What a confusing era we live in! Committed, orthodox Christians living in America find themselves between a rock and a hard place in many ways. I imagine there are others who feel like I do.
I am no fan of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him (…or the other candidate). I’m deeply disturbed by his entire persona – his highly reactive, childish and petulant way of communicating, his bullying with Twitter, his disgusting and appalling way of talking about women as objects of sexual conquest, his xenophobic-inspiring demonization of others, his audacious hypocrisy, his unfettered ambition and greed, and his cavalier approach to his office as president. Very rarely have I ever observed a public person with such thinly veiled narcissism.
But my opinions do not alter the fact that he is in fact the president of the country in which I live (and, let’s be honest… Christians have lived under far worse leadership conditions – need I mention Nero, or Decius, or Diocletian). So I pray for him on a nearly daily basis out of obedience to the scriptural admonition to pray for those in leadership and authority (I Tim. 2:2). I pray that he would come to understand himself as one under authority who must give an account of himself. I pray that he would be restrained in using the terrifyingly-massive arsenal of weapons and military force at his disposal.
Even though I’m extremely disturbed by President Trump, I’m hesitant to devote my passionate concern to a movement of resistance as it is currently being carried out in our society. I’m all for resistance… just not in the way it’s imagined by most Americans. So I haven’t yet gone marching and am withstanding the urge to post a bunch of angry comments and/or articles on social media (which is only adding to a sense of alienation). This doesn’t mean I see no value in marching or posting, it’s just not how I imagine my primary means of resistance.
Does this mean I’m some sort of a political “quietest” or that I don’t care about what is going on? No. I have a deeply robust concern for the public sphere and a legitimate fear for people in the crosshairs of Trumps policies. But here’s the thing: My priority as a Christian (and pastor) is that I choose my path of resistance carefully, strategically, and in a way that doesn’t accidentally undermine the greatest instrument of resistance we have: Christ and His Body.
I believe the most powerful form of resistance at our disposal to the ugliness we see in politicians and their policies (of whatever stripe) is full participation in an alternative polis / society that is, by definition, international, historical, and from every class, nation, people, and language. I’m, of course, talking about the Church. This is the only body that has any hope of restraining the terrifying force of a nation-state as powerful as America. For a fascinating historical example of this in action, read William T. Cavanaugh’s book “Torture and Eucharist” about Chilean Christians and their resistance to the tyrannical rule of Pinochet in 1970’s and 1980’s.
Remember, it was the weakened state of the Church in Germany (with a completely washed out and individualized gospel and a gutted, liberal theology) that allowed Hitler to rise to power… and before that allowed for the god-awful atrocities of WWI to transpire. It was the Church’s accommodation to the nation-state’s interests that allowed Christians to justify killing other Christians simply because they represented another flag/nation-state. This was only possible because of the subversion of Christian identity by the nation-state.
So here’s what I’m saying: I am cautious about over-investing myself in a battle for the policies of the state if it means drawing the focus away from the actual Body that has the substance, history, power, and gravity to resist the state.
Here’s my concern: When Christians pretend that the nation-state and its policies are the essential territory for determining, enacting, and exercising their communal ethical commitments, they merely act in such a way as to reinforce the actual power of the state. This is only deepening the problem, Christianly speaking.
What if there was a way to subvert the power of the state by living and acting from an identity that is anchored in a completely different authority structure, story, tradition, etc. that has different ends and different means? This is what I mean by the Church as a communion of resistance. Granted, this cannot happen overnight. And much of the Christian faith present in America right now is far too mixed up with the notion of being American to be able to do this. So, what I’m suggesting would require a radical transformation of what people understand the Church to be and how they imagine Christian faith/salvation to begin with. But what I’m describing is not utopian. It’s how the church of the first three centuries existed: an alternative society of resistance.
The way we got to where we are now is the long saga of how Christians in the West ceded the public sphere to the nation-state (which is a modern creation not to be confused with “nations” of previous eras that operated differently). All of this is a part of the legacy of the creation, and then crumbling of, Christendom. What’s now left in the imagination of Christians in a place like modern America is for them to either wrangle the nation-state in such a way that they have power over it (religious right’s tactics), or get on their knees and plead with it for a limited set of protections as individuals from its all intrusive power (the more modest/pragmatic approach taken by Christians whenever they fear they have lost power). Either way, the nation-state is the main focus and the assumed place of significance for the public realm.
Everything centers around the individual and the “rights” promised by the nation-state and the nation-state itself. Between the individual and the nation-state there is no significant body or social space (with the exception of perhaps the business corporation). All that’s left is for individuals to band together in order to resist. But this resistance is far too limited. It doesn’t really get at the real problem.
William T. Cavanaugh argues that one of the meta-problems that confuses Christians in our era is the notion of the nation-state as the keeper of the “common good.” He argues extensively against this notion showing how this is simply not a good understanding of what nation-states do in practice. In practice, nation-states are continually involved in “boundary disputes” through regulation. He quotes John Milbank: “More of life becomes economized and legalized, as legislation seeks—hopelessly—to catch up with every instance of “overlap,” and institute more detailed rules of absolute ownership, whether by individuals, or legally incorporated groups…”
Cavanaugh summarizes, “The result is not the common good, but an (ultimately tragic) attempt to ward off social conflict by keeping individuals from interfering with each other.”
The alienation in our culture is directly related to this phenomenon. The goal of the state is not primarily to foster belonging or communion (thus cultivating the common good), but the protection of individual liberty (thus the societal vision of “good” is transformed into what we now recognize as autonomous individualism).
Out of a necessity in order to create a sense of national loyalty, the nation-state does, however, cultivate a kind of “belonging” through civic quasi-religious experiences using symbols (flag, constitution, architecture, etc.), rituals (inauguration, pledge, 4th of July, etc.), music (national anthem), poetry (The New Colossus), narrative, heroes (national “saints”), etc. This cannot but result in tension with the Christian faith. Both the state and the church are vying for people’s ultimate commitment and loyalty. Supreme loyalty is the only way that nation-states could hold the power of taxation, the power of imprisonment and violence, etc. How else do you get individuals to go and sacrifice their lives in conflict against peoples of other nation-states… even to the point of killing others of the same faith?
In service to the protective (Enlightenment inspired) notion of “separation of church and state” we’ve lost the vision of the Church as an alternative society and have allowed it to merely become an interest group within, and subject to, the boundaries set up by the nation-state. The Church has been effectively neutered from a public role, limited to private expressions of piety, making it the equivalent of a weekend hobby group – a coming together of like-minded individuals. That, of course, isn’t anything like what the Bible means by Body of Christ or Household of God. This way of imagining Church is hardly capable of resistance.
Both politically left-leaning and right-leaning Christians share a lack of imagination for what the Church is and should be. Both have been hypnotized by the drama of the nation-state. Wrangling or protesting the nation-state as disaffected individuals joined in movements of temporary solidarity is only able to move the markers on the field this way and that way a few yards. It cannot produce the common good. At best, it can try to protect groups who might be trampled on by the nation-state. To that end, Christians in America have a responsibility to participate in the political process. If that means marching or holding signs, I will do so. But let’s be honest… this is merely a stop-gap measure. It’s far from a real solution to our world’s needs. No government, politician, or movement can provide the common good. Only Christ through His Body, the Church can truly do this.
Here is how William T. Cavanaugh summarizes much of what I’ve been trying to say.
“In the first place…then the nation-state is simply not the universal community under whose umbrella the Church stands as one particular association. Not only does the nation-state carve the world up into competing national interests, but internally as well, it is destructive of forms of commonality that do not privilege the sovereignty of narrow individual self-interest. In the second place, the Church is not a merely particular association, but participates in the life of the triune God, who is the only good that can be common to all. Through the Eucharist especially, Christians belong to a body that is not only international, and constantly challenges the narrow particularity of national interests, but is also eternal, the Body of Christ, that anticipates the heavenly polity on earth. Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history, but simply is the story of God’s rule— not yet completely legible—over all of history. God’s activity is not, of course, confined to the Church, and the boundaries between the Church and the world are porous and fluid. Nevertheless, the Church needs to take seriously its task of promoting spaces where participation in the common good of God’s life can flourish.” (the whole article is here or you can buy his book which I heartily recommend “Migrations of the Holy“)