Andrew Sullivan has the cover article for this week's Newsweek on the "Crisis of Christianity." My copy has not yet arrived, but I'm planning to read the online version today. Since Andrew is devoting a lot of attention to it on his blog, which gives me the opportunity to comment on some of his points.
In particular, I'm intrigued with the argument he seems to want to make about politics and the power of Christ. He writes:
It's really an essay on the fundamental incompatibility of Christianity with human power; and therefore the inherent corruption that occurs when politics and religion combine (especially primarily in just one political party). It's about a Christianity unafraid of truth and open minds, and yet also dedicated to humility, devotion and the simple, impossible demands of Jesus of Nazareth. It starts with Jefferson and ends with Saint Francis. It's animated by an immersion in Thomas Merton's work, and his later evolution toward a more radical nonviolence and Buddhist outreach.
Elsewhere, he elaborates:
I did not write that Christians live in an unfallen world in which power doesn't exist. Of course we don't. We are constantly exercizing power in different ways, and the Gospels are, of course, a product of the struggle for power between various sets of Jesus' followers. But that was Jefferson's point! His project was to try to extract from the New Testament those words of Jesus that he believed were the least infected by this. And my modest proposal is to return to that spirit in seeking a faith as far removed from power, violence and coercion as humanly possible.
There is a way in which Sullivan sounds a lot like Stanley Hauerwas in this regard, though from what I know of Sullivan's approach to politics, he would want to distinguish between seeking a faith that's as far removed as possible from violence and coercion and living in a society that can manage without coercion, which is at the heart of his distinction between Christianity and politics. One can live non-coercively as a Christian qua Christian, but perhaps not as a Christian in the realm of public life. This is what it means to be fallen.
But I want to dwell on this question of power, because it seems important to the case that Sullivan wants to make. To be Christian, he seems to be arguing, means to reject the use of power, and he responds to a commentator who notes that we're always exercising power by saying "well: duh," and referring back to the fall. But I think this sells the question of power short. Power is not simply the power of coercion, which is how Sullivan wants to use it, and thus not simply a product of the fall, rather, power is constitutive of our very being. To exist is to exercise power, not simply because of the fall, but because that's what existence means.
In this respect, I think that Sullivan has perhaps drunk a bit too deeply from the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, and not deeply enough from the work of Paul Tillich. In Tillich's small classic, Love, Power, and Justice he attempts to add a needed corrective to Niebuhr's analysis by understanding power not just as the capacity to coerce, but as the power to Be:
Every being resists the negation against itself. The self-affirmation of a being is correlate to the power of being it embodies. it is greater in man than in animals and in some men greater than in others. A life process is the more powerful, the more non-being it can include in its self-affirmation, without being destroyed by it. The neurotic can include only a little non-being, the average man a limited amount, the creative man a large amount, God -- symbolically speaking -- an infinite amount. The self-affirmation of a being i spite of non-being is the expression of its power of being. Here we are at the roots of the concept of power. Power is the possibility of self-affirmation in spite of internal and external negation. It is the possibility of overcoming non-being.
This idea, of power as the possibility of self-affirmation in the face of negation, is a very different conception of power than that suggested in Sullivan's article. It doesn't require coercion to be understood to be a genuine expression of power, though it does resist that which drives towards annihilation.
In that sense the powerlessness expressed in the life and death of Jesus Christ is not an eschewal of power, per se, but an attempt to realize power on a more exalted plane, that of love. Love is not the negation of power but rather its fulfillment in the midst of human relationships, which finds highest expression in the self-giving love that exists for the sake of others, with no regard for the self. That is what we see in Jesus death on the cross, and it is that which opens up the highest and most transformative possibilities of justice to us as well.
In one sense, Jesus' teaching was always political, and not simply in the way that Sullivan understands it: Namely the idea of the Kingdom of God as some metaphorical trope. Rather, the politics of Jesus is explicitly connected with Jewish messianism and the prophetic calls for social reform. As Christians, we are called to emulate this dimension of the politics of Jesus: Critique of political power and declaration of the Kingdom of God. This involves us in the practical business of condemning absuses and pointing toward more genuine social possibilities. This is and always must be specific, concrete, and rooted in the social circumstances of the Christian community.
But it is a mistake to assume, as Christians often do, that the prophetic critique of the status quo and the preaching of the Kingdom of God can be directly mapped onto a set of solutions to the social problems we face. This is the reality of sin that we confront. We are always incapable of bringing about that which we recognize as our own highest possibilities, and so we reckon with the partial and fragmentary possibilities that we can actually implement, in anticipation of a future reign of God in which that which is most fully human can be brought into being, not through our power, but through the power of God.
Here it is worth going back to Niebuhr again: In the cross we have the symbol of our highest human aspirations in confrontation with the fallen world we inhabit. The power of the powerless Christ is in pointing us toward possibilities that we cannot discern on our own, the idea that there may be a way to live in which our own power of being need not conflict with and seek to overcome and dominate the power of being of others. But that possibility always remains a hope within history. But a real hope nonetheless.