No Paradox, Actually

Over at the Experimental Theology Blog, Richard Beck points out what he sees as “the paradox of political theology”:

Progressive Christians resonate with Anabaptist, anti-empire political theology as it aligns well with the language of the prophets–indictment of oppression and injustice–which connects with the social justice impulses of progressive Christians. But lacking a robust ecclesiology, church as counter-cultural polis, progressive Christians are forced to turn to the state as the only player able to address the oppression and injustices they are calling out. Without a church, democratic engagement–guided by Niebuhrian political theology–is the only tool available to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Beck resonates with something I have seen for years. But I don’t think its a paradox. At least, it’s not the problem he thinks it is.

The Niebuhrian political theology of liberal and progressive Christians ay be the result on an impoverished ecclesiology — Stanley Hauerwas pointed out that Niebuhr himself seemed to possess little sense of the church as actor — but that’s the result of the deal the Protestant confessions (and eventually Rome) made with modernity in accepting that state and society, and not the church, were the actors who mattered morally historically, and the places where salvation would be worked out in fear and trembling.

It has always been my contention the protestant confessions, when faced with the truth claims of modernity, accepted those truth claims — claims about human nature (progress and perfectibility), claims about human purpose, meaning, and ends — with little question, accepting as part of that deal the consignment of the clergy to roles as professional managers of human souls whose purpose is to help, as possible, mass-industrial/democratic society to function better, more smoothly, and more efficiently. Progressive Christians are the inheritors of a particular place in Christendom, one that presumes and even requires their social influence and political power in order for them to fulfill that role.

That aspires to the maintenance and managing — shepherding — of certain kind of social order that can only be achieved through guiding, cajoling, or even compelling state action and social organization.

At the same time, as Beck notes, progressive Christians make a prophetic call, doing so from an alleged place of powerlessness. This is less an Anabaptist thing than it is an inheritance from the Civil Rights movement (or rather, a combination of the story progressives tell themselves about the role of the church in the American Civil Rights movement combined with what I believe is an intense envy among many progressives for the moral clarity and purpose of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights struggle) and an understanding that because we live in an age of critique, moral arguments only have social standing when made from positions of opposition and powerlessness.

Beck is right there’s a problem with this — moral claims are made from opposition by a people who simultaneously presume institutional position and privilege. And its done so because they have inherited an understanding that society and state are areas in which all of this is supposed to be worked out. The Church is simply one more civic/social organization intended for the guiding of the individual, the betterment of society, and the advising of the state.

But this is no accident. This is the result of confessional surrendering to modernity long ago. (I’m not saying there was an alternative, only that decisions have consequences, they aren’t all good, and they cannot all be foreseen.) It is not enough for the churches to live as they confess, to show the world another way of living is possible, because in the Christendom of modernity the churches exist to remake and refashion the world. It is the residue of Christendom, filtered through modernity, exercised in an era when critique is supreme. “Denouncing Caesar while embracing Caesar,” as Beck notes, but only because the church has come to believe its main job is to tell Caesar how to live.

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