The gospel’s political side-effects

Kim Fabricius posted an interesting set of propositions on political theology last week. This in turn led to an enthralling exchange on the BHT between Joel Hunter and “Pirate” (which I strongly encourage you to read in full: links at the end of this post, after the fold).

Looking at Kim’s propositions, much of what he says is excellent. For example, his citation (in Prop.3) of the following words from the blessed Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a model for Christian political understanding:

We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”

This “epistemological privilege of the excluded and oppressed” is an effective antidote to the perennial tendency of Christians to baptise the political status quo. It’s not always going to be the whole story, but it’s a perspective we always need to keep in mind. As Kim goes on to point out in Prop.5:

The point is not that the poor and oppressed have a monopoly on virtue, let alone that they are an elect group, rather it is simply that they are the ones who get screwed – and God doesn’t like people getting screwed.

On the other hand, there’s a little bit of straw-manning at times, such as in Prop.4’s description of shoulder-shrugging political conservatives going around quoting “You always have the poor with you” at people. Though Kim then pulls Prop.4 back from the brink with the closing observation that:

Jesus was not being cynical, or even realistic, about the inevitability of an excluded underclass, rather he was reminding his disciples where they will be found if they are faithful – among the poor and oppressed.

But I agree with Josh that the weakest of Kim’s propositions is Prop.7, with its talk of “calling governments to account and repentance“, of looking to establish an “economy of grace” in the political realm. As Josh points out, this use of terms such as “repentance” and “grace” is problematic, because it separates those concepts from the context of gospel, church and sacrament in which the New Testament anchors them. Josh reminds us that:

In the Gospels, “repentance” is about a call to faith in Christ, to baptism.
 

In contrast, talk of “calling governments to repentance” sounds like “a call to the Church to preach a kind of halfway Christianity for the unbaptized”. As Josh continues:

The Church is not in the business of morally reforming unbelievers.
 

Joel’s response was to suggest that Kim was using the term “repentance” in a broader, more “allusive” sense here. That may be true, but in my experience this “broader”, “political” concept of repentance, once accepted, tends to swallow up personal and sacramental notions of repentance quite quickly. This applies at all points of the political spectrum, ranging from campaigners for trade justice through to conservative cultural warriors.

In addition, it can easily be used as something of a “power play”, or as a rhetorical bludgeon. The moment you move from calling for a change of policy on this or that issue, to calling for “repentance” by your political opponents, you are moving from being merely a participant in political discourse to one who claims to stand over that discourse. To reject my political platform is to reject God. That may be legitimate in some cases, but it needs to be done with a degree of caution and self-suspicion.

A better approach can be found by going back to Kim’s opening proposition, in which he states that an “apolitical theology” is impossible. Christ didn’t merely establish a private religious cult or a set of moral or theological teachings: he established a church, a community founded on public truths about events occurring in the visible, political realm (“…suffered under Pontius Pilate…”). The church is inescapably a polis by its very nature, and hence inescapably political.

Hence political action, engagement with political authorities and movements (whether in solidarity, support or opposition), while not the church’s mission per se, is an inevitable and necessary side-effect, or byproduct, of the church’s ministry. The church calls people to faith and repentance, it baptises them into Christ, and in so doing incorporates them into a new polis, making them citizens of the kingdom of God. This inevitably has political consequences, as the polis of the church interacts with that of the secular state.

(A good example of this is the recent row in the UK between the government and the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, over rules requiring church adoption agencies to provide their services to gay couples. The churches have been forced to recognise once again that the state is not going to leave them alone. As Bonhoeffer points out in Discipleship (p.202), the end will come only when “the Christian community has been deprived of its last inch of space on the earth” by the state.)

There is a parallel here with the relationship between faith and works in the life of the Christian. We are not constituted as Christians or made right before God by our good works, but solely through faith in Christ. However, good works are an inevitable consequence, a necessary side-effect, of faith (though it is critical to bear in mind that we will normally be unconscious of these works, as taught in the parable of the sheep and goats).

Regarding political engagement as being a necessary side-effect of the church’s ministry, but not the church’s ministry in itself, seems a good starting point for avoiding either political quietism and retreat on the one hand, or subsuming the gospel in political activism on the other.

 
That Josh/Joel Political Theology Smackdown in full

Hint: Firefox, Iceweasel, Opera and (hawk, spit) IE7 users may want to open each link while holding the Ctrl key, to open each link in a new tab for ease of reading.

Joel: “Kim pens my favorite ten propositions yet…”

Josh: “I can safely say I have no clue what he is talking about.”

Joel: “Another successful experiment…”

Josh: “I’ll summarize what I understand by each of his 10 propositions”

Josh: “The main thing I have a problem with is Prop 7…”

Joel: “…judging by Kim’s replies, I think you and he are actually a lot closer theologically (but not politically) than you might think…”

At this point, the discussion moves on to the question of the collapse of confessional Protestantism in post-Nazi Germany, and in particular the respective roles of Karl Barth and Hermann Sasse:

Josh: “Your and my differences on Barth are pretty indicative here.”

Joel: “…your claim that ‘The Theological Declaration of Barmen destroyed Protestantism in Germany’ is indicative of the oversimplification spell of Sasse…”

Josh: “I don’t think Sasse oversimplified anything…”

Joel: “Barth Good, Nazi Sympathizers Bad”

Josh: “Somehow, we’re not reading the same history…”

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6 Responses to The gospel’s political side-effects

  1. Pingback: The Boar’s Head Tavern » The SMACKDOWN: Read it here first

  2. joel hunter says:

    Hmmm. I suppose I have reservations about your characterization of the Church’s political dimension as “an inevitable and necessary side-effect” of the Church’s ordinary mission/ministry. I blanch at the term “side-effect.” Although I largely agree with your attempt to find the Golden Mean between quietism and activism (which I think Kim was attempting, too), I think “side-effect” suggests something automatic or mechanical about the Church’s (and the individual Christian’s) political activity. If I take these meds for my gullet, then I will become drowsy. The imagery of side-effect or byproduct doesn’t seem adequate for holy-spirited activity in all spheres of life (not just the political, but also the aesthetic, the economic, the legal, etc.). In the first place, decision, judgment, activity all involve intentionality. Political activity doesn’t just happen like water flowing to the lowest elevation; it is always targeted at something in some concrete situation. In the second place, we need our decisions, judgments and activities to be normed by God’s revealed desires and paths for his creatures’ shalom. How do we adjudicate between the different “side effects” envisioned or advocated by different voices who are receiving the same Word and Sacrament from the Church’s ordinary ministry? Exhibit: Sasse and Bonhoeffer. I would agree with you, however, that if we are receiving the whole counsel of God, political activity would come “naturally” to the Church.

  3. John H says:

    Joel: thanks for your comment. I thought people might take issue with the term “side-effect”, and I wouldn’t claim that it is ideal. A couple of clarifying points:

    1. I didn’t have the pharmaceutical sense of the term in mind so much as its computer science meaning (or at least a hazy approximation to that meaning). In some computer languages (e.g. Lisp), what is technically termed a “side effect” may in fact be what the program, or routine, is intended for. The computer executes a function that has some effect on its internal state, and as a “side effect” prints some text on the screen.

    (The reason for not making this clearer in the post was because it seemed a point better suited to “the meta” rather than cluttering up the main argument.)

    2. I considered using the word “consequence” instead, but the problem then is that people tend to focus overly on the desired consequence, leading to a tendency to bypass the gospel to get straight to the consequence of the gospel (see also: sanctification). The choice of the term “side-effect” was to try to capture the “unintended intentionality” of our political good works, as for any other good works.

    Political activity doesn’t just happen like water flowing to the lowest elevation; it is always targeted at something in some concrete situation.

    I agree, and as such it is like any other “good works” we perform as a consequence (or “side effect” in the sense outlined above) of our justification. However, like any other good work, there is a sense in which this intentional activity is unconscious and unintentional: a work of the sheep who are baffled and mystified when told what they have done for their Saviour.

    What does this mean in practice? At least partly this: that Christian political activity must be fully “incarnated”, explicable and justifiable in entirely “political” terms rather than it being necessary to import the language of the gospel into it – in the same way that other “good works” need to be good in their own terms, genuine acts of love rather than a self-conscious “acting out” of the gospel. That’s not to say our political activity cannot be informed by the gospel (how can it not be?), just that if we are going to act politically then we need to do so wholeheartedly and not as people pretending to sit above the political fray.

    Then the Christian local councillor will be able to say on the day of judgment, “But Lord, when did I see you with a child who couldn’t find a school place, or facing the demolition of your house to make way for a new road, or unfairly struck off the doctors’ surgery’s roll, or as an old person terrified by unruly youths outside her home?” And Christ will say, “In as much as you did it for the least of these…”

    In other words, even if it was “religious” considerations that took the Christian into politics, the most Christian political acts they will have conducted will be those that seemed least “spiritual” at the time but which most truly served others. (Which is what I meant by “unintentioned intentionality”.

    How do we adjudicate between the different “side effects” envisioned or advocated by different voices who are receiving the same Word and Sacrament from the Church’s ordinary ministry?

    To some extent, I’m not sure we are meant to adjudicate. We have to make our own choices, and we can agree or disagree with those who take different political courses. Bonhoeffer and Sasse took very different paths, but I’m not sure either of them (certainly not Bonhoeffer) would have wanted anyone to start adjudicating and saying he did the one, objectively “right” thing and that the other did the “wrong” thing. We do what seems best and then trust in God’s grace: “sin boldly” is a political statement (made, indeed, in a political context, IIRC) as much as a moral one.

  4. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The sacramental gospel

  5. joel hunter says:

    Ah, you tied a nice fly and like a good trout, I bit 🙂

    I’m going to think out loud a bit here. Prima facie, I like the notion of “unintended intentionality” to describe our political activity. It has a very Aristotelian ring about it. The virtuous man is not only the man who does the right thing, but he also does it for the right reason. Furthermore, he does it gladly; i.e., he doesn’t have to overcome some vicious desire to do it. One acquires this kind of virtue by imitation and practice until being virtuous is practically unconscious. However, this does seem to run afoul of Romans 7, doesn’t it? Do I have good reasons to think that this kind of character formation is really going on? Am I being too pessimistic here?

    That’s not to say our political activity cannot be informed by the gospel (how can it not be?)

    Come visit me on this side of the pond. I’ll show you.

    To some extent, I’m not sure we are meant to adjudicate. We have to make our own choices, and we can agree or disagree with those who take different political courses. Bonhoeffer and Sasse took very different paths, but I’m not sure either of them (certainly not Bonhoeffer) would have wanted anyone to start adjudicating and saying he did the one, objectively “right” thing and that the other did the “wrong” thing. We do what seems best and then trust in God’s grace: “sin boldly” is a political statement (made, indeed, in a political context, IIRC) as much as a moral one.

    Now my existentialist sensibilities are with you here. Yes: sometimes the Knight of Faith acts beyond reason and even beyond ethics (e.g., Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac). Sasse held the line on confessional identity. I’m willing to agree that that was right, at least taken as a relatively isolated act. But a key component of being virtuous is to rightly size up a situation. This is what I was pressing Josh about. It is possible that one action is the right thing to do–unqualifiedly–but when a different or larger perspective is gained, it turns out not to be. I’m not sure that this is the case with Sasse, but I think there are occasions when the right thing to do concerns matters where “Here I stand!” is unnecessarily exclusive. Assassinating Hitler might fall into that category. Surely such an act is an unqualified evil. Yet when seen in a larger perspective, it is after all the right thing to do. But when faced with those kinds of decisions, I agree with you: it is a matter of conscience and such acts cannot be prescribed in advance.

    At times (maybe most times) acting in accordance with one’s good character or in accordance with principle or duty is the needful thing. But there can be unintended consequences if we are not also prudently sizing up a situation and considering outcomes. While I would not say that Sasse was “wrong” in any absolute sense, I am willing to say that Bonhoeffer was right, objectively right. Let’s say Sasse was right to leave Barmen for theological reasons. But by the nature of that public act (leaving Barmen), he is doing more than just privately standing on principle. He is also abandoning his resistance colleagues (again, I don’t know if Sasse was active in any resistance on his own) and severing ties of community in favor of some other community.

    Sorry. Rambling on here, and I probably haven’t spit out the hook, so I’ll just quit now and let you reel me in.

  6. John H says:

    Joel: thank you again for your comment. No trout-baiting going on here, honest. 😉

    As regards “unintentioned intentionality”, I don’t think that takes away from the need for deliberate, conscious activity also. We have to get on with making deliberate choices in favour of godly behaviour, but it is still in those unconscious acts where the work is really going on.

    Another way of looking at it is the doctrine of vocation: however much we may want to elevate our deliberately-chosen, “spiritual” activities as being what vocation is about, it’s in discharging our regular duties as parents, spouses, employees etc where we do most to serve God – or, rather, to be the instruments by which God serves our neighbours.

    Hence my hypothetical Christian councillor went into local politics out of a laudable decision to serve Christ in the political sphere, but it is still the unconscious, “unspiritual” activities – the ones that, to her, seem to distract from “what she really wants to do as a Christian politician” – that matter most.

    Oh, and FWIW, as regards the “Sasse or Bonhoeffer” thing: in anything approaching those circumstances, I hope I’d follow Bonhoeffer’s example, but I expect I’d follow Sasse. At best.

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