Monday, May 7, 2012

Christianity and Power

This post is the second of three summarizing the essays of James Davison Hunter's book, To Change the World. The first can be found here.

The second essay focuses on power--the nature of it and of the church's relationship with it particularly in America. It is a delicate subject because on one hand, fulfilling God's creation mandate in the world necessarily involves the use of some kind of power over creation, and in using that power we reflect God's creative and redemptive power. On the other, abuses of the creation mandate have led to some of the worst acts of domination, exploitation, and destruction in history. Central to this tension is the question of how the church views and uses the dynamic of power.

The next chapter is one of my favorites and captures many of the problems I see with the American political climate of the 21st century. Hunter argues that as society becomes increasingly pluralistic and consequently fragmented, the main thing holding it together in a cohesive whole has been the coercive power of the state. In other words, as cultural consensus has decreased, our reliance on politics and the state to solve disputes and bring about cooperation and agreement has increased. The result is a phenomenon that he terms "politicization", or a tendency to turn to politics to solve more and more public problems. This trend has been especially acute since the New Deal era which saw the government taking responsibility for many new areas of peoples' lives. "The language of politics (and political economy) comes to frame progressively more of our understanding of our common life, our public purposes, and ourselves collectively and individually."

The most visible way this politicization has manifested has been the turn in social matters to ideology--"the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments." When consensual agreement in a dispute cannot be reached, groups turn to the state to impose their ideology on the other side. Matters of family, education, science, communication, and even sex have become matters of ideology to be argued in the political arena. Meanwhile, the democratic idea that everyone is involved in politics means that these ideological divisions extend outside of government to the whole nation. Politicization means that "we find it difficult to think of a way to address public...problems or issues in any way that is not political." the increasing role of government means that "it is far easier to force one's will on others through political or legal means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them."

Hunter then introduces one other relevant term--ressentiment, a French word combining the concepts of resentment, anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge. It is "grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged" to the point where the sensed of injury become central to a group's identity. Understandably, it often leads to a "discourse of negation", the need to tear down, prove wrong, or exact revenge on the wronging party. Ressentiment, Hunter argues, "has become the distinguishing characteristic of politics in modern cultures".

The church, he says, has gotten itself quite involved in this trend. As he noted in the first essay, the church's most visible form of engagement in America has been political. Some individual Christians are politically indifferent, but Christian churches and ministries that are concerned with social issues, because of politicization, increasingly involve themselves in the political process. "As a consequence, faith too has become highly politicized." In the following three chapters Hunter lays out three prominent "political theologies", ways the church in America has related itself to politics and to power. All are based on a formative vision, or "myth", an idealized view of how the church and society should be that shapes its strategy of public engagement. he starts with the Christian right.

The central myth of the Christian right is the classic "America as a Christian nation" history. With the American founding as their main reference point, they note that the world used to more closely reflect conservative Christian values and beliefs than it does today. They believe their deeply held values are therefore under challenge or even attack by the world of today and want to try to return America to its former righteousness. They view Christianity's legacy in America as a positive one, and the effects of bringing Christian values into government as beneficial.

Their perceived harm, then, is being wrought against America by the forces of secularization. To quote Dr. Lawrence White, "The soul of America is dying." They perceive a threat of a sweeping, deliberate liberal-secular takeover of the government, the courts, and the culture. They therefore take a defiant stand against secularization and all who support it (oppose them). They also perceive more personal harm against the Church and its people--the "war on Christianity" or "war on religion".

This perception of threat has led to a rousing call to action for Christian conservatives and carried with it a palpable "us-versus-them" mentality. James Dobson calls it a "civil war of values", saying "There are only two choices. It really is that clear. It's either God's war, or it is the way of social disintegration." They view themselves as one side of a battle for America's soul and very survival. The response consists of calls to prayer and action, most often political action. They see a direct line of reasoning from Biblical truths to legislation and voting, claiming that Jesus would vote for their values were He around today. Because so many of the problems they see are social problems and the trend of politicization, it is perhaps understandable that much of their action would be political in nature.

This turn to politics to save the soul of America has led to the Christian right putting a staggering amount of trust in the political process. They believe that by politics they can reclaim the culture, protect and renew their cherished values, save the very institutions of marriage and family, end the indecency in media, "affirm the national relationship with God", and "make America a land of individual liberty, respect for family integrity, public and private virtue, and private enterprise." More recently some conservative Christians have displayed a more restrained view of politics, instead focusing more directly on reclaiming culture. However, their underlying myth, logic, and tactics are the exact same--their imagery is that of counterattack and the language is still that of loss, anger, and desire for conquest of America's values.

A quick note: I may have been letting my biases through there just a bit, but I think I did pretty accurately sum up (and even skip over) some of the force of Hunter's summary of the Christian right. In this chapter and the next two, he tries to present as neutral a picture of the three political theologies as possible, supported by very numerous quotes by the movements' leaders. (Not embarrassing or mistaken quotes--speeches and phrases that sound like rallying cries) His depiction of each faction begins by sounding fairly reasonable and slowly moves to describe their more extreme elements--this seems to happen more quickly with the Christian right than with the other two. With that said, let's move on to the Christian left.

The central myth of the Christian left is a combination of the gospel of God with the Enlightenment/French revolution ideals of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." It is related to secular progressivism which believes in the power and responsibility of humanity to change society for thed good of everyone. Whereas the Christian right focuses on Christianity's role in the founding and moral development of America, the Christian left focuses more on its role in the social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries--abolition, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and more recently the gay rights movement. Its heroes are figures like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and so on. Its influence in public affairs peaked around the mid-20th century, when it was commonly believed to represent the definitive "Christian" voice on social issues. The decline in influence of this liberation-oriented wing of the church in the 1980s occurred partially because it had achieved many of its goals in the fields of womens' rights, civil rights, and the Vietnam war. After the 2004 election, it saw a resurgence in prominence as the Democratic party embraced the language of faith as an answer to the Christian right's seeming monopoly on the religious high ground.

Whereas the Christian right seizes onto parts of the Bible commanding moral uprightness and condemning idolatry and debauchery, the Christian left is more inclined to focus on teachings of Jesus and the prophets calling for justice, compassion to the poor, and care for the needy and oppressed. Its perception of harm, then, is harm done to the poor, oppressed, and socially marginalized/disadvantaged. Once this is understood, its rhetoric and methods are actually surprisingly similar to those of the Christian right. Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, has said, "God is angry with the world because of the statistics of poverty" and elsewhere, "God hates inequality." Rather than a war on religion, they see a "war on the poor".

Since so much of their discourse seems heavily informed by the tactics of the Christian right, it is somewhat ironic that the Christian left also bases itself largely on its opposition to conservative Christianity. They think influential conservative Christian leaders have "hijacked" or "bastardized" their  faith; rather than seeking to take America back, they want to "take [their] religion back"; rather than feeling threatened by secularization they feel threatened by the Christian right. In their opposition they resort to similar tactics of name-calling and negation, and this is where the ressentiment of the Christian left really becomes visible. Like the Christian right, they claim to represent God's purposes in America and pursue these purposes via partisan political tactics. Though they criticize the Christian right for promoting Christianity as a "civil religion" by translating Biblical commands into legislation, they engage in the exact same practice in their crusade for social justice. In doing so both groups confuse the modern democracy of America with the divinely mandated theocracy of Israel.

If it isn't already clear, the Christian left strongly opposes the Christian right, even partially defining itself by this opposition, but its "framework, method, and style of engagement" is very similar to that of conservative Christianity. And just like their conservative counterparts, they are in danger of being co-opted or instrumentalized by a major political party, in this case the Democrats, for its own power-seeking ends. Now for the third "political theology", something completely different, neo-Anabaptism.

Neo-Anabaptism shares some characteristics of the Christian right and left--conservatives' decrying of the fallen moral state of America, and the left's wariness of the human consequences of unrestrained capitalism, as well as its general demographics and contempt for the Christian right. Where it sharply diverts from both of these groups is in its sweeping distrust of the state and rejection of the use of coercive force to advance its goals.

The central myth of neo-Anabaptism is not any vision of America, but that of the first-century apostolic church and "authentic" New Testament Christianity. This myth was central to the original Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century, which rejected both the Catholic church and the mainstream reformation for not going far enough. One manifestation of this was its rejection of infant baptism which was accepted by Catholics and the new protestants and call for people to be baptized again as adults--hence the name. The radically countercultural Anabaptist tradition continues with groups like the Mennonites and the Amish, but neo-Anabaptism is a more mainstream attempt to bring the principles of these traditions into the modern world.

A central belief in neo-Anabaptism is on the distinct "other-ness" of the church as an authentic, Christlike community of believers within the world, but distinct from it--the vision of the first few chapters of Acts. For them it is important that Christianity grew up not simply independent of the state, but in a hostile and even persecuting political environment. They view the Christian right and lefts' turn to politics and more generally the "Constantinian error", then, as the perpetuation of a centuries'old heresy and a deadly compromise of the church's distinctive witness to the world. They also see it in the church's embrace and use of American capitalism in its own methods. They seek to understand the "injury that the church has done to itself" in these heresies and view the church's "dual allegiance" to Christ and the political economy of American democracy and capitalism as a "yoke of slavery".

The harm that neo-Anabaptism perceives then, is committed by the church against itself and its authentic Christlike witness, and its goal is to recover this witness. Where the Christian right emphasizes Jesus' moral teachings and commands, and the left His desire for justice and care for the poor and marginalized, neo-Anabaptists emphasize Jesus' submission to God's will and servitude to those around Him, rejection of worldly or political power, and His ability to stand His ground even while remaining pacifist.

It views the state as, as best, a necessary evil, one that holds the world together, but holds it away from God. The Christian church, for them, is defined in large part by its distinction from and conflict with the powers of this world. The use of coercion or force over others is viewed as completely antithetical to Christian practice. John Yoder, one of the leading neo-Anabaptist thinkers, explains: "The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them."

If I haven't made it clear, neo-Anabaptist thought views the church as sharply distinct from, and antithetical to, the world and its ways. They have an acute sense of being "aliens and strangers in the world" which extends to their "city on a hill" definition of the church as a whole. Loyalty to the church trumps citizenship in the world, and simply being the true church is more important to it than any kind of social or political engagement.

This all makes it more ironic and even puzzling that neo-Anabaptism still has plenty to say about the church and politics. It still has a political definition of Jesus (albeit one that emphasizes His resistance to the political order) and defines the church in much the same way. Hunter says "Yoder goes so far as to argue that the only suffering that has spiritual meaning is political suffering." Though its goals are starkly distinct from those of the Christian right and left, neo-Anabaptism is still highly politicized in its thinking, still uses the language of politics to describe itself while remaining blind to its baggage.

And so in many ways neo-Anabaptism is even more negational than the Christian right or left. In its wake-up call to the church, it finds little to admire or praise in Christians or the world. Its negation is directed inwardly rather than outwardly like that of the Christian right, but the end result is largely the same: "a political theology that reinforces rather than contradicts the discourse of negation so ubiquitous in our late modern political culture."

With all that said, Hunter goes on to evaluating the three political theologies. He starts by affirming their concerns and motivations as legitimate. The Christian right is correct to worry about the corrupting effects of secular culture on faith and families, the Christian left is right to be concerned about the dominant political witness of the Christian right as well as inequality and the negative effects of capitalism, and neo-Anabaptists are right to be worried that the church is becoming too worldly and forfeiting its "salt and light" status. All three politicize these concerns, and none question the causal link between the roles of the church and of the state. All three are based on central myths that are at best skewed or overly narrow, and at worst just plain wrong. He concludes that the public witness of the church in modern America has largely become a political witness.

Next, he responds to the trend of politicization in our democracy. He draws a distinction between "democracy" and "the state". Democracy resides in an elected political class and its relationship with citizens, the kind of politics you hear about in the daily news. The state is a massive bureaucratic organization that actually makes decisions and turns politics into action, and is not a perfect extension of the will of the political class. Elected officials are subject to popular sovereignty, but most of the people wielding the power of the state are not elected officials and so the state is not directly subject to electoral will.

Further, there are no real political solutions to many problems people care about; the simply cannot do everything that people have come to ask of it. Laws cannot instill values or morals in people and they often create more problems than they solve. He quotes Mitt Romney, which is especially significant now, as saying "We have lost faith in government. Not just in one party, not just in one house, but in government." Most politicians today seem (understandably) to be trying to build voters' faith in government.

He also argues that politics is ultimately about power. By politicizing their witness, the Christian right and left have also politicized the very values they seek to promote, made them part of the American political economy of power, and made it almost impossible for politics to actually produce those values. This is the irony mentioned on the cover of the book. Another irony is how pursuing their public goals as political issues has become a substitute for directly working to advance these goals themselves.

And so, the tragedy of these political theologies is that by focusing on politics, the church really has lost sight of correct theology and its authentic witness. Its identity is at least partly built on the ressentiment and negation that have come to characterize politics. Hand in hand with this comes a lack of affirmation of the positive and the good, especially among conservative Christians and neo-Anabaptists, the latter of which have little to say that is constructive to those outside their church community. "The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians...unwittingly embrace the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry."

More generally, the very ideal of a political "myth" to base a theology on is a dangerous one. As interpretations of the past, these myths are not falsifiable. Their ability to infuse particular this-worldly actions with other-worldly significance, especially with multiple competing myths out there, has led to the problems described above.

And so, the church needs a new paradigm for public witness and its treatment of power. Hunter makes several observations about the nature of power. First, he argues that power in some form or another is inherent to all humans--power both over creation and over each other. By its very nature, power is asymmetrical, the ability to act on others or to deprive them of their ability to act. The most obvious expressions of power today are political and economical, but symbolic or cultural power--the ability to define what is real, good, or significant in a situation--can be even more fundamental and effective. In short, power is inescapable; it is not everything, but it is a part of everyone and every relationship.

He makes three more observations. The first is that that power tends to become an end in itself, turning towards its own preservation. The second is that "because it is inherently relational and asymmetrical, power always generates its own resistances." And the last is that power always creates unintended consequences. The more power we have, the more difficult it becomes to control and master.

In light of this, the neo-Anabaptist directive to renounce all power seems mistaken, reflecting a truncated view of what power is (as only political and economical). Try as we may to see the church as a completely free and egalitarian community, it is also an institution and, by its very nature, possesses and uses power, as do the people in it. This is why "Any effort to draw a sharp line between the church and the world cannot help but result in failure." The church is caught in this tension between existing in the world and being the other-worldly body of Christ.

There is a big temptation to try to resist or minimize this tension. The political theologies of the Christian right and left do so by associating divine revelation with specific social/political agendas so that by pursuing power in the world they are also remaining faithful to God; the neo-Anabaptists withdraw from the world and its practices as much as possible. The crucial question the church must face is "to the extent that it has space to do so, how will the church and its people use the power that they have."

On the way to a "postpolitical witness" in America, the church faces two main tasks. The first is to disentangle the life and identity of the church from those of the nation. "Christianity far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time". In its common view of morality and social practices the church has also come to closely resemble the world at large. (I am now reminded of the "Faithbook" posters in the cafeteria where we ate on Spring Retreat). The way that parts of the church have linked their sense of purpose and future to the success of political ideologies. Neo-Anabaptists are right in decrying the continuing erosion of the boundaries between the church and the world.

The second task for the church (and, I think, all Americans) is to decouple the "public" from the "political". This means decreasing our expectations of the range and extent of problems that politics and really solve, recognizing the flaws, limitations, and dangers of the political approach, and looking for other ways of engaging society. Hunter even recommends that the church simply remain silent for a while until it can engage in and even discuss politics in ways that aren't all about power.

He then moves to the more commonplace "social" variety of power and how Jesus approached it in His ministry. It's significant that Satan in Matthew 4:8 offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, implying that he has dominion over them all. Hunter concludes that "the spirit that animates worldly power...naturally tends toward manipulation, domination, and control." This is the power that Jesus came to break, to disarm (Colossians 2:13-15). On the cross, He exposed them for what they really were and made possible an entirely different way of approaching power.

Hunter pulls out four characteristics of Jesus' "social power". First, it was derived entirely from His intimacy with and submission to His Father. He mentions His submission to the Father repeatedly in the gospels; John 12:49-50, 14:10, and 5:19 and 30 to name a few. This also applies to His power to work miracles, which He submitted to the Father during His temptation in the desert.

Second, He consistently rejected worldly concepts of status and reputation, and was consequently ridiculed and ultimately killed. His associating with tax collectors and "sinners", the bottom rung of society; His washing His disciples' feet; and ultimately His becoming human and dying an ignoble death all spoke to His rejection of reputation.

The third characteristic of Christ's use of power was simply love. This is the one Christians tend to be most familiar with. In 1 John we read that God is love, and that Jesus's sacrificial death on the cross is the supreme example of what love is. In His life, all of His uses of power were smaller versions of this love. He was always giving Himself up for others, never seeking to defend His resources or His status.

And a fourth characteristic was the way Jesus dealt with all people, Jew, gentile, or even Samaritan, equally and noncoercively. Even with people who were rejected by "proper" Jewish society and treated with contempt, Jesus was just as loving, tolerant, and self-sacrificing. "Violence, coercion ,and revenge were never legitimate means for bringing about God's purposes."

Hunter concludes by noting that one consequence of focusing only on political and economic forms of power is that we tend to forget about other forms of power that wed all use every day. We get caught up in matters of political power that have little effect on our own lives rather than using the power wed have to serve God. The kingdom of God is really an "upside-down" kingdom in that it turns the power structures of the world on their head. "In contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate." To serve in this kingdom, we must become like the King. How more specifically Christians can do so is the subject of the third and final essay.

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