Doing God’s Work. … Or Not.

David Fitch over at reclaimingthemission.com, in a posting I found while reading a commentary by Mark Van Steenwyk over at jesusmanifesto.com (I know, I promised once I would not do this “comment on comments” sort of thing), asks the following:

“Are we supporting Obama because it’s easier than being God’s justice in the world ourselves?”

The same could be said of Christian politics of any flavor, none of which I am supportive of. For the record, I am a fan of Stanley Hauerwas’ sentiments in Resident Aliens, only I am much more of a willful non-participant and secessionist than Hauerwas probably is (I sense he has, of late, gone soft on non-participation). That’s what comes from being an anarchist, I suppose.

I generally have three concerns about politics aimed at change and progress (what might be called “justice,” an issue I have addressed elsewhere). First and foremost, I believe the ideas of justice and the decent society current in the world today are not religious ideas, but are rather those of the secular Enlightenment. Ideas that have, over the last three centuries, been baptized and made synonymous with out eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God. I would proffer that those Enlightenment ideals are human equality, liberty and brotherhood (from the slogan of the French Revolution) grafted onto the possibility of universal material abundance arising as a result of the Industrial Revolution and merged with the Enlightenment idea of universal human peace. Human reason is capable of achieving all of these things — peace, equality, liberty, brotherhood, abundance — and the state is the venue through which human reason will work this out.

However, this is a fundamentally religious notion because these five things become the manifestation of human salvation. Saved humanity is one either inching toward these goals and in the process of achieving/realizing them (the progressive, or Liberal Christian ideal), or it is making a radical break with “the past” and trying to institute them completely and in their entirety (the revolutionary ideal). The “secular” Enlightenment is all about salvation, about saving humanity, both individually and collectively.

By embracing these ideals as either the Kingdom of God or evidence of the Kingdom of God, we have, in fact removed God from the Kingdom. Because we have concluded we know what the Kingdom of God looks like, human beings (or too many of them) have come to believe that they can, through their work and effort, either achieve it or work toward it. But a Kingdom vision like this has no God in it. Or rather, because human reason can conceive of it, the work of God is simply not necessary in working toward making that kingdom possible. The Kingdom is altered in our minds from an utterly transformed world — one in which the work of God makes the world unrecognizable — to simply a kinder and gentler version of the world in which we live. And this is my second concern.

Finally, I find many justice folks are just as “covenantal” about Jewish scripture as law-obsessed conservatives are. The view, I think, works likes this: as God gives the law, God tells Israel that defeat and exile will be the punishment for failing to obey the law. IF you don’t do this, THEN you will suffer this. And much of the language of scripture speaks just like that. So, there is a conservative assumption that the law CAN, in fact, be obeyed in order to avoid God’s punishment. But that ignores the actual narrative. Israel was incapable of obeying the law, thus consequences were inescapable, but God’s redemptive love was still made known to Israel. I see historical Israel’s encounter with God, the consequences of our sin, and God’s ever-present love and redemption, as a description of the human condition and of the plight of Israel — God’s called out people — in all times and places. We are utterly incapable of obeying God, and there are consequences for that, but God still loves and redeems us anyway.

Justice, I believe, works the same way. While there are many prophetic passages demanding justice for the poor, oppressed, needy and marginalized, and promising consequences if they are not adhered to (or that the conquest and exile were a consequence, and that now we will be different), that prophetic call cannot be stripped out of the greater narrative. Israel was utterly incapable of being just, of being a just society with a just government. As are we. The consequences of defeat and exile are, again, inescapable — we cannot avert them because we cannot do what God tells us we need to do in order to avert them. That is also the human condition. But God’s mercy and justice is always there, even if does not seem reasonably or rationally present in the world, just as God’s love and redemption is as well.

I have long believed the greatest problem of the Enlightenment is that it’s five promises are far more than human reason are capable of delivering (or even moving toward in any meaningful way; I do not believe in moral progress). And yet the promises are beguiling, whether we baptize them or not. But there is a greater problem. Enlightenment ideas are so beguiling that when we fail to make them possible, we do not sit back and go “liberty, equality, brotherhood, peace and abundance were the wrong things to want, and we are not up to making them possible.” We tend to say, “we did not work hard enough, and we must now redouble our efforts, be of purer heart, of steelier resolve, we must deal with those who stand opposed to these truly good and wonderful things, and we can and must make these things possible because we know they are possible because we can imagine them.” When we fail, we still believe. In fact, we believe all the more fervently. Our faith in our reason and our capabilities is not, in fact, accountable to reason. It is not accountable to anything.

Better, then, to live in God’s transformed world then to try and transform the world. The Kingdom of God is present among us, sideways, at a right angle to the world we live in (I’m drawing from Carl Sagan’s use of the novel Flatland here), something we experience at best peripherally but also overwhelmingly. We don’t make it, we are not its authors. Yet, living as though it is here, we make it real in the world. And that beats both voting and putting one’s faith in a political ideology, a party or the state any day.

One thought on “Doing God’s Work. … Or Not.

  1. Charles,I’d love to hear you say more about what it means or looks like to live in God’s transformed world, or to live as though the Kingdom of God is already here.I’d also caution about equating justice-seekers with people who put their faith in a political ideology, a party, or the state. I hope to write something more extensive soon, and I hope you’ll hold me to that!-bidita

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