Tuesday 29 July 2008

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

A guest-series by Douglas Harink

Part 2: Whither “God’s Politics”?

As I noted in the last post, in Wallis’s vision the churches do have an important role to play, a contribution to make, an influence to have among the people of God known as America: “The politics of God is often not the same as the politics of the people of God [i.e., America]. The real question is not whether religious faith should influence a society and its politics, but how” (p. 56). “Our religious congregations are not meant to be social organizations that merely reflect the wider culture’s values, but dynamic countercultural communities whose purpose it is to reshape both lives and societies” (p. 7, emphasis added).

As those statements reveal, one of the most remarkable characteristics of Wallis’s vision, obvious on nearly every page, is the thoroughly instrumentalized understanding of religion. God, church, faith, and prophetic religion are all parts of the greater whole which is America, completely absorbed into the discourse of American politics, taken up for use in the cause of the American nation – of a just, compassionate and democratic American nation to be sure, but it is the nation that religious discourse is made to serve as its proper end.

Not only that, but religious discourse must be policed by the discourse of national social and political life. Wallis writes: “We bring faith into the public square when our moral convictions demand it. But to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under [my emphasis] when it brings its faith to the public square… Religious people shouldn’t be told just to be quiet, they should be invited to participate as citizens… [in] the democratic discourse on the most important values and directions that will shape our society” (p. 71).

It becomes clear here and throughout the book that the proposals Wallis makes under the guise of “God’s politics” are in fact all proposals from within the system, for the system, and by the system of a so called democratic society. All discourse about God, faith, and the church is so thoroughly co-opted into the project of making America a better nation, that it is never allowed to fundamentally disrupt the solipsistic discourse of the American social and political project. In other words, there is something fundamentally idolatrous about Wallis’s theological discourse; it is certainly no less idolatrous than the discourse of the Religious Right which Wallis is very good at exposing. Unless Christian discourse about God, faith and the church is allowed in the first place to be absolutely free of its usefulness for Americanism, it will always be idolatrous.

The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is God’s radical and decisive invasion of our humanly constructed worlds, and God’s deliverance from and destruction of the powers that hold us in bondage. The American nation, or the Canadian nation, or any other nation for that matter, is a humanly constructed world; it is a power that enslaves human beings and makes us serve its ends. Every nation is in the first place an idolatrous regime to which God comes in the Gospel to set his people free. Before the church and its discourse can be of any use to American people, it must learn that it does not exist in the first place as America, or to be of use to America, but it exists as the church, constituted in its worship and service of the one true God.

In other words, whether America as such stands or falls – and it will surely one day fall – should not be a matter of primary interest to the churches in America. Indeed, paraphrasing 1 Thess. 1:9-10, the church in America must learn to “turn from the idol America, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven whom he raised from the dead, that is, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.” The problem with the church in North America is not primarily that it has been co-opted by the Right or Left. It is that it has failed to be the ekklesia, a people called out by God from the nations, to be a loyal citizenship of the peaceable regime of the one true God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am more likely to agree than disagree with Wallis on his social and political goals, many of which are already realized in Canada in some measure. I also agree when he argues against privatized faith, and therefore I disagree with the consciousness of many Canadian Christians for whom the privacy of religion is a basic creed. But in fact an understanding of faith or religion as in the first instance precisely personal and private is at the very foundation of Wallis’s vision. He does not question that assumption; he argues instead that faith or religion should not stay private. It should always in one way or another, he says, make the transition through “values” into the public and the political realm. In other words “religious” discourse about God, faith and the church is not in itself intrinsically and immediately political; it gets political by going out of itself, as it were, and translating itself into the political discourses and performances which are always already going on “out there” in the places of worldly power.

Here we come to the heart of Wallis’s failure to resist American idolatry. For he fails to see that the eternal life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God revealed in the Gospel, is the original and true politics. He fails to see that Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, in his life, passion, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension, as narrated in the gospels and in such texts as Phil 2:6-11, is the original and true politics of God on earth, in the flesh, publicly performed for all to see. Wallis fails to see that the chosen people of God, in whom the Spirit works to bring about a faithful political life, is not America but Israel and the church. He fails to see that the first and primary and normative political performance is exclusive worship of the one God revealed in Israel and in Jesus Christ. That is divine politics in the true sense, and one need not and must not go to Ottawa or Washington DC or London to “get political” in the true sense. For, as St Augustine has taught us, in light of the divine politics revealed in the gospel, what goes on as political in those places of worldly power is a parody of politics at best, and a dangerous and deadly illusion at worst.

How then do people get truly political? They believe the Gospel, they are baptized into the body of Christ, they worship the triune God, and they participate in the eucharistic life of the congregation. Only out of this primary and constitutive political performance will the people of God be capable of interrupting, even if only among themselves, the idolatrous and destructive discourses and performances in our nations which go by the name of “politics,” and of speaking the word of truth to the nations for their judgment and healing.


Unknown said...

"…there is something fundamentally idolatrous about Wallis’s theological discourse; it is certainly no less idolatrous than the discourse of the Religious Right which Wallis is very good at exposing."

Exactly. This is one thing Richard Niebuhr got right in his little book — suggesting that guys like Wallis and those on the Religious Right are two sides of the same coin. Both end in idolatry precisely because both have bought into the Enlightenment lie that religion is simply about subjective feelings, not an objective Lord.

Far from being about how "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," the gospel is all about how in the fullness of time (objective history and space) God sent his son to be the savior of the world. The so-called peace Caesar brought was therefore shown to be the charlatan it was. As the post states, participating, as it were, in the constitutive political performance (of baptism, eucharist, worship) ought indeed to lead us to treat this "new vision for faith and politics in America"—whether from the right or from the left—with at least a little skepticism.

Anonymous said...

Bravo prof Harink. You remind me very much of Bernd Wannenwetsch in his wonderful book 'Political Worship'. A large section of it is a critique of the instrumentalism you see in Wallis.

Anonymous said...

I remember Justin Martyr using the rhetoric in his apology of Christians being better for the Roman Empire than practicing pagans, but I think he was going a different direction than Wallis.

Tom Allen said...

Your point really illustrates that America does not have any real tradition of radical (lets get back to roots) or prophetic (lets stand outside the culture and look in)left-wing politics or theology. It tends either to be (unconsciously) integrated as with Wallis - or essentially dualistic. So politically Obamha would be centrist or right wing in the UK. Wallis tends to use the Bible as a handbook for how we can do things better, rather than as a inspiration to do thing differently.

Anonymous said...

Whilst I agree with your critique on the latent idolatry of "America" within much of Wallis's work, reference to the international versions of his writings does show an awareness of his Americo-centrism. What I do not agree with is your ultimate conclusion which is ultimately privatised religion writ large ie. church separatism. Where is the concept of the Christian as salt in that? Where is there any seeking the shalom of the city? We should be critically engaged with whatever political system the church falls under. We should not unhesitatingly bless it, but our engagement should be a blessing to those around us.

Anonymous said...

Reading this reminds me of a quote from Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World by Vinoth Ramachandra. Ramachandra writes, “By claiming the ultimate loyalty of its citizens, the essentially religious character of the modern state is revealed. The state now becomes the sole sanction for violence. Martyrdom is redefined as laying down one’s life for one’s nation. Blasphemy, the worst sin in a religious milieu, has been transformed into treason. The nation-state offers protection from other human beings on its behalf. Usually the threats from which the state offers protection are the results of its own activities. It demands access to our bodies, and our money to fuel its war-making machinery”(Ramachandra 1999: 151).

Ramachandra goes on to write, “Both religious and secular nationalisms provide an overarching moral framework, locating the individual in a larger collectivity. For secular nationalism, emotional identification with the geographical area of one’s birth and the people of that locality is not only natural but is assumed to be a universal moral good” (Ramachandra 1999: 151).

Ben Sternke said...

@ Virtual Methodist:

I don't believe Mr. Harink is advocating "privatised religion writ large." Just the opposite, it would seem, from the last sentence, where the church ought to be "speaking the word of truth to the nations for their judgment and healing."

The kind of political discourse that Mr. Harink's article condemns is the kind that places the church as the servant of the state, serving the state on the state's terms. Seeking the "shalom of the city" is a good thing, but whose shalom is it? The "liberty" of America is a far cry from the "liberty" of the gospel, just like the Pax Romana was a far cry from the shalom of Yahweh, and this is precisely the point of the critique.

You wrote that the church ought to be "critically engaged in whatever political system the church falls under." The key point of difference in outlook seems to be the word "under." I think Mr. Harink would argue that the church falls "under" only God, not man-made political systems.

Evan said...

Great second post- I have one comment that connects somewhat to my thoughts on your first post, where I'm suspicious of whether Wallis is even talking about the Church in what he says.

In your quotes from Wallis the word "religion" pops up a lot... "religious faith", "religious congregations", "the democratic discipline religion has to be under", "religious people", etc. For what it's worth, I think your characterization of his talk about religion is quite accurate.

Where I think there's a disconnect is when you make the shift in your critique from talking about religion to talking about the Church. Nowhere (that I noticed) do you actually present Wallis commenting on the Church, and yet you connect these dots in order to describe his instrumentalist ideas about religion as idolatrous ideas about the Church. If it were me writing this piece, I would criticize Wallis for getting caught up in "religion" in the first place, rather than talking about the true body politic of the Church. Because, really, what of it if he instrumentalizes religion? Are the religions of this world any more sacred than the nations themselves? If we really understood the Church to be a public radically secure in the redemptive politic of the Lord God, then our problem with Wallis should be that he is a religious commentator and really hasn't said anything much about the Church at all... not that he has made the Church into something idolatrous or especially American.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a paper a while back that echos some of the points you raise, and it's encouraging to see these views affirmed elsewhere.

I was going to add that his phrase "change the wind" may suggest a perspective that is at times critical of nationalist identity, but after reviewing those passages (20-24, 30, 276) it seems that even that idea is approached throught the lens of "American politics."

Nevertheless, while his approach is less than ideal, I think his argument "don't go left or right, go deeper," can offering something of a starting point for Christians in America to become less tethered to their American political identity.

Zac said...

I agree with Ben S. regarding Virtual Methodist's accusation that Prof. Harink is advocating a church seperatism/sectarianism. If you read his book, Paul Among the Post-Liberals, you will see that he is doing just the opposite of advocating an ecclesial sectarianism. Through using Yoder's term, "Diaspora Judaism", Harink does advocate a "welfare of the city" approach to ecclesio-political engagement with the world.

However, as Ben S. already pointed out, this engagement is always grounded, not first in the foundational narrative of the "city" (with its language and culture) in which the church finds itself in, but in the disruptive event of the Apocalypse of Jesus and how that event calls the nations to a new peoplehood.

Anonymous said...

Pace Virtual Methodist, Douglas' ecclesiology is not in the least sectarian. His post ends with words resonant of the Book of Revelation - and appositely so, as for St. John God calls a priestly people from the nations to testify prophetically to the nations for the healing of the nations: this is an ecclesiology of witness. And that is how Christians fundamentally engage in politics: as militant witnesses to Christ and his peaceable kingdom. And just as for St. John the liturgical and the political are knit together in a seamless robe, so (I think) for Douglas Christians have nothing to bring to the table that does not come from the Table: when we enter the public square, if we are faithful, we will interrupt the discussion on justice and peace - "Which justice? Whose peace?" - otherwise we allow Caesar, not Christ, to set the terms of engagement.

And pace Evan, that Wallis "really hasn't said anything much about the Church at all" - well, if God is the God of Israel and the Church, then presumably unless ecclesiology is built into "God's Politics", we're talking about a different God, i.e. an idol. If "God's Politics" has (in Douglas' rhetorical title) no "whither", perhaps it's precisely because its lacks this ecclesial "whence".

Evan said...

"If "God's Politics" has (in Douglas' rhetorical title) no "whither", perhaps it's precisely because its lacks this ecclesial "whence"."

...exactly my point. What else might "he really hasn't said anything much about the Church at all" mean?

There's no question that this is Wallis' problem- what concerns me about Harink is how easily the religious has been equated with the ecclesial in his critique of Wallis. Or conversely, to take it down the road that you have, how closely the Church is bound to God Himself in confident claims that any other account of God's work in the political realm is the work of an idol. Reminds me somewhat of the nixed ecclesia christi est ecclesia catholica. That the Church is the space that God has created as a unique and exclusive redemptive public in the world does not preclude God's work outside of it or bind God to it. An ethic concerned only with this extra-ecclesial work would be incomplete and even err in its incompleteness, but so would any of us if we dismissed such an ethic as saying something about the Church when its very problem is that it says nothing about the Church.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all of your thoughtful responses to Part 2. Again, some of you have engaged some of the criticisms of my post in ways that I myself would have responded, indeed, often more adequately than I could. Ben Sternke, Zac and Kim F. have each grasped my point and worked with it. Bruce Hamill is right to note the connection with Bernd Wannenwetsch. The quotes from Vinoth Ramachandra provided by mattn are excellent and right on target. I have read some blurbs about that book, and look forward to reading it sometime.

I’ll respond to a few individual points:

To Tom Allen: I would not agree with you that “America does not have any real tradition of radical…or prophetic…left-wing politics or theology.” I think there has been plenty of that in America, not least from African Americans. But whether it has had, or should have such politics and theology is, to my mind, beside the point. Or rather, proves my point that for Christian theology to hope for such is still to hope for the wrong thing in any theologically primary sense. Like Wallis, you seem to think that we need a “left-wing” as the proper Christian response to the right-wing. I would say that we need a faithful church, living and acting as the body politic of the crucified and risen Messiah. Other bodies politic are not evaluated by the church on where they stand on the left-right spectrum, but on how they measure up in relation to the cruciform politics of the Messiah and his people.

To Virtual Methodist: Ben and Kim have said what I would want to say. One point raised by Zac is worth emphasizing. In Jer. 29 the prophet writes his famous letter to the exiled Jews in Babylon, that they should “seek the shalom of the city” in which they find themselves. However, they are not told that to do so they should become patriots of that city, but that they should go on being faithful Jews, settling down and propagating, and praying on the city’s behalf. Jeremiah does not prohibit various modes of participation in the life of the city (cf. Joseph, Daniel), but the witness and blessing of the Jews in that place is not tied to such participation, but rather to faithfulness to the God who has “sent” them there.

To Evan: The best things Wallis has to say about the church are on pp. 152-154. Here some significant distinctions are made between church and nation, and the witness of the church to the nation. Ah, but these are not Wallis’s words! They come from a “Confession” instigated by Richard Hays, George Hunsinger, et. al. For a much closer representation of Wallis’s own thoughts on “how should your faith influence your politics?” you need to go to Chapter 5 with that title. In that chapter, and particularly on pp. 68-71, Wallis slides with great ease from one of the following terms to another: God, faith, religion, religious congregation, church, spirituality, moral and religious values, spiritual values, concluding that, “Applying spiritual values to politics will be the key.” Parts III, IV, V, and VI, then are all about how “spiritual values” are “applied” in various spheres of social and political life. Where do those “spiritual values” come from? From beliefs, faith, religious congregations, churches, etc., all quite generically and/or pluralistically understood. Does Wallis get caught up in “religion”? Yes he does. Does Wallis aim to say anything about the church? You bet he does; the church is one instrument, among other religions and religious organizations, which yields up the kind of “spiritual values” which should guide America in the way of “God’s politics.” As Kim has pointed out, the indefiniteness about all this “religious” stuff which pervades Wallis’s book gets pulled right into the heart of his talk about God, church and faith.

As to whether I think God’s work in the world is limited to what God does in and with the church – no, that is not what I think. My problem with Wallis is that he thinks he can trace God’s work in the world without reference to the church and to the crucified Christ. His talk of the ethical and spiritual values of Jesus and the prophets is simply inadequate.

Two comments to Kim: You wrote: “Christians have nothing to bring to the table that does not come from the Table…” Exactly! And beautifully stated! Then you go on to say, “when we enter the public square, if we are faithful…” I would say, simply, that the Table is the truly public square, for here all (from “every tribe and language and people and nation” – Rev. 5:9) who confess that Jesus is the exalted Sovereign of all nations are granted citizenship and share in the peace and well-being, the goods and services, that this Sovereign offers.

Thanks again for the excellent discussion.

poorpilgrim said...

This is good, challenging stuff douglas. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to see my friend Doug Harink attacking the views of my friend Jim Wallis. I don't have time to respond to Harink, but Wallis can take care of himself.

I will say this. For 30 years Jim Wallis has been in the forefront of progressive Christian activism in the United States. He has been on the right side of virtually every issue, and he has been a powerful leader in helping evangelicals break from the more unfortunate political aspects of their backgrounds.

I would submit that Wallis is a responsible Christian activist and a theological journalist in the best sense of those terms. He is not an armchair academic who takes ill-advised and uncharitable potshots at others.

It would be hard to think of anyone in U.S. church circles who has so consistently spoken out for the poor, for justice and for peace.

Wallis has joined with me in every (modest) political effort I have ever organized against torture, against aggressive wars, and against nuclear idolatry. In most of those efforts Hauerwas and Woltersdorff have joined in.

Those who do not have anything like Jim Wallis's outstanding track record -- which includes many acts of civil disobedience leading to time in jail -- might want to think twice before they start slinging around excessive and unnecessary accusations.

If you still want to join in the chorus of naysayers, you might stop and ask yourself some searching questions about what exactly you yourself have done in your life for justice and peace? What price have you paid? Indeed.

Clark West said...

Thank you, George, for your defense of Wallis. I have the same reaction when Reinhold Niebuhr gets gleefully dumped into the ashheap of history as a hopeless liberal (see comment on Harink's first thread for this). Just imagine the civil rights movement without his Moral Man and Immoral Society (among others), a book still underappreciated for its radical stance against Empire! Sometimes I fear that too many theologians are so frustrated, so resentful of our near impotence in the face of the walls which surround us, that they attack in bitter self-condemnation those who have refused to sit still and give up the fight. To which I say: no more friendly fire! Aim higher, and fight the powers that be, as Walter Wink or Stringfellow might have said.

Anonymous said...

Woah. Wooooah. Slow down. Since when was theological discussion and analysis an attack that hampered protests against torture? I don't think any of this means I wouldn't march with NRCAT. In fact, I do have a criticism of NRCAT (I voiced it very quickly in my own thesis), but I have still marched with NRCAT and wouldn't be where I am now in terms of putting a theological voice against torture if it wasn't for NGOs like NRCAT (which I have voiced my thanks for as well).

The point is, a good critique is a critique that explores what the text does put forward. So if Harink is dishonest about what Wallis does say, call him for that. If Harink is wrong in his conclusion for what Wallis should be moved towards, call him on that. But to say we shouldn't talk about what people have said, goes against academic rigor and the basis for theological discussion. If anything, this is a way for Wallis to become better if he does come around sometime.

Anonymous said...

Hi George,

I'm not sure you're being fair. No one is being ad hominem here, or dissing Wallis' record as an activist, or denying the risks he has taken as an evangelical fronting up to the Religious Right. Nor am I, at least, when I question Wallis' ecclesiology, suggesting that the measure of a Christian is his theological "correctness". You know the story about the conversation between Barth and Martin Niemöller:

Karl: "Martin, I'm surprised that you almost always get the point despite the little systematic thelogy that you've done!"

Martin: "Karl, I'm surprised that you almost always get the point despite the great deal of systematic theology that you've done!"

Heck, I've walked with militant socialists on CND marches, and stood with atheists at anti-war rallies - and I'd be happy to attend a Gay Pride parade with Jack Spong. And in an important sense I'd want to say that they all got the point - but I'd still want to argue theology with them!

That's all that's going on here. Perhaps you think that it should be a private conversation. But then it's three years since God's Politics was published. It's not as if Douglas is out to steal its thunder, but to critique it now that the storm is over. And, I trust, to make Wallis' great work even greater.

Anonymous said...

To George Hunsinger:

George, thank you for your comments. They do set a context for the discussion which should not be ignored. I am glad that you have noticed that I am challenging the “views” of Wallis, and not Wallis himself. I have engaged in a discussion of ecclesiology, in which Wallis’s book figures as a particularly good example of an ecclesiology which I find fundamentally problematic. I have not once questioned his personal integrity, his passionate and costly commitment to the things that he stands for, and indeed any number of good things that may have come about through his social and political activism, things which I would have no reason whatsoever to condemn, and many reasons to applaud. In some respects the Sojourners community itself, which is one of Wallis’s gifts to the church in America, is a much better ecclesiological argument than the book under discussion.

You are certainly right that Wallis “is not an armchair academic who takes ill-advised and uncharitable potshots at others.” Whether I am an “armchair academic” (if I am the one you have in mind here) I must leave for those who know me well enough to judge. But I certainly do not see my posts as “uncharitable potshots” at him, nor do I think I have been “slinging around excessive and unnecessary accusations.” If you read my posts and subsequent comments carefully, you will see that I have addressed his ideas, his vision of “faith and politics,” his proposals, and so on. I have pushed hard against those, but I neither feel, nor intended to communicate, any uncharity toward him as a person or a Christian. When, for example, I challenge his proposals as idolatrous, I have no intent to say or imply that he is an idolater. On the one hand, how could I? I don’t know him personally. On the other hand, what I do know of him suggests exactly the opposite.

I have posted my response to Wallis’s book as a vigourous critical challenge to a certain way of thinking about the church and politics in America. That seems to me a valid thing to do in the kind of public academic forum that this blog intends to be. I do not see why Wallis himself could not read those posts, strongly disagree, make a vigourous counter-critique and challenge of his own, and still “be my friend” as it were. I am glad to see that you still consider me your friend.

Grace and peace.

Mark Stevens said...

Thanks for the reflections Douglas. As fate would have it Jim Wallis is here in Adelaide today promoting his new book (through World Vision) and I am on my way to a church leaders lunch to hear him speak! Having not read his recent books I will keep your reflections in mind when reflecting on what he is saying.



reg51 said...

I appreciate the clarifying of the critique of ideas and not of the person. Could you please describe for me what the politics of the Triune God looks like in concrete terms , just as Jesus dared to describe the reign of God in concrete terms? All language is language in context and Wallis has written his book in the context of his being in Christ and his contribution to the church and society. Many assumptions are made from the words on the page - when the book is not written as an academic piece but as a prophetic voice.

Anonymous said...

Coming as I do from a society which has known more than its fair share of sanctified patriotism, and a separatism which has produced a sectarianism of the worst kind, I was not advocating the former, nor was I accusing Prof. Harink of advocating the latter. However, pious statements about the church "only being under God" may be true in a spiritual sense, and I have affirmed such in the light of "For God and Ulster" theologies, but the question is, how does that work itself out under different political regimes?
We may be inspired by the New Jerusalem of Revelation, but that isn't a current political entity... It is prefigured in the church, and out of it the river of living water flows... But do we simply sit back and wait for the trees on the riverbank to bring healing to the nations?
Do we call our people out from the political machinery, or do we really equip them at the Table and through the Word, to go to the table of political discourse? Do we equip people to engage with the idolatry of nationalism, and the many other idolatries practiced (and spiritually endorsed) in the Western capitalist world, whilst still serving within national institutions, or do we simply make pious statements from a distance.
As I have said, the international versions of Wallis's books all acknowledge the fundamentally American nature of his source material. As Eugene Peterson is fond of saying, "All discipleship is local." I wonder if Wallis would take a different approach under a different regime?
I do thank you for these posts. They challenge a glib acceptance of Wallis' approach, which, as I have said, are perhaps too positive about the "manifest destiny" of the USA.

Erin said...

Thanks for your posts, Mr. Harink, they are very helpful to me as I consider church life. I take your comment, "My problem with Wallis is that he thinks he can trace God’s work in the world without reference to the church and to the crucified Christ. His talk of the ethical and spiritual values of Jesus and the prophets is simply
inadequate." -to be the crux of the issue.

My problem is a practical one and not a formal criticism. Your conclusion is "How then do people get truly political? They believe the Gospel, they are baptized into the body of Christ, they worship the triune God, and they participate in the eucharistic life of the congregation."

Now this is the conclusion for Christians, I agree, but I believe the American church hears nothing new in it, in contrast to Wallis' ethics and calls for justice. It sounds too much like "what we've always believed." As a pastor, certainly it is my responsibility to repristinate and expand on how those things you write are lived and expressed, but I guess I wonder what the dangers of the instrumentalism you see are, given the desperate need for justice, for the practical relief of suffering and oppression in the US.

Is there a way to reformulate your thesis in terms that encompass and
describe the justice elements that challenge America yet keep the focus on the church? Could you perhaps expand on the dangers of instrumentalism that lead to the very injustice Wallis works against? Again, practically speaking I feel I must continue to support and present my congregation with Wallis' material because he says something they need to hear in a way that they can begin to hear. I am sympathetic to Wallis's position of having to speak to America in its vernacular and I wonder how a church pursuing just goals should interface with a host nation, particularly over matters of social justice. Thanks for the reflections, they are challenging!

Unknown said...

For some reasons it is unacceptable to make a distinction between the church and the political but allowable to make a distinction between Wallis's beliefs and practices. Put differently, many who are criticizing the theology that undergirds Wallis's thought here seem to be suggesting that they agree with his practices hence the old Protestant distinction between faith and works slips itself in. Regardless, I will take Wallis's practices any day of the week over the current theological trend of the church as polis which will forever be stymied attempting to discover how to act true to itself. I suppose I am more attracted to Wallis since I agree more with his practices than with what I see in the turn to political theology which seems at its best potentially prophetic and at its norm fatalistic, coping, and unfortunately irresponsible in the projecting of its disfunction on a capitulation to the state, etc. It almost is as if something is wrong in the Church there must be some state-craft involved, or the aims of the nation-state merged with the church, etc.

Anonymous said...

The old Protestant distinction between faith and works is a distinction of salvation, not a distinction between right Christian belief (orthodoxy) and right Christian action (orthopraxy). Its not exactly correct to accuse political theology of the "old Protestant" distinction, when we're talking about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which Gutiérrez speaks of both needing each other.

I think your gripe, Lee, sounds rather Niebuhrian and more to do with much of political theology, than just Harink. As for this overall gripe you have, Lee, I would add, that if there is something wrong with the Church in America, it hasn't just been affected by the state, but also the surrounding economy as well. It would be irresponsible to think both do not play a role in our daily lives -- how we understand people and how we relate to one another.

Lastly, for all those having a hard time seeing the vision, the constructive work, Harink and Ben and Halden talking of the Apocalypse here:


Anonymous said...

A final quick comment, triggered mostly by Erin's comment, but getting to the question of what the socio-political witness of the church looks like "beyond itself" as it were.

1. We could get our congregations to stop thinking that what "really matters" is our nation (whichever that may be)-- its wealth, its image, its pride, its power, its geopolitical role. It is these that "crucified the Lord of glory." The service the church owes to the world is not its attempts, big or small, to steer the helm of national or geopolitical history, but to enact the justice of the crucified Sovereign: mercy among, with, and to the "least of these" in our neighbourhoods, cities, etc.

2. Activism consistent with the way of Jesus Christ is very often concretely possible, and often brings about some positive change. However, such activism must be free of the "compulsion of purpose" (Yoder) that often leads to high expectations, anxiety, enmity and coercion. Our activism must be the free action of those whose hope is in God, not in the possibility of "changing the system."

3. We could call the members of our churches to refuse to go to war on behalf of our nations, no matter how "just" the cause may seem, precisely because it fundamentally contradicts the politics of the Table. Those who celebrate the Eucharist must cease from war. I wonder, Erin, how much that would be "the same old thing" in your congregation, unless it is one already in the pacifist tradition.

In many of these respects Wallis himself has been an example for us. I fear that his book, God's Politics, represents a significant shift toward worldly politics as usual.

Erin said...

excellent, thanks!
Though my particular congregation is pacifist, you are correct that working out these things would be challenging. I hope, too, I was clear that I did not think you were suggesting the "same old thing," but I get anxious about blunting calls to justice such as Wallis'. Were I to have my congregation read your posts (oh, I milk Faith&Theology!) they might find the conclusion sounds familiar, though of course it isn't. Once again, the task becomes making theology unfamiliar for me :) Thanks for your time and thoughts.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for this; it's proving helpful as I think through what it is I am to do as a Christian living in the U.S and also as a pastor and professor guiding and instructing others.

I think Wallis' mistake - and Richard John Neuhaus's too, et. al. - is to think that Christians can get involved "as citizens" . This is toxically mixed with the belief, which you rightly fingered, in the fundamental utility of God and church. Until we embrace and celebrate inutility, then we have no chance of engaging politically as Christians. God is not useful. Worship is not good-for-something. The liturgy is not an instrument.

Along these lines, I'm thinking about Yoder's statement: "The world exists for the church" over aginst Bonhoeffer's "The church is only herself when she is for the world." I think that in spite of the fact that they seem antagonistic to one another, they do in fact voice the same truth.

We might say that the church is only herself when she is for the world - as the church. The church is wider than the world, after all.

I would add this: it is not only the church's litrugical life that matters, but also her charismatic life. One does not stand without the other.

Anonymous said...

Chris Green, you wrote:

"I think Wallis' mistake - and Richard John Neuhaus's too, et. al. - is to think that Christians can get involved "as citizens" . This is toxically mixed with the belief, which you rightly fingered, in the fundamental utility of God and church. Until we embrace and celebrate inutility, then we have no chance of engaging politically as Christians. God is not useful. Worship is not good-for-something. The liturgy is not an instrument."

This is exactly right. The "inutility" connects up closely with Yoder's critique of the "compulsion of purpose." Engagement in our national citizenships should only be done in excess of purpose -- free and gracious -- in the way that our life is given to us freely and graciously in Christ, the Spirit and the church.

Thanks for the good words. I'm now off on holidays -- also from blogging.

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