Why Politics Matters and How We Got the Wrong End of the Stick (2)

It has become our unquestioned assumption, in the modern American context, that we have the “right’ to develop our potential to the fullest extent possible. This assumption is constantly fed by pop-psychology and a goodly number of new unexamined religious ideas. We are a culture in love with power and the power we love is our own to be very precise. The only ultimate check on this personal “right” is the “rights of others.” We live, after all, in a democracy. Whether we are politically liberal, conservative or moderate (all slippery and notoriously difficult terms to define in our present context) we generally believe that it is our God-given right to change the leadership of our nation, state or local community. We then translate this idea of political rights into our everyday lives. Because we deeply cherish, without questioning why this is so, our personal freedom to have and use power we then assume that all good communities, including religious communities, should be built on the assumption that a good society, or a good church, encourages us to express our views and seek to make changes that we desire. In the words of Hauerwas and Willimon, “each person gets to be his or her own tyrant” (Resident Aliens, 33).

Bishop Lesslie NewbiginI have written in many places and contexts that the most influential theological voice in the formation of my vision of missional-ecumenism is Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (1909–1998). Newbigin informed my mind, heart and vision like no one else, at least in the early stages of my movement away from modernism and into the depths of the revealed mystery of the faith and mission of the church. In 1983 Bishop Newbigin wrote:

Once the concept of “human rights” has established itself as an axiom, the question inevitably arises: How and by whom are these rights to be secured? With growing emphasis, post-Enlightenment societies have answered: by the state. The nation state, replacing the old concepts of the Holy Church and the Holy Empire, is the centre-piece in the political scene in post-Enlightenment Europe. After the trauma of the religious wars of the seventeenth century, Europe settled down to the principle of religious coexistence, and the passions which had formerly been invested in rival interpretations of religion were more and more invested in the nation state. Nationalism became the effective ideology of European peoples, always at times of crises proving stronger than any other ideological or religious force. If there is any entity to which ultimate loyalty is due, it is the nation state. In the twentieth century we have become accustomed to the fact that–in the name of the nation–Catholics will fight Catholics, Protestants will fight Protestants, and Marxists will fight Marxists. The charge of blasphemy, if it is ever made, is treated as a quaint anachronism; but the charge of treason, if placing loyalty above that to the nation state, is treated as the unforgivable crime. The nation state has taken the place of God. Responsibilities for education, healing and public welfare which had formerly rested with the Church devolved more and more upon the nation state. In the present century this has been vastly accelerated by the advent of the “welfare state.” National governments are widely assumed to be responsible for and capable of providing those things which former generations thought only God could provide–freedom from fear, hunger, disease and want–in a word: “happiness” (The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches, World Council of Churches, 1983, pp. 13-15).

The very state that we created to secure our personal rights is based on “an irresolvable dilemma because it has to present itself in two prima facie incompatible ways. On the one hand, the democratic state modestly claims to be a mere means to an end. On the other hand, the same state needs to convince its citizens that it can give them meaningful identity because the state is the only means of achieving the common good.” (Resident Aliens, 35).

There are a number of problems with this view of the state, many of which have reared their head in recent American political and social history. Many of these have contributed to what I’m calling the “Babylonian Captivity of the American Church.” While the left promises more and more to our citizens through government solutions the right counters that it alone can secure and defend our rights over the long haul. The debate rages and roils in every national election. But one thing remains clear, for the left and right together – we need the state to protect us and this demands wars in order to preserve moral coherence in our society. Whether it is “drone attacks” or “boots on the ground” the ethics of this seem to miss modern state-oriented Christians. “We are quite literally a people that morally live off our wars because they give us the necessary basis for self-sacrifice so that a people who have been taught to pursue only their own interest can at times be mobilized to die for one another” (Resident Aliens, 35).

Modern wars give us meaning. They rally us together, provide a common enemy for the state and help make us “one nation under God.” They allow us to celebrate and support our troops and, thereby, defend our policies in the world. The conclusion, quite starkly, is hard for most of us to admit: “In short, there is nothing wrong with America that a good war cannot cure” (Resident Aliens, 36). Look no further than the “spirit” of the nation in the days following 9/11/01. We came together and (generally) all agreed that we had to fight a new war on terrorism and our responses to terror were morally right. From there we parted ways about how to proceed but one thing remains – our wars provide us with a great motive, and powerfully symbolic means, for supporting our nation.

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