Category Archives: Presentations

A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

And maybe it would be best to begin by simply clarifying what this topic of spirituality in public life is really about. Because at first it might seem like, when we say, “public life,” that what we’re talking about is, one the one hand, just what Rob presented on last week with regard to vocation — in the work place, in the home, as individuals — which is an important aspect of Christian spirituality, but still not quite what we’re talking about tonight.

Or, on the other hand, you could think that the spirituality of public life is about ethics, or more specifically social ethics. But that is its own distinct subject — Christian social ethics. And I suspect there might even be a time in the future when that is own whole separate class at the Ridley Institute — Christian social justice or social ethics. Because ethics is about the actions we take, and why, and spirituality, by comparison has more to do with the posture we assume. What is the our relationship with God as human beings such that it informs our public life?

And that’s what I want to focus on — what is the posture, the attitude, the nature, of our engagement with society, and in the public domain, as Christians, Because we have an identity as a community of faith, and our witness must shows itself as a group and not just individually. Our individual witness probably pertains somewhat more so to the topic last week, which asked about spirituality with respect our particular vocations, occupations, professions, etc. So what form must our public witness take as the people of God, as followers of Jesus? What kind of spiritual posture does it require? Ok, that’s where I’m headed.

And to try to answer that question, I want to discuss three things:

  1. First, revisiting the subject of sanctification a little bit, which I know was brought up last time — what does it do and how does it help us relate to the public in the way that God intends for us to. So sanctification.
  2. Secondly, what are the most dominant cultural forces today in our society that stand in the way of this sanctification
  3. And third, what spiritual dispositions should we take to respond to those dominant liturgies, scripts, stories, narratives?
  4. Alright — sanctification. I do think it is correct that our posture begins with the journey of sanctification. Ok, and so we are sanctified, made holy, set apart by our spiritual practices and the disciplines that are part of this great tradition we have inherited as Christians — a tradition that includes our commitment to Scripture, prayer, observing the sacraments, and so on.

I was recently at a clergy retreat for my Diocese, which is called Churches for the Sake of Others, part of the Anglican Church of North America, and our bishop is Todd Hunter, who spoke here last year, and a Christian philosopher named James K. A. Smith was there at the retreat as our keynote speaker. Some of you may be familar with his work. I think Rob took a class with him. Smith shared some of his insights from his forthcoming book called “You Are What you Love.” And it was good enough to justify my borrowing a good deal from it, so that’s what I’m going do for a moment as it relates to our thinking about sanctification — and sanctification as the mediating factor between us and our public life together.

With this title, “You Are What you Love,” Smith is drawing on Saint Augustine maybe more than anyone else, and he’s saying that, as human beings, made in the image of God, we are not first and foremost thinkers or even doers. Though of course our lives consist of much thinking and doing. We are above all, lovers.

Augustine famously asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” Which is similar to asking, “What do I worship when I worship my God?” What is ultimate for me, in other words? What do I seek above everything else? What is that thing that I believe will make me happy if I could just have it, achieve it, find it? The thing that could give me my heaven and help me escape this or that hell.

That was what Rob talked about with idolatry last week and he gave several examples of this — the thing that we seek might be the approval of a parent. It could be many other created or finite things: a romantic relationship, the accomplishments of one’s children. Wealth, power, status and so on.

So the question is not whether we love, but what do we love. Because we are lovers. St. Thomas Aquinas said that love is the virtue that order all other virtues.

So if our love is not directed Godward — true north — then the trajectory of our life is going to be off-course.

We are lovers and we are worshipers more so than what we knowers, thinkers, or believers. This means we are always desiring something and moving toward something. The question is where?

So much of what determines where we’re headed is not something we’re conscious of. The large majority of our life’s trajectory is determined by habit more so than choice. Only a very small percentage is affected at the level of decision. The example that Smith gives is learning how to drive. For us as adults, we can get in the car (explain).

 In the same way, and I’ll talk this a little bit more in a moment, take the problem in our society of consumerism — we do not decide to be consumers, necessarily. We don’t reason it out. We behave our way there. It’s the power of habit and we’re lead by our desires, our bodies, and our physical propensities, and so forth.

So the essential thing for Christian spirituality is that we must attend to our loves, look at what we’re worshiping — because we’re all worshiping something — and begin to develop, both corporately and individually, a re-appreciation for the power of habit and how those habits are either producing virtues or vices. Ok, this is why the practices and the disciplines that we follow in church in our daily devotional lives in the home, at work and at play, are so important. We’re all loving and worshipping something, and so as Christians we submit ourselves to a process by which God and the Spirit can re-calibrate and re-habilitate, rehabituate, our hearts and our bodies — not just our minds.

From there though, we must also recognize, however, that not only are we lovers, formed by our habits and by what we seek, but we’re also all being spiritually formed by the cultural liturgies that are all around us and that we’re immersed in.

So the journey of sanctification and spiritual formation is also a journey of unlearning what we’ve already absorbed from our cultural surroundings. Just as all of us are lovers and worshipers going somewhere, so too we should say that every group, every culture, even every subgroup and subculture, every society and every nation, has its own liturgy. And unless we recognize and identify what these liturgies are, they’re likely to have more power over us than we’d like.

And just to clarify, when I say liturgy, I know some of you know what that means, but sometimes it’s a new idea even for folks who have grown up in church that isn’t as traditional or sacramental. What I mean by liturgy is broader than the prayer we pray, and lyrics — though it is that — like a prayer of confession, the Lord’s prayer, the Nicene Creed, hymns and so on — but I’m talking about any set of stories, images, symbols and songs that serve to give meaning and purpose to life for people. We all carry some governing story that guides us, even if again, it’s not conscious to us.

Families have liturgies, corporations, universities have liturgies, nations, even a city like Charleston South Carolina probably. And of course in this crazy season of electoral politics, everybody’s fighting about who’s gonna get to say what the true liturgy really is for this nation. Smith gives examples of other liturgies that are more spatial, physical, architectural. Churches certainly have a liturgy based on how they’re designed, but so do football stadiums, and malls — government — there’s a liturgy to the use of our smart phones. Swiping, swiping, clicking, enlarging, watching — this is at least a ritual of the larger liturgy of consumerism.

Acknowledging of course that not everything you do with your phone is consumeristic — you know what I mean.

The point is, there are these competing and rival liturgies, and there are competing and rival exemplars — Jesus vs. Taylor Swift, I don’t know — but there are rival exemplars for how we as human beings and citizens should live our lives.

  1. Now though I think we have to ask more specifically about what some of these dominant cultural liturgies actually are — what are their hidden values and messages that are shaping us our desires and disciplining our habits?

We could also call these dominant liturgies, scripts, because they tell a story! What are the dominant scripts that inform behavior in our society today?

I’ll just name three: the first one I’ve already mentioned: Consumerism. Secondly, Individualism, and, third, Militarism. I’ll very briefly say something about each one, but really only insofar as they relate to each other. These are huge topics, and I’m barely going to scratch the surface, but the main point is that I hope we see their interconnectedness and the way they reinforce each other.

So I’m going to try to describe the core impulse or assumption behind each one, and I think that will still be worthwhile:

2. Consumerism – We live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us. It assumes, of course, that more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.”

Two descriptive words that go with the value of consumerism, and I’m getting some of this from the work of the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann — our consumerism is technological and it’s therapeutic. I’ll explain those as well.

The technological side is that the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved. The enemy of technological consumerism is inconvenience.

On the therapeutic side, if you have a desire or a discomfort that needs alleviation, there’s something to alleviate, and it’s only a credit card purchase away. Whether it’s medicine, media, a shiny new object, clothing, gadgets, whatever. Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” For therapeutic consumerism, the cardinal sin that must be resisted at all costs is discomfort.

You know, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe abortions” is one of the most damaging consequences of this. Of course, on the flip side of that, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe sex” is also morally devastating.

2. Individualism – Individualism is a very complex and sophisticated phenomenon, and there’s been great work done on interpreting what it really means in our society in the West. One scholar who comes to mind for this is Charles Taylor in his book, “The Secular Age.”

This is because the reference point for concern about one’s interest in an individualistic society is no longer one’s tribe, group, religion, or nation, but simply one’s self. And there are many facets of individualism, but for the sake of simplicity I just want to name one — and that is its relationship to consumerism.

Ok, if consumerism says the whole earth and all its resources are available to us, then individualism says yes, these are available to us and they’re available to us without regard for what effect that availability has on our neighbors. So implicit in individualism is disconnection from and disregard for the consequences of consumerism for our neighbors — locally and globally. It isn’t malicious though — this is the trick. It really doesn’t know any better, because the habit of individualism has been disciplined to not have to worry about my neighbor!

3. Militarism – Thirdly and finally, with militarism, once more I’ll just say one way it’s connected to consumerism and individualism as well.

And when I say militarism, I should clarify, I’m not saying that as Christians I believe we should necessarily be anti-military. We should love the people who have served and are serving in the armed forces, certainly respect them, just like we love and respect everybody else. And I suspect we have veterans and men and women in uniform even in this room. But that doesn’t mean we get to uncritically support what the military is commanded to do.

The word militar-ism, means is the worship or love of what the military does or can offer us. It’s the absolutization or idolization of the military — making it a kind of ultimate. And the same should be said about consumerism and indivdidualism — there’s nothing wrong with consumption, as such, or individuality. In fact, with a political ideology like communism, one of its greatest shortcomings is its failure to celebrate and protect individuality, as a form of social organization and government.

Ok, so with that disclaimer in mind, though, again, if consumerism says, the earth’s resources and the products we can make are available to me, and individualism ignores the impact on my neighbors.

And militarism, finally, as it relates consumerism and individualism, just says, those resources, that are available without regard for my global or local neighbor, must be guaranteed. My way of life. It must be secured by force, if necessary, and by violent force, if necessary. Militarism is not defense, it’s offensive.

So militarism is intimately connected to the desires for security and safety,  meaning, to have my life protected from harm, disruption and so on, which is of course a desirable thing, but at what cost to others?

In sum, concerning all three of these forces and values, or liturgies, stories: to quote Brueggemann, “It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of these script; they are everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

III. Now turning finally to the question of how sanctification and how our spiritual life aids us on toward resisting these dominant scripts and liturgies:

One of the things at the heart of all three of these dominant cultural values is clearly a kind of collective self-interest and fear-based outlook on life that just wants to preserve itself, self-medicate and keep things away that are threatening, right? something like that.

And, sanctification, publically speaking, is about getting free from this self-interest — this dominant script and these cultural liturgies. It’s how we discipline ourselves into reliance on mercy beyond judgment. And get freed instead to live in the Kingdom of God. By turning to the liturgies of the Kingdom of God.

So how does this work? What is our alternative story in many ways? This is the most constructive question I’m asking, I hope, as the third and final part of the talk. To answer it, I want to look at just some high points in the biblical narrative.

In the reformed tradition, especially, a common answer of “why sanctification,” might be that we do it for God’s glory, and that’s true, or maybe we would say, it because it’s what God has commanded and we are to be obedient, which is true as well. But there’s another reason.

And we find it first in the Hebrew Scriptures. Starting with the Creation story in Genesis was a counter-cultural claim in many respects. The Babylonian creation story, by contrast, has the earth arises as a result of the god Marduk conquering and killing another god, Tiamet, and then the earth arose from Tiamet’s remains. The Genesis account of creation has no such violent content in order for God to create. In fact, violence is introduced by human beings, not God, when Cain kills Abel.

In addition to that, in Genesis, God says that creation is fundamentally good! The material and physical world is sacred, and so is our work in it. God dwells in creation, especially in the Garden of Eden, where God is imagined as walking and talking with Adam and Eve.

In Augustine great work, The City of God, he recognizes that the movement throughout the Scriptures, the dramatic direction that the whole Bible is taking, is towards, as the title suggests, “The City of God.” Unlike most earthly cities, nations and empires, God’s calling of Israel is for the expressed purpose of building a “city,” “nation,” or “house,” where God dwells with people and people with God.

We see this in an important juxtaposition of Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11, which is the tower of Babel story, it represents humanity’s effort to use their common language and agenda to build a city that reaches to the heavens — in other words, to build a city that rivals God rather than honors and worships God. And as a result, God’s judgment comes on them in the story by dispersing them and giving them different languages and nationalities.

So Genesis 12 serves as the correction and alternative to Babel, when God calls Abraham and makes the following promise:

1 “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

We learn that Israel’s call is essentially this:

They are to be different from other nations for the sake of other nations. They’re blessed to be a blessing! This is what sanctification is all about.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God in this way in several of his parables.

Matthew 13

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The great 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s explains this parable of the unleavened bread in this way:

“The dough to be made into bread is a lifeless lump of dull, inedible matter; but the yeast, too, it by itself completely inedible [as well], despite the fact that it is the [means by which] the lump is to be turned into bread . . . The yeast must be plunged into the dough; it must sink into it and disappear, in order that its energy may be released and the dough transformed into bread. Alone, it is nothing; buried in the dough it is quite the opposite. But, note, separateness, and indeed a strict separateness, is . . . preliminary to the unity that is being attempted and that alone will result in something palatable . . .”

And so for us as Christians, our sanctification, is what gives us the power to be like leaven in the world.

And this forces us to remember something crucial. We don’t have anything to give to the world on our own. What makes us Christian is something that is first utterly gifted to us — it’s something we possess. The gift of Jesus’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection. And this gift of course is grace.

Christ is the yeast, in our dough, and we are the yeast, as Christians and as the church, we are extending his incarnation into the dough of the world.

So must be very careful not to run ourselves ragged just trying to do good in the world all the time. We will fail miserably and just end up hurting ourselves and others.

Rather, there is rhythm outline for us for public life, and Jesus is the exemplar of this rhythm. In his public ministry, Jesus exhibits models the ebb and flow of contemplation and action! Into the city, back to the mountain or the garden to pray. Into the city with the people, away with his disciples for a little while. Early in the morning while it was still dark, he goes to pray. From Solitude and stillness. To action and engagement. Solitude, retreat and stillness, and then, go do something.

So as a closing line of thought — practically, our spirituality needs countermeasures along these lines that resist and outlast — subvert — the dominant liturgies and scripts of consumerism, individualism and militarism, which I want to suggest can show themselves in three different postures, each of which is a response to those three dominant values.

And to get back to the dominant liturgies and narratives, the dominant scripts of our time that I mentioned for a moment — consumerism, individualism/tribalism, militarism — I believe that an effective Christian countermeasure to these cultural forces, will show itself through three spiritual postures, all of which are understood to be produced by a church that both recognizes itself as having been blessed to be a blessing — ok — called to be different from the world for the sake of the world, and to extend the incarnation of Christ, the yeast of Christ that’s in us, into the dough of the world, the essence of which is grace. These three spiritual postures are:

  1. The first one is just to repeat what Rob said last time: a commitment to be inconvenienced by our neighbors. And I mean, in order to do this well, we of course have to exhibit all of the fruits of the spirit: peace, patience, kindness and so on. It also requires hospitality and generosity. It means a willingness to suffer and to sacrifice.
  1. Secondly, combating individualism, is the formation of community and genuine shared life in which we make the problems of our neighbors, our own problems. Of course this entails actually getting to know our neighbors as well — locally, and globally — especially our most vulnerable and victimized neighbors.
  1. And I’ll just go ahead and say the third is also like the other two: The courage to take risks. To risk ourselves for something good! Something that looks like the Kingdom of God advancing in, breaking into our midst. And this isn’t always some big grandiose vision. It’s oftentimes more like sowing mustard seeds, you know, little community gardens that call attention to our interdependence, our simple, local life and need for companionship and caring relationship. But there is risk involved, and sometimes that risk is big. It could mean living in a neighborhood that isn’t quite as safe, if God calls you to it — putting our kids in a school system isn’t necessary the best in town. It’s going to cost us something.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about how without risk, there is no faith. Faith is a leap, it is a risk taken, in response to a subjective, inward assurance and passion — one that ultimately demands love. And as such, it is then willing and able to face any uncertainty that life throws at us. All of the external and material unknowns.

I’ve thought for a while now that one of the things that makes Christians different, and makes us like yeast, is if we truly live into this hope and this confidence that even that even if things don’t turn out ok, that’s still ok! It’s a gospel assurance, that moves us to try anything. Because we’re coming from a place of total trust.

And again, because we’re not worried about the outcome, necessarily. Not ultimately. So our politics, for example, will be much less anxious. We’ll have hopes and goals, and we’ll even strive for them with deep resolution, but without fear and with a peace that frees us from having our hope tied to the temporal results. Because we know the “already and not yet” nature of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in history.

Dorothee said that a Christian is one who noticeably lives in such a way that would only make sense if the gospel and the resurrection were true. It goes back to the “different from the world” part of Israel’s calling. And then it might become appealing. But it will be appealing because people will see a beauty to it. Because of the positive difference, not the negative difference, primarily, the Christians make. In other word, because we’re known for what we’re for and what we do, more so than what we’re against. There’s a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that I want to read as a kind of closing theological statement:

 “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures of history as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involve himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings], saving them from having, in their freedom, come in conflict with what God intends.

So this is our assurance, for spirituality in public life. That God’s own self-investment in Christ and through the Spirit never leaves or forsakes us, but rescue us, set us apart — make us different from the world for the sake of the world.

Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.

Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?

(Below is the transcript for a lecture I gave on Oct. 20th at the Ridley Institute of St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. They are an extension campus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.)

Your reading this week was entitled, “What is the Bible and What is it good for?” but even this question has another one behind it, an even broader subject which is the subject of tonight’s lecture: “Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?” The doctrine of Christian revelation — the question of how we get the content of our faith, and what is the authority for our faith, what is the medium by which God has spoken to us and continues to do so.

But I also think it’s fitting we should come to the topic of the Bible after having already been introduced to the doctrine of the Trinity and each person of the Trinity, because that’s really how it happened for many of the first Christians. In the earliest churches, there was an understanding of the doctrine of Christ and the good news of the gospel that comes from that, that Jesus preached, and even a growing understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit long before anyone had a Bible. The authority of the Christian faith was established in communities and through the apostles who got their authority from Christ and then from the Spirit several centuries before the Bible was formally canonized. But for us, some 2000 years later, we’re in a different situation. We weren’t there, so we depend more on the written record of that authority and of God’s revelation to the first Christians.

It is with the broader topic, though, of the doctrine of revelation, that I want to begin, and then we’ll move into talking more about the Bible itself, the Bible in the tradition of Reformation Anglicanism in particular, and to conclude, thirdly, we’ll look at the role of the Bible and how we can understand it today. How does its authority function in our communities of faith, in our churches, in this particular context of 21st Century North America?


So first, we’re asking, what is the difference between Christian knowledge and other kinds of knowledge? This is largely the question of distinguishing between what the tradition has sometimes called special revelation and general revelation, or analogously, natural revelation and supernatural revelation.

We’ve all at one time or another had that experience enjoying creation and the beauty of nature, staring up at the stars or marveling at the sunset or a breathtaking view of the mountains and just been wowed by what we see. It’s one of God’s languages, it’s one of the ways that God communicates something to us very generally, that is available to everyone. This is what is meant by this notion of general or natural revelation.

The great medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that truth becomes known through both natural revelation (certain truths are available to all people through their human nature and through correct human reasoning) and supernatural revelation (faith-based knowledge revealed through Scripture).

So there’s a distinction between these two ways of knowing, one Christian, one not necessarily, but Thomas also maintained that the relationship between general revelation and special revelation was complimentary rather than contradictory. Thus, although one may deduce the existence of God and God’s attributes through philosophical reason, certain specifics (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) may be known only through special revelation and may not otherwise be deduced.

And the Bible, Aquinas says, contains revelation that may be general as well as special. So there are things that Scripture tells that we also know apart from Scripture, but there is also properly Christians truths that we couldn’t know apart from Scripture.

The Bible itself actually tells us about general revelation:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. — Psalm 19

This is Scripture, talking about revelation outside of Scripture!

In the New Testament, in Romans 1, Paul says

20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

In other words, in addition to the book of Scripture, we also have the book of nature. There’s Revelation big R, and revelation little r.

In Acts 17, moreover, there is the account of Paul’s reference to the altar to an unknown God (v. 23) that even the pagans recognized. Paul saw that the Greek philosophers believed God was the one in whom we live and move and have our being… they believed that “we are his offspring” (v. 28).

The main point being made that we can indeed know some things about God apart from any specific or explicit communication from God. And we know this, in large part, by the authority of our capacity for reasoning.

The English Reformer Richard Hooker would agree! And he helps clarify the relationship between general and special revelation:

“what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)

So first Scripture, then reason, and then, the Tradition of the Church — and in that order, for Hooker. And this is the orthodox way of understanding the order of authority in the Christian faith: Fides quaerens intellectum. Faith seeking Understanding (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas).

But just as the Roman Catholic Church put the authority of the Church before Scripture, much of the modern church has put the authority of reason before Scripture. The church has never said that reason and Scripture might contradict each other, but the modern church has indeed thought this at times, and it has created a false dichotomy between the two — between Scripture and reason.

In the historical period that we’ve come out of, usually just very broadly referred to as “modernity,” there’s tended to a privileging of a certain kind of knowing: scientific and rational knowing. That has this air of objectivity to it, assuming that its vantage point on matters of science, politics, economics, religion — whatever — is inherently the right and best one. It has been characterized by the preoccupation with and quest for certitude, in a kind of detached and false, God’s eye view of truth that was thought to be truly objective and foundationally indubitable!

But of course, there’s no such thing as a perfectly objective, unadulterated view of reality. We always have a particular perspective on things that is influenced by many variable beyond our control. This doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. It just means that we always know by faith seeking understanding. And actually this quest for certitude in modernity ultimately fails and begins to produce what we now could call the postmodern period.

As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”


But to say that we have faith in the Word of God does not mean that we simply have blind faith, nor that we have faith only because it has been written and passed down to us through a reliable historical record. Of course, we do believe that it has, and we have good reasons for believing that, but our faith does not stands on empirical evidence or philosophical reasoning. It doesn’t contradict these things, but neither does it depend entirely on them. The reason we believe in the authority of Scripture is because it first came to us not as a special, sacred document, but as a living and spoken Word confirmed by the great cloud of witnesses before us.

As it was talked about two weeks ago when discussing who Jesus is – fully human and fully divine —  what’s called the Prologue of John, we read that:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Skipping down to v. 14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Furthermore, in Hebrews 1:1-3 it says that

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

And so, initially, and primordially, the way that Christians receive special revelation about God is through Jesus Christ. Scripture is Scripture because it bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Perhaps now finally we could define Christian special or supernatural revelation this way:

God’s self-disclosure narrated through the history of a particular people, through personal action, culminating in Gods utter self-investment in creation through the incarnation, life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Daniel McGloire, Faith Seeking Understanding)

As this definition suggests, special Revelation in this way is not simply the transmission of data or propositional truth claims to which we merely ascend, cognitively. Rather, in Scripture God’s revealed identity is rendered primarily by narrative, but this grand Story in the whole sweep of Scripture.

The 20th Century Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, give us something to think about when he says that

Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself.

Balthasar goes on to say that

Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God.The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I, 31-32

It is a narrative, a drama, even, because there is this whole history in our Old Testament that sets the stage without which we could not understand and receive the revelation that is in Christ, and that story is told and lived in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is comprised of the Torah, the first five books of the Law, which chronicles the Patriarchal lineage of our faith — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on to the Exodus, with the giving of the Law itself, which then leads the Narrative History of Israel, the Wisdom Literature, and the Major and Minor Prophets.

And in addition to narrative, Scripture contains prophetic oracles, proverbs, commands, cries, lamentations, and apocalyptic visions. So the forms of biblical witness to revelation are diverse and none should be neglected — each is an important way of witnessing to the self-revelation of God who remains ever free and beyond our control. (Neither God nor the Bible is ever our possession.)

When we get to the New Testament, this is what it says regarding the authority of the Old Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

“The Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ!”

In Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion, it says:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

This way of describing the authority of Scripture is uniquely Anglican, and it’s very important. It’s a bit different from some of the other modern definitions of the authority of Scripture that we find in other Christian churches.

There’s a saying in the tradition translated roughly as follows: In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity. I think this particular Article, which is basically the same statement that we affirm as clergy for our ordination covenant, is particularly suited for upholding this traditional axiom: in essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.

That way that Jesus himself claimed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s Word seemed to fall in line with this. He knew the essentials, he upheld the essentials. He also knew how the religious leaders were prone to overlook the essentials by clinging to the external security of the non-essentials, missing the very heart of God’s law.

But then we also see as early as 2 Peter 3:15-16 that the early church was regarding Paul’s letter’s as part of Holy Scripture, as the Word of God and as the New Testament. So the authority of both testaments is confirmed in Scripture itself.

Nonetheless, we believe in what Scripture says not just because it is Scripture that says it, but because what Scripture says can be seen as both good and beautiful in the life of Christ, and has been confirmed in our lives by the witness of the Holy Spirit. Because what Scripture gives witness to is not just a fixed, historical, past tense fact, but a real, living and active faith that can be seen and experienced as redemptive.

To further illustrate this point, if we consider Islam, for example, and compare its view of the Quran to our view of the Bible, the Koran is understood, so far as I know, to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language that has to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

And since all translation means some degree of interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith for Muslims that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

By contrast, when we look at Christian faith: the parallel to the Quran, based on how Muslims understand it — is not the Bible but if anything, it’s Jesus — (because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense, but this is not a perfect parallel.) But Jesus did not write a book He gathered a company of disciples, making the things of God known to them. And that in turn is how the church grew. So Jesus really is beyond comparison to anything in Islam.

Because Discipleship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. And from the modern and Muslim point of view, we therefore have no reliable certainty. And actually That we have four gospels is used by Muslims to argue that we have lost the original Gospel.

But of course, that would be to miss the point, which is that true Revelation (capital R) is always an event in the present, that comes to life again and again. As the letter to the Hebrews declares:

…the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

The Psalms declare that God’s Word is a “lamp unto our feet and a light for my path”! (Psalm 119:105)

What makes the Word of God alive and active? Is it the letters on the page? No, it’s the Holy Spirit in our hearts!

So while the Reformers were right to insist that the witness of Scripture is normative for the life and faith of the church, this witness does not exist in a vacuum. We can’t take Sola Scriptura out of its context of criticizing the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church. Nor, however, can we simply say “Scripture plus tradition” to fully and effectively communicate the gospel. Rather, it is the Spirit of God who freely uses the witness of Scripture in the context of the life of the church that is able to create and nurture faith in Christ and obedience to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Summarizing John Calvin’s understanding of our knowledge of God and the doctrine of Revelation, Benjamin Warfield says this, and I’m paraphrasing: We do in fact have as human beings an innate knowledge of God, quickened and developed by a very rich manifestation of God in nature and through God’s providence, but this knowledge fails in its proper effect because of our sinful nature; As a result, an objective revelation of God, embodied in the Scriptures, was rendered necessary, and as well [here the second part that we cannot miss!], a subjective operation of the Spirit of God on the heart enabling sinful human beings to receive this revelation. So it is, in sum, by the conjoint divine action, objective in the Word and subjective by the Spirit, that a true knowledge of God is communicated to us.

In many ways Calvin speaks for all of the Reformers when he says this. But it is not just the theology we must take care to consider. Just as important to the tradition are the historical events of this period themselves. We remember those who came before us in the English Reformation who gave their lives so that the people might know this Word of God, hear it and read it for themselves. Because hundreds upon hundreds of them were martyred in the process, for standing up for the authority of Scripture over and against the authority of human beings and the institutional Church’s corrupting the teachings and abusing of power and authority of Scripture. Nicholas Ridley himself chief among these martyrs.

Of course this legacy of sacrifice for the Word of God began long before the Reformation itself as those like Wycliffe, and later on John Hus and William Tyndale, and others were willing to risk their lives to translate the Bible from Latin into the common language of the people. As it says in Article 24 of the 39 Articles:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Early Church to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a language not understood by the people.

So as Anglicans we stand on the shoulders of these giants, these courageous and faithful men and women who gave up everything so that those of us coming after them could be shaped and informed by God’s revelation to us.


Now, just as you’ve heard each week so far in the course, when it comes to the Anglican doctrine of Scripture, like the other doctrines, it is not merely an abstract theory but has practical and pastoral application. So invite you to take time at some point to look once more at those two quotes from Thomas Cranmer that are in your reading for this week. There you will see his reflection on the great comfort and encouragement of Scripture, why it’s such a treasure, and how it edifies us, providing for us not just everything necessary for salvation, but also as it says in 2 Timothy, correction and training for righteousness:

Cranmer quote 1:

…the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls, the hearing and keeping of it making us blessed, sanctifying us and making us holy, turning our souls, it is a light lantern to our feet; it is sure, steadfast, and everlasting instrument of salvation, giving wisdom to the humble and lowly hearts, comforting, making glad, cheering and cherishing our conscience: it is a more excellent jewel or treasure, than any gold or precious stone, it is more sweet than honey or honey comb, it is called the best part, which Mary did choose, for it has in it everlasting comfort.

Cranmer quote 2:

And whosever giveth his mind to Holy Scriptures, with diligent study and burning desire, it cannot be said (St. Chrysostom) that he should be left without help. For either God almighty will send him some godly doctor, to teach him . . . or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, still God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us and wherein we are ignorant.

So we’ve talked about general revelation (natural) and special revelation (supernatural), We’ve looked at what the Bible is and how it has functioned and been understood in the tradition of the Church, and now finally I want to make just a few comments about how we receive it in our contemporary church context.

Again, as Calvin said, the authority of revelation, of our knowledge of God is both subjective and objective, or another helpful way to put this would be to say, it’s both internal and external, and based on a rational way of knowing, and an aesthetic way of knowing!

As we already saw, the modern period has given tremendous priority to an objective understanding of authority and knowledge, while what is usually referred to as the postmodern period that we’re living in to some extent now has put far more emphasis on the subjective side of authority and knowledge.

So here’s how this has pretty much played out (Lesslie Newbigin):

In Modernity, with a concern for objective knowledge and authority, there were two general trends: The liberal, and what we’ll just call the fundamentalist.

  • Liberal: reduce objective knowledge to what is measurable by science and reason. And thus relegating what is religious to the subjective realm, what Schleiermacher called the pre-conscious feeling of absolute dependence.
  • Fundamentalist: reducing the Bible to the function of scientific and rational knowledge!

Or to put it another way:

The liberal response: The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

The fundamentalist response: How do we get modern certainty — absolute, objective knowledge — from the Bible? Both questions were mistaken from the beginning.

Newbigin suggests a third and very different question altogether that I find to be profound: The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?” Again, as Article 6 declares, on the sufficiency of Scripture unto salvation. We look nowhere else but to the person and work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Gospel or Christ-centered view of Scripture, in other words, interpreting Scripture with Scripture, but also interpreting Scripture through the lens of the person and work of Christ.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions. Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a problem, potentially.

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the latter (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context, as well as with sensitivity to our cultural context.

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

Furthermore, democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, because of the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, there is the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. And this requires an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms – and of routine time – only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues in contrast to Carl Schmitt, but that of the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the good, as well as their openness toward the possibility of a revelation and a conversion, or what Honig drawing on Rosenzweig calls a “miracle” (more about this notion of a miracle in a moment). Honig further explains:

Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive or progressive. [both of which Kierkegaard and Niebuhr reject] Linear time, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount (15).

One thinks as well here of the both “already” and “not-yet” presence and availability of the Kingdom of God, in the way that Jesus talks about it. And it is precisely this notion of paradox that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr each in their own way employ in their understandings of faith and politics, respectively.

First, in Kierkegaard’s view, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change – for passing on the vocation of citizenship, for the formation of virtuous people, and for the inclusion of new, formerly excluded groups. An Individual, personal leap and risk must be taken with resoluteness. But this risk and leap is always only possible as a response, not as an initiative. It’s a response to what Simon Critchley, analyzing Paul through a Kierkegaardian lens, calls an “infinite demand.”

This demand remains incomprehensible, for Kierkegaard, for whom faith is always a passionate inwardness rather than external, or primarily doctrinal security, which he criticizes both in Hegel’s philosophy and the nominal Christianity of his culture. If we politicize this, Kierkegaard serves to guard against the polarization of the citizenry into either despair or presumption – resignation or ideological entrenchment. As Critchley remarks, a faith (or faithlessness for him) “with passionate inwardness best sustains the rigor of faith because it does not require security, guarantees or rewards” (Faith of the Faithless, 252). For Critchley, believers, as well as non-believers, are no longer allowed the naivety of a pre-Kierkegaardian faith. For Kierkegaard, faith starts neither with our political effectiveness, nor even our ideas. Faith is a leap, and a realized life in response by subjects to an infinite demand — one that ultimately is a demand of love, as will be seen below.

In Kierkegaard’s day, the Danes of Christendom would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth as a security, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. For Kierkegaard, Socrates in contrast actually does put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it — and Kierkegaard admired Socrates for this — but Climacus only saw this as what he called “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would later say, Socrates lacked a messianic consciousness. For him, a Christ was not expected (Nature and Destiny).

So, as Kierkegaard has it, it is not only the nature of faith that is paradoxical, but also its object, and what that object promises. Socrates’ ethic failed to preserve this tension, and he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin. For Socrates, ignorance is the source of conflict, harm, hate, and so on, rather than sin.

So what Socrates doesn’t appreciate is this: what stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the people, then, is the paradoxical combination of human finitude and human freedom. And here I’m focusing on Niebuhr’s understanding of sin, which builds on Kierkegaard’s in part. As both finite and free, Niebuhr would say, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, and to do so to the detriment of extending new rights to new constituents –even with democracy. So the big question becomes, what does it take for people to become prepared for and postured to affect change, in spite of this anxiety?

Rosenzweig is instructive here. His view of a miracle, which I alluded to a moment ago, is not that it compels or commands attention, but that it is a subtle signal soliciting a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to be open to its possibility. This openness requires habituation to certain patterns of receptivity, and the cultivation of an orientedness to the good, to the divine (Honig, The Miracle of Metaphor).

Kierkegaard’s view is similar. Again, just as faith is paradoxical rather than reducible to the rational, so too is the remedy for sin paradoxical. It is unexpected and from outside or beyond, rather than a mere lesson to be learned. So, following Kierkegaard, for there to be any change, individuals must undergo conversions (that is, they must receive and respond to a transformative revelation — they must be open to the miraculous in Rosenzweig’s sense). But what is the nature of this conversion, for the people, at the social level? For this, one is better served by turning to Niebuhr.

Whereas for Kierkegaard the paradox of faith finds its object in the doctrine of the incarnation – that the infinite of the divine dwells in humanity – in Niebuhr’s work, while there is still a christological paradox, it is social and ethical as much as theological. Niebuhr argues in the third chapter of Nature and Destiny that:

“the significant contrast between the divine and the human in Christ is not, as Greek thought assumed, the contrast between the “impassible and the passible.” [Here we see Niebuhr’s ambivalence toward metaphysics.] It is [rather] a contrast between the perfect coincidence of power and of goodness in the divine.”

For Niebuhr, it is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. Niebuhr goes on:

“The final majesty, the ultimate freedom, the perfect disinterestedness of the divine love can have a counterpart in history only in a life which ends tragically, because it refuses to participate in the claims and counterclaims of historical existence. It portrays a love which seeketh not its own” (emphasis added).

What Niebuhr does through this christology is to situate finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love.

Niebuhr may have a less suspicious outlook on philosophical theology than Kierkegaard, but he is just as realistic or even as pessimistic as Kierkegaard is in his outlook on the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard in terms of human subjectivity, and Niebuhr in terms of politics, and what human beings are to strive for.

So the paradox, politically speaking, for Niebuhr, is that Christians must strive to realize proximate justice within history, even though we will still inevitably sin in the process — while at  the same time also resisting the temptation to push forward with the expectation of fully achieving a justly representative society. This is because Niebuhr understands that the meaning of life and history while revealed in history is not fully fulfilled through history. Like Kierkegaard, he sees the meaning of life and history as having a transcendent source. (This is also what I think most distinguishes Kierkegaard and Niebuhr from several important contemporary political philosophers today, such as Badiou or Agamben, for example.  While this is far too terse of a synopsis, I would venture to say that Niebuhr would consider Badiou’s “event” as dehistoricized, somewhat like Greek though, and Agamben’s “messianic time” as lacking the universal reach of the Christ event.)

So again, Niebuhr strikes a balance bound to neither an ideology of false utopias nor despair about change. (In Nature and Destiny, he characterizes these two ends with the paradigms of “Renaissance” and “Reformation,” respectively, both of which are reactionary and half-true in what they emphasize about human progress — i.e., Renaissance humanism, and Reformation depravity).

Now of course the criticisms of this position are familiar, because it can be seen as a kind of false third way between either choosing to actually struggle for real progress or just resorting to political quietism. But Niebuhr insists that Christianity has unique recourse to a penultimate social ethic because theologically it holds together the paradox and uncertainty of faith and politics, and therefore, Niebuhr might say, the possibility of faith and politics. Niebuhr states:

“The Christian belief that meaning of both life and history is disclosed and fulfilled in Christ and his Cross, is in a sense a combination of Greek and Hebrew interpretations of life. It conforms to the Greek interpretation of life because in it there is an understanding of the fact that the meaning of life transcends history; but in Greek thought history tends to be excluded from the realm of meaning, and life is fulfilled by escaping from the historical process. In Christianity the meaning of life and history is fulfilled, though not wholly, within the historical process. New Testament faith conforms to the Hebrew interpretation of life [then] because in this view life is fulfilled in history, though in Christianity the implicit difference between “life” and “history” is made explicit…” (Nature and Destiny, 1996 (36))

— namely, because, again, paradoxically, Christ fulfills history not by just living but in fact by dying, only this death is not final. After all, that is the hope that Christians have in the midst of the uncertainties of history.

Finally, Niebuhr states that:

“The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures [– this is the false certainty we crave –] as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves [God’s self] in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (71)

— because human beings doubt that the structural character of reality really is good!

So for Christians, the agape of God, which was paradoxical for Kierkegaard because it came in the form of the finite, and paradoxical for Niebuhr because it did not exploit, is the basis of God relationship with humanity and history. And therefore it is from faith in this both seemingly tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, that I understand Kierkegaard and Niebuhr to be illuminating the horizon upon which historical-political, subjects can strive for the good — because of the consequent freedom that comes from this agape, from the anxieties and rivalries of history, and the hope that that final meaning and fulfillment is not totally tied to historical outcome.

In sum, and by way of response to this very cursory look at two major figures, the political is inherently paradoxical, and so must be our engagement with it. But people ignore, suppress, or overtly deny the paradox, clinging instead to false certainties and neat political ideologies, contenting themselves instead with voicing opinions or voting. Those most adversely affected by this are not surprisingly the poor and the oppressed. Kierkegaard didn’t speak to this very much, which in part one can attribute to his context. Niebuhr, however, was sensitive to economic injustices, but he was still addressing these issues from a place of privilege and power. Because of this, I do not think he was truly sensitive to the weight of oppression that certain groups were experiencing. Moreover, there is a difference between intervention and solidarity.  Many times it seems that people have used Niebuhr’s thought to justify the former without doing the hard work of the latter. So, if we can evaluate Niebuhr’s thought with the interests of the powerless in mind, some of his blind spots may come into focus for us. No doubt two of the most glaring are the matters of race and gender. And Niebuhr’s complicity with U.S. nationalism at times may also become evident.

In this respect, Kierkegaard’s call to actually heed the infinite demand of love is a stronger injunction to imitate Christ.  Niebuhr by comparison is satisfied, it would seem, to merely use Christ as the benchmark.  My sense is that the more faithful appropriation here, even politically, is Kierkegaard’s, but the challenge becomes how to do that in light of Niebuhr’s apt prediction that such attempts to embody Christ’s ethic will eventually lead to martyrdom.

And finally, by way one more closing critical observation, it does not appear that Niebuhr really develops his political theology with a high view of the church’s role in society in mind – despite his pastoral experience in an urban and economically depressed congregation in Detroit early on in his life. And it seems to me that, especially as the United States continues to fragment – religiously, culturally, politically, etc. – a robust understanding of the role of the church in the public sphere with respect to this paradoxical politic is essential, and wanting in both Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. The question remains looming in my view, for example, as to how the organizing identity of local congregations will posture itself and its church members for political agency and activism, in comparison to the conventional ways this has been done in recent history in both conservative and liberal contexts.

Niebuhr says, for example, that heedless love has to replenish mutual love — otherwise it will degenerate into something less. In order for this to happen, however, it seems to me that Christians must primarily derive their identity from a community in which heedless love is the norm, or the at least the archetype. This cannot be the case if the primary identity of Christians comes from citizenship of the state. Without a well-developed ecclesial structure and identity that informs the Christian politic, any complicity with violence on the part of Christians for the purpose of approximating justice will risk being rationalized instead of sorely felt, mourned and repented of.

These limitations notwithstanding, there remains tremendous promise from both of these thinkers with respect to not just Christian faith and practice, but sober hope for society, individual social responsibility and collective political engagement.

What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

Conference at UNAM in Mexico City: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of NAFTA

Borrowing significantly from my dissertation and drawing on the work of Enrique Dussel and Mark Lewis Taylor, the title of my talk is “Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing from Dussel himself, as he will be giving the keynote address.  I will share details from my presentation afterwards.

NAFTA Colloquium Póster ColoquioTLCAN

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.

Sacralizing the Secular: The Economic Organization of Emerging Ecclesiology in North America and its Latent Spirit of Resistance

[This is a working copy of the paper I presented at AAR this year in Chicago in the Ecclesiological Investigations Group on the following theme: “The Social Gospel in a Time of Economic Crisis: The Churches and Capitalism Today.”  Here is a link to a further description.]

Walter Rauschenbusch observed and contended that global capitalism directly opposes the spirit of Christianity in at least two fundamental ways: by inhibiting economic democracy and by encouraging the rule of profit motive over and against the value of human life.  In contrast, the Christian spirit is marked by devotion to the common good and to God’s reign of justice in the world: “Devotion to the common good is one of the holy and divine forces in human society, [and] [c]apitalism teaches us to set private interests before the common good” (315).  

The mission of the church in light of global capitalism then it seems is to mirror and foster an alternative social and political order by instilling and adhering to values that subvert the dominant narrative of competition, consumerism, imperialism and individualism.  Such subversive values include peace-making, generosity, cooperation and solidarity.  In order for these values to be thoroughly integrated into the church and the lives of Christians, they must also affect the economy of ecclesial organization itself.

Rauschenbusch, like most everyone else in his time, failed to be duly cognizant of racial and gender prejudices and the challenges of religious pluralism.  Furthermore, he was obviously unable to foresee the current impending ecological crisis, peak oil, the post-WWII triumph of U.S.-dominated international military and economic power, and more recently the hyper-financialization of the global market itself – specifically with its heightened volatility as demonstrated by the Great Recession.  Nevertheless, much of what Rauschenbusch meant by “Christianizing the Social Order” was profound and is still relevant.

Rauschenbusch attempted to popularize the view that Jesus’ teachings about the reign of God regarded God’s peace and justice as ideals to be prayed for and realized in the present as much as anticipated in the future.  Rauschenbusch diagnosed and identified the capitalist, corporate state as “the industrial outfit of society . . . owned and controlled by a limited group, while the mass of the industrial workers [– often propertyless –] is without ownership or power over the system within which they work” (311).  Extrapolating from this, Rauschenbusch argues that

where [profit from Capitalism] is large and dissociated from hard work, it is traceable to some kind of monopoly privilege and power . . . Insofar as profit is derived from these sources, it is tribute collected by power from the helpless, a form of legalized graft, and a contradiction of Christian relations” (Christianizing the Social Order 1926, p 313).

Impressively, this issue of ownership of the means of production and wealth in general by a few is perhaps as pertinent as ever for people in North America today.  Growing income inequality and the stagnation of wages adjusted for inflation, particularly in the past three decades, is staggering.[1]


With respect to the recent financial crisis itself, Christian leaders and theologians would benefit by understanding the values, incentives and mechanisms that gave rise to the housing bubble and the subsequent market crash – if we wish to have a hand in shaping and informing a counter-consumer culture in Christian communities.  Discussing the causes for the Financial Crisis itself is beyond the scope of this presentation, but by relying on the work of others – like Dr. Christine Hinze – who have taken the time to really grapple with what exactly led to the recession, I’ll briefly make a few observations from which I think we can appropriate intentional local practices that might really signal a thorough critique of the disparate economic establishment.[2]

The consensus seems to be that, broadly speaking – even if it has become cliché to say since OWS – the market crash itself was brought about by a financial sector that incentivizes and even secures the privatization of profits and the socialization of risks and therefore losses, or costs, as evidenced most notably by federal bailouts of the big banks.  In summary, one might identity at least four major factors the led to the financial crisis:

  1. Deregulation via the removal of much-needed firewalls between commercial banks, insurance companies and security trading institutions/brokerage firms — through legislation passed under the Clinton administration, and through the role that money plays in Washington in general (SuperPACS, Citizens United, no term limits, etc.)
  2. A lack of a principle of agency and responsibility for taking bad risks, enabled by the design and implementation of financial instruments that repackaged and sold over-leveraged credit at multiple levels (e.g., credit default swaps)
  3. Credit-rating agencies with conflicts of interest issued artificially high approval ratings for mortgage-backed securities
  4. The toleration, or promotion of, in many cases, a culture of debt-financed living – even if many people were victims of predatory lending

These phenomena highlight a top-down proclivity of global capitalism in general for not only privatizing market success and socializing market failure, but also its contribution to an increasing disparate distribution of wealth in the U.S.  Additionally, the financial crisis unmasked the elasticity and underscored the interdependence of global relations.  (It should also be mentioned that there are other critical perspectives from an even longer-term standpoint about the causes of the Great Recession, as exemplified by Yanis Varoufakus’ recent work.)


What we call the secular is actually the realm or domain of the Spirit. The secular – literally meaning the world, the realm outside of church control – isn’t profane. Rather, properly understood, it is sacred because the Spirit is and has always been active there, evoking light from darkness, order from chaos, fullness from void, life from lifelessness, actuality from potentiality, and potentiality from actuality. (Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? p. 151)

In the wake of economic recession and the recent financial crisis, and in view of growing global and domestic disparity with respect to wealth and power and its concentration into the hands of so few at the expense of so many – without adequate transparency or accountability – I propose in response that churches in North America are entrusted with several basic tasks:

  1. Raising awareness and making the economic inequalities and interdependencies of the world, both abroad and domestically, better understood by Christian congregants
  2. Engaging the public sphere through changes in habits of consumption so as to bear witness to God’s mission of (economic and ecological) reconciliation in the world
  3. Using capital, organizing themselves (in church governance and leadership) and conducting their worship and service practices as a church in such a way that challenges and contributes to the transformation of these inequalities
  4. mobilizing the fulfillment of this mission in part by facilitating participation in local political decision-making processes in order to disperse economic power where it has become overly concentrated, disembodied or undemocratic

I suggest that the church in North America will be best situated to oppose the exploitative nature of global capitalism by embracing the erosion of the sacred-secular divide – what Charles Taylor called “the Great Disembedding”[3]  – a distinctively modern divide, or as Taylor elsewhere descries it – a modern social imaginary – and one that is still prevalent in liberal-democratic nation-states and Western culture in general.  It is true, however, that a “de-secularization” or  “re-enchantment” of the world has been increasingly noted and called for in recent decades, indicating “both a discrediting of [rigidly] scientific theor[izing] of secularization and a renewed debate about a more nuanced understanding of secularism, religion, and the influence of modernity on each.”[4]  Aaron Stuvland insists, for example, that  

“Secularization, far from undermining religion with its denial of the transcendent and its insistence on verification through the senses and the application of cold logic, has created a spiritual vacuum and a deep desire for integration.  In fact, secular space for that matter simply does not nor has it ever existed. Or if it has existed as a political coercion, the secularization of the church results in the sacralization of the secular.”[5]

Gustavo Gutierrez has expressed the need for transgressing this boundary by emphasizing that there are not two histories, one sacred and one profane, one soteriological and one political, but rather, Gutierrez contends, that “the history of salvation is the very heart of human history [itself].”[6]

I believe that the boundary-blurring of the sacralization of the secular would serve to de-privatize religious communities and thereby renew or potentially re-capture something of their transformative force in the public sphere.  Such is a spirit of resistance to capitalism, I submit, or at least a spirit of resistance to a certain kind of capitalism – namely, its late neoliberal, global form with a reach that, though fragmented and not monolithic, relativizes, consumes and subsumes at so many levels –vertically, horizontally and internally – in terms of intensity, velocity and overall impact.

By using the language of “resistance to capitalism,” however, I’m not implying the endorsement of some other kind of macro, total state model, socialist or otherwise.[7]  In this way I do intend to break somewhat with the analysis of traditional Latin American liberation theology, despite deep indebtedness to Gutierrez and others of the movement.  Rather, I’m speaking of the church and its response to and role in the shadow of a corporately compromised capitalist state.  As such I am persuaded by those like Martin Luther King Jr. who summon the church at times to be the conscience of, or conscience raiser for the nation-state – though not because I believe this to be a primary vocation of the church.  The church is not a servant of the state; nor should its purposes be defined in terms of the state.  But, I do agree that speaking truth to power is one of the church’s chief responsibilities and means for bearing witness to God’s reign in the world.

To over-identify the church’s mission with the task of affecting the public sphere though without some further qualification is to risk confusing and conflating the secular and the sacred altogether; that is, the danger could be the secularization of the sacred rather than the reverse.[8]  I wish to maintain, therefore, that the church’s role is to transcend the allegedly immanent plane[9]  – not to be captured by so-called secular reason (Milbank).  I understand that the church is neither strictly sacred nor secular, but the foremost medium, potentially, through which the process of sacralization can occur.  Thus, my aim in this paper is to try to point to several ways that emerging churches in North America are both obscuring and moving sacred-secular borders, and to indicate additional practices by which this is and can be done by the church more generally.    In light of this aim, I propose that the deficiency of economic democracy in the marketplace can be contested from below by the church as followers of Jesus endeavor to conserve and steward resources more simply and responsibly, hold more in common together, decentralize power, organize its leadership in greater mutuality, meet publically, and share space with others and mobilize for the sake of the good of society as a whole.


By emerging ecclesiologies in North America, I am referring to a wide range of relatively recent “fresh expressions” of church, including house churches, pub churches, new neighborhood churches, and hyphenated churches (this refers to the housing by certain Mainline Protestant congregations of new worship gatherings and services in traditional facilities that treasure the old but bring in the new – that is, merge ancient and contemporary spiritualities and traditions).[10]  With a swelling desire for aesthetic and participatory liturgy, these faith communities bring dance, drama and literature into worship (or maybe better said, they’re make dance, drama and literature more worshipful).  And rather than borrowing their songs from the most popular Christian music or simply singing traditional hymns, emerging communities often write their own music and have their own artists.[11]  Other common practices include corporate and contemplative prayer, as well as Sabbath keeping.  Emerging churches tend to privilege the vision of the Christian community in Acts as the model to be sought, and have frequently been associated with New Monasticism.  These communities have a tendency to resist the self-identification of the title “church,” preferring instead names like “Solomon’s Porch,” “Mosaic,” “Journey,” “Jacob’s Well,” and the “Emmaus Way.” Many do not have (or want) their own buildings or ordained pastors.  If their leaders are even called “pastors,” they’re sometimes bi-vocational, and they’re likely to be compensated at the same rate as other staff members.  While it could be argued that both evangelical churches and mainline denominational churches continue to have a propensity toward preoccupation with numbers and money, and the measurement of overall quantifiable influence, emerging folks might accuse; conversely, as Phyllis Tickle asserts, “Market success, is neither an emergence concept nor even an emergence virtue.”[12]  Tickle describes emerging churches as fairly indifferent to [market success] and individualism as a cultural value.[13]  Tickle paints a picture of emerging churches as free from the trappings of modernity and instead more sensitive to postmodern impulses such as adaptivity, relationality, and hybridity.  This somewhat romanticized characterization is not without criticism, but it may still suffice for the purposes of this paper.[14]

There is in general a noticeable aversion to hierarchy, to clear distinctions drawn between clergy and laity – preferring instead gift-based and team-oriented leadership structure as opposed to ordination-centeredness.[15]  Moreover, emerging faith communities are frustrated by denominationalism and want to form looser, bi-laterally collaborative networks with less infrastructure and overhead.  At the same time, they do not usually endorse a wholesale rejection of or separation from established churches.  Many leading this movement are younger mainliners (though not exclusively young), while others have been called “post-conservative evangelicals.”[16]  Disenchanted evangelicals, for instance, are learning to appreciate and reinvigorate traditional liturgy.[17]  This is partly why one does in fact see new forms of church growing out of existing congregations.

Theologically speaking, emerging churches are characterized by post-foundational epistemology and  theology, “Emerging church ecclesiology . . . seeks to rethink how church is done in a decidedly postmodern context . . . They are asking questions of mission, the centrality of Jesus, and what it means to live in community.”[18]  The rediscovery of the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings as a world-centered or “secular” mission for the church.  There’s a strong belief in the mission of realizing an “alternative social order” implies a new way of being and acting in the world both locally and globally.  The dualisms of modernity are thought to have placated the transformative potency of the gospel, so emerging churches wish to eschew this false dualism, with greater sensitivity to postmodern impulses like adaptivity, interdependence and hybridity. It is supposed by extension that if God’s redemption of the world is already present and bids people take part in its sacralization, then secular space is not without God, and God’s work knows no categories or boundaries.  “Because of this focus,” Andrew Stuvland explains, “emerging churches tend to be small and decentralized communities.” that value commitment and accountability over meetings and institutions. . . Stuvland argues that the “relational and fluid structure of the emerging church a de-centralized, entity opens it up to becoming more relevant and responsive to global realities.”[19] By extension, transforming secular space has become a core practice, it seems, and even a hallmark of emerging churches, as gatherings are held in places like coffee shops, art galleries and neighborhood community centers, in part for precisely the purpose of blurring sacred-secular lines.

According to LeRon Shults, “[emerging ecclesiology’s] resistance to a missional approach that colonizes the other is reflected in theological commitments to more dynamic models of ecclesial identity as wholly embedded in the relational life of “the world.”[20] Many [emerging churches] want to focus more strongly on the way in which embodied communal life here and now is being redemptively transformed and reordered in salutary ways that manifest justice in the world. In a certain sense, then, one could say that [for emerging ecclesiology] all salvation is “outside” the church.”[21] Shults concludes, “If [emerging churches] have anything in common, it is a desire to embrace the prophetic, the enthusiastic, and even the mystical as they move toward reformative ways of being and becoming in community as followers of the way of Jesus.”[22]

Let me now try to identify more specifically and practically a few marks and habits of economic organization for social awakening, some of which I see budding in emerging churches – while others are more feasible for established churches.  Both though correspond to what I’m calling a latent spirit of resistance to global capitalism.


[As a backdrop to talking about the church’s response to economic recession and the financial crisis, I am presupposing the globalization narrative that industrial economism of the 20th Century has been bulstered by the hyper-financialization of global markets in the 21st Century.]

Stewardship and Conservation: as a result of resource scarcity and the ensuing sustainability crisis brought about by this nation’s current international energy dependency and addiction to consumption, severe consequences are foreseeable – not only ecological in nature but geopolitical.  In other words, the energy crisis is intimately related to militarism and a security crisis, both of which increasingly serve the financial sector.[23]  At leas two kinds of responses are in in order on the part of churches, with respect to how Christians spend their money and where they entrust it: First, purchasing local, regional and fairly traded goods and services – especially food – must become a basic church rhythm in response and value – as sacred as anything else Christians do.  Some churches are adopting this, but many are not.  To resist the massive-scale distribution of goods and services by buying locally is to participate in the subversion of its overarching reach globally. Transactions that sustain small-scale farmers and businesses in turn become acts of living sacrifice for the sake of the propertyless, the unemployed and the otherwise disenfranchised around the world.  Further, in an attempt to protest third-world debt, unpenalized Wallstreet crimes and financial economism in general, it seems reasonable to advise that Christians bank with smaller financial institutions, even if these institutions can’t offer the same services at the same low rates as big banks.  rather than primarily focusing on accumulating wealth in the stock market, Congregations can be encouraged to bank locally and regionally, and even invite them to invest significant portions of their wealth and savings in non-profit micro-finance lending organizations.  So these are practices that emerging and established churches alike can implement.

What is more, in the name of Christian stewardship and creation care, rather than mere humanist environmentalism, church groups can sacralize the secular by conserving water and energy, which are sacred gifts from God but that have been secularized as profitable commodities – So by walking, cycling, utilizing public transportation, and consciously reducing what we send down sewage pipes.  The growing adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets is also sacralizing.  Along these same lines, to form and maintain smaller neighborhood-based churches rather than investing heavily in destination churches, is to conserve energy and therefore to at least indirectly combat the violence and neocolonialism of militarily ensuring secure lines of trade, as well as to challenge a culture of individualism that subjects church attendance to consumer preference and to the commodification of religious goods and services.  And this is where the economic organization of emerging ecclesiology really shines.

(With regard to) Church Buildings, then, whereas many  evangelical churches have perhaps tended to over-accommodated their worship to culture for the sake of remaining relevant, many Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have adjusted in more subtle ways to signs of times without abandoning the richness of their rituals, liturgy and traditional adornment.  This is one reason why some emerging churches still feel comfortable in traditional buildings.  Another reason is that many emerging church congregants have had negative experiences with contemporary evangelical and non-denominational churches. However, evangelical and traditional Protestant churches alike are usually organized in such a manner that requires the allocation of the vast majority of their resources toward utility, maintenance, facility and payroll costs.  As a result, most of the money, time and energy of established churches is being directed toward the preservation and proliferation of their particular ministries and programs – ministries and programs that, however effective and well-intended, tend to reinforce sacred-secular divisions.  The advantage of the economic organization of emerging churches is that, with lower and fewer fixed costs, more resources are freed up to be directed outward.

Of course established churches can experience social awakening too, and in ways already mentioned.  Examples range from the incorporation of recycling, carpooling and other energy saving programs to awareness campaigns that emphasize the importance of spending less, sharing more, and replacing wasteful systems of any kind.  They can lease or share their worship facilities to newly forming, emerging congregations, for instance – or to non-faith-based organizations more generally that fall into the purview of the church’s broader mission for social justice.[24]  Buildings can be used for soup kitchens or homeless shelters in the winter.  One Anglican Church in Alantown PA was able to keep its doors open during the recession because it used its space to start an AIDS clinic and to  partner with another organization to offer GED classes five days a week.

Making greater use of urban real estate for other purposes, like after school tutoring and youth programs in sports, music and art in particular are some of the most tangible ways to curtail neighborhood gang activity and therefore also to protest/resist mass-incarceration in this country.

Further still, there are both emerging and established that perform some kind of service to the community in lieu of a worship service, say, once a month or every quarter, which can be a powerful statement to society about the church’s concern for the world.  which, as Michelle Alexander made so well known in her book The New Jim Crow, has a grossly uneven effect on the African-American population in the United States.[25]  Partnering with the school system in this way too would by extension combat drug-related violence in Mexico with the weapon of education rather than that of the penal state and outsourced slaughter to competing drug cartels.

While usually lacking the necessary facilities to support this kind of work, emerging faith communities compliment established ones by being nimble and small enough usually to gather in public space for worship, which has greater potential to bring people of different socio-economic status into the same place, which increases the visibility of suffering, injustice and inequality in the world.  Furthermore, neighborhood-based community groups create greater accountability and intimacy so as to ensure a common culture of commitment to these new practices of economic responsibility, interdependence and creation care in and between households.  Consequently, with lower fixed costs the church will be free to apportion a higher percentage of its resources toward the local and global needs of the most disadvantaged.

the Collapse of Clergy-Laity Separation: (and the re-emergence of bi-vocational church leadership)  Thirdly, emerging ecclesiology demonstrates a dethroning of the sharp clergy-laity divide by championing gift-based rather than clergy/ordination-centered leadership and priestly authority.[26]  Gift-based leadership language draws on Paul’s “one body, many parts” metaphor as a model for team and strength or talent-focused responsibility-sharing in church staff structure.  Obviously this does not mean that just anyone is able to claim theological or pastoral authority, nor that the Eucharist or its relationship to the priesthood is something to be taken lightly; but rather simply that with sacralizing the secular follows as well the disintegration of any inflexible difference between lay and clerical leadership responsibilities.  Instead what emerges is a leadership model based on personal strengths and indigenous, organic anointing that can only happen incarnationally – or, relationally, locally and contextually.  Consequently, there has also been a bourgeoning lay interest in and access to theological education.  In short – taking the priesthood of all believers a little bit more seriously.

As already indicated, the aversion to hierarchy in emerging church culture need not be anti-denominational.  It does seem though that with such great decline not only in church attendance but also therefore the decline in tithes and offerings to the Mainline churches in North America, change in denominationalism itself is inevitable and imperative.  How exactly structural amendments are made will vary significantly, but more relaxed networks with less bureaucracy and fewer layers are needed to meet the demands of emerging ecclesiology.[27]

Advocacy:  Finally, churches can experience social awakening by facilitating community organizing.  Much can be learned from certain Latino/a congregations in this regard with their practices of community organizing.  More so than in the case of arguments made by liberation theologians, for Latino/a ecclesiology the process of transformation (of economic, political, and social structures) is a byproduct of the process of transformation within the domestic cultural location: “So suffering is not only an epistemological category but an aesthetic, physical and domestic experience that the church must embody along with the poor.”[28] There is also implicit in Latino/a ecclesiology a criticism of Protestant liberal individualism, which has invented the individual as an unsituated, rather than community-situated self, and therefore a self-enclosed entity.[29] In his book, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology, Oscar Garcia-Johnson describes how Latino/a churches have utilized community organizing to mobilize and enact the church’s mission in neighorhoods:

Methodologically speaking, community organizing is a social process based on the communal exercise of self-betterment.  [It] employs a language constructed from within the constituency of a given community – a language that aims at social empowerment . . . Such an endeavor entails finding a shared [neighborhood] vision of community development . . . The shared vision is to encourage inclusion, participating in the planning process, and Motivate participants toward imagining the preferred common future for the community.  Community organizing entails a bipolar social process.  On the one hand, there is (social) inclusion, participation, unification, and communal imagination.  On the other hand, there is (socio-economic) assessment, task distribution, decentralization, and leadership development.[30]


My argument in closing is that by “sacralizing the secular” and becoming more decentralized, participatory, and outwardly/practically economically conscious as churches, with respect to our organization, leadership and ordination – which is what many emerging faith communities are already doing – churches will be able to constructively address and with hopefulness respond to the financial crisis and economic recession brought about by the hegemony of global and financial capitalism.  A blurring of the sacred-secular divide would lead to changes like lower tolerance of high operations costs and encouraging/enabling economic and consumer simplicity as well as the support of fair trade, in the lives of individual members of the body of Christ.  Church leaders especially should be expected to embody simple living and risk-taking for the sake of those on the margins in society.

In sum, not so much by taking anything away from the traditional practices of the church but by intentionally expanding the social ramifications of those practices, a theology or ecclesiology of sacralizing the secular is essentially to sacralize the mundane, ordinary everyday-ness of life – to sacralizes all the exchanges, that is, be they economic, cultural, relational.  This can start with the institutional church itself, but is moving forward with many expressions of emerging ecclesiology — some of which are partnering with established churches.  These movements are perhaps the clearest sign that social awakening in North American churches is already well underway.

[1] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).  Some major causes are fairly easy to identify, as there is wide consensus among economists, such as more women entering the workplace, the outsourcing of jobs, immigration and technological advancement.  These factors together have created a labor surplus, which drives wages down and gives prospective workers far less freedom and power to negotiate their compensation.  And of course the problem has only become more acute since 2008.

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Economic Recession, Work, and Solidarity,” Theological Studies 72, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 150–169.

[3] Andrew Root, “A Secular Age,” Word & World 30, no. 1 (Wint 2010): 111–113.  Root summarizes: “This moves the reader to what Taylor calls the Great Disembedding, which in Christianity meant the splitting of sacred and secular into two distinct categories. This would unravel the enchantment of the world. Now, so-called enchanted experiences only had credence in the sacred realm and were eliminated from the secular realm, disenchanting it. Taylor asserts that this division had significant impact on how one conceptualized the self. Now, the self and the world were no longer a whole, but were experienced in parts. Therefore, the porous self gave way to a buffered identity, the idea that you can think of yourself as outside of, or other than, the world. This buffered identity is the core ingredient for the poisonous stew of Western individualism that Taylor so opposes.”

[4] Aaron Stuvland, “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society: Postmodern Christianity as a Source for Global Values,” Journal of Church and State 52, no. 2 (Spr 2010): 210.

[5] Ibid., 221.

[6]  Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Revised. (Orbis Books, 1988), 86.  I think it can be argued that even Augustine’s two cities and Luther’s two kingdoms are not in conflict with this notion – as long as the mission of God’s city or kingdom is taken to be one of commission to permeate or sacralize the secular city or kingdom by the divine.  At the same time, there are those who criticize Gutierrez and see a distinction between him and pre-/early modern Christian thought: “Gutierrez thus wants to overcome the bourgeois privatization of the church by elevating the spiritual status of the mundane political world and by breaking down the barriers between theology and politics.  The church is the explicit witness to the liberation of humanity from sin, including social and political sins of all kinds.  The church, however is not epistemologically privileged in understanding social and political processes, which operate within their worldly autonomy and are thus best understood by the social sciences” (Cavanaugh, The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology).

[7] It follows then I am not necessarily trying to make a case against say, market competition – insofar as competition can be conceived within the confines of a more fundamental commitment to cooperation for achieving the end of basic provision and well-being for everyone in society.  Markets are indeed useful and necessary for productivity and efficiency, but they are not value-neutral, as many economists would have it.  Without transparency, accountability and at times thorough ethical scrutiny informed by the interests of the majority, productivity and efficiency can be ruthless.  And the first to pay for the mistakes of the profit-maximizing speculators are almost always the poor. – So I insist with Jon Sobrino, for example, that churches overlooking their responsibility for solidarity with and defense of the most vulnerable are simply not fulfilling their God-given mission. Thus this goes beyond mere Keynesian theory, which, despite recognizing the need for government interference and stimulation, fails to question global capitalism’s normativity, the supposed amoral nature of its capacity for perpetual growth, its dependency on profit motive, or its appeal to unqualified utilitarianism.

What is more, in light of the proliferation of value-pluralism, it probably cannot be argued anymore in the same way Rauschenbusch did that the mission of the church is to “Christianize” the social order.  And while it is perhaps not incorrect to describe the U.S. as a welfare state, it could hardly be credited with social or economic democracy.  But while self-interest drives the economy, confidence in such an economy, as Rauschenbusch rightly saw, will ironically fall if market practice, culture and regulation are not moralized through smart and fairly invasive legislation.

[8] Liberationists like Gutierrez, for example have been charged with expecting the church to bow before the authority of the social sciences.  But conversely, those who privilege ecclesial-based social ethics in the post-liberal tradition, for instance, are accused of too much reluctance to “dirty their hands” with the politics of the nation-state.  In my view the liberationist vs. post-liberal juxtaposition is a false binary, and it seems to me that sacralizing the secular requires greater appreciation and negotiation of the hybridized, dynamic and dialectical character of language itself, as well as the relationship between the church and the public sphere.

[9] D Stephen Long, “How to Read Charles Taylor: The Theological Significance of A Secular Age,” Pro Ecclesia 18, no. 1 (Wint 2009): 93–107.

[10] Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books, 2012), 116.

[11] Scot McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging (Brazos Press, 2011).

[12] Tickle, Emergence Christianity, 116.

[13] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008)., 145.

[14] There are those who would criticize not only emerging ecclesiology but also Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism for accommodating modern-liberal ideals like democracy and egalitarianism without realize the simultaneous comportment of smuggled-in secular reasoning.  It is argued in other words, that ecclesial authority and institutionalism in the church are still vital. See William T. Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities,” Cross Currents 44, no. 1 (Spr 1994): 67–84.

[15] Tony Jones, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, (Jossey-Bass, 2009), 204. “Emergents downplay—or outright reject— the differences between clergy and laity.”

[16] Roger E. Olson, How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative (Zondervan, 2008).

[17] McKnight et al., Church in the Present Tense, 75.

[18] Stuvland, “The Emerging Church and Global Civil Society,” 219.

[19] Ibid. 228.  See also: Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 65; Sweet et al., A Is for Abductive, 264; Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 2006). See the notion of “political religion” explored in Michael Burleigh

[20] F LeRon Shults, “Reforming Ecclesiology in Emerging Churches,” Theology Today 65, no. 4 (Ja 2009): 427.

[21] Ibid., 428.

[22] Ibid, 429.

[23] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson, 2009).

[24] Chris Lewis, ed., Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals (IVP Books, 2012).  British emergent church leader Kester Brewin summons North America churches, in the spirit of “emergence ecclesiology,” to forsake purified space.

[25] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, The, 2012).

[26] Tony Jones, The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (JoPa Productions, LLC, 2011), 119.

[27] One should be careful though, not to overly-idealize notions of egalitarianism and democracy – as William Cavanaugh rightly cautions.  Sometimes the modern-liberal heritage of these forms of organization can be uncritically received and incorporated, which may have unintended and undetected secularizing consequences.  Again see Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities.”

[28] Oscar Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit: A Postmodern Latino/a Ecclesiology (Pickwick Publications, 2008), 113-14.underlines several traits of Latino/a churches that could be adopted by others as well.  These in particular are worth mentioning: Manana living; Being-in-community and having commonality, which implies coviviencia (life together); by extension, accompaniment – a paradigm for understanding church-in-culture; and lastly, sacramentality as a remedy to false dichotomies – an idea that is akin to sacralizing the secular.

[29] Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesus: Hacia Una Teologia Del Acompanamiento (Convivium Press, 2009).

[30] Garcia-Johnson, The Mestizo/a Community of the Spirit. 128.

Response to Mark L. Taylor’s “Sing it Hard”


From Taylor’s paper:

In time, flesh will wear out chains.

Victor Serge, “Stenka Razin

                                                Now get yourself a song to sing

                                                and sing it ‘til you’re done

                                                Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well

                                                Send the robber barons straight to hell

                                                The greedy thieves that came around

                                                And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found

                                               Whose crimes have gone unpunished now

                                               Walk the streets as free men now.

                                                Bruce Springsteen, “Death to My Hometown”

  The song now rises as high as the flames of hatred

  now whispers softly, kind and tender,

  Now glows like the sun and glitters like the lodestar

  Now thunders down the prisons

  Trang, “The Rising Song”


Thank  you, Dr. Taylor for your forceful, rich and inspiring presentation.

In his paper, Sing it Hard, Mark L. Taylor begins by briefly describing the problem of mass incarceration both in terms of the sheer number of people it affects in this country (per capita) and with regard to the significantly disproportionate population of minoritized groups and people of color that are imprisoned in the U.S. or controlled by the penal state in various ways.  Using James Samuel Logan’s study on the subject, Taylor lists four primary causes of the rise of mass-incarceration in the U.S., each of which interact together in the greater national and global context:

  1. Mandatory long-term sentencing
  2. The war on crime and specifically the war on drugs inaugurated by the Nixon administration and revived by Reagan, etc.
  3. An “ever-increasing social policy commitment to incarceration and draconian criminal justice policies as a control solution geared toward exploiting fear about insecurity and containing and regulating the frustrations of the nation’s most exploited residents…”
  4. growing privatization of prisons and the profit that can be captured as a result

Secondly, in order to explain how mass-incarceration can be understood specifically as a decolonial struggle, Taylor frames his analysis of this problem both historically and internationally: historically from the standpoint of U.S. politics in the latter half of the 20th Century, contending that mass-incarceration is part of the repeated necessary sacrifice (Dussel) of surplus populations (Mike Davis and Christian Parenti) inherent in the rise of modernity itself dating back to as early as the 15th century and following with the so-called discovery, or as Dussel likes to say, the “invasion of the Americas.”  Internationally the issue is situated with respect to globalization on the one hand and the on-going dominant role of individual nation-states like the U.S. in the West on the other.

I find this to be an especially significant point – acknowledging the growing power of trans and supranational capital and financial mobility that characterizes globalization, but not overlooking the persistence of geopolitical, nationally based centers of power that govern these financial and capital movements – Taylor recognizes, in other words, that to speak of Empire or neoliberalism as if it exists solely in the aftermath of the declining rule of nation-states is premature (otherwise we might not see such disparate imprisonment numbers in the first place) Furthermore, by examining the problem from a global perspective, Taylor does not, in my view, abstract from the concrete situation but rather adds clarity and depth of engagement to it.

(Citing Wacquant and Gilmore) Additionally, Taylor means to show that mass-incarceration is the inevitable byproduct, and to some extent even the engine, of U.S. economic growth since WWII, as well as that it is a consequence of the continued neo-colonial project of American exceptionalism and imperialism in general.

While there have been some praiseworthy underground resistance in the Christian tradition over the centuries, Taylor notes as well the extent to which many of Christianity’s most vocal proponents have been complicit in this militarist-expansionist project of the U.S., often under the guise of speech about “liberty.”

Similarly, while getting popularized by rhetoric about “individual responsibility,” the subsequent withdrawal of social support services and the augmentation of deregulatory economics only compounded the problem and has further lead to the development of the penal state.

Then, following several post-colonial theorists (Wallerstein and Mignolo) and in particular the thought of the Peruvian Anibal Quijano, Taylor expands the issue of mass-incarceration by conceiving of it not only the traditional Marxist, materialist categories of labor and class, but also the ambits of subjectivity, sexuality and collective authority, each of which he expounds upon and are interacting and overlapping dimensions through which mass-incarceration exercises symbolic power (Bourdieu) over its victims,  is expressivist (Durkheim), and functions as a dominant policing and economic force controlling human bodies.

And herein lies the key connection to decoloniality: seeing the U.S. prison population “as an important segment of the “world precariate,” those peoples who belong to the long history of regions, subject to Western and, more recently, U.S., imperial formation and enforcement.”  This, for Taylor, is what warrants that the struggle be named- decolonial.

Attention to these additional dimensions of coloniality coincides with Taylor’s call for a response in theo-poetic fashion – which is not reducible to the level of political economy but is also concerned with affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, artistic, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to both express and catalyze a social movement against the oppressive force of mass-incarceration.  So just as coloniality broadens and deepens the configuration of this particular form of exploitation – in mass-incarceration – so too will an appropriate resistance movement take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in policy at the political-economic level.  It will be more total than that, Consisting of at least three visible marks of critical resistance, a Christian decolonizing effort according to Taylor is constituted by dynamic social existence moving from    

1.     Owning of agonistic being (ontology of struggle)

2.     Cultivating of artful reflex

3.     Fomenting of counter-colonial practices

The fomenting, Taylor stresses, is dependent upon the owning and the cultivating.

Finally, tracing the distinctives of a Christian Theo-Poetic challenge to mass-incarceration, for inspiration Taylor deliberately makes no reference to a transcendent Other or to knowledge that is dependent on some kind of revelation from beyond or outside.  Instead, Taylor wishes to invoke a neither fully immanent nor transcendent mode of trans-existence or trans-immanence (Nancy) that is in-finite, opposing any attempt to lockdown the world as is or close it off, as it were, and envisaging the world as unfolding…

A theo-poetic challenge, however, is nevertheless firmly grounded in the way of the cross for Taylor, and there are three main features to this way.  It is:

1.     Politically adversarial – Taylor makes a strong case for why this can be taken straight from Jesus’ own life and ministry.

2.     Mimetic (theatrical: off-setting the unpredictable, theatrical performance of the state, creatively dramatic – this dimension is crucial, Taylor says, for unleashing a counter-vailing power much like Jesus crucifixion did by challenging violent mechanisms of power.

3.     Kinetic (moving and dynamic) Using Taylor words, this sets in motion an organized embodiment that sought to “sustain life-renewing activity and communal work” by extending Jesus’s own “radically inclusive love that transgressed the ways of the religio-political state”

Anticipating the likely pushback from those whom Taylor might dub guild theologians, Taylor does not deny that power for resistance can be derived from an idea of the God who is found and testified to in Scripture and the creeds, but this is not what Taylor is doing.  Taylor firmly believes that the power of a vulnerable, networking people who bear the weight of produced social suffering is sufficient (and more suited?) to ignite and organize a counter-carceral movement, and he finishes by giving two good examples of this.

Now while one might identify this paper as a work of political theology, it is certainly more political and social in its content than theological (– though Taylor prefers to redefine both of these terms as set forth in his most recent book, The Political and the Theological).  One can appreciate that Taylor distances himself so much from the theologies of Christendom.  When Taylor employs the ontology of transimmanence, he does not appear to be making a case for this ontology as such here, so I’m going to briefly respond to a few of his apparent assumptions that are made rather than take issue with the notion of transimmanence as it might defended.

Without taking anything away from his socio-cultural-political and post-colonial critique and proposal I hope  – and conceding full well that Christianity itself needs to be decolonized, and that ontological otherness has perhaps more often than not been appropriated to numb or to excuse inaction on behalf of the oppressed – to reinforce coloniality in all its ambits – I would prefer to join other more traditional theologians, even if it is predictable and unoriginal, in retorting that faith in God as transcendent and benevolent, and faith in the prospect of eschatological hope, can still be a great catalyst for social change – just as perhaps, I think, it could even be argued that a theology of trans-immanence is susceptible to becoming closed-in, totalizing or despairing in some sense.  In sum, I’m not sure why the neither/nor approach to transcendence and immanence is more desirable than a both/and understanding.  Can’t transcendence strongly criticize idolatry, say, in the form of fetishized domination and over-securitization? Can’t transcendence be the source of courage for Christian communities to enact resistance without fear of death?  And then conversely, doesn’t a concept of a transcendent God’s immanence promise hope to the victimized in that God can be said to suffer with and relate to the victim in Christ?

– I want to pause now though to emphasize something: namely that these doctrinal questions are secondary concerns for me.  They come after, as Taylor puts it, as interpretations – not first (existentially rather than chronologically).  First, there is a choice to be made. Most importantly I want to reiterate and affirm what I interpret to be one of the most compelling points and contributions in Taylor’s presentation – namely, his assertion that “everything hinges on what kind of social existence what kind of communal embodiment, those who call themselves Christians, who identify their lives and groups with the way of Jesus, will present in the world.  In particular what kind of social existence will they present vis-à-vis the coloniality of power in which current mass incarceration is inscribed?“

This, it seems to me, is the battle cry, if you will, that can mobilize people in the Christian tradition regardless of their theological persuasions.  In my view, this is a profound and compelling theological statement about an urgent issue today, even in spite of what some might consider to be Taylor’s otherwise-than-orthodox ontology.  Moreover, this is an attempt to not only include but to join the other, to rally anyone in the struggle for liberation from the chains of imprisonment, irrespective of identity or affiliation – to summon all who are unwilling to stomach, as Taylor says, the injustice and the racism of the penal system. While the issue of Christian identity in the respect that it was raised yesterday by Anselm Min is left somewhat untreated here, one does find both Christian agency and agenda operative in this proposal.  It is an invitation to people of the way of Jesus to deploy their resources, language and practices “so as to find their place within the larger, and not just Christian, movement of critical resistance” to dramatically contest this neo-colonizing strategy of rule.  And I should add: I share Taylor’s concern that not nearly enough Christians are involved in this struggle, in the arts of protest and prayer that might “thunder down the prisons” and sing hard that “flesh can wear out chains.”

One last political comment to close:

Just to indicate one direction in which the discussion could be extended, in the same way that the nation-state cannot be properly understood apart from globalization, perhaps neither can mass-incarceration be thoroughly criticized without examining it alongside of violence in neighboring Central American countries that is being at least indirectly incentivized by these broken criminal justice policies.  At one point Taylor speaks of how de-socialized wage labor is managed by hyper-incarceration.  Hyper-incarceration is only a domesticate system, however, while de-socialized wage labor is being propagated around the globe by U.S. foreign policy and the behavior of certain U.S.-based corporations.  In unstable regions of Mexico, for example, the management system is not hyper-incarceration but murderous competition between drug cartels for control of smuggling routes and the labor of disposable traffickers.

But finally I just want to comment in closing that this paper was very moving for me and has incited my somewhat dormant creative imagination and thinking about this issue as I further explore the problem of the drug war.

A Christian Liberationist Response to the Crisis at the United States-Mexico Border

In this paper I will discuss the problem of violence related to the U.S.-Mexico drug trade as understood within the framework of political and economic globalization.  This will require a brief overview of my political-theological method.  I will then provide a liberationist theological reflection on the problem from a North American Christian perspective.  In closing I will offer a short ethical analysis in light of this theological reasoning.[i]

From the perspective of theology as a discipline, the impetus for this essay is the concern that, while liberation theology as traditionally conceived has perhaps run its course, the usefulness of the tools given to political theologians by liberation theology can only be judged by their continuous applicability.  In more concrete terms, therefore, the intention here is for the application of a liberationist hermeneutic to actually aid in the development of a historical project of liberation for the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Theological and Socio-analytical Methodology

As Clodovis Boff (2005, p 30) once advised, theology must first of all incline its ear to the social sciences if it hopes to be liberating, while also avoiding the collapse of one distinct discipline into another.  As such, for political theology, the social sciences will be genuinely constitutive of what theology can say and what can be its theoretical organization (Boff 2005,     p 30).  And as with any contextual theology, its historical situation and its particular theological concerns will also be mutually constitutive of each other.  Political theology in general and liberation theology in particular function to sensitize people of faith to what is believed to be God’s will in a specific historical setting, and to inspire their commitment to participating in God’s mission of reconciliation in that setting.  Thus the aim in political theology is to bring faith and action together more effectively (Sousa Santos 2009).

Liberation theology is distinct not only for its content but also for its method.  Undergirding this method is the Judeo-Christian-theological commitment to the preferential option for the poor and the oppressed and to seeing change realized for the people in these circumstances.  Secondly, there is the process of socio-historical analysis and the examination of the structures in place that enable subjugation.  Finally, there is the critical-theological reflection on praxis for carrying out action that contributes to the goal of liberation in light of the unjust conditions in place.  Hence, liberation theology is praxis in history and society – that is, critical reflection on action already enacted and largely informed by the context and concerns of a given situation (Metz 1980, p 73).  As such, it begins by way of socio-historical analysis.

The Larger Context: Globalization

The crisis in Mexico caused by the drug trade is seen here to be exemplary of the more universal context of globalization itself.  Globalization is understood in this case as a process or set of processes that embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions in terms of increased intensity, extensity, velocity and impact (Held & McGrew 1999, p 16).  These relations and transactions are not only economic and political in nature but also culture and environmental.

They involve changing and complex regimes of differentiation and homogenization that have constructed new paths and limits for global economic flows.  Other common byproducts include the rapid reconfiguration of territories especially with respect to patterns of economic exchange.  The invisibility of economic power structures and their ability to develop independently of legitimate political power is a key challenge brought about by globalization.  This challenge is exacerbated by the permeation and extension of this economic power beyond national borders.

Moreover, the process of globalization is replete with contradictions, uncertainties and unevenness.  For this reason, globalization is not simply coterminous with neoliberalism.[ii]  In other words, few globalizing factors at work are purely economic and therefore cannot be reduced to the logic of free trade and the international division of labor or class.

At the same time, globalization can still be conceived in many respects as a context in which “devising alternatives to neoliberal market capitalism has become increasingly difficult” Alcoff & Sáenz 2003, p 200).  International deregulation through trade agreements is one of the chief ways the empire of global capitalism is expanded.  In the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, NAFTA brought about increases in foreign-direct investment, but the tradeoff has been a less developed and more dependent Mexican economy in many respects.  Mexico has been forced to move away from an agriculturally dominant society to an economy represented by manufacturing, commerce, and services (Camp 2007, p 247).  The overall impact has varied tremendously depending on the region.

With regard to drug trafficking, just as production has been outsourced in the age of globalization, so too have many aspects of organized violence.  States have a monopoly on the ability to legitimize violence but cannot monopolize violence itself.  With the extraordinary coercive power of illicit cartel networks, the drug war is one example of this kind of violence.

The Mexico Drug War Itself

The major impetus for unrest in the border region depends on the demand for drugs in metropolitan centers in the United States and the supply from Columbia.  Once a kilo of cocaine reaches the streets in the U.S., it will be worth $100,000, or about $100 a gram.  In the Columbian countryside the same substance is worth $3,000, or about three dollars a gram.  The single greatest contributor to this giant surplus value is believed to be the illegality and therefore added political risk of the production, transport and consumption of the drugs themselves.              Investigative journalist John Gibler (2011, p 35) explains that, “[i]llegality also requires that one [bolster] the moral discourse of prohibition with massive infusion of funds into armies and law-enforcement agencies.  These infusions in turn require the production of arrests and drug seizures.  Competitors in the drug economy use this need as a way to eliminate opponents and rivals, tipping off federal authorities to the whereabouts of [enemy stashes and hideouts].”  In this context, illegality adds another more blatant complication: every dispute within the industry must be settled outside the law.  Rather than merely engaging in a competitive price war, the most common method of conflict resolution in an illegal business culture rampant with cash is contract murder (Gibler 2011, p 38).

As of 2011, the polls taken by the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego estimate that approximately 50,000 Mexicans have died since 2006 as a result of the conflict, and as a result of the competition at the border for trade smuggling routes between the different DTO (drug trafficking organizations) to secure their gain from the multi-billion dollars-worth of narcotics that cross the border every year (USD TBI, Drug Violence 2011).  Significantly more killings have happened in the border city of Juarez than anywhere else.  Less than five percent of these cases have been or are ever likely to be investigated.  Moreover, many of the murders are spectacular, stylized, and torturous in nature.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for the violence of the drug war to be called “narcoterrorism” – though this kind of terrorism differs markedly from others in that it seems to be primarily motivated by competition for control of revenue in the industry.

Most critics of the drug war believe that the drug trade and the present laws against drug trafficking are mutually reinforcing.  Gibler (2011, p 43) argues that “[t]he blood and chaos that accompany drug trafficking from Mexico into the United States are inextricably related to the simultaneous demand within the U.S. population for the [drugs], and the insistence of U.S. politicians on an ideological commitment to prohibition that seeks to veil prohibition’s use for social control.”  In response, though U.S. policy has not stopped the flow of drugs, it has managed to outsource most of the killing (Gibler 2011, p 203).  With dozens of reporters in Mexico gunned down or disappeared since 2008, the DTOs are especially skilled at silencing those who speak out.  The targets seem to be anyone with access to major media channels, or anybody who annunciates facts that could be bad for business (Gibler 2011, p 23).

Narcoterrorism is essentially an effort to coerce the media and scare others away from cooperating with law enforcement.  Furthermore, it is estimated by Mexico’s own government that the DTOs have infiltrated as much as half of the municipal police force.  At the same time, “[p]roducing arrests is a necessary feature of the industry, and so, like murder, arrest becomes a way of settling accounts or invading territory” (Gibler 2011, p 23).  Thus, the culpable and the innocent are confused, and the hybridity of the drug war zone is highlighted.

The temptation on the part of U.S. citizens is often to dismiss organized crime as outside the “clean legal system,” rather than to recognize how interwoven official government is in drug trafficking on both sides of the border.  This is what makes the U.S. government’s deployment of the phrase “war on drugs” so misleading.  It is well known by even some DEA officials that the drug war machinery suffers from an industrial complex that to some extent causes the very disease it aims to cure, but this is a powerful sector of government that employs thousands of people and can easily lobby for itself (Campbell 2009, p 10).

For Mexico’s antidrug campaign, on the other hand, which was amplified by President Felipe Calderon in 2006, the most important audience is the United States – both its media and political representatives.  It has even been argued that, despite what looks like an intense turf battle on the surface, politicians at the national level in Mexico might have good reason not to substantially disrupt DTO operations for the risk of having their past collusions exposed before an election (“Mexico’s Presidential Election,” 2012).

So at one level, victims sometimes become victimizers.  Those immediately impacted by declining employment opportunities, for instance, can end up on the Sinaloa or Zeta cartel payroll.  This makes them servants to the system in which their fate is often sealed, as many low-paid traffickers and snitches are brutally executed after being intercepted by rival gangs.  Videos of these executions circulate on the internet to incite fear, and bodies are left on public display.

Meanwhile, however, those uninvolved in trafficking are commonly caught in the crossfire.  At another level then, some binaries remain, and it may be possible to make a few general distinctions between the oppressors and those being oppressed.  It seems clear that free trade zoning coupled with continued illegalization – all of which is encouraged or permitted by a corrupt legal system in parts of Mexico – has largely contributed to the creation of a deregulated capitalist “laboratory,” which, in the words of author Charles Bowden, has become “the global economy’s new killing field” (Bowden 2010).  The oppressor then, appears to be a structural economic and legal framework that is bolstered by consumers, misinformed or self-seeking political stakeholders, and ruthless DTO leadership.

Conversely, the oppressed are the low-wage dealers and transporters, the addicts without treatment, the overly incarcerated minorities in the United States, the displaced Mexican migrants, and the thousands who have been abused or killed mostly due to a lack of lawfulness in general (poor teenage women and their activist mothers, among others).  Furthermore, this list notes that the two groups are not simply separated by their citizenship.  The border is significant but by no means an all-determining factor.  In sum, the weight of these asymmetrical relationships falls heaviest on the socially and materially impoverished, which makes a liberationist theological consideration especially appropriate.

A Brief Theological Reflection

From a Christian political-theological perspective, there are two tasks.  First, there is a response to the cry for liberation from the current oppressive situation in view of a preferential option for the poor and the victimized.  Christians of conscience and conviction about the need for solidarity of Mexicans and Americans will be led to heed the demands placed on them by the voices of these persons being erased from history and those of their orphans and widows left behind.  Secondly, one can speak about the solidarity that Christians profess God to have with the suffering victims of this crisis through the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is known through the hermeneutic of liberation in living, dying and being resurrected as God incarnate who embodies solidarity with those whose lives have been disappeared in this battle (Sobrino 1994, p 315).   By announcing both judgment of unjust power and freedom for captives, the poor and the marginalized, Jesus stands firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition as one who was shunned for criticizing the political and religious status quo.  In his death, Christ’s blood exposes and protests the violence and injustice of the drug lords and all other complicit actors, reflects the sin and wickedness of their deeds, and yet also declares forgiveness and justification to the penitent (Park 2009, p 74).  Jesus cried out from the cross against the torture, murder, exploitation and injustice of the Mexican drug war, just as he denounced the rest of history’s atrocities (Park 2009, p 75).

In his life, Jesus proclaimed the basilea theou, or reign of God, which might be more appropriately termed “God’s economy” or the “divine commonwealth.”  In this economy, power is not granted de facto to the materially powerful, but rather to the one whose way is anchored in justice for everyone.  The hegemony and ordering of the drug trade economy is abolished by this alternative vision – a vision that refuses to ignore the plight of the oppressed in the pursuit of its goal and regards no human being as less than a fellow subject.

Jesus’ crucifixion is yet another symbol of God’s solidarity with the victim of the drug war.  In one sense, it can be treated simply as a prophet’s fate.  Jesus’ death came as a consequence of the kind of life he led and because of what he said and did.  He got in the way of political and religious leaders with imperial agendas.  Many other human beings have been “crucified,” and they too are called sons and daughters of God by Jesus.  By participating in human nature and suffering like so many others have, Jesus demonstrates something about what God is like.  God in Jesus’ humanity is a fellow-sufferer.  Through Jesus, God understands the plight of the victimized.

More specifically, the manner in which Jesus died is astonishingly analogous to the execution practices of the drug cartels.  “Criminals” were crucified at the time not so much for what they did, but for the degree to which they were perceived as a threat to Roman security and sovereignty (Crossan 2007, p 137).  Jesus was replacing Barabbas, the insurrectionist.  The crucifixion was meant to be a public and fear-inciting inscription of Roman territory on anti-imperial bodies.  The drug cartels are similarly interested in intimidation and leaving their signage on victims’ mutilated corpses.  “This is what happens to all those who oppose us,” they warn.

Thirdly, by confessing the resurrection, God’s mission in Christ is not only one of compassion and solidarity but of salvation as well.  Here the nature of God’s power is contrasted with that of the empire, exerted conversely in a just and righteous fashion.  Moreover, this power is not reducible to the political realm alone.  Rather, it is ontological and vital, and it mysteriously raises Jesus from the grave, as the scriptures and the creeds of orthodoxy testify.  For the victims of the world throughout history in general and of drug-related violence in Mexico in particular, some recourse to hope can be found in this promise.

In his life, Jesus broke down social barriers and included the outcast – those like the drug dealer, the prisoner, the addict and the victimized woman.  Jesus’ suffering and death makes it clear that the victims of violence are not all dying because of their guilt or uncleanness (Park 2004, p 75) –– unlike much of what the popular media and the Mexican government would lead the public to believe.  Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life is inspiration to all of the families and friends of dead journalists, and reminds that their sacrifices have not been in vain.  Finally, the resurrection eases the fear of mortality, giving survivors the courage to resist and make sacrifices while also instilling the hope that death might not get the final word.

Of course this represents just one type of theological response in what is otherwise now more broadly called an interreligious stream of liberationist thought, so others must also be urged to give their own interpretation.  The point is that these Mexican brothers and sisters are the suffering neighbors of U.S. citizens, and in the words of economist Ha-Joon Chang, we have been bad Samaritans (Chang 2008).  Nevertheless, blaming the right group is less important than recognizing the justification and need for solidarity from one’s particular vantage point – and responding by living with greater economic responsibility.

Ethical Response

Upon preliminary observation, it seems that any kind of liberating political action will probably require breaking the taboo on debate and reform of drug and free trade policy.   Utopian visions are of little use in this predicament, and a theological criticism must eventually be grounded in practical terms lest it function to re-inscribe the domination of political indifference.  Juarez did not become possibly the most violent and deadly city in the world overnight.  Nor is its current condition accidental.  Despite many other enabling factors, the crisis appears to be most basically a result of the sheer power of unregulated market forces and its ability to bring out the worst in people – driving some to value recreational psychoactive stimulus, the securitization of cash flow, or the appearance of civility over human life itself.

As anthropologist and sociologist of the drug war Howard Campbell summarizes, “the consuming countries clearly have the most power in this context – power to cut domestic drug demand, the power to pressure the policies of drug-producing countries and otherwise meddle in their internal affairs, the power to demonize and otherwise stigmatize producers” (Campbell 2009, p 10).  From a liberationist standpoint, the social and structural sins of the conflict should be named, which, in addition to denouncing the cruelty itself, should entail a new stigmatization of casual drug use and of failure to open the floor for dialogue about different regulatory strategies at the mainstream political level.  Right now in most of the country and in most instances, to consume these substances illegally is to at least indirectly participate in fueling the bloodshed.  What should be instilled in the minds of American consumers, therefore, is a self-critical ethic that uncovers the illusion of personal, private sin associated with social use of narcotics and conversely underscores the urgency of the collective harm done by funding this ruthlessly profit-seeking industry.  Change in U.S. policy toward narcotics and trade might lead to the reduction of rampant murder, the impunity of entire regions, mass incarceration, disguised repression, excessive spending to fight the war, and the pretext for U.S. interference in drug-producing countries.  This is reason enough for the discussion to be welcomed and for experimentation with new policies to be encouraged, because whatever the most just and liberating solution is, the policies currently in effect are not achieving it.

There are many things that Mexicans and the Mexican government can and should consider doing.  Responsibility for this crisis falls on both parties, and obviously the U.S. and its population is in no place to unilaterally advise the Mexican people.  Nonetheless, given the preceding assessment, the most pressing and potentially liberating steps to be taken are likely only possible from the northern side of the border.  For the U.S. to initiate this sort of neighborly action would be a revolutionary measure in the direction of solidarity with Mexico and international economic responsibility.

[i] What is presented here does not exhibit a rigorous empirical study of all the best data available, and this would certainly need to be part of the larger project.  The purpose then is not to make detailed recommendations for policy change so much as to raise awareness, introduce the topic, and broadly explicate the key structural features and likely causes of the conflict so as to signal toward possible paths forward.  In doing so, however, certain suggestions regarding which political issues are most pertinent will nonetheless be clearly insinuated.

[ii] Neoliberalism is understood here as the dominant Western economic ideology that is characterized by trust in self-interest-driven free market competition with very limited government interference as the best strategy both domestically and internationally for bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run.


University of San Diego Transborder Institute Drug Violence Report for 2011. Viewed on December 13, 2011.

Stratfor Global Intelligence, “Mexico’s Presidential Election and Cartel War.” Viewed on February 16, 2012.

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Bowden, Charles. Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields. Asbury Park: Nation Books, 2010.

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Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

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