Trump. What to do. Part 2.
Last post I outlined my take on the volatile and potentially dangerous political situation in the US.
This raised broader questions: How should Christians respond to such developments? What is the right place for Christianity in the public square?
In this post, I want to focus on some of the theoretical, theological aspects of these questions (questions of “political theology”). In future posts I’ll get back to more nitty-gritty, practical stuff – but I feel like we need to pause and look at the big picture.
- Trump: A Big Christian Moral Fail?
- Political Theology: Time to Shake Things Up
Trump: A Big Christian Moral Fail?
Looking at the American situation, I was quite crestfallen when I read the statistics about how many Christians had supported Trump. To me, this was just one more coffin-nail in Christianity’s long-term credibility – coffin-nails we’ve been pounding in with increasing regularity (cf. positions on women, gay people). What seemed so disgraceful this time around was the dissonance between the moral values of Christianity and Trump. It was hard to see this support as anything other than a cynical power-grab. I mean, even if Christians support Trumps to pursue their own ends, what ends can justify this means?
But this just highlighted for me a broader problem: some Christians are finding it surprisingly easy to align themselves with authoritarian forces. They are supporting forces that seem to have little existential investment in dialogue, democracy, respect for the individual, respect for difference, respect for human rights, or even respect for the rule of law.
And what do these authoritarian forces want to advance? A “policy menu” that includes cut-throat laissez-faire economics, brutal “get tough on crime” initiatives, lax gun laws, lax financial regulations, weak labor protections, policies that oppress women and minorities, anti-immigration laws, weak environmental legislation, and the like.
Let’s pause here. How does any of this square with Christian values?
Let’s review what core Christian values are:
- self-sacrifice (that means letting yourself get hurt for the betterment of someone else)
- care for the weak, poor and marginalized
- co-suffering love
- radical forgiveness
- radical selflessness and giving
- profound honesty and truthfulness
So Christians should be helping others even when it hurts them; giving to the point that it seems crazy; acting uprightly and fairly even when others are not, and even to their own detriment; radically – even irrationally – going out of their way to protect the weak, the different, the despised; embracing the stranger; forgiving those whom no one else will forgive; placing themselves in the way of harm, instead of doing harm; scrupulously avoiding lies; and so on.
These are the core hallmarks of Christianity.
And when you “get” these values, the basic human values of dialogue, equality, respect for difference, etc. should come as second nature. Of course you support human rights, respect for the rule of law, equitable political systems; and so on. These are simple and obvious expressions of the type of respect and love for each other we’re supposed to have. Of course you oppose authoritarianism.
So why are so many Christians effectively abandoning core Christian values and their civil society corollaries? It’s not simply that Christians are not living up to their ideals: they are actively supporting their opposites.
For all the failures of the contemporary neo-conservative movement I listed last post, it’s this failure that truly hits home for me: the huge moral fail of so much of contemporary Christian politics. Ironically, the Trump phenomenon has revealed the real weakness of certain brands of contemporary Christianity: Christian values!
Why is this happening? Why are so many Christians falling into this trap?
Political Theology: Time to Shake Things Up
I’ve been turning this over in my head for a while – particularly the ease with which Christians seems to reconcile themselves to authoritarianism – and I’ve begun to think that these problems are much more endemic to classical Christianity than most of us would like to admit. To fix them, we need to dig deep into some of the core assumptions of traditional Christian political theology.
(So here’s where we need to get a bit theoretical.)
I think the central problem is the widely shared assumption that the Christian voice – if correctly articulated – should occupy a privileged place in political discourse. This is the idea that Christians have access to certain knowledge or truth which allows them to enter political or ethical dialogue on a special footing above and beyond everyone else. Christianity is understood as a revelation of a divine socio-political and cultural blueprint or formula that permits – in fact requires – Christians to be present in the socio-political sphere only as teachers or prescriptors. In effect, Christians are to bring God’s voice into the political sphere. True, it is admitted that individual Christians can get things wrong, but the Christian tradition is still ultimately understood to contain the right teaching on socio-political life that should be universally enforced and propagated. To explore this teaching, refine it, and shower its blessings upon the rest of humanity, is considered to be part of the church’s salvific mission.
Now, think about this a little. This means that dialogue with others has no essential function in ethical/political truth-finding. Dialogue’s role is only rhetorical: it is a means used, when necessary, to persuade others to adopt Christian positions. But the truth value of Christian socio-political views is never itself the subject of debate. Right and wrong are ultimately determined only within and by Christianity. At best, Christians might admit that non-Christian socio-political ideas are valuable because they just happen to express Christian beliefs better than the Christians themselves were able to do! (This is often how Christians deal with the social advances of the last few centuries…)
Where does this leave real respect for other opinions? For difference? Compromise?
I’m worried that all of this implies that Christian political theology is almost authoritarian by nature. Given an ideal set of circumstances, would Christians simply enforce their political-social truth on everyone?
Well, hate to say it folks, but, historically – I think the answer has been “yes”.
But I would argue that this whole notion is built upon a series of mistakes. In particular, it rests upon a misunderstanding of the nature of the Gospel and of the nature of the Christian voice in the secular sphere.
1) That Pesky Gospel: No, It’s NOT the Blueprint of a Divine Socio-political Order!
Christianity does make definite truth-claims. No doubt about it. Christians believe what they do because they think it is actually true.
But there is a big catch: these truth claims turn out to be surprisingly difficult to convert into any type of absolute, or even consistent, socio-political program.
The basic content of Christianity is the message of Good News: the Gospel. This Gospel is simply the message of God’s radical act of grace – the completely free gift of salvation, given to all of us, in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, in whom the reality of God is made completely and finally manifest.
This Good News is the centre, and in fact totality, of the Christian faith. Everything else in Christianity – art, liturgy, literature, music, theology, whatever – has standing and importance only inasmuch as these things have, at some point or another, inculcated or expressed this Gospel.
This means the Gospel is not the Bible (argued also here and here), it is not the church, and it is not tradition. Above all, this means the Gospel is not some sort of new socio-political code – a new divine law, with precisely detailed rules, templates, and images for imitation. The Gospel is in fact law’s radical, crazy reversal. It’s God saying: I will not hold you to a law – whether yours or mine or anyone else’s – because if I did, you would be condemned, and have no hope. (Obviously!)
So Christianity possesses only one very small message or code which we hold to be truly “divine”, “revealed”, or “authoritative”: the simple message of God’s radical grace. This is the only authoritative “Christian position” or “statement” or “teaching” on anything. Full stop.
Now this is a serious problem for anyone trying to construct an absolute or authoritative “Christian politics”. How do you get a coherent political theology from the Gospel of radical grace, total forgiveness? How do you get functional ethics from the cross?
You don’t really. It turns out the church’s only authoritative and binding teaching – if you will, its only legitimate power – is extremely hard to “operationalize” in this world.
This does not mean that Christians can’t or shouldn’t participate in the political or ethical spheres as Christians. Far from it! This Gospel functions as a spark that ignites a desire to treat our fellow humans as God treats us – to “live out” God’s goodness, grace, forgiveness in society, culture and so on.
But – huge “but” – the moment we participate in the political or ethical spheres as Christians, we are actually only creating our own adaptation of the Gospel for every particular situation – i.e., we’re creating endless situational interpretations of the Gospel to address particular ages, institutions, or problems.
These interpretations or adaptations – personal or collective – are not themselves the Gospel. And thus they do not have its authority. They are not God’s voice. They are just us. So this means that, when it comes to specific political or ethical decisions, Christians can’t claim absolute or divine authority for any position. Inasmuch as they want to claim Christian authority for a specific policy or of action, they can only speak thus: “As a Christian, I hold x position because I believe it best inculcates the Gospel because of x, y or z”. They can only ever say “My understanding of the Gospel is that…My group of Christians thinks that the Gospel is best served if we do…”. And then they have to persuade other Christians that they are right – and non-Christians that they should care. So authoritarian prescriptions on any issue? Impossible. Dialogue and persuasion are actually necessary for Christian action in the world. Christian political theology is a genuine dialogue around different human ideas what the Gospel means for social and political life.
The Gospel thus compels us to act and participate in the political sphere while simultaneously undercutting and humbling any authoritarian pretentions.
2) Christians: You’re as secular as anyone else. And that’s OK.
Speaking of humbling… since our political and ethical positions are only interpretations of the Gospel – temporal, passing, contingent – they do not invest us with any special position or dignity. Our voices do not somehow become divine when we speak our opinion of what the Gospel means. Our words do not become “revealed” (even when speaking the Gospel, our words are still ours). We only ever enter the fray of political discussion as humans, on an equal footing with other humans.
I think it frightens Christians terribly to think that the Christian voice is not somehow “divinized” – speaking from above and beyond the secular realm. We really want to be able to address the secular sphere from outside of it and above it. We think there is another realm, a sacred realm, which we inhabit, or at least which our ideas inhabit – and from which we can shed forth divine light upon the secular domain.
But this is another big mistake of the classical synthesis. It springs from a weak theology of sin – a central problem of the Great Church synthesis, in my opinion.
Sin is not, as the traditional church tended to think, a superficial distortion – a film or layer of dirt that can be easily wiped away. It is not a misalignment. It is not simply an ignorance that can be corrected by knowledge, or a slackness that can be alleviated by exercise. It is not a quantitative thing where you could become “less sinful” through various disciplines and struggles (only on a civic, human level do we see sins as greater or lesser).
Sin is instead a deep stain that penetrates to the very core of our reality. It has seeped all the way down to the roots of our nature. The whole world, humanity, nature, the cosmos, are so enmeshed and infused with sin that sin has become inescapable. Even our reason cannot really comprehend sin’s depths. If we still affirm that the world is ultimately good and holy, only God can now distinguish the original creation from the sin that pervades it. Sin is a qualitative reality of this world and it permeates and taints everything.
This is a very important assertion for political theology. It means that every Christian articulation, every action, every word, every saint, no matter how holy, right, and just, is still quietly and deeply tainted by sin. And since sin is qualitative, and not quantitative, this experience of sin is entirely democratic – it’s uniform and universal. So Christians are equally sinful as non-Christians. And when Christians articulate a political or ethical opinion, they are just as prone to selfishness, delusion, arrogance, ignorance, pride, etc., as anyone. Our political voice is never holier than anyone else’s. Our voice is always profoundly of this world.
Now there is one who is sinless: Jesus Christ. But that’s it. So if we want to speak of a holy, sacred realm, it is inhabited by Jesus alone. There are thus two realms: 1) Jesus, the sacred; 2) everything else, us, the secular.
Now that should itself be enough to convince Christians that they ought not to assume airs when dealing with “the world”. But it is very easy for us to take yet another wrong turn. We very quickly find another way to justify a privileged, “divine” status for our political ideas.
How? Most classically trained theologians will admit that Jesus has a particular holiness – but they nevertheless think the whole point of Christianity is to make the secular less secular. It’s not good enough that only Christ is holy. The mission of the church is precisely to “spread” Jesus’ holiness to everything and everyone. This is their very definition of salvation: to transform or change reality into something more divine, more real, more moral.
There are many different versions of this. The traditional imperial churches had their doctrines of deification and growth in virtue; the Anabaptists tried to create perfect societies; the Calvinists (and thus Barth and the postliberal crowd) have tried to strong-arm the world into the Bible’s pages; Radical Orthodoxy has decided that the whole world must be “engulfed” by a Christian metaphysic; liberation theologies try to create perfectly just political and social structures; almost everyone now talks about “incarnating” Christ; and so on.
But what unifies all of these theologies is the quiet conviction that God is only pleased with the world, the saeculum, when Christians are first bringing it to repentance. They all hold that, at the very least, the world must be in the process of becoming less sinful to be saved. Jesus’ salvific work is really a beginning of salvation; not its end. So we must be struggling, fighting – making stuff more Christian.
But this leads straight back to the authoritarian modes of discourse described above: Christianity still ends up operating in the public sphere to enact a divine law, for everyone’s good. Argh.
But there is another approach. There is a way for us to understand the secular as valuable in God’s eyes without having to be “transformed” by Christians. There is a way for us to understand the secular as having value and loved by God precisely as it is.
This is to accept that Jesus’ holiness really is enough – in itself – for our salvation. This is to accept that, because of what Jesus has done, God loves and has saved the world even while it’s still wallowing in its sin. This is the famous idea of simul justus et peccator: the world is saved while at the same time still sinful.
This radical idea comes like a breath of fresh air when we contrast it with the old transformative models. The old ideas contain the curiously narcissistic idea that God has to transform all of creation into an image of himself in order to love it – he has to change us all into divine “Mini-Me’s”, mirrors of himself, as it were, before he can fully accept us (I am indebted to Maria Simakova for the image of “Mini-Me”). One can think of the old Origenist monks striving to become little “isochristoi” (“equals to Christ” – admittedly a term of their opponents). Even in its moremoderate, orthodox forms, the assumption is always that we are only saved if we are somehow moving into our “more divine”, “more real” selves.
But this doesn’t capture the radicality of the Gospel. No: the Gospel instead proclaims something much stranger: we are saved and accepted as we are, as something that is not divine, and even in sin!
This idea opens up a very different space for Christians to act in the public square. The whole saeculum suddenly appears before us as awash in grace – the object of God’s total love. It is now something completely precious and holy for God, just as it is, not because of any change that we have made, but because of what Jesus has done. This contradicts our judgement of the world: obviously this world does not seem holy to us. But the Gospel isn’t really about our judgement.
This means we suddenly can view the civic domain not as something that first and foremost must be reformed by us, but as something that first and foremost has been forgiven and saved by God. It’s no longer something we are at war with, or need to be frightened by, or stand outside of. It’s actually something we are thankful to be part of!
This is a huge change of perspective for the political theologian. The political theologian’s primary role shifts from effecting repentance to preaching God’s forgiveness. Christian political theology becomes a practice in understanding the true, inescapable extent and breadth of sin – and its one true alleviation, Christ alone. It is not about convincing us that we have to “participate” in saving the world.
But doesn’t this lead to political or ethical quietism? To complacency in the face of the evident sin of the world? Doesn’t this dull the edge of Christian activism, of our battle against evil?
Not at all! It simply puts it in the right perspective. We have the Gospel, the cross, and its values and promises, and these burn in our hearts to make the world a better, more just place. When we experience God’s total love and forgiveness, how can we not try to enact this in our world? How can we not try to eradicate evil and injustice? Bathed in the light of God’s love and goodness, our evil actually becomes ever more obvious, and our desire to confront it grows.
But now we fight this evil knowing that our action takes place on a secular level. And that makes all the difference. We know that all of the divine transformative work has been accomplished by God. All the sacred stuff has been done – by God. When we’re striving against sin, we know that the world’s salvation does not depend on our victory. And this gives us a wondrous, freeing permission to work humbly on a civic level; it’s now okay for us to engage with the world on an equal footing with others, because humanity’s horizons of action are our horizons as well. This means we can truly respect others and their views: we can respect reasoned arguments, and offer our own. We can actually learn from others. Yes, we come with our Christian values, and yes, we’re going to fight for them; sometimes no doubt we will express them very sharply. But it’s not hellfire if everyone doesn’t accept them. We don’t have to stuff a bunch of divine dictates down everyone’s throats. If we don’t “win”, it’s not God who is losing! Perhaps most importantly, we can now ourselves speak on secular terms, and that’s perfectly fine. We can enter into genuine, collaborative human dialogue to build peace, tolerance, beauty, etc. – and we can even be wrong in this dialogue!
In fact, dialogue and tolerance become a particularly Christian mode of discourse. As much as possible, we act towards the world trying to see it through God’s eyes – as deeply beloved and accepted, even in its sin. This means that our actions will almost always err on the side of gentleness, dialogue, and trust. This world, this saeculum, our brothers and sisters, are precious in God’s eyes. So we don’t hold ourselves above anyone; we don’t see anyone as beneath our attention. We also know that we are as sinful as everyone else. So we approach the world – including ourselves – with both constant suspicion and constant openness: we are always aware of sin, but also aware of God’s ever-present love. As a result, humble, dialogical, inclusive and non-violent means of ethical-political truth-finding become second nature.
So it does not result in quietism. What is quieted is simply Christians entering the political sphere swinging their divine swords. What is quieted is Christians entering the public square with demands of total obedience to their “heavenly law”, their “Command of God”, their “Word of God”, or “Lordship of Christ”, or however they may phrase it. What is quieted is Christians trying to speak as God.
What remains? Simply being human, holding fast to the Gospel of God’s radical grace, and participating in normal, secular human life as true equals to everyone else in this world which God has forgiven, loves, and already saved.
Next Post: UTS Takes on Political Theology
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