you are bound to hear that the modern world order began in 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, which established the modern day nation-state system of sovereign countries. This world order has largely persisted since then- operating under the assumption that nations are the only legitimate wielders of force, and that they must have sovereignty over what happens within their borders.
However, this world order is not the natural state of world affairs, but rather a social construction, as were the world orders that came before. As such, it is open to constant re-evaluation and change. In recent decades, this has looked like the move towards globalization and international cooperation, through international and supranational organizations like the United Nations and the European Union, among others.
These cooperative organizations are not the only actors to emerge as powerful players in geopolitics- terrorist organizations, local governments, religious leaders and even NGOs have taken on roles once seen as the purview of national governments. This landscape of competing sovereignties, or “neomedievalism,” poses challenges for individuals, organizations and governments trying to solve the world’s problems with a playbook based on the traditional Westphalian understanding of the world.
With all of the potential ways to order ourselves in the global system, it is interesting to consider how the Church of the Brethren has commented on the current system, and how we have conceptualized the ideal system.
First, the Church of the Brethren recognizes that ultimate allegiance is owed to God. Our commitment to governments and structures are secondary to our commitment to live in the footsteps of Jesus. In the 1967 Church, State and Citizenship statement, the Church says it “has loyalties which go beyond limited groups and even beyond national interests and boundaries.” In the “Church and State” Annual Conference statement, the church says “we recognize that civil disobedience to law can be a form of ultimate obedience to God, a prophetic judgment a witness against unjust law, and can bring clarity to discipleship, giving priority to obedience to the Divine rather than to the human (Acts 5:29).”
Second, the Church has recognized the impossibility of perfection in man-made political systems. The Annual Conference statement on Church and State refers to the Old Testament as evidence that society is meant to look to God, rather than a state, “for security and the right ordering of its life.” Governments cannot be perfect in light of “human sinfulness, which affects every individual and group and causes all persons and human enterprises to need the discipline and loving judgement of God.”
Third, the Church has recognized these institutions as useful, but only insofar as they serve human need effectively. They are not inherently good or bad- what matters is how the policies carried out by the institutions impact human wellbeing. National governments, agencies, international organizations, and even NGOs are built with human needs in mind, and when they cease to meet human needs, they are no longer worthwhile. The statement makes this clear by saying, “The church affirms the purposes of the state as a necessary instrument for maintaining order, securing justice and freedom, and promoting the general welfare, but also holds that the state is limited by the prior and greater sovereignty of God.”
Fourth, the Church of the Brethren has noted the importance of viewing ourselves as part of a larger global community. Rather than identifying with a country, a culture, a political ideology or a denomination, the Church has called for witnessing a “genuine concern for the whole of humankind” in the political arena. This involves shunning “idolatrous nationalism” that fails to recognize our common humanity, in favor of a worldview that understands that each human is created in God’s image.
So what does an ideal Brethren world order look like?
The 1977 Justice and Nonviolence statement provides some answers. Order is humanity prioritizing loyalty to God and seeking “peace with justice.” This justice encompasses economic fairness, human rights, creation care. It is characterized by a genuine concern for humankind that transcends all barriers. It is a system that uses restorative justice to rebuild right relationships, and rejects the idea that any person or group is superior or more worthy of a good, peaceful life.
As we seek to live in community with over 7 billion people, these past efforts to understand the world and to imagine what it could be are incredibly valuable. Those interested in reading more about this topic can check out relevant Annual Conference statements here: