Engaging With Karl Marx’s Utopia and the Future: With Some Constructively Christian Eschatologizing

Marxism. Utopia. Realities shunned by Americans in the main; well at least until lately. I am reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. Not because I want to become a Marxist, but because I want to understand Marx and the subsequent developments of Marxisms better. One concept that is often caricatured, among others when it comes to Marx’s doctrine, is the concept of Utopia. I haven’t given much thought to it myself, other than to give in to the common idea that utopia represents some sort of a heaven on earth. But as Eagleton points out, at least for Marx himself, this really couldn’t be further from the truth. So for the rest of the post we will hear from Eagleton on Marx’s understanding of Utopia and the Future.

“So will there still be road accidents in this Marxist utopia of yours?” This is the kind of sardonic enquiry that Marxists have grown used to dealing with. In fact, the comment reveals more about the ignorance of the speaker than about the illusions of the Marxist. Because if utopia means a perfect society, then “Marxist utopia” is a contradiction in terms.

There are, as it happens, far more interesting uses of the word “utopia” in the Marxist tradition. One of the greatest English Marxist revolutionaries, William Morris, produced an unforgettable work of utopia in News from Nowhere, which unlike almost every other utopian work actually showed in detail how the process of political change had come about. When it comes to the everyday use of the word, however, it should be said that Marx shows not the slightest interest in a future free of suffering, death, loss, failure, breakdown, conflict, tragedy or even labour. In fact, he doesn’t show much interest in the future at all. It is a notorious fact about his work that he has very little to say in detail about what a socialist or communist society would look like. His critics may therefore accuse him of unpardonable vagueness; but they can hardly do that and at the same time accuse him of drawing up utopian blueprints. It is capitalism, not Marxism, that trades in futures. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as “an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself.” Instead, he sees it in that book as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Just as the Jews were traditionally forbidden to foretell the future, so Marx the secular Jew is mostly silent on what lie ahead. We have seen that he probably thought socialism was inevitable, but he has strikingly little to say about what it would look like. There are several reasons for this reticence. For one thing, the future does not exist, so that to forge images of it is a kind of lie. To do so might also suggest that the future is predetermined—that it lies in some shadowy realm for us to discover. We have seen that there is a sense in which Marx held that the future was inevitable. But the inevitable is not necessarily the desirable. Death is inevitable, too, but not in most people’s eyes desirable. The future may be predetermined, but that is no reason to assume that it is going to be an improvement on what we have at the moment. The inevitable, as we have seen, is usually pretty unpleasant. Marx himself needed to be more aware of this.

Foretelling the future, however, is not only pointless; it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a tactic for shielding ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish—as a comforting idol to cling to like a toddler to its blanket. It is an absolute value which will not let us down because (since it does not exist) it is as insulated from the winds of history as a phantom. You can also seek to monopolise the future as a way of dominating the present. The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, is not a clairvoyant at all. It is a mistake to believe that the biblical prophets sought to predict the future. Rather, the prophet denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we may well have no future at all. Marx was a prophet, not a fortuneteller.[1]

Before I say anymore, Eagleton’s perspective of the biblical prophet is half-baked and relies upon a certain anti-super-naturalistic approach to Holy Scripture and its Prophets and Apostles. If someone reads the Bible it is clear that its prophets and apostles believe that they are referring to something concrete and future; something that they weren’t experiencing yet, but knew because of who God is, and because he keeps his promises that they someday would, as a people, experience his promises to them. It was upon this basis that they not only forthspoke but also foretold future realities; of most significance with reference to Jesus Christ. So Eagleton is just wrong on this score (as he wrote this originally he was either an atheist or agnostic; I’ve heard of late that he may well have returned to the Catholic church).

Nevertheless, he helps to provide greater clarity in regard to what Karl Marx believed ‘utopia’ and the ‘future’ entail as realities. I think, at least with reference to Eagleton’s telling of Marx, there is some wisdom in recognizing that attempting to divine things about the future—even in the name of Jesus—can become idolatrous. Idolatrous in the sense, as Eagleton notes, that we are looking for stability and security in some abstract conception of a forthcoming history as we have designed and divined that. It is in the shadow of this idol that ethics, foreign policies, geo-political postures, perceptions of other nationalities and races, and a host of other shibboleths can be fostered and allowed to fester. As Christians we can learn something from this sort of perspective about the future, even from a materialist like Marx. It isn’t that Christians don’t have a proleptic-future oriented looking view in regard to eschatological reality; it is just that a properly Christian orientation to such things will recognize that that reality is not something that we determine or that is at our behest. Christians will recognize that God in Jesus Christ himself is the eschatos, the last thing that is not absent or in a faraway land, but that he is personally present with us in eucharistic form spread abroad in the hearts of his people by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians, while standing in a genuine hope for the future—i.e. the bodily resurrection secured in Christ’s resurrection for us—have not been left as orphans; we live from the future of God for us in the risen and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is not something that we could have ever secured, or divined, but it is something God could. As such, we live lively lives not of our own possession, not of our own construction, but lives put to death and risen again, over and again from Christ’s life for us. This is important: we live in a vulnerable state in regard to our grasp on the past, present, and future, but the grasp on our lives by God’s great big hands are indeed secure; yet not a reality that we have control over, but instead one that we trust can keep us from being plucked out.

Marx can provide some intellectual and even spiritual foil for the Christian, even as the materialist and atheist that he was. But he should not be given too much shrift. He rejected the living Christ, and the living God; so his perspective will be skewed, he did not have the resources to supply people with the hope that God alone can and has in Jesus Christ. Yet, I think it is important to get Marx right, particularly in regard to the nuance he had with reference to realities like utopia. By engaging with the nuance he had we might find some fruitful lines of self-criticality even as Christians. If God could use the Abimelechs, the Assyrians, and the Athenians to work his purposes; he certainly could use a Marx.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 774, 782, 790, 797 kindle version.

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A Note on the Christian Conception of the Relationship Between Church and State: A Christopolitical Dispatch

Theo-politics have been somewhat of an uninterrogated reality for me. As a conservative evangelical, growing up, I sloppily and haphazardly went the way of the Republican party as “the lesser of two-evils” in our representative government in North America. As time has progressed, and I have developed more (at least I like to think that) I have become what might be called unenthralled and agnostic when it comes to politics, but the reality is that this just cannot be. As a Christian politics is always a present reality; the fact that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) is in itself a call to action, and to be engaged in such a way that requires that I be intentionally thoughtful about theopolitical action. The theo attached to the political is of upmost and adjectival significance for me; it might be better, just for sake of clarity and specificity to call this concern christopolitical. So this has caused me a bit of anguish—although the realities of daily life often keep me preoccupied such that I have less time to critically contemplate such verities with the type of acuity that I’d like—as a result I keep seeking ways to think about my relation to the state as a member of Christ’s church (catholic).

In seminary I took a class called Church and Culture; this class was taught by Paul Metzger, and in it we worked through Karl Barth’s concepts on the relationship between the sacred and secular—we spent our time working through Metzger’s PhD dissertation on the subject helping him get it ready for publication. It was in this class that I really began to see a critical way to think theopolitics, but that remained an inchoate reality for me; nevertheless the frame was set for thinking such things through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian pattern which the hypostatic union provided the component concepts towards. Not too long ago I read Barth’s book Against the Stream, which represent some post-second world war talks and lectures he gave, as I recall, in Hungary and Poland. In these published lectures I gained an even better grasp for what I was introduced to in Metzger’s class; in regard to how to think of the relationship between the state/church in a Christic frame. Most recently (like tonight) I have continued to read through Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics, and have come to the section where they are sketching the various approaches that have developed in the history of ecclesial interpretation in regard to how Christians have thought the relation of church/state together. Here I want to share two of the four frames that I find most attractive (and leave the other two frames to the side since they are less attractive to me). What you will find is that Barth’s approach juxtaposed with a sort of Reformized Anabaptist tradition is what comes to the fore in my own proclivities relative to thinking state/church, and ‘kingdom theology’ together (and apart in some ways). Here is what Kooi and Brink have to offer us:

The church as a Christ-confessing church for all people. After the Second World War the Dutch Reformed Church promoted the ideal of a Christ-confessing church for all people; in this way it tried to connect distance from and commitment to public affairs. The model followed Barth’s proposal that the church, by its proclamation, should fulfill a public role for the common good. This “theology of the apostolate” has also been referred to as proclamation-theocracy: the church does not directly interfere in the government and does not attempt t usurp its powers but rather, on the basis of the Bible, holds up a prophetical-critical mirror before those who govern. The ideals of the World Council of Churches and other efforts to have the church assume a prophetic role in the world also belong in this category. The supporters of this view were optimistic about its possibilities, but in the Netherlands their attempt failed because the forces of secularization were stronger than expected.[1]

They continue with the fourth frame, which is that much more amenable with an Apocalyptic theological frame that I am oriented from (see Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology); but also with an Anabaptist tenor in the flux of this frame of understanding.

The church as a counterculture or contrast community. A recent and popular image for the church’s role in the public domain proposes that it be a “contrast community” (Yoder, Hauerwas; but also  more and more theologians from mainline Protestant churches feel attracted to  this model; e.g., see Bruijne 2012). That is, the church is not primarily an association with some good ideas; its vitality is found by living under a new life order, namely, that of the kingdom. This kingdom produces its own politics, a structure of practices in which people bless each other, wish each other well, forgive each other, and reject all forms of violence. It only bears witness of the heavenly kingdom but is itself a witness through its praxis. This praxis, in fact, answers the question of how the church may speak.

This position strongly emphasizes the difference between the church and the world; it may indeed be called Anabaptist to the extent that the orders of heavenly and earthly citizenship are kept far apart. Practically, it leaves the political order to its own devices. But it can also take a more Reformed or Catholic shape through a new appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of the two kingdoms—by recognizing, in other words, that in real life the two realms cannot be totally separated. They are intertwined here below and will be separated by God only in the eschaton. (see Matt 13:29-30). In this world Christians must live with this tension. When they try to escape and eliminate that tension (as in the Anabaptist view), they withdraw from the ongoing course of history, in which God ordains that his church live. A real continuity connects the fallen world and redemption, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the domains of the church and believer; it seeks to have an impact upon the world. What we noted in chapter 8 about a responsible doctrine of sin is relevant at this point. It enables us to take a realistic view of the world and to implement damage control from the perspective of God’s new reality. This attitude differs from that of older Protestant positions in consciously leaving behind the quest for relevance, and with it the majority strategy that for many centuries burdened and plagued the church in the public domain.[2]

Between these two frames, particularly the latter paragraph in the latter frame emerges a semblance of my own approach to the relationship between the state/church-secular/sacred. I alluded to Ziegler’s work in his book Militant Grace, the themes he identifies and develops therein also provide the sort of theological depth that I like to appeal to in order to thicken what these sketches only present in introductory form. What’s at center for me in all of this, from a theological perspective (what other perspective is there for the Christian?), is that the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ orients all considerations about Everything. In other words, this whole discussion takes place, for me, between the two poles of protology and eschatology, original creation and disruptive recreation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There still yet remains agnosticisms in regard to how all of this gets applied in daily life, and in my own perceptual encounter with the complexities foisted upon us by the travail and groaning that this old creation, and the human governments therein present; but this ought to let you in on how I intend to approach this world, in its highly charged christopolitical context, for the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 636-37.

[2] Ibid. 637-38.

Messianic War Against this World System: Gaining Perspective on the Presidential Election 2016 from the Book of Revelation

If you’re an American, and unless you live in a corner, something that cannot escape you at the moment is the intensity of the presidential election (as I write this only two days away). Like many of you, I have been involved in various discussions and debates about who the best candidate is or isn’t; my conclusion is that there is no better candidate (between Trump or Clinton). They are both going to promote policies and aims that are anti-thetical to the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and as such it is impossible for me to vote for either one of them (from an ethical perspective as trumphillarya Christian). The reality is, is that they both have more in common than not. They both promote a horizontal vision of society and the world, whether that be an absolute form of nationalism (Trump), or an absolute form of anglo-globalism (Clinton). They both endorse policies that involve racism— whether that be informed by an inward obsession with Americana, and certain conceptions of what it means to be an American (Trump); or whether that be informed by supporting the House of Saud, radical Muslims in Syria, and elite globalists (Clinton). They both, like Israel, as the prophet Isaiah noted about Israel, have a covenant with death (Is. 29); Clinton, in this regard, more so than Trump, in some ways. They both are continuing the vision of ancient Babylon which is one of empire, and self-promotion (whether that be focused on the homeland [Trump], or globally [Clinton]).

What this presidential race has illustrated to me is how corrupt human government and politics are. It has concretely shown me that this world has been placed under a curse which it longs to be relieved of by the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8). Both Trump’s and Clinton’s visions of reality are purely informed by horizontal paradigms of thought, and have appeal only to the base impulses of natural humanity wherein the individual and its self-preservation is elevated to god-like status. But the good news is that there is hope; hope to come, and hope in-breaking currently.

Richard Bauckham, in his little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation provides prescient insight into the emphases and themes of that often misunderstood book. As he works through the theology of the book of Revelation what he unveils is a vision and hope for the world that is other-worldly, while being radically this worldly. He masterfully shows how the book of Revelation is a book precisely for moments like we are currently experiencing here in the States as we, as Christians, are attempting to maintain perspective relative to the “choices” we have in front of us for our leadership.

In the following Bauckham works through three themes that he sees at play in the book of Revelation; it will be the first theme that we will highlight in this post. This theme gives me much perspective as the reality of how messy of a thing humanward politics actually are in this present evil age. The victory has already been won by Jesus Christ; the victory over evil, horizontal conceptions of human government, and how that gets expressed in the world. As we will see, Bauckham underscores how the theme of messianic war in the book of Revelation functions, or should, as a place of hope and perspective for the Christian attempting to navigate through this evil age. What is presumed, of course, is that as Christians we do indeed live in a violent world, under the control of violent governments who we ought to take a militant posture towards. Note I said ‘militant,’ not violent. The only violence that has any purchase in the Kingdom of the Lamb of God is the violence the Lion of the Tribe of Judah already endured for the world at his cross. It is this reality wherein we as Christians, according to the Revelator, can take a militant stand against this world system. We stand in the power of God, which is the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and this is the victory we have to proclaim to the world. It is a prophetic word that God’s judgment has already come, and been realized for us in Jesus Christ on the cross; that the heart of human self-destruction and violence has been crushed with Jesus as he put it to death with him (Rom. 8:3) at the cross. And that there is good news of final victory, wherein the final enemy, death, will finally be put under Jesus’s feet as he comes again in his second advent (I Cor. 15). By proclaiming and living out this reality we participate in the victory of the Messiah by capturing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, of every race, tongue, and nation inhabiting this world. We also bear witness to the fact that indeed a violent, but final end is coming, the final realization of the death of death (cf. John Owen), when the Lamb of God comes with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19) finally crushing the kingdoms of this world (Dan. 2) by the Stone of his Kingdom; which is the Kingdom of kingdoms. It is this posture and place that we as Christians, according to the book of Revelation, have in this current world system. It is one of fighting, and the church militant; and our weapons of warfare are not fleshly but spiritual (II Cor. 10) through both word and deed, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will.

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

The first is the theme of the messianic war. This takes up the Jewish hope for a Messiah who is to be a descendant of David, anointed by God as king and military leader of his people. He is to fight a war against the Gentile oppressors, liberating Israel and establishing the rule of God, which is also the rule of God’s Messiah and God’s people Israel, over the nations of the world. Essential to this notion, it should be noted, is that the Messiah does not wage war alone: he leads the army of Israel against the enemies of Israel. Many Old Testament prophecies were commonly interpreted by first-century Jews as referring to this expected Messiah of David. The identification of Jesus with the Davidic Messiah was, of course, very common in early Christianity. It is very important in Revelation, partly because for John, as a Jewish Christian prophet, it is one of the ways in which he can gather up the hopes of the Old Testament prophetic tradition into his own eschatological vision centred on Jesus. But it is important also because it portrays a figure who is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by defeating the pagan powers who contest God’s rule. As we shall see, John carefully reinterprets the tradition. His Messiah Jesus does not win his victory by military conquest, and those who share his victory and his rule are not national Israel, but the international people of God. But still it is a victory over evil, won not only in the spiritual but also in the political sphere against worldly powers in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Insofar as the hope for the Davidic Messiah was for such a victory of God over evil Revelation portrays Christ’s work in continuity with that traditional Jewish hope.

The prominence of Davidic messianism in Revelation can be gauged from the fact that, as well as the two self-declarations by Christ that we have already considered (1: 17– 18; 22: 13), there is a third: ‘I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22: 16). The first of these two titles comes from Isaiah 11: 10 (‘ the root of Jesse’) and is used of the Davidic Messiah (‘descendant’ interprets the meaning of ‘root’, rightly giving it the same sense as the ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ of Isa. 11: 1, which was more commonly used as a messianic designation). The second title refers to the star of Numbers 24: 17, which (in the context of 24: 17– 19) was commonly understood to be a symbol of the Messiah of David who would conquer the enemies of Israel. ‘The root of David’ is found also in Revelation 5: 1, alongside another title evoking the image of the royal Messiah who will defeat the nations by military violence: ‘the Lion of Judah’ (cf. Gen. 49: 9; 4 Ezra 12: 31– 2). Further allusions to the Messiah of Isaiah 11, a favourite passage for Davidic messianism, are the sword that comes from Christ’s mouth (1: 16; 2: 12, 16; 19: 21) with which he strikes down the nations (19: 15; cf. Isa. 11: 4; 49: 2) and the statement that he judges with righteousness (19: 11; cf. Isa. 11: 4).

One of John’s key Old Testament texts, allusions to which run throughout Revelation, is Psalm 2, which depicts ‘the nations’ and ‘the kings of the earth’ conspiring to rebel against ‘the LORD and his Messiah’ (verses 1– 2). The Messiah is God’s Son (verse 7), whom he sets as king on mount Zion (verse 6), there to resist and overcome the rebellious nations. God promises to give this royal Messiah the nations for his inheritance (verse 8) and that he will violently subdue them with a rod of iron (verse 9). Allusions to this account of the Messiah’s victory over the nations are found in Revelation 2: 18, 26– 8; 11: 15, 18; 12: 5, 10; 14: 1; 16: 14, 16; 19: 15. To what is explicit in the psalm it is notable that John adds the Messiah’s army (with him on Mount Zion in 14: 1) who will share his victory (2: 26– 7). Probably also from the psalm is John’s use of the phrase ‘the kings of the earth’ as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1: 5; 6: 15; 17: 2, 18; 18: 3, 9; 19: 19; 21: 24; cf. 16: 14).

Also derived from this militant messianism is Revelation’s key concept of conquering. It is applied both to the Messiah himself (3: 21; 5: 5; 17: 14) and to his people, who share his victory (2: 7, 11, 17, 28; 3: 5, 12, 21; 12: 11; 15: 2; 21: 7). Once again we note the importance in Revelation of the Messiah’s army. That the image of conquering is a militaristic one should be unmistakable, although interpreters of Revelation do not always do justice to this. It is closely connected with language of battle (11: 7; 12: 7– 8, 17; 13: 7; 16: 14; 17: 14; 19: 11, 19) and it is notable that not only do Christ’s followers defeat the beast (15: 2), but also the beast defeats them (11: 7; 13: 7), so that this is evidently a war in which Christ’s enemies have their victories, though the final victory is his. We should note also that the language of conquering is used of all the three stages of Christ’s work: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3: 21; 5: 5), his followers conquer in the time before the end (12: 11; 15: 2), and he will conquer at the parousia (17: 14). Thus it is clear that the image of the messianic war describes the whole process of the establishment of God’s kingdom as Revelation depicts it. Revelation’s use of this image incorporates the fundamental shift of temporal perspective from Jewish to Jewish Christian eschatology. The messianic war is not purely future. The decisive victory has in fact already been won by Christ. His followers are called to continue the battle in the present. The final victory still lies in the future.[1]

Conclusion

In light of the perversion and corruption attendant to this presidential election, I hope this perspective, indeed, provides perspective. I see too many Christians settling, or even compromising for what they shouldn’t be compromising for; for the kingdom of man rather than the kingdom of Christ. The reality is, as the book of Revelation makes very clear, is that being human means being political; the issue is where we are going to get our politics from. Are we going to get them from the horizontal, or instead are we going to get them from the vertical? It is clear that the politics of heaven intersect with the politics of this fallen earth, just as God’s person in Christ intersects with our humanity in his assumption of ours. As such it is important, I would contend, for us to remember that we are at war; not with people, per se, but with the principalities and powers which inform the politics of man. We need to bear this in mind as we, as Christians, attempt to negotiate our ways through the muck of this world system. We need to keep in mind that earthly policy-makers all work from a vision of the world, at this point, that is informed by impulses that are indeed anti-thetical to the aims of the Kingdom of God. Thus it behooves us, as soldiers in Christ, to take a stand, and engage this political system with the weapons of our warfare which is to proclaim the Gospel of peace and hope for all who will hear.

It is always tempting to begin to conflate the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we see Israel engaging in this type of syncretizing activity over and again with the nations that surrounded them. But again, as the book of Revelation makes clear, we are part of another nation, a heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), which thinks from heaven rather than earth; it thinks from other-worldly and even foolish norms relative to the policies and “ethics” of this world system (I Cor. 1). Let’s remember that we are ambassadors for Christ (II Cor. 5; Eph. 6), and that our primary job as Christians is to bear witness prophetically that Jesus is King, that he has won the victory through his shed blood (I Cor. 6:18,19; Acts 20:28). Let’s not compromise the integrity of our positions as ambassadors for Christ by fighting for a kingdom, this world system, that has already been put to death by the cross of Jesus Christ. Let’s remind this world system that there is real power and real hope available in and from the One who was dead, but now lives (Rev. 1). Let’s remind our politicians that God wants us to choose life, not death (Ez. 32). As far as I can tell, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have chosen Life, instead they have both chosen death; as such their political policies and practices will only portend that. Policies that Christians, as part of God’s Kingdom, ought to be at war with, not in bed with.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition), 68-70.

 

The Christian Bodily Hope as Commentary and Critique on Current Politics

What this current season of political carnival has worked into me is a sense of loss, of hopelessness. But this sense isn’t discordant with what I’ve already felt for a long time in regard to human government and institutions; indeed, this loss is associated with the human condition in general. This condition noted by the Apostle Paul in his own struggle when he asks: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[1] Humanity lives in a ‘fallen’ state, whether it recognizes it or not; that is God’s conclusion about humanity, and His ‘judgment’ is given in the
hillaryincarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ; the judgment, that indeed humanity is in a situation, left to itself: where there is no hope!

The fact that the two candidates we have before us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as a  fact is rather horrifying. But at the end of the day they seem to be types of a logical conclusion to the human condition, and so their arrival at just this time seems fitting relative to the extent to which the human condition has “flourished” in itself. A “flourishing” of humanity that is fitting with its own self-determined self-possessed path of homo incurvatus in se or narcissism; a path where liars are free to be liars, and larceny gets to run unabated. I know we all like to blame the elites for all of this, but in reality we are all at fault; the human condition, the fallen one, has so cultivated a society[s] such that it gives blossom to what we see in the “elites” of our world—something like self-expressions of our inner-selves projected outward and personified in the so called establishment.

Has the picture I’ve been painting caused enough despair yet? It has for me. Despair to the point that I can no longer handle looking inward; I can no longer sustain any hope in human institutions or personages who embody those institutions of self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. My eyes look elsewhere for hope; my hope is eschatological. It is the hope of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Christian hope of Second Advent; that Jesus, as He promised, is coming again (the parousia). I don’t hear enough Christians speaking about this in North America, but you would think that would be all we were looking to these days. It is what Jesus Himself comforted and reproved the many churches in Ephesus with through his letter to them found in the book of Revelation. Unfortunately things like Left Behind, and Dispensational theology have made many Christians reticent to even speak of eschatological hope when it comes to facing real life crises; such as we face in this current political season. But this shouldn’t be the case, Christians should boldly hope as Jesus wants us to and look to the heavens from whence, as the King James says, ‘our redemption draws nigh’.

To my encouragement this morning as I was doing some reading I came across something very edifying and hope-filled, especially in light of our two options (Donald and Hillary) as reminders of the human condition. I was reading an essay by Richard Bauckham called The future of Jesus Christ. As Bauckham usually does[2], especially when it comes to things eschatological, he provides prescient words for the weary Christian soul; he writes of the genuine hope that we have for the future, and how that hope breaks in on us trumpcurrently afresh and anew, and how that ought to offer us, as Christians, hope eternal and perspective for the moment that allows us to fulfill our vocation as witnesses for Jesus Christ. Here is Bauckham in extenso:

A powerful Jewish objection to the Christian identification of Jesus as the Messiah is that, when the Messiah comes, the world will be freed from evil, suffering and death. As Walter Molberly puts it, in chapter 12 above: ‘The heart of the Jewish critique is simple: if Jesus is the redeemer, why is the world still unredeemed?’ One form of Christian response, and unfortunate one, has been to ‘spiritualise’ redemption in a way that is alien to the Jewish religious tradition. Salvation is reduced to what Christian believers experience as forgiveness of sins, personal justification before God, and virtuous living, with spiritual immortality in heaven after death. But the Christian tradition at its most authentic has realised that the promise of God made in the bodily resurrection of Christ is holistic and all-encompassing: for whole person, body and soul, for all the networks of relationship in human society that are integral to being human, and for the rest of creation also, from which humans in their bodiliness are not to be detached. In other words, it is God’s creative renewal of his whole creation. Here and now such salvation is experienced in fragmentary and partial anticipations of the new creation, and these are only properly appreciated as anticipations of the fullness of new creation to come. But even these anticipations are not limited to a ‘spiritual’ sphere artificially distinguished from the embodiment and sociality of human being in this world. Significantly, what has most kept the holistic understanding of salvation alive in the church, when tempted by Platonic and Cartesian dualisms to reduce it, have been the resurrection of Jesus in its inescapable bodiliness and the hope of his coming to raise the dead and to judge, which makes all individual salvation provisional, incomplete until the final redemption of all things. Hope for the future coming of the crucified and risen Christ has continually served to counter Christian tendencies to pietism and quitetism, spiritualization and privitisation, because it has opened the church to the world and the future, to the universal scope of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

It has also been a corrective to absolutising the status quo in state or society: either the transformation of Christianity into a civil religion uncritically allied to a political regime or form of society, or the church’s own pretensions to be the kingdom of God virtually already realised on earth. In such contexts the Christ who reigns now on the divine throne has been envisaged as the heavenly sanction for the rule of his political or ecclesiastical deputies on earth. Resistance to ideological christology of this kind can come from the hope of the Christ who is still to come in his kingdom. The expectation of the parousia relativises all the powers of the present world, exposing their imperfections and partialities. This is why it has often been more enthusiastically embraced by the wretched and the dispossessed than by the powerful and the affluent. It embodies the hope that the world will be different, contradicting every complacent or resigned acceptance of the way things are. It offers an eschatological provisio and a utopian excess that keep us from pronouncing a premature end to history, as a tradition of Enlightenment thought from Hegel and Comte to Francis Fukuyama has encouraged people to do and as totalitarian politics is often minded to do in justification for repressing dissent. Thus the Jewish messianic critique of Christian messianism is a necessary one whenever the church’s faith in the Christ who is still to come falters.[3]

maranatha.

[1] NRSV, Romans 7.24.

[2] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation; and Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation.

[3] Richard Bauckham, “The Future of Jesus Christ,” in The Cambridge Companion To Jesus, ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 268-69.

Karl Barth’s Response to the Donald Trumpkins: Making Space for the Word of God

I want to repurpose a post that I wrote years ago, and from time to time have re-posted at my various blogs – the original title of the post was: A Critique of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Society. Since tonight was the Republican National Convention, and thus Trump’s nomination as the Republican nominee for the candidacy of the President of the United States, I thought it would be trumpapropos to share this post again (this time with a new title). As you read this short post, hopefully, as a evangelical Christian, you will see the similarities between the nationalism that was present in what came to be Nazi Germany, and the nationalism that is propelling Donald Trump to where he is currently. The thing that saddens me the most is that good meaning evangelical Christians have
been taken in by Trump’s rhetoric, without critically interpreting Trump through the lens of ideas and history. Hopefully this short post will whet the appetite of my evangelical brethren/sistren to look more deeply into the past so that we will not make similar mistakes (like the German’s did) in the present hour. We are at a point of principle, it is  not a matter of winning or losing; it is a matter of voting, or not voting coram Deo (before God). I contend that it is not possible for evangelical Christians to vote for Donald Trump (or Hillary Clinton, for that matter) based upon the Kingdom principles of God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ.

Here is that post.

I really like how John Webster describes Barth’s understanding against the Liberal Protestantism of his day. Ironically, I think, that the way Barth understood the Liberal Protestants of his day, could (should) be the way (by and large) that we understand American Evangelicals of our day [please note: I am speaking in generalities, there are obviously many exceptions to this amongst American Evangelicals, just as there was exceptions to the Liberal Protestants in Barth’s day].  Barth’s understanding gets to the question of how it is that “good” honest hard working (even Christian) people can be duped into thinking that the aformentioned attributes serve as the garb that justifies their place in society (i.e. as good honest hard working folk). There is always room for conviction and self-“criticality;” I know we don’t like this, and I know that much of this ultimately bothers our sensibilities, but we are Christians, people of  love and truth (insofar as we participate in God’s life in Christ).

As I’ve already alluded to, the following is Webster commenting on Barth and his critique of the Liberal Protestants (which I am lifting and applying to American Evangelicals). This is intended to decenter our trust in ourselves, and instead cause us to throw ourselves at the mercy of God in Christ. This is intended to turn our lights on so that we can more critically see how what counts as Christian and Ethical (in America and the West), probably is not as ethical and Christian as we think. This is intended to highlight how it is that “we” so easily become the standard for what is good and right in the world instead of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[A] large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[1]

The ‘Human culture building itself up’ was the German one (for Barth) that ultimately expressed itself in German bourgeois society, and ultimately Nazi Germany. For Barth, for the Liberal Protestant, because of the collapse of the Christian self into the self as the moral self; there no longer remained space for Christ to break in and speak a fresh word of holiness over and against the established norms of what the Liberal Protestant had come to already think of what counted as such. In other words, Barth was against a What Would Jesus Do? society.

I am appropriating this critique from Barth (a la Webster) for the American Evangelical in particular. We have come to think that what counts as moral is captured by the symbol ‘Conservative’. It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal. It is this posture that negates any space for the Word of God to break in on all of these norms or the status quo; since the status quo is synonymous with being Christian. And it is this self-evidential situation which allows for atrocities to take place in the name of Christ; through the “absolute self.”

That’s the end of this old post of mine. I don’t think evangelicals feel emboldened, at the moment, which is why they are desperate. But they want to have that ‘feeling’ of the ‘absolute self’ again; and for them Trump can potentially deliver this golden age and feeling of self-worth once again, he can provide for cultural power that the moral majority has seemingly lost in these last days. I think we ought to take Barth’s reading of the German society of his day to heart, and once again as evangelicals divorce ourselves from nationalist longings so that we are able to have space for the Word of God to break into our lives in ever afresh and new ways; if we take this critique to heart I am sure that Trump (or Clinton) will no longer be viable alternatives for evangelical Christians.

[1] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

 

A Reflection on the Syrian Crisis, One Kingdom Posture, and The Christian Response of Prayer

This whole Syria thing is really a big deal to me, as I am sure it is for many of you as well. It reflects a genuine ethical dilemma for the Christian. And for me, things, unfortunately, are not as clear as they seem to be for others. I cannot obamaunclesamhelp, for example, to get the genocide that happened in Rwanda out of my head. I remember watching the movie that depicted it, Hotel Rwanda, and how the United Nations really was unable to provide substantial protection for the women and children being slaughtered all around them by the sharp edge of the machete. There are plenty of people, and Christian people, decrying the usage of military force to intervene in the Syrian crisis (which has been ongoing for 2 years); they are advocating for peace, and non-violent solutions. This is noble, and I do believe it follows the ethic of Christ to advocate for peace. But I still wonder what in the world can be done in order to help these people in Syria, who are being slaughtered, in a genocidal fashion, by their oppressive government? I really don’t know! And I do wonder why Obama, and cronies, at this moment, are all of the sudden doing an about face, and seeking to intervene in Syria with military force (but only in a way, apparently, that is intended to punish Assad, but not actually take him out—this would be like taking part of a cancerous tumor out, but not the whole thing. There must be something more going on than concern for the Syrian people. I mean over 100,000 people have already died (and counting) in Syria; how they died (by what material means), seems unremarkable (i.e. in the sense that whether they died by chemicals or bullets really is not the issue, the issue is, is that they are dead and dying).

And so upon further reflection, as I have been hashing through this on Facebook the last couple of days, and just in my own thinking; I have to wonder what this whole move by Obama is really all about? I mean there is a real potential for this to spark World War 3—Russia, China, and Iran have said as much. And so why would Obama, knowing this, risk all of this (WW3), just to punish Assad? This is really a strange thing …

Having said all of the above, there remains a clear and resounding reality in all of this; genocide is immoral, and it cannot be overlooked. I find it extremely naïve to believe that the United Nations is the answer—Rwanda (among other things) won’t allow me to conclude this. Obama’s plan (to start WW3), to merely “punish” Assad with a few hours of bombs, will actually only exacerbate the problem (and genocide), and not squelch it. This is a dilemma, indeed! Come Jesus!

And so this begs the question (one that I have been wrestling with, as I have noted, as I am sure you have been, over the last few days); how ought the Christian to respond? How ought the Christian think of her and his relationship to the State (whatever State that is for you)? I do believe with my brethren and sistren, that the ethic of Christianity is ‘peace’, how peace comes about is where we have debate (in the penultimate details, not in the ultimate detail … we all agree the ultimate is the consummation of Christ’s coming kingdom). I do not believe Obama’s apparent strategy will create peace, but then neither do I think the UN will either; so a dilemma. This said, I think Christians have a ‘witness’ bearing (if not prophetic) role to play in relation to the State. I follow a constructively conceived Barthian understanding (surprise) of the relation of Church to State, and as such, I see both Church and State in the one kingdom of God in Christ (in the sphere and orientation of His life in Christ for us, all of us!). And as such, using the hypostatic union of Jesus as the analogy, I see the Church and State as still distinct, and yet inseparably related one to the other. And so this has impact upon the way I think the Church should act towards the State. In this specific instance, I wouldn’t expect the State to act like the Church, and I don’t expect the Church to act like the State; and thus, we ought to avoid conflating the two, as if we think the State should make its decisions as if it were the Church, in a special relation to God in Christ. That said, given the distinctiveness of the Church, and its ethic of shalom (peace), realized in Christ, I believe, as the Christian Church (His bride), that we ought to model the eschatological life of God in Christ, which is full of grace and truth. We should picture for them, the State, how we, the Church, are known by love (which is sacrificial, and self-given); we ought to be able to point to an alternative reality from the broken one the State lives out of. How this takes concrete form, though, is hard to say (i.e. through activism, through modeling it somehow in a transparent way, etc.). But I do believe this is how it ought to work. Here is how a former prof of mine from seminary, Paul Metzger, sketches this kind of constructive Barthian understanding of the relation between Church and State, and with this I close:

. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere. . . . The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

I obviously have an inner tension, and conflict going on within me about this whole thing. I am highly concerned for the people in Syria (and for that matter, anywhere were people are living under repressive despotic regimes), and yet there seems to be no real and viable answer; except to wait for Christ. But ‘how’ we wait remains the question. We pray, but as the Lord of hosts said to Joshua:  ‘…“Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?”‘; so not only do we pray, but we act. But in this instance (of Syria), how, and what? That remains the question for me. Obama is obviously acting, but for some ulterior reason. What that is, I don’t really know; but it obviously is not out of concern for Syria, there is something else. The UN will act by way of its usual bluster, and hemming-and-hawing. There is really, at this moment, one act to be made for the Christian, we must pray for wisdom, and for the Divine intervention of Yahweh in Christ for, in this instance, the people in Syria. This is how we personally acted when I was faced with my cancer (for which there was no real treatment). We implored the LORD, and He acted in a way that only He could. And so I know He can do the same for the people of Syria, and I pray that He will!

The Christian and Politics

Here is a snippet from Paul Metzger’s (now published) PhD dissertation on the ‘Sacred and Secular’ in Karl Barth’s theology. In this quote, Metzger is developing Barth’s ‘One Kingdom’ model, and how that relates to political engagement today. I thought this was still a fitting season to mention this; plus I just used this quote in response to someone I have been interacting with on Facebook:

. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere. . . . The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

Hope you found that interesting.

The Next Day: A Christian Reflection on the Presidential Election, 2012

This is going to be just a short reflection on what I think about the Presidential election that we just lived through here in America.

Ever since I could vote (since 1992)— so since the George H. W. Bush versus Bill Clinton election— I have voted as a registered Republican; and I have voted for every Republican candidate (so just the Bush family). Beyond that, I have been alive since Richard Nixon was in office; so I have been around for a little awhile. The first presidential election I can remember was the one between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s love for jell bellies were what stood out most to me about his time as president, and then his role in helping to “bring down that wall” between East and West Germany. So you can see my pedigree, it is, as I imagine it is for most American Evangelical Christians, what has been termed; right wing Conservative.

I sketch my personal background to provide context, and foil, really, for what happened to me this time—this could’ve been my 5th time voting for a Republican Presidential candidate. As I have mentioned frequently on my Facebook wall (where I initiated quite a few discussions about this, leading up till yesterday), my reading of the book of Revelation has drastically impacted the way that I think in general as a Christian; and in particular about American politics (or any politics).

As a former dispensationalist, I used to read the book of Revelation as if it was ALL referencing future events (except for the first three chapters, of course); so I was what has been called a futurist exegete when it came to this code type book (how I used to read it, like I needed a decoder key, and the current instantiation of the that is modern day Israel). But things changed (over time), and came to a climax for me as I read two books on the book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham. It was his clarity that allowed me to see that the primary audience of the book of Revelation was the seven churches the revelator wrote the letter to. It was the idea that this apocalyptic/prophetic book was actually an epistle that opened my eyes to its primary intent. The intent in a nutshell is: that this apocalyptic vision[s] was given to John in order to provide a way for these early Christians (and all subsequent) to understand their witness within the Roman imperial milieu (or any Imperial milieu). All of the vivid imagery in the book of Revelation finding its store-house in the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament (and some of it in apocryphal and pseudipigraphal texts); John, as Jesus’ mouth and eye-piece painted a backdrop, of cosmic proportions, in order for these early, and highly persecuted Christians, to understand that Rome and all of her military and economic might were not it. That these humble little nobodies, these quaint little Christians living in Imperial Rome were part of a kingdom (Christ’s) of which was like that rock of Daniel 2; the kingdom that ultimately crushes all other kingdoms. These Christians were to take heart, and find joy and peace in the fact that even though they were being beheaded (etc.) for their Christian witness, even though they were living a martyrs life, that they should take heart; because their blood (just as Jesus’ was) will be vindicated at the bodily and second coming of Jesus Christ. It was this kind of reality that really has shifted my neo-Conservative political aspirations into a perspective that sees the Christian’s place in the state as one that is shaped by martyrdom and self giving (even to the point of death) instead of might is right triumphalism, or get me outta of here ‘escapism’ (although I am ready for Jesus to return … I think anyone who isn’t is crazy!).

So, how did this inform my voting posture this time around? It made me think that any candidate who was in support of foreign, domestic, and/or economic policies that put the US in a place wherein we prospered off of living off of the backs of the poor and the oppressed, that I could not vote for this candidate in good conscience. Further, if a candidate was not truly pro-life (and I don’t mean just abortion issues, but also in humanitarian ways, like with our trade agreements with the nation of China for example; a nation we know has engaged in horrific humanitarian atrocities [and continue to]), then, in good conscience, I could not vote for him or them either—which pretty much made it quite impossible for me to vote for either of the primary options (which is why I wrote in a candidate who I felt better exemplified my personal criteria).

So this is what went into shaping my voting posture this year. I am thankful to have the ability to vote, and to live in America. But to vote in a principled way became more important to me this year than voting my usual party line. I trust God to take care of his people; and maybe operating with a martyr ethic when it comes to voting and political engagement (or not) will have drastic impact on the witness that Christians can have in America and the world. Maybe if we follow this kind of ethic (of martyrdom), we will actually stand out and be distinctive from the rest of the world; maybe the Gospel will no longer be collapsed, this way, into a political platform or cluster of ethical norms. I have more work to do in developing my own position (some times my trajectory feels Anabaptist, but I don’t think so … we’ll see).

Is America Exceptional? The ‘new Israel’

Massachusetts Bay

I was just over at Roger Olson’s blog, and he has provided a mini and partial review of Peter Leithart’s book, Between Babel and the Beast. Apparently (I’ll need to read this when I get the chance), Leithart challenges a religion that he (amongst others) has labeled Americanism (or the worship of America as God’s special nation, like the new Israel). There are multiple trajectories that we can take to get into the implications and presuppositions of this ‘religion’. We could spend the time looking at how the ‘conservative Right’ largely embodies this kind of folk religion; or we could look even more particularly at how a movement like the Tea Party seeks to repristinate the perceived golden age of our Christian origins as a nation. I am going to broach this golden age idea that Tea Partiers are hearkening us back to, and then tie this into ideas of exceptionalism, and a comment that someone made over at Olson’s blog that typifies, I think, a common and popular notion of what it means for America to be an exceptional nation. Before we launch into this brief exercise, let me caveat that I am glad and even proud to be an American; we have freedoms (still!) that the rest of the world, by-and-large does not. But we need to hold these in perspective and understand how our nation became a nation, and how that continues to inform the theopolitical rhetoric even of today.

The Puritans originally came to America in order to gain freedom of religion, freedom from the persecution that they were experiencing at the hands of an antagonistic Church of England. And so they fled. In their fleeing they encountered all kinds of hardship and tribulation, and yet they endured and finally made it to the ‘Promised Land’. It was these kinds of experiences, and the relative success of establishing a new nation, that imbued Puritan pastors and theologians with the notion that Divine Providence had carried them into the new land of promise. Indeed, many (if not all) of the Puritans believed that they were truly the new Israel of God, and that they had been given Divine sanction to sack the native Americans (like the original Israel did with the Canaanites), and take their lands (manifest destiny). Here is what Noll, Hatch, and Marsden have written about how Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Company, conceived of America as the literal new Israel:

[…] The Old Testament clearly taught that God dealt with nations according to covenants, either explicit or implicit, the stipulations of which were God’s law. Covenant-breaking nations were punished; covenant-keeping nations were blessed. The people of God, Israel in the Old Testament times and the church in the New Testament age, stood of course in a special relationship to God. If they were constituted as a political entity, and here Israel seemed obviously the model to imitate, then they should make their social-political covenant explicit, following the examples in the Pentateuch. This is precisely what Winthrop and his fellow Puritans thought they were doing. The were becoming a people of God with a political identity, and so they stood in precisely the same relationship to God as did Old Testament Israel. Bercovitch explains this equation in terms of typology:

Sacred history did not end, after all, with the Bible; it became the task of typology to define the course of the church (“spiritual Israel”) and of the exemplary Christian life. In this view Christ, the “antitype,” stood at the center of history, casting His shadow forward to the end of time as well as backward across the Old Testament. Every believer was a typus or figura Christi, and the church’s peregrination, like that of old Israel, was at once recapitulative and adumbrative…. [Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search For Christian America, 34.]

This is part of the heritage that the conservative Right appeals to today; theologically, a Calvinistic postmillennial heritage that believes that America has its rootage in Divine favor and blessedness—as God’s covenant people. [sidebar: the really interesting thing about this, is that most American’s who appeal to this age as constituting a “Christian” heritage to our nation, are not postmillennial, but premillennial dispensationalists, which is completely at odds with postmil thought!]  And it is this kind of mindset that believes that America is exceptional, that is, because we have been blessed of God (as his covenant nation), and thus we can offer things to the rest of the world (even if that means that we, in a utilitarian and pragmatic way impose ourselves on other nations for the greater good; i.e. which is the preservation of God’s new Israel, America) that the rest of the world needs; we are the dispensers of God’s covenant promises after all ;-). But are we really exceptional, and are we really God’s covenant nation who operates with Divine sanction? I will answer these questions more specifically in the days to come. Let me leave us with a comment made over on that post I mentioned earlier at Roger Olson’s blog; the comment typifies how, I would imagine, most Americans who believe that America is exceptional, conceive of this:

If America is not “exceptional,” please explain to me why millions of people from many other nations are so anxious to find a way of entrance into this country. They will endanger their lives to climb the highest obstructive fences, float the seas on inflated inner tubes, stowaway on leaky boats, cram into sealed semi-trailers in stifling heat, risk being shot or arrested, dig tunnels miles long, pay exorbitant prices to human traffickers, and upon arrival live in a 3-room safe-house with 30 other people; all rejoicing and praising God that they have finally arrived in the “Promised Land.” [taken from here]

I will admit that these kinds of pragmatic concerns make America exceptional in a certain way (but certainly not the “Promised Land”!). But usually exceptionalism is used much more politically, we will use virtues of America, like the comment does above, to then justify atrocities (like foreign policy, nation building, economic treaties—like with China, etc.) that we perpetrate in the rest of the world. And we do all of this garbed in the language of being the “Promised Land.”

There is much more to say, but I will have to pick up where I am leaving off later.

A Critique of the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Society

I really like how John Webster describes Barth’s understanding against the Liberal Protestantism of his day. Ironically, I think, that the way Barth understood the Liberal Protestants of his day, could (should) be the way (by and large) that we understand American Evangelicals of our day [please note: I am speaking in generalities, there are obviously many exceptions to this amongst American Evangelicals, just as there was exceptions to the Liberal Protestants in Barth’s day]. In fact, I think this dovetails nicely with the post I just posted on Occupy Wall Street. It gets to the question of how it is that “good” honest hard working (even Christian) people can be duped into thinking that the aformentioned attributes serve as the garb that justifies their place in society (i.e. as good honest hard working folk). There is always room for conviction and self-“criticality;” I know we don’t like this, and I know that much of this ultimately bothers our sensibilities; but we are Christians, people of  love and truth (insofar as we participate in God’s life in Christ).

As I’ve already alluded to, the following is Webster commenting on Barth and his critique of the Liberal Protestants (which I am lifting and applying to American Evangelicals). This is intended to decenter our trust in ourselves, and instead cause us to throw ourselves at the mercy of God in Christ. This is intended to turn our lights on so that we can more critically see how what counts as Christian and Ethical (in America and the West), probably is not as ethical and Christian as we think. This is intended to highlight how it is that “we” so easily become the standard for what is good and right in the world instead of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[A] large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6]

The ‘Human culture building itself up’ was the German one (for Barth) that ultimately expressed itself in German bourgeois society, and ultimately Nazi Germany. For Barth, for the Liberal Protestant, because of the collapse of the Christian self into the self as the moral self; there no longer remained space for Christ to break in and speak a fresh word of holiness over and against the established norms of what the Liberal Protestant had come to already think of what counted as such. In other words, Barth was against a What Would Jesus Do? society.

I am appropriating this critique from Barth (a la Webster) for the American Evangelical in particular. We have come to think that what counts as moral is captured by the symbol ‘Conservative’. It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal. It is this posture that negates any space for the Word of God to break in on all of these norms or the status quo; since the status quo is synonymous with being Christian. And it is this self-evidential situation which allows for atrocities to take place in the name of Christ; through the “absolute self.”

Is what I am getting at overstated?