Church, Politics and Reconciliation: on whose terms?

The nation-state is inclined to solve the  crisis of pluralism [i.e., divergent individual wills and preferences about what is ‘the good’] by directing  violence outward, toward other nation-states, but it is war that most especially reveals the particularism and tribalism of the nation-state.  Though the Body of Christ is truly catholic and spans the globe, Christians have become accustomed to killing Christians and others in places like Iraq out of loyalty to the narrow interests of their country. The Church, on the other hand, has always claimed to be a universal, and not merely particular, association.

In practice, the Church is full of the world, full of what is not-Church.  We hardly need reminding of the manifest sinfulness of those who gather in the name of Christ and his Church.  In this light it is helpful to think of the Church not as a location or an organization, but more like an enacted drama; it is the liturgy that makes the Church.  In this drama there is a constant dialectic between sin and salvation, scattering and gathering, Church” names that plotline that is moving toward reconciliation.

The Church may argue against the wisdom of a particular war, but if the model of “public theology” is followed, the Church is required to argue in “public” terms, accessible to the policy-makers, and thus must appeal to considerations of national security and the self-interest of the nation-state . . . [yes, but isn’t this just what we have to do?]

More interesting are those approaches that speak on the public stage but refuse to play bit parts in the tragedy orchestrated by the state.  One such approach is exemplified by groups of Christians and others that have traveled to Iraq since 1991, bringing food, medicine, and toys, in violation of US law.  Such groups refuse the tragic drama of threats to national security, and see the Iraqi people, suffering under sanctions, as the weak members of the body whom Paul admonishes us to treat as members of our own body (1 Corinthians 12:22-6).  Nation-state borders are dismissed as unreal, artificial segmentations of the universal Body of Christ, in which all people made in the image of God are members or potential members in the universal reconciliation that Christ accomplishes . .

Another more quotidian example from the parish level may help to suggest how the reconciliation we enact in the liturgy can rearrange public space.  I wa invited a few years ago to speak to a church group on the injustices of economic globalization.  We talked about cheap labor is exploited for our benefit, about the Body of Christ that makes us one, and about the contradiction between the two.  Some in the group suggested writing to our representatives in Congress.  A more interest approach presented itself later when we learned of a cooperative of local organic farmers that markets its products through churches.  People in my parish now buy directly from the cooperative once a month, and the food i distributed at the church.  We have begun to know some of the farmers’ names and the specific farms from which the different products come.  We know that the prices we pay ensure a sustainable living for the farmers.  We have begun to short-circuit the global market in which we are accustomed to buying our food from strangers, blind to the conditions in which the food is produced.  What is being created is a different kind of public space, a market that is not based on competition or the rational choice of self-interest, but on a just price and a community of producers and buyers who view each other’s interests as their own.  The reconciliation that we enact in the liturgy every Sunday is breaking out of the walls of the church building, as it were, and forming a different, fully public, space.  This is not a withdrawal from politics, but the enactment of the politics of reconciliation that we celebrate in the liturgy.

William Cavanaugh, “Politics and Reconciliation” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

The two questions I struggle with in this kind of debate are not new and have been the subject of discussion surrounding Christian ethics for centuries; namely, whether in ethical and political decision-making to prioritize good ends or good means.  I lean towards the former — mainly because I feel like, for example, saving lives is more important than keeping our hands clean or being overly concerned about the purity of our witness.  As a progressive evangelical with both Baptist and Methodist affinities, I am also tempted to roll my eyes a little bit every time I hear the word “liturgy” or “sacrament.”  But of course what Cavanaugh proposes here, and especially with the two examples given, is no mere cop out either.  In short, I think this is a worthwhile debate to continue having, and he himself even admits that striving to influence public policy can be useful.  At any rate, I’m grateful for his contribution to the discussion, and would really appreciate if more Christians would take these questions seriously rather than apparently settling for either the relegation of their faith to the private sector, a duplicitous citizenship in both the kingdom of God and world, or selling out more or less to the latter.  I can’t help but believe that this is what many who strongly identify with the Republican Party (and Democratic… I just don’t see it there quite as much) are doing — at least to the extent that they seem to put hope in their partisan convictions, when it comes to the political realm and to public space (which basically includes or affects everything), more so than in the church’s responsibility to be a transformative enactment of God’s drama, as Cavanaugh says, of salvation for the world.

2 thoughts on “Church, Politics and Reconciliation: on whose terms?

  1. Dustin

    Just one thing to note: focusing too heavily on the ends can lead to some pretty appalling means if we don’t check that with… something. To that end we must be careful to avoid false dichotomies like “save lives by taking a few” versus “let people die but keep our hands clean.” I think the Iraq example above is a good experiment in this. I also had a pacifist challenge me once on a military solution to Darfur, or anything like it, by suggesting it wasn’t the Xians’ job to kill the killers, but rather to die alongside the ones being killed. This would be something concrete to illustrate what it looks like for “the peace of Christ” to be with you to such a degree that death lacks sting and scrambles to find victory even in our hearts.

    Thanks for posting this, Bill

  2. Bill Walker Post author

    Good point, Dustin. Too often I find though that this may actually not be a false dichotomy, and I should clarify by saying that I’m thinking not so much of, say, intervening as a nation when genocide is happening — which is more likely to pertain to what you are saying — and more so to the willingness on the part of the church to use coercive ends to reduce military spending, for example, or the criminalization of the drug policy, improving education, healthcare, etc… but your comment is still poignant, I think — especially with your final remark about “the peace of Christ,” death, and victory in our hearts. Thanks for the feedback.

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