Why Politics Matters and How We Got the Wrong End of the Stick (3)

The liberal church’s response, against the backdrop of the social presumptions that I discussed in yesterday’s blog, has very often been a weak-kneed call for “peace with images-2justice.” Hauerwas and Willimon (photo at left) put it this way: “Most of our social activism is formed on the presumption that God is superfluous to the formation of a world of peace with justice. Fortunately, we are powerful people who, because we live in a democracy, are free to use out power. It is all up to us” (Resident Aliens, 36).

The problem with this liberal response is that it is formed on the general presumption that we are not actually active participants in God’s continuing history of creation and redemption. Does the Bible teach that war and injustice arise because we have taken matters into our own hands? So what is wrong with the thinking of the National Council of Churches when it responds to peace and justice issues in a way that has become so common that it is entirely predictable?

Why can’t the National Council of Churches proclaim (that war and injustice arise when we take matters into our own hands) . . . to the world? The council cannot preach that on its posters because the council, like most American Christians, assumes that the key to our political effectiveness lies in translating our political assertions into terms that can be embraced by a thinking, sensitive, modern (though disbelieving), average American. Peace with justice (Resident Aliens, 37).

The problem with this view of politics is that it turns a Christian view, whether for the liberal churches or the conservative ones, into a type of Christian social activism. The right then does the same thing as the left. The right differs on the particulars, for sure, but the common agreement is that we should use our valued personal liberty and power to “make the world a better place.” From George McGovern to Ronald Reagan, and all politicians in between, this message has captured large parts of the modern church. Jerry Falwell wanted to elect “born again” politicians, people who would help restore America. Prayer in public places would counteract secularism. Liberals want to bring about a “secular” form of peace and justice created by good governments built on false confidence in man.

I cannot remember how many times I’ve heard conservatives say, “The day the Supreme Court removed God from our public schools is the same day God’s judgment on America began in earnest!” What is behind this kind of  statement is the same type of “Christianity” that is behind the peace and justice platforms of the Christian left. “American Christians, in the name of justice, try to create a society in which faith in the living God is rendered irrelevant or private” (Resident Aliens, 37). For many conservatives this faith is a totally private affair to be carried on in the heart. For others it is the active pursuit of justice in a society in which God is rendered unnecessary since everyone embraces peace and justice. Here, mere toleration is the ultimate goal.

What then is the true political task of the church?

I began to understand what I believe to is the best answer to this question in 1990 when I first read the much-discussed book, Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), by philosopher/ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and Methodist bishop William Willimon. The subtitle of their book is appropriate: “A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong.” I read the book more than twenty-two years ago and marked it extensively at the time. I look back realizing that I was disturbed, even a little provoked. I loved how the two authors skewered the social stance of liberal Christians. I was not sure about their response to the role of conservatives. (This makes sense since I was entrapped in my own conservative ideology.) When ideology gets challenged, as Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts it, this sometimes provokes “excessive outbursts of emotion.” I am not immune.

Hauerwas and Willimon left me staggered but not convinced. Now, more than two decades later, I believe they did get it right, at least about the critical point regarding the role of the church in politics. Their point is actually simple – the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world (38).

One reason that this is true is that Christians have no way of understanding the world, and thus rightly responding to it, except by way of the gospel and the church. Our stance is weakness, one that is entirely paradoxical to the world. The words “peace and justice” have no real meaning apart from the life and death of Jesus Christ. “Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style in Judea” (Resident Aliens, 38). The Jesus story is the only one that gives real content and meaning to our faith. This story judges all political slogans that do not need God to make themselves credible and workable, wether they be from the left or the right.

The problem today is that Christian views on the right often look like the political ideology of the Republican Party, or at least major parts of it. Mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, on the other hand, tend to portray a political ideology that looks almost identical to the platform of the Democratic Party. “The church is the dull exponent of conventional secular political ideas with a vaguely religious tint” (Resident Aliens, 38, italics are mine for emphasis). In watching the last conventions of the two major parties, and in witnessing the inauguration of the president just a few weeks ago, I was struck again by this problem. So what is wrong with this picture in terms of how Christians have engaged in political thought and practice?

Political theologies and ideologies, whether from the left or the right, “want to maintain Christendom, wherein the church justifies itself as a helpful, if sometimes complaining, prop for the state” (Resident Aliens, 38, italics are mine). Please read that sentence several times.

A few years ago the book that pushed me back into the thesis of Resident Aliens, this time with a deep readiness to understand the author’s thesis without simply reacting, was To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010), written by Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter. The reaction to Hunter’s thesis was fierce from the Christian right, ranging from personal attacks to denials of his credibility, which is laughable if not tragic. The book is extremely important. I will argue this point tomorrow.

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