Christian Politics and Negative Identity

I’ve been reading the book To Change the World:  The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter for Global Problems and Change.  It’s very interesting; so far, he’s explained that Christians always want to change the world, but we think that we can do so if we’re just Christian enough.  This, he says, is naive of us: culture changes from the top down, rather than the bottom up (but that’s a post for another day).

What I wanted to talk about today is the three groups of Christians (in America, of course) who are most vocal about changing the world: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and Neo-Anabaptists.  All three of these groups attempt to use politics to change the world, though the latter group has a very different definition of politics, which I’ll discuss below.  What’s discouraging about all of this is not only that we’ve thus far failed to “change the world” or make a real impact on politics, but even moreso that we’ve p0liticized Christianity rather than Christianizing politics.  The conflation between these two realms does a disservice to both, but particularly to Christianity: Christian claims about reality are now reduced to political rhetoric.  The result of this is that Christians are considered a special-interests group at least (usually among the Christian Left), or even a major party (typically Republican, usually representing the Christian Right) at most.  What this means is that Christian identity is partisan, and predominantly, negative.

Hunter explains that these groups (Christian Right and Left) are based on and supported by selective mythologies that have a real basis in truth.  The Christian Right is based on the myth of a Christian Nation, ‘as the founders intended’.  This is represented by morals and values which, to the Christian Right’s view, must be protected by law.  The rise of pornography, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. all threaten this vision of a moral, even Christian, society that they believe once existed.  In their view, the golden age of the founding of the US truly had this moral character, a character that has been taken, or destroyed, or…insert any negative verb here.  The Christian Right is thus identified by (and feeds off of) being in conflict, and that conflict is moral.  They are defined by what they are against, what they hate, what they fight against.  Westboro is obviously an extreme example, but what do they believe in except the judgment of immorality?  Do they see anything positive, or perhaps more importantly, do they do anything positive?  And would they even exist if they weren’t given so much attention due to their constant enmeshment in conflict and controversy?  The Christian Right (like everyone else) distances themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church, but in many ways the same charges are leveled at them.  Sure, many in the Christian right do celebrate the good in the world and take part in good actions rather than strictly in negative judgments, but those positive things don’t make the news, and they don’t make it into any political statements that Christian groups make.

The Christian Left is almost as bad, or perhaps even worse, in that their identity is based on a response to the Christian Right.  The Christian Left is a much smaller and less vocal group than the Christian Right, but that wasn’t always the case: historically, they were champions of suffrage and civil rights movements, to name but a few.  But the Right has been rising since the 80’s, and gets all of the headlines – and thus has been identified by most non-Christians as the definitive Christian group.  The Christian Left wants to “take back” Christian identity from the Right, just as the Right wants to “take back” political power to reproduce their moral utopia.  While the Right is campaigning for legislated morality, the Left is campaigning for legislated social justice – and thus it’s no coincidence that both are labelled as partisan groups supporting the Reps and the Dems respectively.  While the Right wants a return to a moral utopia, the Left sees the potential to arrange for a truly just society: the gospel enacted rather than (just) believed.  So while the Christian Right is identified by being against immorality and the denigration of family values, the Christian Left is identified as being against social injustice (often identified with corporations) and the Christian Right, condemning the Right for being complicit in social injustice.

The Neo-Anabaptists are often identified with the Christian Left, but their type of politics differs from the other groups.  Yes, they are interested in social justice; and to an extent, they may even be interested in personal morality and family values.  But Neo-Anabaptists are unique in that they don’t try to use the State to further their ends, whether as a special-interests political group (like the Christian Left) or as the majority vote of a major political party (like the Christian Right).  Instead, NA’s are content to simply be the Church; they are accused of being sectarian, because they distrust the State, distancing themselves from it.  I’ve read a few things about Jacques Ellul recently, and would have pegged him as a part of this movement, but his bio on wikipedia labels him as a Christian Anarchist – which would be a more extreme version of Neo-Anabaptism.  Hunter doesn’t think that NA’s have escaped the negative identities and outlooks of the other two groups of would-be world-changers.  He writes,

“What is even more striking than the negational character of this political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmations….The neo-Anabaptists are not greatly different in this regard.  By no means do they hold or cultivate abhorrence toward life itself.  They are anything but Stoics.  Nor do they dislike people or nature.  It is the social world and its institutions around them that are the problem.  In effect, theirs is a world-hating theology.  It is not impossible but it is rare, all the same, to find among any of its most prominent theologians or its popularizers, any affirmation of good in the social world and any acknowledgement of beauty in creation or truth shared in common with those outside of the church.  Rare too are expressions in their public discourse of delight, joy, or pleasure with anything in creation.  Their targets differ from those of the Christian Right, but their dominant witness is also a witness of negation, and their language can be as hard and aggressive as that of the Christian Right.  Thus, they offer little alternative to the world they critique except the existence of the church itself.  This is fine as far as it goes, but its silence toward every affirmation except doxology and Eucharist means that the neo-Anabaptists have little to say to those outside of their own particular (and very small) community besides judgment.” (bold emphasis mine).

Is this being unfair?  Maybe a little, though I don’t think that he’s wrong.  Simply put, I think that people in general tend to point out the bads and gloss over the goods; if you disagree, count the negative stories vs. the positive ones on the nightly news.  We live in a society of critics, so it’s no wonder that the Church is made up of critics as well.  Even when Christians personally and privately enjoy and exult in creation and even their society and culture, this enjoyment and affirmation is not what binds them together as a political movement.  I think perhaps this is what Hunter is getting at: as a movement, we exist to criticise and work against certain issues (negative), even if as a Church we exist to love and serve the Lord (positive).  The problem is that our political movement has usurped the Church itself, at least as far as public action (and culture) goes, because all action and much culture is given over to the Christian political movement rather than seen as a necessary manifestation of the Church.  If we are critical and negative, it must be as an aspect of the Church and not as a political entity; otherwise, the political entity devours and replaces the Church.

Groups tend to define themselves by what they are for and what they are against.  Even their names reflect this: “Friends of the…” and “People against…”.  I’ve decided that I’d rather be for something than just against its opposite; this is the difference between criticism and judgmentalism.  Criticism is a corrective with a certain goal or ideal in mind, while judgmentalism is condemnation of something in its own right.  It’s okay to criticise something; the prophets did it all the time, calling condemnation against Israel; even Jesus did it, condemning the Pharisees.  The thing is, they called this condemnation on those who said they were upholding an ideal, but actually falling far short of it.  In the Israelite monarchy the people practiced a high form of religious piety – but their actions lacked the ethical requirements of such piety.  Therefore, the prophets’ criticism exposed the illegitimacy of that piety and their condemnation was warranted.  Likewise, the Pharisees practiced a similarly empty piety, but took it to new heights by adding additional requirements for people to follow – requirements that improved their pious image but opposed the ethical element of the Law rather than simply ignoring it.

When the Christian Right, Left, or any other Christian political organization tries to use the power of government to enforce our aims, we become pharisees: we create rules for people to follow that, though they may reflect God’s commandments, add to people’s burdens something that God himself has not put on them.  Not everyone (even in America!) is a Christian, or even a Jew; most people do not hold Christian morals, and for most people the social justice imperative of the Left is not a priority.  When we of these groups criticise the government, or society, for failing in these moral or ethical obligations, we cannot compare ourselves to the prophets or to Christ, because our context is completely different.  If we want to criticise negatively (or judge, if you like to call it that) then the only context we can do it in is among ourselves: Jesus and the prophets were Jews, and they criticised Jews for claiming piety while practicing injustice.

Whenever a prophet judged the injustice of an outside party (another nation, etc.), they judged positively.  That is, they lived out the justice that they wanted to see, and when that conflicted with the laws of that state they paid the penalty for it.  Daniel didn’t start an uprising when the Persians said nobody could pray to anyone except the king; he just prayed, and then paid the cost.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did likewise with the Babylonians.  Jesus did likewise with the Romans; he criticised the Pharisees openly, to which he had every right, but to expose the injustice of the Romans he simply lived in a way contrary to their expectations and then walked to his own execution.  [The only exception that I can think of to this is Jonah’s excursion to Nineveh (even the other prophets’ oracles against the nations were written for the sake of the Jews), and even Jonah’s story is told as a criticism of Israel, not of Nineveh.  Whether or not it actually happened is for another day, but its purpose as criticism of the Jews is clear.]  I call this positive judgment because in it we don’t have to call anyone else down or criticise them; their injustice is exposed by their own actions, by their opposition to what is clearly a good (i.e. Daniel’s freedom of religion; Jesus’ criticism of his own religious institution; etc). 

This is the theology of the neo-Anabaptists, and the reason that the third group is different from the first two (i.e. Christian Right and Left).  They are not vying for the power of the state to reinforce their own agenda; rather, their goal is to live out the gospel, to live justly, regardless of whether the state does it or not.  William Cavanaugh’s essay in the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics describes Christians who, in violation of US law, brought aid to Iraqi civillians during the war; it was the right thing to do, and if they were caught they would willingly serve their time (or even their own execution, if it was a treason charge); another Church heard about the conditions of third-world production of consumer goods and, rather than lobbying their government to change laws, decided that they could make an impact through their own lifestyles and buying habits.  In this way, the neo-Anabaptist church is autonomous from the government, agreeing with the government where they agree and going their own way where they disagree.  The Church is not the State, nor does it use the State for its own ends.

That being said, our interaction with the world outside of the Church tends to be negative.  Yes, we don’t necessarily openly criticise those outside the Church, but our relation to the world is one of conflict; the neo-Anabaptist movement depends to some extent on being the underdog.  If there were no other option, no culture for us to be held up against, then we would cease to be autonomous from the political world: we would be the political world.  If that were the case, I’d welcome the disappearance of the movement, because it wouldn’t be necessary anymore – and that is not to say that I’m aiming to make everyone in the country agree with me, but merely that if it were to happen then there would be no need for a counter-cultural movement that holds itself apart from the rest of the population. 

But at the same time I don’t want to be known as a member of a group that exists only to oppose everyone else: everyone knows what we’re against, but what are we FOR?  Where is our leisure, arts, music, literature, think tanks, etc?  We’ve managed to get over the public/private issue when it comes to what we don’t like about society and culture, so why do we still keep our own positive culture private?  Do we have something to offer the world other than the symbolism of the Eucharist?  How can we make our understanding of the truth about life, the universe, and everything a positive expression in our world?


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