Tuesday, 29 July 2008

God's politics? A response to Jim Wallis (Part One)

A guest-series by Douglas Harink

Part 1: The Ecclesia Called America

As a Canadian, I have asked myself whether a Canadian Christian would be likely ever to write such a book as this for the Canadian political context. It seems very unlikely indeed, for at least a couple of reasons.

In the first place, the very phrase “God’s politics” would strike many or most Canadians either as ridiculous – because “religion,” which is where God belongs, is its own thing and politics is quite another; or it would strike us as dangerous – because look what happens when people with strong religious convictions make them operative in the realm of politics: you get the likes of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. Canadians by and large studiously observe the separation of religion and politics. Just ask Canadian politicians, even the conservative ones, who have tried to get votes by playing the God-card. It might win them some votes from a few conservative Christians, but it is more likely to lose them the election.

On the other hand, Jim Wallis shouldn’t worry too much about that for Canada’s sake, because in Canada we have a social and political landscape that is much closer to the vision that Wallis holds dear than in the United States. And we don’t need to have faith, religion or God to get us there. We have no need of that hypothesis. If God and faith are good for American politics, as Wallis is convinced they are, in Canada we know better than that. Maybe a lot of Democrats have a hunch that we are right, in which case, rather than “getting it” from Jim Wallis, they are more likely to tell him to get lost.

Here’s another odd Canadian phenomenon. It seems that many evangelical Christians in Canada are not too worried about the godless politics of our nation. You do not often hear them clamouring for more God-talk from Canadian politicians. What’s wrong with these Canadian evangelical Christians anyway? Are they simply good examples of the privatization of religion that Wallis decries? Well, there may be some truth to that. The idea that religion is a matter of strictly private conviction and practice is deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche. The very idea that God and politics might be jammed together as in Wallis’s title, makes most Canadians, including evangelicals Christians, nervous. And I want to come back to that point in a minute, because if that is the case, I think it is a problem. But I think there is something else going on here which makes a book like God’s Politics inconceivable in a Canadian context.

Imagine Jim Wallis, as he presents himself in this book, as a Christian preacher, preaching to a congregation, the people of God. Now ask, who is that congregation? It is not in fact a congregation of the sanctorum communio, nor is it a denomination, nor is it even all the Christians in America. The assembly or congregation which Wallis addresses in the book is the American people itself, the nation. That is clear throughout the book. For example, after Sept 11, 2001, he writes, “the future of politics must become a discourse about values, which includes moral and religious ones. We should talk less about the ideological categories of Left and Right, and more about what kind of people we want to be, what kind of community, what kind of world” (p. 68, emphasis added).

Or, consider this example: “Most of the biblical prophets (whom we pass over week after week in our congregations) would offer a quite searing indictment of contemporary American society. Specifically, that we have become a nation of endangered souls and that our society and politics are governed by values quite foreign to the heart of our religious traditions…. How does a nation of endangered souls recover an authentic faith that is true to the gospel, the example of Jesus, the witness of the prophets, and the crushing needs of our time?” (p. 36, emphases added).

The assembly of the people of God whom Wallis addresses here, and whom he assumes the prophets and Jesus would be addressing, is America, a society and a nation of “endangered souls.” It is about this assembly that Wallis asks how it can “recover an authentic faith that is true to the gospel.” It is more than a little interesting, by the way, that actual congregations and churches are not mentioned as the locus of this recovery of authentic faith, but are in fact included as groups within the larger assembly of God’s people, America.

As we discover in many places in the book, actual church congregations are presented as making a contribution to the larger assembly. For example, Wallis writes, “When either party [Republicans or Democrats] tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake” (p. xiv). But the terrible mistake is not that the political parties expect “religious communities” to make a useful contribution to the nation, but that they expect that usefulness to be merely partisan. Instead, Wallis writes, “The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground” (p. xiv). The message of Isaiah and Amos must be heard in the ecclesia of God’s American people because these prophets proclaim, Wallis writes, “the kind of talk we don’t want to hear much these days in America. But we need it” (p. 247). When preacher Jim says “we” he invariably means, not the church of Jesus Christ, but the assembly of his fellow Americans.

Two decades or so ago, Stanley Hauerwas complained that “the subject of Christian ethics in America is America,” that is, “the first subject of Christian ethics is how to sustain the moral resources of American society” (Against the Nations, p. 36). It would be hard to find a better example of that than Jim Wallis’s book, God’s Politics. One of the subtitles of the book makes it explicit: the book is “A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America.” The subject of this book on Christian politics is indeed American politics. Old habits die hard, it seems.

Doug Harink will conclude this series tomorrow.

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