Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Political Implications of Resurrection Hope

Last week I addressed some of the pastoral implications of the resurrection in conversation with N. T. Wright's new book Surprised by Hope. This week I would like to address some of the political implications of the resurrection. If Jesus is risen, then how should we live, not only in relation to those in and around our churches, but also in relation to those in the wider human community to which the church has been called to serve? In order to answer this question, I'll follow a similar pattern to last week's post by (1) sketching briefly how Wright approaches the sociopolitical implications of his doctrine of resurrection, (2) identifying some points of criticism, and (3) laying out some points of orientation.

So, first, how does Wright squeeze something political out of resurrection hope? It seems odd at first that the resurrection would have anything to do with contemporary sociopolitical realities. Wright sets his sights on this apparent oddity, exposing that our inclination to separate eschatology and public policy is a reflex of our confused views of the afterlife. If we understand resurrection as a code word for life-after-death, some other-worldly spiritual destiny that has no continuity with our life lived here and now, it is no wonder that we would think of resurrection hope as irrelevant to issues of state and society. Wright's move is to suggest that the element of continuity between creation and new creation entails a responsibility for the structures of society and the care of creation. If resurrection means new creation, then what we do now matters later. So this should expand our understanding of the church's mission to include not only evangelism but also works of justice and beauty as God begins to restore his creation through us and we build for his coming kingdom.

Now N. T. Wright is careful to remind us of the element of discontinuity between the work we do now and the divine judgment to come. This is why he harps on the distinction between building the kingdom and building for the kingdom -- a linguistic distinction the adoption of which I would strongly recommend. But nevertheless, the argument is controlled by the element of continuity. Discontinuity primarily functions in his argument as a limit concept: it keeps us from overstating the significance of our human efforts. But it does not seem to provide any substantial contribution to his political theology. Rather, his doctrine of creation (confirmed by God's resurrection of Jesus) is doing most of the work. We are obliged to work for justice in the world because we are responsible to the created order. This is a responsibility carried in hope, and so we do not carry it alone. But it is a responsibility first and foremost owed to God as the creator, and so not defined from the start from the redemption wrought in Jesus Christ.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me identify a symptom of this creation-centered continuity argument, and then say a word about what is provided by more substantive attention to the element of eschatological discontinuity. It is symptomatic of Wright's overall orientation that he treats justice and evangelism as two categories that need to be related. His intention is great: namely, to overcome any false dichotomy between the two, which a purely spiritual interpretation of Christian hope leads to (i.e., justice is either irrelevant or strictly subordinated to evangelism, as the former concerns our bodies in space and time while the latter concerns our immortal souls). But his attempt to overcome this dichotomy fails because he continues to treat them as two poles to be related rather than challenging their separation at the root. Note: I am not suggesting that merely discussing justice and evangelism under distinct headings is an error. We must create sub-topics in order to move discursively through an argument. Rather, I am suggesting that Wright's fundamental orientation toward the continuity of the created order lends him to define justice primarily in terms of the preservation and restoration of the created order, which necessarily separates it from evangelistic activity that by definition points forward to the new and different work of God beyond the potentialities of God's good creation. So justice and evangelism from the beginning of his argument point in different directions, and therefore all his moves to unite them are bound to fail. In my view, it would be better simply to start with the radical discontinuity of Christian hope, and then speak of the calling of Christian witness to hope in Jesus Christ which takes form both as word (aka "evangelism") and deed (aka "justice"), both of which are parables of God's reconciling love and neither of which can be strictly identified with the word and work of God for us in Christ.

The separation of justice and evangelism is just one symptom that highlights a more fundamental problem of dominance of created continuity Wright's theology. What's the alternative? I believe that we can relocate many of Wright's moves and goals within a framework that gives proper attention to the radical discontinuity in God's redemptive purpose in such a way that we can say much of what he says without some of the problems. Of course, I can't do such relocation in a comprehensive fashion here. But I can point to the central benefit that comes from a greater emphasis on discontinuity with specific reference to the political implications of resurrection hope.

The central benefit of an emphasis on the element of discontinuity is the critical focus given to Christian thinking and action. When the element of discontinuity functions as a limit concept (as I suggested it does for Wright), then it only serves to curtail the optimism of an otherwise generally reformist agenda, one which takes the realities of civic life for granted and seeks adjust the systems in such a way to favor the victims of the current status quo. Wright does a very good job of curtailing such optimism in favor of realistic Christian hope, and should be commended for it. But if the element of discontinuity played a more critical role in his eschatology, then his political theology would move in the direction of a more radical agenda, one which calls into question the potentialities of all social systems. If God's resurrection of his son Jesus from the dead tells us not only that God has confirmed himself as creator and sustainer of all things but also that God has revealed himself as the reconciler and redeemer who makes all things new, turning on their heads even the "realities" of the created order, then God's politics is not merely reformist but radical in orientation. Thus we who believe in the resurrection of the dead will challenge the adequacy of even the most progressive sociopolitical agendas, for our hope is found in nothing less than the living Jesus Christ. The political implications of resurrection are progressive in their leanings, but even as such these progressive implications cannot be identified with the word and work of God. They are at best parables of God's reconciling and redeeming work, and should be treated as such from beginning to end, and not merely limited as such from time to time. This is not a call for cynicism in the face of the evils and injustices of this world, but rather for a deep criticism sensitive to the idolatry of all worldly political arrangements.

As with the pastoral implications of Wright's work discussed last week, my critique of Wright does not undermine his key insights, but rather modifies them by placing them in a different conceptual context. So, with these critical lenses firmly in place, we can still draw on Wright to sketch some of the political implications of resurrection hope. I will identify three points of orientation to direct us in our political thinking, deciding and acting. It should be evident that these points, while by no means neutral, keep at a distance from endorsing particular parties or candidate. This is first of all a result of the critical distance appropriate to any exercise in sketching the political implications of Christian theology. But it is also an exhibition of the kind of political reasoning Christians can and should engage in -- one that is both affirmative and critical, creating alliances without strict loyalties. Finally, the breadth of these points is a reminder that political life includes much more than merely casting ballots. So, here goes:

(1) The hope of resurrections points us toward a critical appropriation of the politics of life.

By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God has shown himself to be the God of the living, not of the dead. In the living Jesus Christ, God has taken humanity to himself in order to make and keep life human. The resurrection of the dead is the ultimate act of humanization: the gift of eternal life. So God falls on the side of life against death.

The politics of life in the U.S. and elsewhere is tragically divided into divergent "issues," ranging from the protection of life at its beginning and end to the taking of life for the sake of security. Very few politicians have found a way to take the side of life in every issue, those some have tried harder than others. Those who hope for the resurrection of the dead should have an unwavering bias towards life. How this works out at a policy level can and should be debated and discussed. But the overwhelming orientation must be towards the affirmation of all human life: both our unborn and dying friends and near and far away enemies.

This political orientation must be self-critical, eschewing all strict identification of the exercise of political will with the reality of the living God. It also must materially criticize the creation-centered argumentation of much Christian reflection on these issues. What we owe to a fellow human cannot be reduced to her rights or sanctity or goodness as a creature. Such reflection needs to be re-ordered toward the telos of human life in fellowship with God, and thus concerned not only with the protection of life but also with the flourishing of life. Most importantly, the critical edge of resurrection provides a firm basis for a bias against death and its powers in this world. Too much public policy treats death as just a part of life. The resurrection of the dead teaches us that death is the last and greatest enemy of God. Those who hope for resurrection take sides with those who fight against the forces of death in their myriad of forms as a parabolic witness to the resurrection.

(2) The hope of resurrection points us toward a critical appropriation of the economics of generosity.

By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God has shown himself to be the God of grace. God gives to the creature beyond its inherent merits and resources. Resurrection is not merely the affirmation of the goodness of the created order but the gift of eternal life beyond any inherent potential. The resurrection of the dead is the ultimate act of generosity, giving what is undeserved and unattainable and unimaginable without the gracious initiative of the living God. So God falls on the side of generosity against scarcity.

Economic thought and policy in the U.S. and elsewhere is dominated by the logic of scarcity. The common assumption is that there is one pie, and the debate is usually only over who or what should get which piece. Such zero-sum thinking does not have to be greedy in its intention to foster greed as its result. So attacks on greed (often in the context of quasi class warfare) do not get beyond the logic of scarcity, and thereby only perpetuate the problem. Those who hope for the resurrection of the dead should have an unwavering bias towards generosity. This means not only personally seeking opportunities to share one's blessings with a neighbor but also contributing to expand the common goods shared by the wider human community. This requires thinking outside the scarcity box and so seeking to develop forms of economic life that entail the sharing of common goods. Of course, this means we need to stop thinking of the economy in reductively financial terms. In doing so, however, we may rediscovery the classical theological sense of the term "economy" as God's household, which is revealed by the resurrection to be run according to the logic of generosity, not scarcity. (Check out 2 Cor 8-9 for more on the complex interplay of God's grace, human gifts, and the Christian virtue of generosity, all of which turn our usual economic thinking on its head. Also, check out Kathryn Tanner's book, Economies of Grace, which develops this line of thinking in great detail.)

Any appropriation of the economics of generosity must be critical, and the key critical move that must be made here is the realization that the created order itself does not have the infinite resources God has. Remember: resurrection is not an inherent possibility within creation, but a transcendent transforming gift. So we may very well encounter scarcities, especially of natural resources. So we must be aware of our limits even as we pursue renewable and sustainable common goods. More fundamentally, we must not identify human giving and sharing with God's act of grace in Jesus Christ. This means that we should resist absolutist systems that promise generosity, for they are idols--false images of the true God of grace. But we nevertheless seize every opportunity not only to act generously but to develop generous ways of life in the wider community. Those who hope for resurrection take sides with those who develop systems of generosity as a parabolic witness to the resurrection.

(3) The hope of resurrection points us toward a critical appropriation of the rhetoric of hope.

By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God has shown himself to be the God of hope. In the living Jesus, God speaks a word of promise to the whole creation that by his Spirit he will make all things new. Resurrection hope is not a vague desire for progress or a path of escape from this world, but a sure and certain promise that God is for us and not against us and that he will triumph in the end. The resurrection of the dead is the ultimate word of promise, giving confident hope to the fearful and hopeless. So God falls on the side of hope against fear.

Political rhetoric in the U.S. and elsewhere all too often degrades into an appeal to our fears. Whether our woes are fiscal, cultural or military, politicians exploit our fears in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Such appeals are electorally effective, and so will not go away any time soon. But occasionally, politicians break out of this mold and realize that what people need in times of crisis is not more fear but hope for something new. This is part of the reason why Barack Obama has captured the imaginations of so much of the American public, for like FDR and Reagan he offers hope rather than fear in the face of crises and challenges. Those who hope for the resurrection of the dead should have an unwavering bias towards hope. This should not mean we are gullible to those who speak in platitudes, but it does mean we will give a fair hearing to those who ask us to think beyond our own self-interest and look to the future for new possibilities. Such rhetoric befits the orientation of resurrection hope.

As with the politics of life and the economics of generosity, the appropriation of the rhetoric of hope must be critical. Perhaps here more than elsewhere the criticism needs to be penetrating, for the rhetoric of hope can so easily turn out to be mere rhetoric, mere words, mere talk of things to come without genuine transformation. But the danger of mere words should not undermine our appreciation for the formative power of words. Our political rhetoric contributes significantly to the moral formation of the civil community. So we should take seriously the kind of rhetoric employed by leaders and would-be leaders. But there's a deeper level of critical consciousness that we must keep in mind with regard to the rhetoric of hope. We must never identify our hope in the living Christ with our hope in this or that politician or political program. This does not mean politics should be more "realistic" or even "pessimistic," but rather than we keep a critical distance between the hope to transform a society and the transcendent hope that transforms the world. Such critical distance has no patience for messianic civil religion, even as those who hope for resurrection take the side of those who speak a word of hope into a hurting world as a parabolic witness to the resurrection.

Any thoughts?
  • Where have I missed Wright's point? Where have I got him right?
  • Does the continuity/discontinuity issues apply in the same way here as it did for the pastoral implications of resurrection last week? Or are there some important differences?
  • Are there some points of direction that you would add to the three listed here? Do you have any concerns with the way these points where put?
  • What attitudes does Christ's resurrection commend to us when engaging in political discourse and action?
  • Although electoral politics is only one aspect of a wider democratic life, given the timing of this post I gotta ask: what parties and/or candidates might one support who followed these points of political orientation?

1 comment:

David Drury said...

I am so grateful for your emphasis here on Hope over Fear as a motivator in politics (and the opportunity provided by Wright as he placed the ball on the tee for you.)

I've been struck this fall by how many talk about their FEARS when it comes to our presidential candidates. Often people will be talking about the opponent they are against, and they will say, "he scares me." They say that McCain's warmongering rhetoric in the past "scares me" or that Obama's background is "scary" or that his inexperience at the helm is "scary"... or "I'm afraid about McCain dying and Palin being the commander in chief." Or even, "I'm afraid about what Biden will say to foreign leaders--he's a hot-head."

Well, I suppose there is SOME ROOM for voting our fears but the hope we can have in the candidates we SUPPORT is far more compelling for me. I'd rather hear why the person you support is good, as opposed to why you think 'the other guy' is such a scary stereotype.

Of course we've all had our views manipulated by the campaigns and the media with their FEAR based strategies of attracting attention.

No one has done a better job of undermining this than Stephen Colbert's explosions and bloody fonts and sirens in his "Report" which mimic and mock the newscaster's methods.

"Democralypse Now" Indeed.