The response to Andrew Sullivan’s cover story on the crisis of Christianity has surprised me, if only because his appeal seems to go no deeper than rehashing the sort of anti-creedal theological liberalism that mainline Protestant denominations have taken to.
The concerns that Andrew lays out are common enough. Christianity, we are reminded, has become overly and reductionistically politicized. Rather than embracing Jesus’ mindset of renouncing power, contemporary Christians have been seized by the temptations of coercion and so have eroded the distinctive Christian witness.
Yet while nearly everything in Sullivan’s essay skews toward a radically internally oriented, pietistic Christianity, he holds on to–or tries to, anyway–Christianity’s public dimension in a single paragraph: This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all.
Little in the paragraph is objectionable: Sullivan’s distinction between “public witness” and “politics” (the latter of which I take he is defining narrowly, as the sphere of the government’s coercive authority) is one we can happily affirm.
And yet, for a piece released around Easter, Sullivan’s Christianity seems to have nearly forgotten the Resurrection.
In both his original piece and his reply to Trevin Wax, Sullivan contends that the cross is the “great symbol of the Christian faith” because it is a “total renunciation of worldly power.”
While the qualification of “power” to “worldly” and “earthly power” is itself an interesting adjustment, the cross is the “great symbol of the Christian faith” precisely because the renunciation of power was revealed in the Resurrection as the manifestation of power. The kingdom is “not of this world,” but it breaks into this world and radically reshapes “every square inch” of it, as folks are rather fond of saying, if not today then when Christ eventually returns. Sullivan points to the crown of thorns and the mocking of his doubters as further evidence of Jesus’ renunciation of earthly power: yet the irony of faith is that the crown of thorns is revealed as the crown of the King of Kings. The one enthroned in heaven laughs, after all, because he understands that the joke is on those who scorned him.
Pointing at the cross and repeating “renunciation” may be an important step for a political theology, but it is not the only step. There are other moments in redemptive history that need consideration. And those make it difficult to buy Sullivan’s claims that the transcendent kingdom is an apolitical kingdom, even where “apolitical” is meant in the narrow sense of governmental coercion. Romans 13 is a thorny passage, but one thing seems clear: political authority is given by God and subordinated to him. God may want things to run things liberally, on secular grounds because he cares about voluntary entry into the church–but I suspect even saying all that still wouldn’t be sufficient to escape charges of “Christianist” or “theocrat” or whatever the popular pejorative is these days.
Which is to say, the question has never been–nor can it ever be–whether Christianity can be fully and finally depoliticized, such that its concerns can be entirely aired in a court where Caesar is not present. Instead, as Trevin argues, the challenge is discerning what the shape of Christianity’s political witness must be.