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.
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: