On Not Trusting Politics Too Much
(A much expanded version of this was published as "Christian Anarchy and Reconciliation: A View from the Pulpit" in Reflections, Fall 2007. Thought I'd share some of it here.)
“We believe that everyone — political figure or commentator, citizen or alien, man or woman, black or white, conservative or radical — who at this particular time says that this people and this nation are in deep, perhaps irremediable political trouble, speaks the truth.” — Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway.
Some words come back with haunting relevance. Back in the 1960s, these two southern churchmen, Will Campbell and James Y. Holloway, co-edited the journal of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, called Katallagete: Be Reconciled. A collection of their essays from that journal was published in 1970 under the title, Up To Our Steeples in Politics (Paulist Press). The words above led the essay from which the title of the book was drawn. Wipf and Stock Publishers re-released this book. It’s eerily timely, but not for reasons a quick reading of this lead might have you believe. For these writers go on to unsettle an easy take on their assessment.
“Stated simply, we believe that the fundamental crises in our land rise from the obsession with politics, the faith that the political order is the only source and authority from which we can and ought to seek relief from what ails us as a community and as individuals. Because there is in our land no real challenge to these obsessions, we believe that our crises will deepen, perhaps even beyond a point of no return . . .” (111)
In 1970, they were calling into question the “political messianism” of Christian liberals. Nearly 40 years later, it would seem that the others have also taken the bait — the belief that we are called to create via political action what the New Testament claims God has already accomplished for us in Christ: reconciliation. Liberals haven’t left it far behind, however, they've just been outflanked. So Campbell’s and Holloway’s message goes both ways, trying to identify a error we share when we trust Caesar over Christ, and confuse politics — a means for an end, which is justice — with the end itself. Despite flowery theological or biblical rhetoric accompanying the political action of the church, to the extent that the church, conservative or liberal, trusts Caesar to do its bidding it falls inside Caesar’s yoke. “Is obedience to Christ exhausted by immersing oneself in Caesar’s definition of politics? Is witness to Christ’s victory uniting all men [sic] best made by service to what Caesar judges as the urgent issues of our times? Might it not be that Caesar himself is confused, or is lying? There is evidence in the history of Western civilization to support both affirmations” (118). 1970 or today?
What if Christians worked as hard to change the subject as many work to sway opinion within the subjects we are handed by powers that use us more than hear us? Now I realize that in asking that question I’m stretching credulity, for one of our most difficult challenges in the American church is deciding who, at the beginning and end of all of this, is us? Are we Americans, Christians, Christian Americans, or American Christians? Must we begin to think again about the difference, all the while admitting the confusion? I believe so. And Campbell and Holloway have a word worth remembering.
These two write in a great and too often ignored tradition of Christian thinking, refusing to acknowledge any monopoly of means (economics, politics, schooling, development, relentless pursuit of happiness) over holy ends (commonwealth, peace, knowledge, justice, joy). They would remind us that trusting techniques of human invention as primary vehicles for the divine will amounts to idolatry, and should be treated as such.
Are Campbell and Holloway calling for retreat? Are we to hold ourselves up in Christian enclaves, depending on what the world can give us but not making any contribution toward the common good of those who don’t live with us in our enclave? Not at all. We are to engage, to wish peace upon the city and to work for it as best we can. But we are not to trust it too much, or like it too much, or confine our desires to its standards too much, lest we begin to confuse it with our home.
Campbell and Holloway are working within the kind of distinction Stanley Hauerwas described a few years later, the distinction between the church as a peculiar politics that gives witness to the justice it believes God has already accomplished in Christ (beyond and more powerful than economics and politics, and nonviolent down to its core in Christ), and a political church that seeks to produce something like justice within a world gone off kilter and irretrievably distant to the ways of God (bound to economics and politics as the primary tools of human freedom). We are called to give witness to what we begin to see, that God has reconciled the world — that reconciled, we need no longer kill each other because we are afraid, or angry, or belittling, or prejudice. We can live reconciled, even before our politics catch up, even before we agree, even before we approve of each other. And by so doing, we will humble the political for the sake of new politics (God’s politics).