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.

email
  • http://theivorylighthouse.blogspot.com/ SJ

    I don’t know what a large scale ‘attack,’ as it were, will do when the most negative impact evangelicals have is on the small scale. That is, these cliche sob stories aren’t all that far off from the remarkable suicide rates of homosexual youth or the disproportionate number of homosexual men who are homeless because their conservative, often evangelical, families have disowned them. We can talk all day about loving the “sinner and hating the sin,” or deciding whether or not we should scold people for their verbalizing a disagreement about gay marriage until kingdom come. Heck, we can even praise those racy pastors who dance the fine line of being too pro-gay. But if we don’t have a basic framework of how to comfort and love the families and people going through this the damage of Christianity is in its unfeeling noise in the media but utter silence to it’s own people making its flocks unprepared to serve and comfort. So while media and is a nice tool its a far cry from a widespread ethic.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Leithart: “When we ignore the lead-up to the cross, though, we miss the politics of Jesus altogether. Submission [to political authorities] comes at the end of a life of very public proclamation.”

    Amen.

    Thanks for a fine article Matthew.

  • Jesse Pals

    Thanks for this article Matthew. I have been thinking of how to curiously enunciate this silence myself over the last year or so. Leithart is wise to note our Lord’s submission and silence, distinguishable from the plaintive quietism that some attribute to Jesus. I appreciate the eschatological dimension you sketch in portraying the kind of silence to be sounded.

  • Paul

    At last, and inevitably, the ancient religious rulerships have failed, and “official” exoteric Christianity is now reduced to all the impenetrable illusions and decadent exercises that everywhere characterize previously privileged aristocracies in their decline from worldly power.
    Now, except a revolution renews the ever esoteric Spirit of Truth, exoteric Christianity is reduced to a chaos of corporate cults and Barnumesque propagandists that rule nothing more than chaotic herds of self-deluded consumers in the whats-in-it-for-me market place of consumerist religiosity.
    P T Barnum was of course wrong – there are thousands of suckers born every minute. And the necessary revolution of Spirit & Truth will not, and cannot emerge from the “official” institutional church.
    Look what happened to Jesus when he tried to buck the ecclesiastical establishment of his time and place. An establishment that had miniscule worldly power compared to the “catholic” church.
    Therefore, the myth/lie of the “cultural superiority” of “official” Christianity has now come full circle. The religious mythologies of the “great” world religions (or historically dominant cults) are not only now waging global wars with one another, like to many psychotic inmates of asylums for the mad. But the public masses of religion-bound people, who, all over the world, for even thousands of years, have been controlled in body and mind by ancient institutions of religiously propagandized worldly power, are now in a globalized state of grossly bound “religious” delusion and social psychosis.