WaPo: There’s No Need for a Religious Left

I’m about a month late in sharing this, but I had a short opinion piece published by the Washington Post recently, on the subject of Pete Buttgieg and the Religious Left. Here’s a taste:

American progressivism, for all that is good about it, is no more Christian than political conservatism. Both are worldly ideologies, both of which may share some priorities or affinities with various aspects of Christian faith, but which are both ultimately something other than faith in the Crucified God. Tying the Christian faith to power politics is a fatal distortion. Christianity is all about the creation of an alternative polis, a colony (in the words of theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon), showing the power of self-sacrificing love and the potential of communal salvation for the world. Christianity should not be baptizing passing political winds; it should always be a critical voice, whether our friends are in power. To associate the faith with a political agenda is to fall into the same old Constantinian trap the Christian Church has been liable to since the 4th century.

I’ve gotten some pretty good pushback, mostly in the form of my fellow travelers on the left pushing back on my suggestion that we pull the reins on a Christian left electoral movement. I may get around here to trying to respond to that criticism, as I think my emphasis is being missed. Meanwhile, I’d love some more, thoughtful feedback here. Do you think I’m nuts? Or right on? Leave a comment below.

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From My Thesis: The Theological Task

Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell, in a class I took with her at Chicago Theological Seminary, once remarked that “Humanity is not the object of theology; God is the object of theology.” I think this is mostly correct, and that it showcases the absurdity at the heart of the theologians task, which is to write and say words about that which we nothing can be said, that which is, in the words of St. Augustine, “other, completely other.”[1]

The task at hand for theology may be to reflect upon God, but I think theology also has the task of helping us human beings find our place in God’s story. By talking about God, we learn more about ourselves, being created in the very image of God as we are. And we do so by hearing the story of the people who have yearned after God, and finding ourselves writing the next chapter in that story. As Hauerwas and Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “Story is the fundamental means of talking about and listening to God, the only human means available to us that is complex and engaging enough to make comprehensible what it means to be with God.”[2]

In telling our story, one cannot overlook the suffering that afflicts each and every person. Few things link all of humanity together like the reality of suffering and death which each one of us must face down eventually. Suffering, and the fact that our story inevitably ends, places us within the arc of history, and gives color and meaning to a life that otherwise would be completely placid and completely experience-less. One must go through the valleys to climb the mountains.

Human suffering and God come together in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The story of Christ is the inflection point of the story of God’s people, and colors all we as Christians say and know forever more. Our story becomes clearer through the lens of Christ’s story. Hauerwas writes in a more recent work, “that one of the fundamental tasks of theology is the ongoing attempt to develop the tools necessary to tell truthfully the story of Jesus Christ in such a manner that his life shapes our lives. That means, however, that there is not nor can there be an end to the telling of the story, because the story is quite literally ongoing.”[3]

This is a work, fundamentally, about the human reality of suffering, what that reality says about how we understand God, and how we can relate to God, in some small way, through our experiences of suffering and death. No word written here can capture the immutable good of God, the ultimate reality God represents. All we can hope for in this endeavor is to contribute to the story of humankind, in a way that maybe illuminates one corner of our experience, and shows how Christ walks with us in each and every moment.

[1] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 147.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 54-55.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 264.

 

From My Thesis: Melancholia

As noted earlier, this specific nexus of white working-class people is often dismissed by those on both the right and left – politically and in the church as well- as worthy of time and attention, both because of their abhorrent political expressions and their waning utilitarian merit in terms of electoral power and economic output. This attitude towards rural white working-class people often leads to an attitude that they simply aren’t worth the time or the effort. In the church, this attitude is reflected because of the decline of congregational populations, and the subsequent decline of financial support in these communities. They become a group that is not politically, financially, morally or demographically worth the time of the rest of the country. They are, for lack of a better term, collateral damage for the shoring up of structures of civil and religious power in America.

But, for a church committed to a theological anthropology centered on the Imago Dei present in each human being, no one can be classified as collateral. And, for a society that wanted to believe it had a handle on the social and cultural divides that have long plagued the nation, 2016 showed that classifying this group as collateral and consigning them to the dustbin is not a viable option either. There is political and cultural power in the white working class still, despite (and, most likely, because of) their declining numbers. But beyond the utilitarian arguments around electoral and financial power for reaching out to this group of disaffected Americans, the church also needs to remind itself that when it claims to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it must include all – even those whose political and social attitudes are found repugnant. They cannot be left aside; otherwise, they become easy fodder for prosperity preachers, politically-aligned evangelical conservatives, and the Radical Right.

Simply writing off rural working-class whites is how that demographic is where it is at now: poverty-stricken, afflicted by addiction, mental health issues, substance abuse, violence and suicide; politically and socially resentful of other whites, of minorities, of sexual minorities, of foreigners and immigrants; and susceptible to the political machinations of people like Donald Trump and his religious servants – the Court Evangelicals, as John Fea has so accurately dubbed them.[1] At the point they begin voting in mass for politicians like Trump, and supporting movements like white supremacy and Neo-Nazis, their power becomes readily apparent, and their problems become the problems of everyone. When the white working class pushes Donald Trump to the presidency on a wave of nativism, xenophobia, and raw anger, it becomes incumbent on the rest of America to try to understand why and try to figure out a constructive way forward, because it is actively harming the world. As United Methodist theologian Tex Sample writes, “That the white working-class members do not dominate the American demographic profile as they once did is clear, but to dismiss them as a powerful force in this society is a blunder of major proportions.”[2]

But the answers cannot be purely political; the church must also look for answers. The anger and sense of dislocation and loss emanating from white working-class America is a spiritual malaise as much as it is a political and economic one – if not more so. By spiritual malaise, what I mean is a metaphysical sense of loss and dislocation, a deep and profound melancholy, in the sense expounded by Kate Manne is a recent essay. She writes, “melancholia involves a loss which is resisted rather than fully acknowledged.”[3] This melancholy is experienced in white working-class communities as the sense that the world around them is changing – and it is change they are not ready for, and even actively working against. It is changing in a way that feels like an unnatural exacerbation of the natural feeling of loss in the progress of time, and thus something that must be actively worked against.

It is not because of active hate towards those benefiting, in their view, from this change that they work against this new world, however. Melancholia is not something experienced as quite so other-oriented. Rather, it is a grasping after a past – real or imagined – that the melancholic person is feeling like they are losing. Oftentimes, it is nearly impossible for her to name the perpetrator of that loss definitively. Manne goes on, “The melancholic person is hence in a kind of limbo – consigned to a state of perpetually losing. She hence cannot let go, and is forever at a loss – and at a loss to name the source of her sadness and ambivalence.”[4]

This melancholy, while not other-oriented in origin, becomes so in expression. The melancholic person’s loss is partially felt as a sense of not being heard, and thus they feel they must make themselves heard. Manne draws on Freud when she calls it a “noisy self-abasement – the expression of an inward stripping away of the ego.”[5] This noisy self-abasement is on full display at, for instance, a Trump campaign rally, characterized as it so often is by scenes of inconceivably angry white people. This is the sound of a melancholic people who feel the only recourse they have for what they are feeling and experiencing will come in the political realm.

[1] John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 99.

[2] Tex Sample, Working Class Rage, 23.

[3] Kate Manne, ”Melancholy Whiteness (Or, Shame-Faced in Shadows),“ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research XCVI:1 (January 2018), 239.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.