The Political Gospel

The Sermon on the Mount, from a 6th Century mosaic, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Source not identified)

Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover article about the crisis in modern American Christianity struck me as deeply wrong for many reasons, but certainly worse for a profound misinterpretation of an “apolitical” Christ and for a common misunderstanding of politics and the political.

Much of Sullivan’s error stems from what I have argued is a thorough-going theoretical misunderstanding of politics running like a vein in the Western canon (not Church doctrine), and I see Sullivan’s essay as another opportunity to argue for the importance and relevance of politics and the political.

Sullivan seems also to maintain the usual intellectual/philosopher’s distaste for the arena, as if watching Lions tear apart Christians in the Roman coliseum without acknowledging that he’s taking part by bearing witness to the spectacle.  The best avenue of approach to Sullivan’s confusion is, unfortunately, an area in which I admit I am no expert.  But even a cursory glance at scripture gives lie to Sullivan’s assertion that Christ’s fundamental lesson for us all was “how [Christ] conducted himself through it all — calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.” This is certainly not the Christ I know, who raged against the money-changers in the temple, chastised his apostles at Gethsemane, begged God to let the cup of fate pass from him or cried out in despair at the hour of his death.

Theological or scriptural disputes notwithstanding, Christ’s humanity helpfully leads us further into the temporal realm. Sullivan specifically calls Christ “apolitical.”  Let us assume for now that Sullivan is talking about common political activities we are familiar with: building an organization, campaigning, reaching the masses, speaking to authority.  Under that definition Christ looks very much like a modern political figure.  He gathered followers (the apostles), he traveled from city to city, sought out and spoke to large audiences. He “spoke truth to power,” as the expression would have it, directly addressing the Pharisees.  There is evidence that he knew he knew he had a political mission after the arrest of John the Baptist and fled Galilee. His entire life was fraught with political intrigue as he was eventually considered a liability by the Roman authority, pursued, betrayed, tried, and crucified as the ersatz King of the Jews.

But that is to borrow Sullivan’s own apparent understanding of politics and the political.  It is not clear that Sullivan has a more expansive view of politics as separate from organizations, the state or government bodies — politics qua politics, as I call it — or the concept of the political as I have discussed it earlier.  The notion of a normative moral vision that we would wish for others does not appear to cross his mind. Yet Christ’s entire ministry is consumed with a vision of a different world here on earth and he engages in political action to achieve it.  He was not strictly a spiritual guide, advising his followers simply on matters relevant only to them. His ministry from its very beginning had clear ambition beyond that. And that makes the Gospels inherently political, contrary to Sullivan’s argument.

Sullivan borrows from the example of Thomas Jefferson, who excised only the direct quotations of Christ from his Bible for a better, more direct, more literal understanding of him; but even without the commentary of the New Testament’s authors it is impossible not to understand Christ as a political man and a tremendous, towering figure for the moral transformation of society.  Sullivan wouldn’t be writing about him in Newsweek if he weren’t.

To take just the Sermon on the Mount — almost entirely direct quotations from Christ — we read a series of commandments, or what we would call political statements. The Beatitudes are not merely a recitation of who are blessed, but whom should be blessed under a new moral order. This is a political statement.  Christ continues with a series of edicts: “Turn the other cheek.”  “Love thine enemies.” Evil thoughts are as bad as the evil act. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  “Pray to your father in secret.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These commandments are so commonplace now that we forget how radical they were (and remain).

Sullivan would have these edicts remain strictly spiritual and personal — almost advisory, mere guidance. But at the beginning of the Sermon, Christ issues the simile of the Salt and the Light. Salt is no good that cannot be tasted, and light is no good that cannot be seen.  That is, the Gospel will do no good if it cannot be spread; the Word cannot be heard if it is not read aloud. This is a decidedly political message.  Christ is saying: go, my followers, and do my work; tell people what I have said, act on my lessons.  His words come very early on in his ministry, long before he deputizes Peter as the rock of his Church.

It is stranger still that Sullivan calls Christ “apolitical” and then attacks American Protestants for losing its purpose in the frivolity of personal achievement and the Catholic Church for abandoning its moral authority during the pedophile scandals of the last decade. He seems to hate politics but then wishes the Church would get its politics right. To right his contradiction, he should have spent more time focusing on some of the good work the Church has done, and is doing right now.

Biblical quotes from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial (Photo by the author)

It is hard to imagine, for example, the Abolitionist cause without the Church, and impossible even to articulate the Civil Rights movement without the African-American Church.  The intellectual resistance to the Nazis in Germany was mostly populated by dissident Lutherans. The Catholic Church, led by Pope John Paul II, is largely responsible for liberating Poland from communism — and by extension the rest of Central Europe from the clutches of the Cold War. The debate over nuclear weapons and deterrence in the United States changed unalterably after the American Catholic Bishops issued their Pastoral Letter on War and Peace in 1983.

Today the Orthodox Church leads protests against the Soviet-era practice of abortion in Russia, where access to birth control is not pervasive. Korean and underground Chinese Christian activists run an underground railroad for North Koreans escaping their prison state.  Pick a poor, resource-wracked or devastated community and you will find a Christian charity working there to alleviate suffering.  And importantly (to me, especially), Christians are engaging in the important work of interfaith engagement and understanding.

I don’t think these activists would see themselves engaged in “political” activity, but I am certain they are driven by something more than the simple, calm example of Sullivan’s implacable Christ.  Perhaps they heard Christ’s commandment to come out from under a bushel, to come down from the City on a Hill, to walk with and give to and love the least among us.  Let us thank God for it.

But I also know that the Chinese authorities would certainly consider such behavior “political” activity and would do to Christ today what the Romans did 2,000 years ago.


History as a Presence

While living and working in Memphis, Tennessee, I moonlighted as a book reviewer for the local broadsheet, the Commercial Appeal. In retrospect I’m amazed I was able to do it, now in a time when The Washington Post no longer has a separate book review section. There was no money (as I recall), but I got to keep the books and see my name in print on occasion. And I certainly expanded my horizons, not just to unseen lands but to realms of politics at their absolute extreme.

For reasons I can’t imagine, the books I was assigned to review focused on the horrors of savage regimes: Rwanda, Nazi-occupied Poland, Stalin’s Russia. They were pretty obscure titles, too, not even one-off from the mainstream bestsellers that The Post and The Times flog every week.  But they roused ghosts, disinterred secrets, and illuminated passed-over crevices of history that still chill my memory more than 15 years later.

Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood was one of the first book-length narratives about Rwanda before Samantha Power’s and Philip  Gourevitch’s searching works.  I still recall Keane’s opening passage of the Kagera river which carried thousands of bodies into Lake Victoria. For many downriver and for those living on the lake, the first indication that anything was happening in Rwanda was the congestion of bloated corpses on the waterways.

For those who keep a diary — or, for that matter, those who blog — Intimacy and Terror should strike them where they live.  Laboriously curated from hundreds of personal diaries held in the former Soviet archives, this book focuses on only a very few representative diaries from the height of Stalin’s Terror. Some are brilliant and exceptional, including a diurnal-nocturnal diary kept by an artist who recorded his daily doings as well as the dreams that reflected his waking life. But as Winston Smith’s treachery in 1984 taught us, keeping a diary condemns oneself in such a regime. The editors found one of these diaries underlined in red by the NKVD officer who had seized it. It had been submitted as evidence in the trial of its author, who was executed as a counterrevolutionary. Thought crime was a fact in Stalin’s Russia.

Theo Richmond’s Konin resurrects an ancient center of Jewish learning in Poland which was completely obliterated by the Nazis. The few survivors scattered around the world — Britain, Israel, Brooklyn, Australia — and attempted to preserve this razed city as best they could. Richmond, the son of Koniners, collected their memories for this book. They are often too horrible to relate, but one story stayed with me and I hoped against hope it might show up in the recent film Defiance (it wasn’t). It was the story of one Koniner who escaped the liquidation of her ghetto, survived five days with her child in the Belarussian winter, and stumbled across a group of Jewish partisans sabotaging Nazi columns who saved her from certain death. She married the group leader and after the war settled anonymously in the American Midwest.

It is always comforting to cling to individual stories of heroism or conscience against the backdrop of moral calamity. But Hannah Arendt argues convincingly (see my previous post) that under these circumstances there is very little space for moral agency as we understand it.  I would argue that Arendt’s implications suggest heroism and conscience have much more to do with chance and luck under terrifying conditions than personal moral action. The real heroes, I think, recognize this.  Which may explain why those partisans lived so quietly in the Midwest until Theo Richmond found them.

I’ve posted these reviews here (a fourth is of Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth) because they have disappeared from The Commercial Appeal’s site. I’m sure someone could find them in a library or on a Nexis search, but the latter is by paid subscription only, the former very likely limited to microfilm collections in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.