My Journey to Political Theology

I’m back from another brief hiatus. This one was caused by taking on a political campaign for the Green Party in our riding’s recent by-election, which gives me a good opportunity to bring up two of my favourite topics: stewardship of creation, and political theology. You may see these as recurring themes here in the future. Today I’d like to talk about why I’m interested in politics, and maybe later, why I’m interested in Green politics. (I haven’t forgotten about the post on Original Sin – that’ll come eventually!)

My journey toward politics has been a bit of a zig-zag as I follow the ethical implications of my theology (guided largely by the theology and ethical thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). God demanded that human beings act justly and love mercy, and told us how to do that; when we didn’t get the message, Jesus showed us how to do it. At the same time, he painted a picture of what the world would be like if we all did it, and he called it the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom isn’t here in its fullness, but it appears, however briefly, when we gather together in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. In short, the Kingdom appears whenever the church acts like the church is called to act.

That said, there are glimpses of the Kingdom outside the walls of our local congregations. The Spirit goes where the Spirit wills, and God has implanted notions of justice and goodness in the hearts of human beings, and there are a lot of people out there who are doing good things. This, too, glorifies God and gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m trying to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by enforcing Christianity through the state! Far from it: I believe strongly that Christianity is something that must be chosen by individuals (see Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship for an account of that confrontation). I keep referring to the Kingdom because the picture that Jesus paints of it contrasts sharply with our present reality, and acts as a character foil for our social systems and personal choices. It’s the reality that I’m trying to live in, and it makes injustice in the world stand out all the more. It’s what gives me the ability to see that something is wrong, and it’s what calls me to do something about it.

In short, the Kingdom of God has made me an activist. Well, at least a slacktivist.

I say slacktivist because being a true activist involves going out and doing something about society’s ills. I’m much more prone to stay home and blog about it, sign petitions, and even occasionally donate small amounts of money. I feel called to do more because Jesus has given me a glimpse of a better world, but the media has shown me the extent and depth of this world’s dysfunction and distress, and I’m overwhelmed by it. My little acts of kindness and mercy, the outward marks of my discipleship, seem like a drop in the ocean. Perhaps if I could see the church organizing to do something about these issues in a bigger way, I’d be content to have the church be my only political affiliation (and make no mistake, becoming a Christian is a highly political act!); sadly, I don’t see that happening very much. I think that the church has been failing in its divine mandate to hold the other divinely instituted mandates in check (government, work, family – see Bonhoeffer’s discussion in Ethics), and I think that’s partially because Christians from across the political spectrum (with the exception of the far right) have stopped engaging in politics.

This is why I’m getting involved in politics: my discipleship makes me sensitive to injustice and demands action, and I want the action I take to have a far-reaching impact. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on small, personal acts of justice and mercy; on the contrary, those little acts of discipleship, and my formation in a community of worship, inform and inspire the action I want to take on a larger scale. But one act of personal kindness can feed one person for one day (or teach them how to feed themselves, as the old adage goes), but one piece of legislation can set up a program to teach a whole nation how to feed itself forever. I don’t think any government has the ability to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can certainly hold it up as an ideal as we work toward a more just society.

You may still think that I’m somehow trying to enforce my Christian ideals on people – well, all politics is about enforcing some kind of ideals. The trick is, what kind of ideals are we enforcing? People tend to have a problem with faith and politics mixing because, as I said above, religious commitment is a very individual thing that should not be coerced. To put it another way, you can’t enforce morality (at least not effectively, and not in a way that respect’s the Other as other – that is, as a human being who can make their own moral choices). But there’s a whole lot more to Christianity than just a certain morality; in fact, Bonhoeffer once preached that Christianity is distinctly amoral.¬† So it doesn’t follow that politics inspired by, or even enforcing, Christian ideals or values must actually enforce Christian beliefs or morals.

Besides, providing a moral example is something that the church has, more or less, done fairly well. If anything, the church tends to put too much emphasis on morality, especially in regard to sex (but that’s a post for another day). It was the same in Bonhoeffer’s Germany: in Letters and Papers from Prison he talks about how the church has been reduced to moralism, with nothing relevant to say to society except to dig through people’s drawers and closets in search of secret sin. He argued that our lived morality (that is, ethics) needed to be the primary witness of the church, rather than merely¬†preached morality (moralism). He called this “religionless Christianity,” and it’s still necessary, though it’s not everything the church must be.

Another major way that the church is supposed to impact society (and the other divine mandates) is through its worship of God on behalf of the world; this is the one way that the church in North America is still fulfilling its function. We love to worship! Unfortunately, we tend to have “worship services” that are heavy on worship and light on (or devoid of) actual service. God scolded Israel for this through the mouths of his prophets, saying that their worship without the accompanying acts of justice and mercy was repugnant, wicked, evil. This is the reason he gave for the destruction and exile of Israel.

So here I am, a disciple of Christ and a member of his church. I want to continue to worship God, but for that worship to be genuine it must also involve service to my fellow humans; and for that service to be most effective it requires an organized effort that the church (with notable exceptions such as MCC, Kairos, the EFC, etc.) isn’t really making. Meanwhile, governments are charged with ordering society in a just manner, but often lack the ethical foundations that Christ is actively building into his disciples. This seems like a match made in heaven: someone (like me) who is based in a community focused on ethical formation, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility would be an ideal candidate to serve the function of ordering society justly in an organization (the government) known for its misuse of power and lack of ethical grounding.

Once again, lest you be concerned that a Christian could not function as a representative of all of the people of their political riding, who may or may not share in the Christian faith: the role of politics is to order society justly, not to preach morality. So long as it stays within that function, there is no danger of legislating morality; and even if there were, Christianity need not be moralistic, and may in fact be amoral (as Bonhoeffer suggests). The issues on which the broader population disagrees with Christian ethics are relatively few, and most of them fall outside of the mandate of government anyway, so it’s far from impossible for a Christian who is acting in accord with their faith to represent a non-Christian constituency.

Ultimately, then, I feel that political activity provides the best venue for the ethical, or “religionless”, aspect of my Christianity. Our current society doesn’t tolerate organized Christian groups very well, and much of the church just plain isn’t interested, but we can still fulfill this important function of the church by being the church at the same time as being citizens. These two realms, which we always seem to want to separate, complement one another in our society today, and allow each other to be fulfilled.

This is obviously a big and complex topic, so please leave your questions or comments below!

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Reading Bonhoeffer: The End! (Of Religion)

This is it: tomorrow is the last day of class, and I’ve just finished my last required chapter of the Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (chapter 13, “Christianity in a world come of age” by Peter Selby), which discusses Bonhoeffer’s notion in Letters and Papers from Prison of a “religionless Christianity” in “a world come of age.” (See LPP, letters from May 5-6, 1944, and especially June 8 and 30 1944)

A World Come of Age

When Bonhoeffer talks of “religion” in this context, he’s not talking about Christianity itself, but rather a certain notion of religion in general that nobody would aspire to, yet nevertheless existed quite strongly in the German Evangelical (Protestant) Church: outward proclamation combined with inward piety, and generally without much of an ethic or a politic at all. In a word, irrelevant, perhaps even hypocritical. But of course, Bonhoeffer had been answering this kind of empty religion his entire life: when as a child he told his family that he would be a theologian, and they were unimpressed due to the bourgeois nature of the institutional church, his answer was “then I will reform it!” His radical ecclesiology, stemming as it does from his robust christology, certainly was answer enough to a church that simply lacked engagement with the world.

The problem, though, was not simply that the church had lost relevance; rather, it was that the world (at least the world of modern intellectual Germany) no longer needed it. In the modern age of science, art, and social thought, the boundaries of knowledge had been continually pushed back, and with them, society’s reliance on God.

It’s not that God himself is irrelevant, but rather that “religion” tended to only present God as a deus ex machina, a God of the gaps, the answer to all things mysterious. In Bonhoeffer’s time, science was believed to have prevailed almost entirely, answering all of life’s questions. Without gaps in human knowledge, the God of the gaps was unnecessary. Humanity needed no intellectual crutch to lean on: it had come of age, and was now independent of God.

Religionless Christianity

Bonhoeffer recognized that the world had come of age, and was no longer dependent on the notion of God. Rather than rail against this, he embraced it, seeing it as something that God himself demanded of them. Rather than seeking God in unanswered questions, as “religion” did, Bonhoeffer held that we should seek God precisely in the answered questions. Rather than having a church that required people to come to it, and required people to lean on it, Bonhoeffer had already proposed a church that was radically “missional” (to use today’s language – see yesterday’s post for clarification), sent out into the world to exist on its behalf.

Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” still had a church – the type of community he proposed in all of his works, but particularly Sanctorum Communio, Discipleship, and Life Together, infused with the responsibilities outlined in Ethics. It also still had the necessity of a strong faith, discipleship, and spiritual disciplines. What it didn’t have, what it had given up, was proclamation: the proclamation of “religion”, and even of the Confessing Church who had held true to the gospel in the face of the Reich Church’s misuse of it to support Nazi ideology, had failed entirely. He held out hope that someday the time for proclamation would return, but in the meantime he suggested that Christianity in a world come of age would be a hidden church. In place of proclamation, which under “religion” had often been empty moralising, would be the radical existing-for-others ethic which required incredible discipline and spiritual/ethical formation. This church would bear witness through its actions, through its being-for-others, through its devotion to the God who had allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross in order to be weak and suffer along with his creation. This suffering would be the mark of Christianity in a world come of age.

I sense in Bonhoeffer here a notion of progress (though perhaps that word is too loaded with conceptual and historical baggage): the world had begun to become self-sufficient, building societies and making discoveries and having laws and justice and occasionally peace – all “as if God didn’t exist.” We were getting along just as well without the notion and motivation of the existence of God as we were when we were shackled to religion, and this itself could be a testament to God at work in the world, allowing Himself to be pushed out of it while still upholding it, for the sake of our maturity. If the world can get by without being beholden to religion, should not also the church? It seems to me that Bonhoeffer is suggesting that we should be able to grow up to the point where we are good to one another, not because piety demands it or to avoid the hypocrisy of having proclaimed it without acting upon it, but instead because we have been shaped into the form of Christ and have actively chosen to participate with him in caring for others out of our own maturity in Christ. Rules are for children; continued dependence on laws even when we already know not to break them is thus infantile, or else legalistic (Bonhoeffer compares “religion” to Paul’s discussion of circumcision as legalism). We should no longer go through the forms of religion upon which we used to rely, when we are instead capable of living in a state of Christ-likeness to which those old forms were to point!

Now, I should be clear that Bonhoeffer never really set out a design for the church, he only worked out a theology of the church. The actual form of the church, I’m sure he would say, would depend on the context and people involved. He was definitely not a fan of uncontextualized principles, urging instead that people live out of their basic convictions, which of course were to be theologically informed. In Letters and Papers from Prison he was engaged in the task of dreaming about a Germany after the war, a Germany he never saw; he was not dreaming of Canada in 2013.

That’s up to us.

I haven’t seen this one before…might have to pick it up.

p.s. I’ll be back tomorrow with some final reflections, but this is the end of my summaries from the Cambridge Companion. Don’t go away!