Reviewing “Jesus and the Powers”: the Final Post

If you haven’t seen the previous three entries on this book, you can find them here, here, and here. And as I said in the last post, I thought Wright and Bird make some worthwhile, thought-provoking points in Jesus and the Powers. Even so, I put down the book pondering a few major tensions in its reasoning, as well as some newly clarified problems that the writers had unearthed but then left mostly unaddressed, like some old skeletons.

And chief among these cadavers is the question of activism and quietism on matters of macro-politics. What do Wright and Bird advise for predominantly Western, predominantly English-speaking Christians inhabiting those dysfunctional democracies? Not withdrawal, if I read them right:

Yes, you want to avoid the evils of Constantine and Christendom. Instead of seeking influence in the halls of power, you want to be the angry prophet on the margins speaking truth to power. All well and good. But what happens when the power listens? What happens when the power or the people ask you to sit on a committee, contribute to an investigation, run a programme, advise on policy, or serve as a chaplain? That kind of absolute separation of Church and State is fine if you want to be a critic making snarky comments on the sidelines. But if you want to change the game, you need skin in the game. The people who change history must make history. If you want to build for the kingdom, then you have to build something: relationships, alliances, advocacy, food banks, para-church ministries, youth clubs, foreign aid programmes. You need to be in the room where it happens.

This struck me as a decent answer to a question growing less timely by the minute. Perhaps this is because I belong to a younger generation and hail from contemporary Rome itself (let the reader understand the jest), but I myself don’t sense we are in any particular danger of “the power listening” any time soon. With the prospect of ever further de-Christianization, sitting here in 2024, I’m much more anxious to know what Christian virtue prescribes when imperium and populus refuse to listen. Of course, some examples of “building” mentioned above by the authors are equally appropriate even in environments quite hostile to Christianity. But other forms of engagement might be less productive, or worse, they may be bouncing too cheerfully round the old bear trap of co-option. To avoid this particular snare, Wright and Bird posit that Christians resist such temptation by not departing “from our internal consensus” and by sticking to “biblical reasoning” and “creedal formulation” (78). Even putting aside the other two, that first test alone may prove to be an unhelpful limiting principle when precisely these questions of macro-politics presently divide orthodox Christians.

C. S. Lewis, I think, saw the broader problematic dynamics more clearly in his “Meditation on the Third Commandment” (by the same token, I think my own disagreements with Wright and Bird have less to do with age or our particular corners of the Anglosphere). In Lewis’s estimation, the Church’s deliberate engagement in politics could go one of a few ways. It could stay minimalist, confining itself to stating basic ends and lawful means, thus presenting a generic bloc that democratic politicians would not wish to annoy. More aggressively, it could form a front or party—which will immediately convulse and vaporize because Christians themselves fundamentally disagree about effective policies to achieve such uncontroversial goals of justice, prosperity, etc., which we all want. As a third option, Christian factions could link up with existing coalitions and parties, which is what historically happens anyway, though it is hardly innocuous:

It is not reasonable to suppose that such a Christian Party will acquire new powers of leavening the infidel organization to which it is attached. Why should it? Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological. It will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies. But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole.

Instead of embarrassing ourselves and discrediting the faith with such antics, Lewis wryly mused, we could all simply commit the most political act of all by converting our neighbors. The whole thrust of Lewis’s essay is that the deeper and more zealously Christians bury themselves in mass democratic politics, “being in the room where it happens,” the more they will inevitably sink into indecorous forms of collusion. There is, in other words, a real risk in Christians too enthusiastically wedding themselves to political causes: “As it is written, ‘My name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” Contemporary examples abound, (Wright and Bird address some of them) yet Lewis’s description seems me to describe especially well what I see in the New Christian Right ever more clearly by the day. Alas, when your pressure group starts invoking political principles long ago debunked in a few paragraphs by Plato, or favors the fabulously risible NT exegesis of a former Nazi to get around inexpedient biblical demands, I’m afraid it’s fair game to start wondering about political co-option.

But getting back to Wright and Bird’s activism, let’s spelunk a little deeper still. What if the activist mentality itself contributes to dysfunctional democracy? “[W]hat should the church do? We feel the urge, the itch, the need to do something, to act, not to stand idly by in an era of upheaval. . . . Good questions for those who believe that we need to put our faith where our fear is and exercise a faith through love” (7). This is a fine framing to a point. But what if that “urge” in question more often reveals we are indeed “shaped more” by other influences besides Scripture? The authors themselves acknowledge this to be true in the specific case of social media (9), but surely it extends to a host of other cultural pulls and pressures, making us like the proverbial fish ignorant of their wetness? And how would we discern and identify these background assumptions? Recasting this all as a statement, I think we have yet to grapple fully with the ways modern technology and democratization can profoundly distort our sense of moral order, responsibility, agency, and proportionality. Wright and Bird would not have to bother explaining the dangerous ideologies of the moment except for the fact that many sincere Christians presently feel that political “itch.”

And how does this “itch” actually get scratched in the real world? Picture a scenario. In the middle of the week, some piece of bad news starts circulating on the internet, podcast circuit, and news networks: a racially tinged police incident, a mass shooting, a stock market crash, a violent riot, a contentious election outcome, the passage of an unjust law, a divisive judicial ruling, a major political scandal, some war or rumor thereof. Come Sunday morning, a pastor or priest takes to the pulpit, filled with zealous conviction. He explains why Christians cannot sit idly by, and most of the congregation likely already agrees with him. For the sake of God’s justice and kingdom, he explains, Christians everywhere must take a stand, demand reform, pressure their leaders to “do the right” thing or vote them out of office. The pastor may even hint at proper policy prescriptions. His listeners, or at least some of them, leave full of fervor and righteous anger. Some of us have seen this (or something roughly akin to it) with our own eyes, on more than one occasion, in churches of vastly different sizes and theological traditions: from the evangelical megachurch to the small, high church parish (though my own experience also tells me there are important asymmetries here).

So what happens next?

Well, if this church is in America, two thirds of these congregants probably don’t have an especially deep knowledge of civics to draw from in the first place, which seems like a bit of non-starter; many fewer would claim to know anything about the pertinent history or public policy—not least those technical, controversial areas such as urban policing, poverty, public education, monetary policy, market and environmental regulation, taxation and redistribution, diplomacy, military strategy, and just war theory, etc. Of these congregants, some significant number also probably struggle to articulate basic Christian tenets, and their baseline biblical literacy may be even lower, depending on the metrics. Then there is the cruel irony that this congregation comprises only a tiny portion of even the local electorate and is thus unlikely to sway any policy at the level needed to address the Big Problem of the Week. In fact, down the street, at a church of similar size but dissimilar sociological profile, a different pastor has instilled his own righteous message of political engagement but all the while advocating the opposing side of the issue. There is little to no chance, then, that the righteous call to arms could effect change even if the whole congregation could identify the right policy to pursue.

In this scenario, “activist” Christianity has mostly just made people angrier or more anxious, dumping well-meaning believers into an already seething cultural cauldron—or were we all in the cauldron to begin with? For some, the activist ethos’s other main effect will be a largely unearned sense of being in the right. This self-righteousness in turns breeds anger and contempt not only for their actual neighbors but also for fellow believers. “How could you possibly think X, support Candidate Y, not be enraged by Issue Z? How can you call yourself a Christian?” In addition to galvanizing Christian identities, the Big Problem has sapped energy, attention, and other resources that might have addressed smaller but still significant problems in the local community.

Is this oversimplified? Yes, but it’s trying to sketch quickly and impressionistically a much larger set of phenomena. Namely, far from standing out from cultural norms or holding up a mirror, many Christians have become active participants and promulgators of political dysfunction, stepping to all the same rhythms of modern mass democracy as their neighbors. In fact, our added religious zeal can rank us among the most passionate members of our chosen coalitions. This is the fundamental problem, I am persuaded, with encouraging blanket “activism” in politics as conventionally imagined. When Christian teachers, intellectuals, pastors, and institutional leaders—Christian “elites,” in other words—collectively fail to discern the appropriate scale in matters political and exercise concomitant prudence, we are doing more harm, I believe, than we are “building for the kingdom.” Not only are we uncritically taking our moral cues and reflexes much more from our immediate cultural environment than we realize, we are sowing seeds for future co-option and disunity within our communities.

At least, that’s where my thinking stands today. These ideas kept bubbling up relentlessly as I finished this book, but for that exercise, I am also grateful: an indication that Wright and Bird were wrestling with important ideas even if I didn’t always find their conclusions satisfying. To close what has been an excessively long review for such a comparatively short book, Christians may need to think more about how we imagine the “political” and what our prudent, proportional “political” role is within increasingly volatile Western democracies. More specifically, borrowing again from Lewis, we may need to consider whether “democratic” behavior means the sort of thing democracies like (e.g., activism and engagement), or the sort of thing that actually promotes and preserves democracies in the long run. Jesus and the Powers reminded me that those two definitions may be incongruent.


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