Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Ten propositions on political theology

by Kim Fabricius

1. The doctrine of the ascension is the basis of all political theology – and why there can be no such thing as apolitical theology. The church cannot be a cultus privatus because Jesus of Nazareth, “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” reigns and his edict is public truth. Remove Christ from the forum and it does not remain empty: nature abhors a vacuum; idols love one and soon fill it.

2. God is political. Cut the political bits out of the Bible – as Jim Wallis and some friends once did – and you’re left with “a Bible full of holes.” God is political – and God takes sides. In the Old Testament, Yahweh’s exodus and covenant “bias / preferential option for the poor” is now a well-worn phrase – but an undeniable fact. And the New Testament – Luke in particular – doesn’t drop the ball: the Magnificat and the Jubilee Manifesto suggest the game plan.

3. In my view it is legitimate to speak of an “epistemological privilege” of the excluded and oppressed. Bonhoeffer, writing in prison, was avant la lettre of liberation theology: “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.” Here is the “more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.”

4. With a shrug of their shoulders, conservatives love to quote the text, “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7), as if poverty were an order of creation (cf. “the rich man in his castle, / the poor man at his gate”), and there is nothing we can – or should – do about it. But 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.

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. So God sends his servant Moses, his spokesmen the prophets, and finally his Son Jesus, their Big Brother, to take care of the bullies, though he fights with his mouth not his fists. Not, of course, that God loves the oppressor any less than he loves the oppressed; indeed his rescue mission is to liberate them both, the latter from their humiliation and suffering, and the former from their pride and violence.

6. Nor does any political theologian who is not a straw man hold the Marxist delusion that utopia can be built. Karl Barth, responding to an ordinand who had heard him lecture, wrote: “Many thanks for your kind letter. But … now you manage to put down on paper again all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the whole Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of pastor.” The antidote to political pelagianism is a critical eschatology. Barth himself, of course, was no quietist. “A silent community,” he said, “merely observing the events of its time, would not be a Christian community.”

7. Still, calling governments to account and repentance, the critical component, and praying and working for a community of shalom and an economy of grace, the positive component, are essential elements of the political vocation of the church. Strategically Christians should work for a world that asymptotically approaches the kingdom of God. Tactically Christians should form ad hoc alliances with all people of good will in pursuit of a more just society. Indeed, as Bonhoeffer discovered, we may well find more saints among the pagans than the pious. Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). We should not fear dirty hands but bloody hands.

8. The flipside of an apolitical church is a sacralised state. This is “the Constantinian trap” (Lesslie Newbigin). And a sacralised state easily becomes a demonic state. The cross is draped with the flag, and discipleship is absorbed into citizenship. The German Christians are the paradigm nationalist idolaters; history repeats itself in the farce of the Religious Right. “Never was anything in this world loved too much,” wrote Thomas Traherne, “but many things have been loved in a false way, and all in too short a measure.” The true love of ecumenism trumps the sentimental love of patriotism.

9. The church’s political witness ends in the public square, but it begins around a table. At worship the church bows neither to Caesar, nor to Mammon or Mars, but to the crucified and risen One. At worship the Spirit begins to straighten our disordered desires, as we hear an alternative narrative to manifest destiny, and learn an alternative praxis to Realpolitik. Yet worship can be a bolthole rather than a sign of reconciliation and resistance. “Where the body is not properly discerned, Paul reminds the Corinthians, consumption of the Eucharist can make you sick or kill you (1 Cor. 11:30). This might explain the condition of some of our churches” (William T. Cavanaugh).

10. The Apocalypse of John is “a visionary theological and poetic representation of the spiritual environment within which the church perennially finds itself living and struggling” (Richard B. Hays). It is a samizdat text of protest to the pretensions of power, a warning against complacency, and a call to discernment in reading the signs of the times. The powerful inevitably twist it into a self-serving mandate for accumulation and aggression; only those who long for justice and peace see that the hermeneutical key is the slaughtered Lamb who gently roars. Here is the text for a political theology that begins to re-imagine and re-shape the world in anticipation of the parousia of Christ.

Post-9/11 Postscript
In Apocalypse Now: Reflections on Faith in a Time of Terror (2005), Duncan Forrester proposes an interesting juxtaposition: on the one hand, the statement of support for the Kaiser published by a group of ninety-three leading German intellectuals, including theologians, on the day the First World War broke out; on the other hand, the public “Letter from America: What We Are Fighting For” in support of President Bush’s “war on terror,” signed by sixty prominent American intellectuals, including theologians, five months after 9/11. Both letters are so theologically thin, however, that they amount to pom-pom propaganda for imperial states. The first letter awoke Karl Barth from his Schleiermacherian slumbers, the second letter aroused Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths to a polemical response. But by and large the people of Germany and the US sleepwalked into slaughter. Moral: When political theology is faithful, expect it to be critical and subversive; when it is unfaithful, expect it to be ideological and fatal.

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