Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Politics & Theology

It’s very difficult to intervene in the US political debate without seeming partisan, or showing some sign of scorn or vindictiveness. To tread on the territory theologically does not exempt you from the danger, it could increase it. But the Word should never be silenced: it has a long history of talking truth to Pilate, doesn’t it?

But today, in point of fact, it’s a good deal more complicated than that.

These days Pilate could be attending church and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. In speaking about politics, therefore, you may quickly be speaking about some version of established Christianity. Which means politics today are already theology.

Take the recent debate over Obama’s tax package. On the political right, there’s a bottom-line argument that taxes are bad per se (including and especially for the very rich). Behind the dogma of trickledown economics (continually exposed by Paul Krugman, nobel prize-winner for economics) there lurks an implication that all redistribution of wealth is an illegitimate imposition on the Christian man and woman. Ah, yes. There it is, showing up like a mother tongue, a theological layer to the discussion. For where else can that easy, righteous, and ferocious assumption come from except theology, the certainty of a theological truth? And a very powerful one at that. It goes like this: God saves individuals formally, one at a time through the cross of Christ, and any attempt to invoke a necessary collective sense to existence (apart strangely from the universal requirement to spend on the military) is an evil reversion to sacraments and works. Forget that Jesus said you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions (Lk.14:33) and the way to give them was to the poor. These are superfluous remarks on the part of the Lord.

They are superfluous because this stripe of theology believes Jesus’ teaching is simply a series of symbolic and ultimately tiresome commentaries on the single, obsessive demand to be “saved”. Jesus’ pedagogy and practice are by no means a radical intervention in the core structure of our humanity. They are not about this life, about life during life; rather they are always about a legal contract dealing with life after life, life after death.

It’s true that down among the churches the political exploitation of theology only carries so far. It’s not just mainline churches which are losing members. Evangelical churches have lost and continue to lose droves of young people disillusioned with the tendentious character of some of this politicized theology (or theologized politics), The sense that this thinking supports the agenda of the rich, and the circles of power hidden within circles of power, becomes a major turn-off. And at the same time there is a steady shift of evangelical-style churches and theologians who are making a quiet exodus from the human narrowness of this approach, seeking a more historically and humanly relevant salvation, and one that reflects the overarching narrative of the scriptures.

But on its own this exodus does not create a different climate of political discourse. Really it makes little difference at all. What happens in fact is the airways and the political talk shows, and the millions influenced by them, remain immersed in the high-tide of individualist theology. They represent the toxic reservoirs of a theological era whose heyday is a bygone, but continues very much to be a payday.

By virtue of being a longstanding cultural default this kind of theology permits radio and T.V. presenters to assume a righteous theological tone, as if anyone who thinks differently is neither godly or American. They then add in a roiling anger, which of course has a “biblical” pedigree but is also very much a contemporary zeitgeist in the U.S., something which these presenters both harness and stir up. From a Girardian perspective it seems pretty straightforward to identify this anger as a snowballing sacrificial crisis resulting from the ever-increasing undifferentiation (free-floating violence and rivalry between groups and individuals) in U.S. society.

So what then is the solution, if any? To reply politically in the same angry tones is really just to stoke the fires. That is why the strangely radical thing for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to do back in October was to hold a Washington “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”, i.e. to try and stake out a presumed middle-ground between extremes and mock the escalation of rhetoric. But the trouble is in the face of a sacrificial crisis with theological overtones sanity and comedy have very little chance. Ginned up “anti-government” anger had a direct effect on the last elections and the political direction of this country. Which brings us straight back to theology.

Because the terms of the debate are set theologically the job of advancing a new theological paradigm is both urgent and truly radical. In other words it is a matter of taking the discussion to theology itself, of carrying through some kind of theological renewal that is itself a subversion of past theological models. Theology and Peace seeks to do this from the starting point of anthropology. It claims that we really cannot do theology without an underpinning of anthropology. That theology itself is both a product of anthropology and an overturning of anthropology: because violent human thinking and action have produced our thought about God, but in Christ it is progressively transformed from within. Into what?

Into something wonderfully new, something generous and forgiving, something loving and supportive of others and their needs. By means of mimetic anthropology we understand from the get-go that “no man is an island”, that we are all "a piece of the continent.” Individualist salvation before God completely ignores the structuring effect of the other on who I am, on what I hate, on what I want. It ignores the modeling that is always taking place between the other person and me. But rather, on the contrary, we should say because of the pre-conscious imitation that is always going on between humans, none of us is saved alone, and conversely none is damned alone. We are saved precisely because of what others do for us and because of what we do to others, and we are damned in the same measure.

In short, the gospel does not put before us a choice between killing and not killing, between hatred and co-existence. No, it says either we provoke others (scandalize them) with our desires, our arrogance, our rivalry, our indifference, or we come to their assistance in peace, forgiveness, love, and giving. Jesus’ whole program is much more subtle and profound than we have given him credit for. Because he is implicitly using a mimetic psychology he says indeed the choice is between scandalizing or healing, between provoking and reconciling. That is what the six antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount are all about—telling us to deal with the mimetic roots of behavior (not “an eye for an eye” but “turn the other cheek”) before it comes to actually breaking one of the commandments… And as for sacraments, in the light of this anthropology we can say there is a pre-sacramentality to all human existence. Because the “other” signs to me, at an organic level, what is either good or bad, the other truly is a sacrament of myself, and I of the other. And there is no getting away from it, for Protestants as little as Catholics. We either give good signals (learned from Jesus) or we end up in murder. (Note how these sacraments are not about salvation-by-works, the mass etc., which is another form of legalism, but what they’ve always been meant to be—living signals of a new human existence.)

So, you get the point. If politics were ever to embrace this theology, rather than the present horrible meta-legalism, how different would North America look? How different the world! We have miles and miles to go before it can seriously take hold. And of course it must seriously impact Christianity first, something which can happen only hand in hand with practice, with experimenting and discovering how a human change in Christ might be shaped today and how on that basis our thinking will change. We have our work cut out for us, but then again has not the core signal of a transformed world already been transmitted? We live in its radiant radio-frequency. Indeed, isn’t that the "peace on earth" message of the Bethlehem angels? I wish a Merry Christmas these days, and the birth of Christ in our world every day!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence

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