Jesus’ Theo-poetics: The Politics of Jesus Revisited August 4, 2009Posted by Ryan in Books, WWJD.
By Zane Yi
This is the third post in a six-part series in the re-church Summer Reading Group (click these links to read parts one, two and three). The six posts will correspond to the six chapters of What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, by John D. Caputo. Next week’s post will be written by Ryan Bell.
“Truth” and its relationship to power has been analyzed by numerous post-modern theorists. If there’s something to Nietzsche assessment that the “will to power” motivates all our claims and actions (I think there is.), and the analysis of his more contemporary disciple Michel Foucault correctly illuminates (I think it does.) the way institutions use the rhetoric of “truth” to dominate and control others, we Christians should be doubly cautious of all the unholy ways we have done and do the same.
A brief overview of our own history reveals our checkered record when it comes to the political use of power. When Constantine became a Christian, and Christianity was no longer a persecuted minority, we tried in many ways, to dominate the political order, or at least use it to carry out our ends. (Christians began persecuting others!) During the Reformation, Luther and Calvin, while critical of the church’s theology, were willing to continue working with political authorities. During this time, Christian from different traditions, in the name of God and doctrine, went to war with each other.
Evidently, the people of God are not immune from the lust for power that Augustine, in his City of God, attributes to the city of man; we are all infected.
It was the radical reformers, i.e. the Anabaptists, who deplored all political involvement, seeing it as the first steps of spiritual compromise; they advocated a withdrawal from secular affairs. The church should not yield political power in any form, nor should Christians be involved in the affairs of government.
Caputo, in this chapter, challenges this solution to the problem by re-framing the debate. According to him, the main issue is not finding the best model for church and state relations, but addressing a more fundamental issue–our view of power; we have adopted our understanding of it from the world and it must be reconceptualized in the light of Jesus’ life and death. Caputo claims:
“The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty” (88).
In Jesus’ own day, power was exemplified by the Roman army crushing anything that got in its way. In contrast to this is Jesus, whose “powerlessness” Caputo lyrically and poetically extols in the first half of this chapter.
“[W]henever one would expect an exercise of power form a classical hero, Jesus displays the stunning power of powerlessness—of nonviolence, nonresistance, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, generosity” (84).
Caputo’s contrast of Jesus’ powerlessness to Roman power make me think about our own context. A few centuries after Jesus, in the time of emperors, the analogous head of the church became the pope, who was understood to rule over a sacred kingdom as the emperor ruled the secular one. Interestingly, church structures have, and continue to be, modeled after the reigning political structures of the day. Today, denominations are run by “presidents”, “vice-presidents”, or, modeling the corporate world, “pastorprenuers.” This makes me wonder:
1. How are we doing as a community in modeling Jesus’ powerlessness? Practically speaking, how would the organization and protocols of our own denomination(s) look if they were truly “powerless”?
I appreciated Caputo’s meditations on the life and death of Jesus and its implications for our lives; namely, that we are called to live lives of excessive love toward the unlovable (84). Caputo also reminds us that this love expresses itself through word AND deed, proclamation AND concrete actions.
“To announce the kingdom of God is to bring good news to all those who are poor in spirit and just plain poor, to those who hunger for justice and who are just plain hungry, to those whose minds are blinded by sin and who are just plain blind, to those whose hearts are bent by evil and whose bodies are just plain bent” (85).
I think most of us are in full agreement with Caputo on these points.
However, at the close of the chapter Caputo draws out the political implications of Jesus’ “theo-poetics.” He writes:
“We are called to imagine the kingdom of God in the concrete political structures of the day, and that requires political imagination and judgment….[It] requires, in addition to prophets, the hard work of concrete political invention, the cleverness of inventive political structures” (87).
Here, I am not sure if I agree or disagree with Caputo.
First of all, conceptually, I find the claims in the first half this chapter difficult to reconcile with the one made in the last part. In the idea of using power to divert power on behalf of “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” makes sense to me. I have a hard time grasping, however, what Caputo is suggesting we do, i.e. emulate Jesus’ powerlessness, but be political.
What do you think?
2. Can one seek to be powerlessness, but then seek through laws, and political structures, i.e. power, to shape a loving society? Wouldn’t this lead to a performative contradiction?
But beyond this, on the one hand, I agree with Caputo’s assessment that much of what passes for Christian politics today is based on a very selective and distorted read of the Bible. I am sympathetic to the view that as a Christian I am to work for the best of society and for the flourishing of others. Furthermore, I recognize my right and duty as a citizen to play an active role in the life of my society and community.
However, I also find this in tension with my own upbringing. I was raised in a tradition that was very much influenced by the Anabaptist emphasis on withdrawal from “worldly” matters. Coupled with the emphasis on eschatology I heard growing up, the theological cocktail I’ve imbibed provides little motivation for wanting to actually work for long term change in the community and society in which I live. (After all, it’s all going to burn and be recreated!)
In other words, I’ve grown up hearing spirituality being presented as withdrawal from society and that something in the immanent future; it will break in apart from my own personal efforts to bring it about. My duty is to preach “the everlasting gospel.”
Several more questions arise for me, which I will raise in closing for further discussion:
3. In the Adventist tradition, we are already involved in politics in order to defend our own religious liberties and rights. To what extent are we called to advocacy, lobbying, and lawmaking that addresses other issues?
4. Could the involvement of Christians and/or the church in political life detract away from its “primary” purpose? What is this purpose?
5. Is political involvement the responsibility of all Christians, or just some?
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.