Reopening the Question of China and Hobby Lobby

We’ve been through this once already, but since my friend Jonathan Merritt’s latest piece dredging up the charge of hypocrisy against the Greens because they do business in China has been sent around, so I thought I’d say one or two things about it.

Before that, though, it’s worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with any of the legal arguments that Hobby Lobby has pursued the last few years.  Hypocrites still have their right to religious liberty, after all, and thank the Lord for it. Additionally, I’d note that whatever else I end up saying about this that I think there are real questions to be answered here about how we entangle ourselves in environments where injustice is being done.  It’s obvious that evangelicals need to do a lot more thinking about dirty hands, and Jamie Smith’s recent essay is a great place to start.

But can I gently suggest that Jonathan’s essay is not how such thinking should be done?  The gist of the piece is that China does lots of bad stuff, and Hobby Lobby buys and sells goods there…ergo Hobby Lobby are hypocrites for defending the integrity of their consciences against the intrusiveness of the government. If they aren’t conflicted about their complicity in China, then why do they care about their complicity in the States?

'A Hobby Lobby that looks different!' photo (c) 2014, Nicholas Eckhart - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Now, put that way, Merritt’s piece highlights why everyone should be rooting for Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court.  If the alternative is having their consciences broken by the heels of the government, then the US environment is really no better than China.  Merritt’s critique (ironically) highlights whats at stake here:  do we want a US government that is as demanding and intrusive to individual consciences as he alleges the Chinese government is, or not?  Even if we grant his point about hypocrisy, then our appropriate response should be to exhort the Green’s to revisit their business practices in China while praying they win before the Court. Something tells me that’s not quite the conclusion Jonathan was hoping for.*

But let’s take a look at his….well, I’d call it an argument but I’m not sure it rises to that level.  It gets all of its rhetorical energy on obfuscations and generalizations, which allow for the rhetorical point to go but in the olden days would have been called sophistry.  There’s a lot of handwaving here meant to make you readers feel bad about China, and doing business with China, but not very many specifics about what Hobby Lobby actually does there.  So here are some additional questions that I would want answered before making a moral judgment about Hobby Lobby’s gross hypocrisy:

  • Does Hobby Lobby pay their workers in China the $9.77 a day that Merritt says is the average wage, or more?
  • Where are they buying their products in China, and what does kind of quality of life does what they pay their vendors earn their employees?
  • What kind of due diligence did they do on their vendors to ensure that their vendors are providing the kind of working conditions we would all want to support?
  • Is Hobby Lobby’s China branch leaning on and petitioning the Chinese government to the extent that it is able to ensure better working conditions for laborers?
  • Is the free trade that Hobby Lobby undertaken helpful, harmful, or indifferent for establishing Western leverage with the Chinese with respect to human rights?  To put the question differently, if Hobby Lobby pulled out and trade died, would conditions in China improve or not?  Is interdependence important for social improvement, even if China currently has abusive practices in places? (Thanks to Jonathan Chan for this point, and for this West Wing clip.)
  • Does Jonathan have any evidence at all that allows him to make the rhetorical leap from (a) Hobby Lobby does business in a country where child labor happens to (b) Hobby Lobby supports underage labor?  (See his question “Can you call yourself a “Christian business” when you support underage labor?”
  • Given what we know about Hobby Lobby’s conscientiousness in other facets of their business, is there any reason to think that the Green’s have not been as conscientious with the above questions, other than by prima facie assuming that “doing business” (as a vague abstraction) in China means that they are complicit in everything happening in China?

I could probably keep going, but you get my point.

Jonathan wraps things up with this fun little gotcha:

The most glaring inconsistency between Hobby Lobby’s ethical proclamations and its business decisions concerns the matter of religious liberty. The craft store chain is hailed by conservatives as standing up to Uncle Sam and fighting for religious freedom. Yet Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars worth of bric-a-brac from a nation that denies 1.35 billion citizens freedom of worship.”

There’s lots to be said about China and its rhetorical function in American culture. (Go ahead, name me three positive things about the Chinese people or society without using the internet.) But with respect to religious liberty, Jonathan’s statement that the Chinese government are denying their citizens “freedom of worship” is a simplistic caricature of a massively complicated subject.   China as a society is more religiously open now than it has been in a long time. Among other things, the Chinese government is funding theological research in China. Even when they are tearing down churches, the situation is much more complicated than the American press generally indicates

Is China perfect on religious liberty?  Of course not.  To quote a line that we all know well, it’s complicated. But  one-sided portrayals of the sort that are popular within the US actually matter for US-Chinese relations, as they perpetuate a vague hostility toward China when we should be encouraged about the gains in religious liberty we have seen there the past thirty years while continuing to push for more.

Is there an irony there, then, for Hobby Lobby?  I don’t think so. They could very well argue that by entangling themselves in a society that is trying to navigate the delicate balance of opening themselves slowly to new ideas (China) they are trying to be instrumental in that society for the slow, messy, often painful advancement of the good and the freedom of its citizens.  Those would be, I’d note, the very same freedoms they are seeking to protect here at home, and for which they have done so at great personal cost. They are not martyrs, and their practices deserve scrutiny.  But if Merritt is going to dismiss them as hypocrites, he ought at least do them the justice of making an argument that’s more than the smoke and mirrors he has given us here.

*Jonathan tells me that I wrongfully assume that he is opposed to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case. I’ve asked for further clarification on whether this means he actually supports Hobby Lobby’s case.

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In Defence of War: A Reflection

In Defence of War is thoroughly researched, clearly and elegantly written, and masterfully argued.  The task I have been given of responding is therefore harder than it might seem: as I find Professor Biggar’s account persuasive, perhaps because his contrarian instincts match my own, my most natural impulse is to offer my plaudits and be done.  In Defence of War is, in my opinion, a definitive account of the subject that will be read for a long time to come.  Instead, however, I take my remarks below in the opposite direction and consider whether in his defense of war Professor Biggar has been as pervasively theological in his account as he might has been otherwise.

In the introductory comments to his book, Professor Biggar lays claim to a “realist” tradition of politics that acknowledges the ‘fact of intractable human vice on the international stage.’  Some people, he contends, simply “do not want peace,” or do not want it enough, or only want it on their own terms, a view that he adopts not a priori but “on historical experience.” (10)  Yet he contends such a ‘realism’ is not Hobbesian, but Christian and Barthian. It affirms a God “who is capable of incarnation real death, and bodily resurrection” and so is “stronger on eschatological hope” than Reinhold Niebuhr’s. in defence of war biggar

Biggar sets this “realism” against the “virus of wishful thinking,” or the notion that there “always has to be an available pacific solution.” Yet such a pacifism, which Biggar contends is motivated by an “optimistic anthropology” that works “by faith in the natural goodness of human beings”, is not the only anti-violence outlook that he opposes.  There is also the theological variety, which is motivated by the example of Jesus, and so “by faith in the supernatural power of God to purge the world of the human vices that foster war.”

Framing theological pacifists this way, though, borders on reducing the argument to whichever view is more effective, which the theologically-minded pacifists are to reject. If the claim that abstaining from violence is more ‘effective’ at eliminating violence and warfare, then the question can only be determined by an empirical judgment, in which case the pacifist may simply modify Chesterton’s maxim about Christianity and say that it is not so much that pacifism has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and so left untried. Or at least untried enough in either domestic or international conflicts to form a reasonable comparison set with the just war position.

Where theological pacifism and Biggar’s own Augustinian willingness to pursue a limited retribution through warfare part ways is not on whether and who must finally purge evil from the world, but rather the obligations and possibilities Christians face in the meantime as they pursue evil’s mitigation, not its final undoing.  On Biggar’s view, an “Augustinian modesty” demands that we pursue justice, but not too much justice, lest by our perfectionism we commit additional evils. (77)  The political order war leaves behind must be one that is “at least sufficiently just and stable not to return to the old ways.” But there is no reason a pacifist, theological or otherwise, would have to be committed to pursuing or expecting anything more than that either:  the pacifist constraint that Christians stringently hold forth the possibility of a non-violent resolution by refusing to take up arms does not commit them (necessarily) to the proposition that in every case peace will prevail, or even that resolution will be found in most cases. The theological pacifist may immanentize the eschaton, so to speak, and claim that God is purging the world of the vices that foster war through their non-violence. But there is no theological reason why they must.  Biggar’s claim that theological pacifists must take their stance “because they view the unilateral renunciation of violence as optimally beneficial in the (very) long run”, in fact, puts both the just war theorist and the theological pacifists in the same boat.  As he writes, neither can “demonstrate  that their chosen response to grave injustice will be less costly and more beneficial than the alternative.” (330)

I mention this not to object to Biggar’s account, but rather to raise questions about the role history and contingency plays in determining our responsibilities theologically. Biggar’s critique of the theological pacifists decisively demonstrates (in my opinion) that the New Testament is at the very least ambiguous about the legitimate use of violence. Yet in answering why we might choose just war over pacifism, the main reason Biggar gives is that “human experience teaches that wickedness, unpunished, tends to wax.” (330)  Fair enough. But wax for how long, and with what sort of unforeseen consequences?  It is incumbent upon the Christian ethicist to determine not simply the peace we ought let go of in our pursuit of retribution, but the terrors and evils we ought patiently endure. Biggar thinks that there are some cases where war is the only option before us, and so repudiates the ‘wishful thinking’ that there ‘must be a better way.’ But what is the force of this necessity in the sphere of human action? Attempting to meet an intractable vice with the unstoppable means of a more powerful coercive violence seems more like a tragically determinist account of history and its forces than a Christian view of providence and history.

To put the point a different way:  while the cross may be construed in ways other than the unqualified obligation to nonviolence, what role does the resurrection play in a just war theory? Such a moment seems to demand a qualification to the claims of history, and potentially demands of Christians a constant and unending obligation to remain open to the possibility that the tragic circumstances we find ourselves in are a momentary illusion, and that the violence is a cheat that obscures—but cannot defeat—the possibility of renewal. Biggar relays the pacifists claim that their stance “is right regardless of its efficacy,” and bluntly retorts:  “That makes no sense,” enjoining the Christian theologian to care about “the outcome of what he says.”  Yet it is just such claims of ‘efficacy’ that the resurrection seems to problematize for Christian theologians by shifting the terms of judgment away from empirical results on to another plane.

However, Biggar’s own theological account of just war does more than simply make room for it biblically as a legitimate mode of Christian reflection, before turning toward ‘natural reasons’ for sorting out when it applies.  His defense of love in war attempts to integrate forgiveness with certain kinds of resentment and retribution to demonstrate how Christian love qualifies coercion, and how that might structure the activities of soldiers on the battlefield.  Yet the account here is limited to justice in warfare, rather than clarifying how love might structure the reasons to go to war.  In that case, Biggar allows “plausibility” to define the ethical terrain in a way that potentially overly-naturalizes and historicizes our theological judgment.  He contends his account enables “us to discern how forgiveness could find fitting political expression in circumstances where simple absolution would be breathtakingly naive and inappropriate,” such as the United States’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th.  As he puts it, “If such absolution were the sum of forgiveness, then it could have had no plausible place in America’s reaction.”  Biggar is unquestionably right:  but to construe the decision to forgive slightly differently, it is not absolution that America might have offered in refusing to take up the cause of a retribution that has been chastened by compassion, but rather a judgment deferred toward another and potentially delayed until the eschaton. The American response may have been substantively identical regardless of whether it was ordered toward peace or vindictiveness. But it is not clear why, theologically, what is ‘plausible’ ought be the criterion by which these matters are decided, especially in light of the history-disrupting, deeply implausible moment of the resurrection.  In bracketing the eschatological peace that the resurrection signifies to avoid an overly stringent perfectionism, Biggar raises a real question about what need we have for it in deliberation about war at all—other than as the sort of thing we shouldn’t aim at.

The question of how we judge history in light of the cross and resurrection may have a more general practical application as well.  In the question of the Iraq War’s legitimacy, Biggar argues that the fact “that Saddam Hussein was not actually engaged in the process of perpetrating mass atrocity removes just cause from the invasion of 2003,” as the “regime of Saddam Hussein had not changed its spots.” His argument rests on the eminently practical principle that absent a change in heart or leadership, “there would be reason” to “expect the future to run along historical lines.” (256)  Given that there were no signs of internal unrest in 2003, Biggar concludes that regime change may have been possible, but clearly was not likely at the time (298), and so the invasion was a matter of last resort in that respect.  All that is fair enough.

Yet with respect to Michael Northcott’s arguments that America was motivated by imperial ambitions in light of his case that America has had at least 35 years of imperial activity, Biggar suggests that even if Northcott is right “we should still judge each case on its own merits” and “examine the most directly relevant evidence, and give priority over what our reading of historical precedent has led us to expect.”  At the least, this principle applied to Iraq would seem to eviscerate the claim that the past activities of Saddam’s regime justified intervention simply because there had been no regime change.  Whether moral atrocities by wicked dictators have a statute of limitations I am not qualified to judge.  But there is, at least, a serious question here about whether and how we use history in moral analysis.

I would note again, however, my appreciation for the book and my widespread agreement.  I offer the above noting that my own construals are questionable, at least, and instead submit them as a foundation for a healthy and lively conversation.*

*Disclosure: Professor Biggar is currently my M.Phil. advisor.  I hope it’s clear that had no bearing on the above. 

Hesitation about Rights and the Need for a Mutual Defense

Adam and Eve made for themselves fig-leaves, but God made for them coats of skins. If justice is the coat of skin with which God has clothed vulnerable and mutually aggressive postlapsarian humanity, rights are the fig-leaves with which they propose to clothe themselves. One difference between the two garments is that the coats of skins are more opaque, and so is justice. It does, indeed, defend us; but only when we allow ourselves to be clothed in it whole and entire; if our concern is with defence instead of justice, we will never achieve justice, and so will never achieve a sufficient mutual defence either.

The above, from Oliver O’Donovan, is worth meditating upon in the context of disputes about what sort of stability and harmony our society should be pursuing.  I’ve not given up on the notion of “rights” as O’Donovan has–in case anyone wishes to dispute whether it is possible for me to disagree with the man–but the cautions that he notes have been working at me in a variety of ways the past few years, especially as the conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty seems to be proceeding apace.

But it is that last sentence that I find haunting, as it illuminates a peculiar kind of danger that comes upon us in the middle of conflagurations like those we’ve been through recently.  It is easy in the disputes over religious liberty for those with conservative instincts (like me) to shift into a mode that subtly shifts our first concern away from justice and toward the  preservation of a space where people are free–to be unjust. Yes, even that.  Not every wrong done demands the public recognition and legitimation that the law provides.

The preservation of such a space is its own kind of justice, to be sure:  we will all lose if every dispute over cakes ends up in the courts, even if we do not necessarily feel the loss.  But the danger of pursuing this strategy as a form of protecting a business owner’s particular rights is that it disposes us to be inattentive to the grievances that are being claimed.  The conflict between rights also potentially shifts the attention toward the bearers as individuals, rather than attending to what is done by those agents in a particular situation and judging accordingly.  Such a disposition may in fact increase the claims of grievance and the underlying hostilities at work.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek legal protections for business owners, or anyone else.  In doing so, we preserve a space for non-legal or political resolutions to disputes.  But we should be attentive to how our defense of the freedom to do wrong sits with the substantive questions of what is just, and how our first and primary concern must always be with the just so that we can ensure–as much as possible–that every citizen is a participant within it.

On Religious Liberty: A Dialogue with Sarah Posner

I don’t agree with Sarah Posner on much of anything, but she is fun to talk to.  As we both followed the recent scrums about the nature and extent of religious liberty with considerable interest, we decided that a conversation would be fitting and good.

What followed is an hour of sparring that is, I think, worth your time.  Thanks for watching.  Feedback (good or bad) is most welcome.

The Politics of Silence: Questions for Peter Leithart

It was just over a year ago that Louie Giglio withdrew from participating in President Obama’s second inauguration because of the uproar surrounding his twenty-year-old comments on homosexuality.

Since then, much of substance has changed in America’s culture wars, even if each side’s rhetorical posture has not. Facile cliches about history and bigotry still get tossed about by pro-gay activists, while conservative concern about the steady marginalization of traditional views from the public square reached a new pitch this past December when…well, we all remember that one, don’t we?

Faced with arguing that our society’s current trajectory leads toward more stringent regulations for Christianity’s public action, conservatives have been forced into taking up the unenviable task of making much of what seem otherwise to be relatively harmless offenses. The response is understandable: liberals have also amplified the errant words of conservatives, deploying activists and petitions to pressure people into complying. But conservatives are still stuck somewhere between the rock and a hard place: if we use examples of our eroding position, the easy rejoinder is simply that we’re losing advantages we once enjoyed. How conservatives persuade the hesitant, uncertain majority that there are genuine grounds for concern for the future without playing “Chicken Little” is a genuine dilemma.

This is particularly true of the so-called “millennial evangelicals,” for whom the purported “fearmongering” of the Religious Right is often the only thing we know about evangelical politics in the 80s and 90s. In such a context, using situations like our most recent turmoil to demonstrate what’s at stake has a counterproductive effect. The truth delegitimizes the messengers precisely because the audience is already numb to it. Thunderous denunciations issued often enough eventually start sounding like that incomprehensible teacher on Charlie Brown.

One alternative to speaking up in such moments is silence, an alternative that I have tried to defend in a limited way before. But that has troubles of its own, as Peter Leithart recently pointed out at First Things:

At the crucial moment, Jesus submitted in weakness and humility, and in weakness and humility he won his greatest victory. When we ignore the lead-up to the cross, though, we miss the politics of Jesus altogether. Submission comes at the end of a life of very public proclamation. To follow Jesus from the beginning, we need to be faithful in exposing the idols of our world, and joyfully accept whatever consequences come. If we don’t follow Jesus at the beginning, we’re unlikely to have an opportunity to follow him to the end.

If we start with silence, we’ll countenance injustice and accommodate to wickedness. More seriously, if we start with submission, we are not actually following Jesus. We end up in the company of Niebuhr, with a Jesus who is no use in the conflicted world of power. It’s an ironic place for a politics of Jesus to find itself.

Everything Leithart says here is right. But it raises questions on which the shape of our lives and proclamation *now* depends. Who is the “we”? Is it the individual Christian, the writer with the blog, the ordained minister or priest, or the members of the nebuluous and diverse social movement known as “religious conservatives”? Are we now at the middle of Jesus’s story, or somewhere nearer the end? Is the “public proclamation” the announcement of the Word of God, the legal defense of traditional marriage, or some sophisticated combination of the two?

At a minimum, it’s important to remember that we do not each individually enact the life of Jesus on our own, nor do our traditions or communities start anew at the beginning of the life of Jesus in our relationship to the world at the beginning of each new (religious) year. We live in a moment that has been partially shaped by our forefathers, for good or ill, and our own obligations and duties determined partly by their doings and failings. If we are invested in the promotion of life, religious liberty, and marriage, then we are only at the beginning of our proclamation if we ignore those who went before us. (Many of my evangelical peers, embarrassed by the Religious Right’s errant words and repelled by their ethos, would be happy doing just that.) It may be the case that the end of Jesus’s life is more instructive for our present moment than Leithart allows.

I myself find myself uncertain about the task before us. Knowing when to speak and when to stay silent is an art in which I have much learning before me. But I raise the above questions because I am confident that if we do not open ourselves to the possibility that this moment demands our political silence, then we risk allowing our speech to be droned out by the storms and tumult of our current controversies rather than being shaped by our faithfulness to the Word of God.

“Political silence” is a necessary qualification, for there is a sort of public speech which we are enjoined never to give up on as Christians: prayer. This too is a political act, in its own way, as is the whole worship of the church. And it is there that true resistance happens, where the triumphal announcement takes on a power that cannot be quenched, and the true scandal of the world must be found. If we are to make our arguments, we must first make our intercessions.

All of our activity and speech must be suffused by a hopeful waiting, by an expectation that the idols will fall down and the people be saved by an effort that is not of their own. At the center of hell Dante’s Satan traps himself in ice precisely by fanning his wings while working to escape. In Lewis’s dystopian novel That Hideous Strength the merry band of dissenters lives in cheerful preparation for movement by forces inexplicable to this world. The denoument comes with rather little visible activity of their own. The wrong so often overreaches and defeats itself by its own bluster.

The Joy of Evangelical Political Life: Russell Moore in First Things

Russell Moore’s latest for First Things is up.  And it’s a fun read:

Indeed, often the “broader” agenda items reinforce their social conservatism. Evangelicals working with the poor see the devastation of family breakdown, substance abuse, predatory gambling, and so on. Not that this changes the way they’re spoken of in public. When Evangelicals adopt, the secularist Left accuses them of “stealing” children for “Evangelism,” though if they didn’t the left would accuse them of caring about “fetuses” without providing them homes.

These Evangelicals actually go to church and so represent the future. The problem is that “young Evangelical” is a confusing term, especially for a media culture that often defines the concept in terms of marketing rather than theology or ecclesiology. It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak in with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic. As one wag once said of Al Gore, that he is “an old man’s idea of a young man,” these Evangelicals are usually an Episcopalian’s idea of an Evangelical, just as the “nuns on the bus” are secularizing America’s idea of a Catholic.

But these sorts aren’t, demographically speaking, where the future is, among those who are actually filling and building churches. The “red-letter Christian” who speaks as though the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good Galilean first draft of the 2024 Democratic party platform isn’t likely to be launching an Evangelical church-planting movement. Or an Evangelical adoption agency, soup kitchen, or halfway house for people just out of jail. The pop-left of Evangelicalism usually has quite little to do with Evangelical churches and is usually ephemeral even by the standards of Evangelical faddishness. Rob Bell once pastored a megachurch; now, last I heard, he was talking about starring in his own reality show.

And that closes off the first third.

There’s lots to interact with in the piece.  I particularly appreciated Moore’s insistence that the “centrality of the Gospel demands a certain form of public engagement.”  And his critique that the last generation of political activism was sometimes motivated by “a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it” seems apt as well.  Moore is trying to carve out the same sort of delicate relationship with the conservative political world that we have cultivated the past decade here at Mere-O:  appreciative of the efforts, agreeing on many matters of substance, concerned about the rhetoric, and willing to critique when necessary.

In the final third of the piece, he outlines his vision for a Christian engagement that is neither triumphalistic nor isolationist and here too I have hearty cheers.  The word that I think fits is confidence, and I sometimes suspect that evangelicals have never had much of it in their political engagement, which is partly why our influence has been considerably less than our size.

Moore’s imagery of the cultural peril that evangelicalism faces is rather dire.  And perhaps that is warranted.  But even if it’s not appropriate to “shrug off” the hostility before us, we ought to at least have a good laugh about it.  The very Gospel that Moore ably keeps at the center reveals hostility to it to be comically impotent, a laughable parody of genuine power.  The prophetic tension and engagement that Moore unpacks must both be bounded by joy, which is perhaps the most important political affection we can have.

It’s clear Moore is going to lead the way for evangelicals going forward, and I for one couldn’t be happier about that.  And I’ve no doubt that he is a genuinely cheerful fellow, in person and beyond.  He seems to be, anyway.  And I know I’m not saying anything he disagrees with; he has made similar points in other contexts, I think, which brings me great comfort indeed.

But that joy has to begin to pervade our rhetoric.  Courage, fortitude, strength–yes.  You can hear Moore’s words evoking those responses from evangelicals.  But that path before us good, and the hope before us is not simply that Rome will not waver but that in the very marginalization and suffering that Moore thinks is upon us we will be made complete and whole like our Savior.  The prophetic announcement must have its great tidings of glad joy, for it is the joy of the people that will cast out our fear.

A Radical Anthropology and Imagining our Political Future

James Poulos, one of my favorite political writers, has been hammering away recently at our need to frame our political conversations around anthropology and imagination first and policy specifics second.  He’s taken up the language of “free radicals” as shorthand for his vision, which I hasten to note is a form of “radical” that has little in common with that which readers of Mere-O are familiar with.

There’s a lot about James’ approach that intrigues me.   Like this, for instance:

For Tocqueville, people like us — living in an era when it has become obvious that the definitive thing about us is how similar we all are to each other as humans — two competing anthropologies rise to the fore. According to the first, being human is defined by being in servitude to a heavenly master. According to the second, being human is defined by being in servitude to an earthy master. For people like us, today, that seems to tee up the same old culture clash. But Tocqueville himself made some little-noticed and very pregnant remarks in Democracy in America about just what kind of anthropology would suffice to steer us, in the fragility of our freedom, away from servility before the state and its human masters. He speculated that belief in an immortal soul, or even reincarnation, might be enough.

I offer a rather different answer to the same question. I think it’s an answer that can work not just for Republicans who want to take a shared stand together for the betterment of humankind, but for any particular American who feels that way too. You may be on the edge of your seat about what this anthropology might be. You might be slumped pretty far back in your seat with skepticism and cynicism. Either way, the first hurdle for us to clear is a shared recognition that we should choose not to limit ourselves to a policy conversation — and that without a deeper conversation about what anthropological vision can capture all our imaginations, all the wonkery in the world is largely a waste of some very precious time.

Yet it’s just the details of the anthropological vision that James wants to argue for that I’m uncertain about.  James hasn’t worked them out in full, but he has given us a glimmer:

Just as, in biblical religion, one must ponder the possibilities of a God whose name is “I am that I am,” or “I am that I shall become,” in the free-radical vein that I’ve been developing this year, the quaint anthropology of the rational actor who rank-orders his or her preferences is abandoned in favor of a vision of you, me, and everyone as a person who is what he or she shall become — through language, by making authentic declarations acted into being. (By “authentic” I mean born out of an accurate and witnessed acknowledgement of real-life experience, not the distorted judgments formed by imitation, memory, or fear. See, e.g., the language of declaration, direct experience, and sacred honor in the Declaration of Independence.)

We all know, or can know, what it is to experience a clearing-away of mere imitation, of stale or warped memory, and of biting fear, and an a speaking into that empty space of new promises to ourselves and others grounded in little more than what we see newly possible as a choice that inspires us and others into motion. Once shared, this experience occurs to us as profoundly personal and profoundly human.

It’s here whether I wonder how commensurate this alternative vision of anthropology is with traditional Christian teaching about God and our freedoms in light of his providence.  The emphasis on “clearing away” and “speaking into that empty space of new promises to ourselves and others grounded in little more than what we see newly possible as a choice that inspires us and others into motion” sounds, to my ear, almost like an optimistic strand of existentialism.  The world of things, the “empty space” before us, has been bounded in advance by promises and speakings not of our own choosing or utterance.  Such is, it seems to me, the promise of the doctrine of providence.  Our task is to discern and live within such boundaries responsibly.  Our freedom is only truly free when it has this correlate, when it is responsive to a moral order and to the institutions that bear and communicate that moral order.*

I suspect my worry really arises right at Poulos’s “little more.”  James is adopting a minimalist stance , because without such an approach it will never have legs anywhere beyond….places like Mere-Orthodoxy, and we all know how massively influential we are.

Still, it seems that this radical openness to the future and the emphasis on our own near-divine creative activity actually undercuts our humanity while paradoxically humanizing God.  By adding “or that I shall become” to the description of God James leaves “biblical religion” behind by introducing an unqualified openness, where the future of God is in no way bound by what he has revealed himself to be.  In a sense, that seems to open up space for an abstract “deity” behind the God of the Bible, which is perhaps why James turns toward the language of the Declaration of Independence as resources for his point.

But James’ radical openness also creates a a conception of choice in accordance with imagined possibilities that has no resources to resist the excesses of libertarian posthumanism and all the free unicorns that they want for us.  That isn’t  an argument for or against per se, as the question of such a future needs to be taken up on its own merit.   But it does make it seem unlikely that anyone with conservative theological commitments will be able to buy a ticket on the free radicals train.

Two scholars debate violence and the nation state

In the past month there has been a fascinating exchange going on between occasional Mere O contributor Brad Littlejohn and DePaul’s William Cavanaugh. It started with this critique of Cavanaugh’s work by Littlejohn:

In his 2004 essay “Killing for the Telephone Company” (Modern Theology 20:2, reprinted inMigrations of the Holy) Cavanaugh seems equally uninterested in both the theoretical (and very theological) issue of legitimacy, and in the empirical history of violence in pre-modern and early modern times.  The rise of the early modern state is described in terms of an escalation of military violence, and, following the work of Charles Tilly, Cavanaugh goes so far as to say, “The claim that emerging states offered their citizens protection against violence ignores the fact that the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.  What separated state violence from other kinds of violence was the concept of legitimacy, but legitimacy was based on the ability of state-makers to approximate a monopoly on violence within a given geographical territory” (p. 249).   Cavanaugh’s dismissive attitude toward the concept of legitimacy is a topic for another day; what I am interested in here is the breathtaking historical claim that “the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.”

Cavanaugh responded:

Even if Pinker were right, however, Littlejohn is wrong to think that it would refute the central thesis of my book on “religious violence.”  My book is not an attempt to prove that modernity is more violent than previous epochs.  It is indeed not an exercise in “modernity criticism” at all.  It is a critique not of modernity as such, but of one of the primary ideological defenses of modern liberal politics, that is, the idea that there is a transhistorical and transcultural something called “religion” that must be tamed by the secular nation-state because religion has a peculiar tendency to promote violence.  My point is not that violence is a creation of modernity or that things in general used to be better than they are now.  My argument is negative: the myth of religious violence is false.  There is no coherent way, either now or in previous eras, to separate religious violence from secular violence in such a way that the former is peculiarly more pervasive or more virulent than the latter.

Littlejohn replies:

In his response to my post, Cavanaugh tried to insist that his main point had been only to decry the violence of war which early state-makers created, a violence which he says, according to Muchembled, simply redirected young men’s killing energies from neighbors to foreigners.  I would contest this defense at both levels.  First of all, that is not really Muchembled’s main argument, and if it were, it would be considerably overstated.  While there are some areas, such as Scotland, in which internal violence was essentially just redirected into military service, standing armies were too small a proportion of the early modern population for that to be the main explanation in most places.  Nor am I convinced that war deaths increased dramatically from, say, the 15th to the 17th century, cancelling out the plunging homicide rates, as Cavanaugh seems to want to argue.  Medieval wars were smaller and more local but more frequent and often quite brutal.  Second, however, I’m not convinced by Cavanaugh’s claim that he was only “referring to one specific kind of violence, that is, war between sovereign states.”  Although Tilly’s account, on which Cavanaugh is relying in “Killing for the Telephone Company,” is quite one-sided, Tilly talks not only about state-makers offering protection against external threats, but internal ones as well.  In his essay, Cavanaugh then goes on to blame the war of individuals against one another within society as a product of the state, as we saw in the quote above: “this reconciliation  [of many into one] only comes after the creation of a prior antagonism, the creation of a novel form of simple social space that oscillates between the individual and the state.”  To this I simply point out again that the antagonism was already there—the local forms of authority that predominated in medieval times were no guarantee of social harmony.

In a discussion of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation held at the University of Chicago, Brown University’s Rachel Fulton Brown raised an interesting possibility about Gregory’s argument that would apply to William Cavanaugh’s work as well, I think: Gregory’s book is less about romanticizing the medieval period and is much more about a certain wistfulness for a world that never had the chance to exist. In other words, certain cultural and philosophical movements in the late medieval world (most notably the humanist movement spearheaded by Erasmus, but the conciliar movement also deserves mention) looked like they could reshape aspects of the medieval world for the better without burning the whole thing to the ground and starting from scratch. But with the Reformation and the chaos that followed it, the possibility of an improved medieval world was destroyed and replaced by modernity.

In other words, we’re arguing over two equally problematic choices–the secular violence and totalitarian nature of the modern nation state or the coercive power of the church and political dysfunction of the medieval era. Both Cavanaugh and Gregory are saying something quite similar. They’re not saying “get rid of modernity and revert back to western Europe circa 1500.” They’re saying that there is a way of moving past the worst excesses of medieval culture and politics without adopting the radical changes brought about by modernity.

As a historian, Gregory is wistful for that world. As a political theologian, Cavanaugh is keen to introduce the modern church to its possibility.

Martin Luther on the Passions of Evangelical Politics

Now that we have a bit of distance from the Giglio controversy, it’s worth stepping back and thinking through this with a bit more depth:  how should Christians speak in public when those in government oppose them?

I’ve been rereading Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness and have found it illuminating in light of recent events.  A brief summary:

After describing public officials as those who have been ordained by God to “punish and judge evil men, to vindicate and defend the oppressed,” Luther turns toward private individuals–including, presumably, clergymen–and identifies three types of response when they have suffered injustices.  It’s an instructive taxonomy and comes very close to identifying some of the shortcomings I had tried to grasp at.

Martin Luther, commemorated on February 18 Eva...

Martin Luther, commemorated on February 18 Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006), 15. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first type Luther identifies are those who “seek vengeance and judgment from the representatives of God.”  Luther’s basic disposition toward these folk is that we should tolerate them, but not commend them.  In fact, he goes on to suggest that they may not enter the kingdom of heaven(!) unless they forsake “things that are merely lawful” and pursue “those that are helpful.  For that passion for one’s own advantage must be destroyed.”

The second class are those “who do not desire vengeance” and “do not resist any evil.”  Christian Citizenship 202as it were.  Yet Luther goes a step further and suggests that if the authorities seek to redress the wrongs done on their own, such Christians “do not desire it or seek it, or they only permit it.”  If they’re really advanced, then they may even prevent the government from pursuing justice as they are “prepared rather to lose their other possessions also.”

Yet this isn’t a form of political quietism, at least not of the sort that abdicates any responsibility toward the public square and those who are infringing other people’s liberties within it.  Instead, they “grieve more over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense to themselves.  And they do this that they may recall those offenders from sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered.”

There is a third class, though, who are like the second type in disposition but not like the second type in practice.  Which is to say, they “demand back their property or seek punishment to be meted out, not because they seek their own advantage but because they seek the betterment of the one who has stolen or offended.”  Yet Luther isn’t sanguine about this group:

“No one ought to attempt this unless he is mature and highly experienced in the second class just mentioned, lest he mistake wrath for zeal and be convicted of doing from anger and impatience that which he believes he is doing from love of justice.  For anger is like zeal, and impatience is like love of justice so that they cannot be sufficiently distinguished except by the most spiritual.”

Let me be the first to say that I am not among the most spiritual and am almost certainly not going to get the taxonomy of loves and passions right.  But it is  interesting that Luther (like Augustine) recognizes the subtle differences between zeal and love of justice on the one hand and anger and impatience on the other.  He is attentive not only to whether we are seeking the right, but the passions that motivate us to seek it. And one of the criterion he deploys is whether we are properly focused on the offender’s good, rather than rectifying the wrongs done to us for the sake of justice on its own.

Luther’s primary interest is in safeguarding the integrity of Christians’ witness to the Gospel. And no Christian is going to disagree with him on that, at least not that I know of. What’s more, Luther doesn’t specify whether his is only a criterion for action or whether it is also a criterion for communication.   Continue reading

Silence and the Passion: On CNN, Louie Giglio, and Me

Over the weekend, I wrote this at CNN about the Louie Giglio debacle:

The news that Louie Giglio is no longer going to give the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration sent shock waves around the conservative Christian world.

Conservative Christians are right to be concerned about what these events mean for their welcome in the public square. But as Christians we shouldn’t be surprised nor even overly upset. Given the history of our founder, such marginalization is what we can expect.

I’d encourage you to read the whole thing before commenting. There’s only so much you can do in 800 words, and I probably tried to do too much.  (I’ve never had that problem before, right?)  So let me add a little here, by way of clarification.

Can silence be a political act?  Can it be a form of communication, and if so what might it communicate?  Or perhaps more specifically, can offering something like “Father, forgive them” be included in the canonical moments that we consider when discerning how to respond to those who reject us?  It need not be the only moment that we consider, of course.  There are others.  But there may be a time to speak politically and defend ourselves and a time to stay silent, or to speak a different language and pursue a different set of concerns than those which a controversy thrusts before us.

My suggestion in the attached is that Jesus’ silence at his trial and his decision to pray for forgiveness from the cross constitue a form of “standing boldly against the efforts” of those seeking to silence his message.  It is not quietism to say that sometimes we may be called to be quiet and allow those opposed to us to “show their true colors,” as it were.  As Isaiah puts it (KJV), “in quietness and confidence shall be our strength.” If there are never moments of silence in the face of persecution than our prophetic denunciations will lose their power.  Which is what we have seen from evangelicals speaking about politics. We must face head on the slow erosion of our credibility and consider that perhaps our tactics need to change in light of it.

In this, I had in the background this from Oliver O’Donovan, which I think a remarkable and accurate bit of wisdom:

The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

Which is to say, my concern in the CNN piece and about the way evangelicals respond to such controversial moments is the way our rhetoric deepens and expresses our political affections.

Let me propose a constructive alternative that I would have liked to see us do as evangelicals (that I thought of *after* I wrote the article, being a somewhat slow-witted thinker): what if evangelicals had demonstrated our political dispassion by saying, “Hmmm, okay. That’s rather silly of you all, but okay. We like Louie Giglio a lot and are going to raise a million bucks to end human trafficking in his honor. Oh, and we like marriage too. So we’re going to raise a million dollars for the Christian Counseling Education Foundation specifically to help low income couples whose marriages are struggling.”  (John Piper got close to this when he sent out the link to Giglio’s Enditmovement.com with the appropriate addition, “Forward.”)

The fact is that evangelicals are already perceived as having too strong a sense of entitlement to have our views being represented in public and as being angry and unhappy when we don’t get our way.  It’s a caricature that’s mostly false, but moments like this reinforce it.  Giving money or time or what have you isn’t just the right thing to do:  it would reframe the narrative in a way that rigorous arguments about religious liberty and the Obama administration’s lameness would not.  We needed, in other words, the equivalent of millions of cheerful Americans lining up to eat chicken sandwiches–except without turning food into a political statement.

Joe Rigney pointed out on Twitter last night that he’d add a “hearty horse-laugh” to the list of how we ought face these situations, and I’d absolutely agree.  Doug Wilson obviously does to, as he’s clearly having a good time with it.  And that’s a key point:  if we are caught up in disordered political affections, laughter is a good deal harder to muster up.  But laughter is a more attractive response.  If we are going to disagree with our opponents, we might as well have some fun with it.

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One other thing I’d say, also in light of Joe Rigney’s (excellent) comments:  I’m not sanguine about the possibility of a reasonable conversation in the middle of these controversies.  But I am hopeful, which is a virtue that is easily mistaken for a facile optimism.  My commitment to holding out “the promise of reasonable discourse and communication” is there precisely because I think regardless of how those who disagree with us act, we should not conform to their approach.

In fact, one way of reading my piece would be as a stark judgment on the gay and lesbian community for their decision.  Think through this carefully:  I suggested that Christians remain silent or change the subject.  Why?  Is it because I’m wildly optimistic that we can have a reasonable discussion?  The silence and speech I pointed to were those of the unjustly accused.  If anything, the underlying premise of my piece is that we are fast moving beyond the point where reasonable discussions is possible.  Only what we see in Jesus’ life is that when he arrives there he prays and agonizes in private and then shouts his forgiveness in public.  Can we say that we have done likewise as evangelicals and that our response to the marginalization of our perspective that this Giglio business represents reflects that?

But leave it to someone else to say all I wanted to with a good deal more brevity (Twitter proves its value).  Over the weekend, Ray Ortlund wrote that “The persecuted early Christians, driven from their homes, “went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Not ‘complaining.’”  He may not want to claim me and my argument, but to my mind that about sums it up.  (And see Jared Wilson’s post, too, which I think is quite good.)

In fact, I specifically mentioned continuing to give sermons because the pulpit should be the locus of evangelical political engagement.  The lack of deep, substantive political theological reflection from our pastors (sometimes justified with theological reasons!) has left evangelicals without their main tool for shaping our political affections.  A depoliticized pulpit leads to a sacralized politics, you might say.  The formula needs a great deal more nuancing, as I’m not expecting policy pronouncements on obscure sections of the law (necessarily).  But if Jesus standing before Pilate not saying anything is a form of political engagement, then certainly pastors preaching the word of God to the church and the world is as well.  I am only a quietist if the church’s pronouncement happens somewhere else than “in the world,” but last I checked our churches were still made from concrete and our pastors still have flesh and blood.

I’ll leave it rest there, but I hope that goes a step toward more clarity.  These are hard issues and I may in fact not be right at all that this is the appropriate time for evangelicals to adopt the sort of approach I suggested.  But I hope that we can at least open up the question and rethink how we respond to controversy.