On issues like immigration, people rightly sense that political differences are resulting from deep moral disagreement. But too many of our debates on these issues assume that we only disagree about procedures or tactics.
In a recent piece, Richard Allen responded to the manifesto of the revived organization Christians for Socialism (CfS). The return of CfS is an exciting sign of the times. I’ve signed up for their email list and may even start a local chapter.
Allen is also thrilled to see the emergence of a 21st century version of CfS. (The original CfS started in 1971 in Chile.) He is particularly favorable toward the claim that CfS is “neither church nor party.” So am I.
But, following Italian Autonomist thinking, he takes that claim in a direction that I believe will be fruitless. Allen disputes the goodness and necessity of both the political party and theological orthodoxy.
I will readily admit that all four entities in the title of this piece (Christianity, socialism, party, and orthodoxy) have been horribly misused countless times. Despite those realities, I also find that all four entities are worthy of both heartfelt belief and dedicated work.
In what follows, I argue that Christianity without orthodoxy and socialism without a party are not quite worthy of our time and energy. Neither Christianity without orthodoxy nor socialism without a party are fully able to offer people the most significant things that Christianity and socialism should respectively be able to offer: salvation and liberation.
(Of course, salvation and liberation are, as Gustavo Gutiérrez has pointed out, inseparable, though I would say they can be distinguished from one another. The material and the spiritual are like human action and divine action in that they are utterly intertwined with one another but also not the exact same thing.)
Not a church or a party
Let’s start where I agree with both the CfS Manifesto and Allen’s response.
CfS absolutely should not be a church. It may seek to transform churches, but the church is a community of people who have been called out of the world who nevertheless have not left the world. It is a group of Zealots who have met Jesus, tax collectors (collaborators with imperialism!) who have met Jesus, prostitutes who have met Jesus, Canaanite women who have met Jesus, etc.
The church is church solely because of the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. I believe that that can and does mean that, insofar is Jesus is truly present, people will be inclined toward human liberation. I also believe that there’s a fine line between being a prophetic voice for justice and being an insufferable asshole.
A church consisting only of one political perspective or oriented only toward the political realm won’t be the body of Christ. Salvation, as Gutiérrez says, is not only social and political. It is also personal, spiritual, and psychological. The church must not forget that it needs to offer the inner salvation that comes from God even to ideologically reactionary sinners (while taking care not to separate that inner salvation from material liberation, a difficult balance).
So CfS cannot be a church.
Nor can it be a party, though. After the history of Christian support for fascism (in Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Finland, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay--to name just the greatest hits), there should be nothing more frightening than a group made up only of Christians trying to seize political power.
And yet, that’s what a party should do. Political parties exist to seize power and enact their vision of what society should be like.
But the problem isn’t simply that Christians doing politics as a group of Christians will inevitably be fascist, since they won’t always. The problem is that a Christian political party runs counter to the deepest ideals of both socialism and Christianity. I address that in the next section.
Churches certainly have much to learn from political groups about the social and political dimensions of salvation. Political groups have much to learn from churches about inner liberation. But there are good reasons that they are separate institutions.
There are also good reasons for not creating churches only filled with socialists or political parties with only Christians as members. CfS is rightly seeking to be a third kind of thing.
Fight for your right to join a party
Allen takes the CfS Manifesto’s disclaimer that CfS is not a political party beyond the Manifesto itself to question the very notion of a unified party. Following Italian Autonomist thinking, he claims that “What makes a political movement viable is its almost rabid defense of difference.”
Political parties as an institutional form, Allen argues, are shaped by capitalist ideology to such an extent that they “are not capable of actualizing liberation.”
Against this, I believe that the party form is essential for material liberation at this point in history. In the context of Christian socialism, I also find that there are specifically Christian reasons to join a party or similar political organization as part of one’s work for human liberation.
Political parties are not intrinsically holy or morally pure. They are not dropped down from heaven like the New Jerusalem, fully formed and well-stocked with precious stones.
They are, however, utterly necessary in a world shaped by power. Our world is dominated by the evil powers mentioned by St. Paul, which take on modern guises such as capitalism and hunger, patriarchy and gendercide, imperialism and racism. This list could obviously be much longer.
Against these powers, we should not fight simply with the weapons of this world. Much like St. Paul, though, we (in North America, at least) don’t even have that option. The poor and oppressed of our societies couldn’t defeat the ruling powers with conventional weapons even if that was the plan.
Nevertheless, we can exercise power as we fight for human liberation. That power means solidarity, mutual aid, strikes, worker-controlled economic structures, and ideological liberation. It means the sorts of things that groups like labor unions can do. But it eventually means something like the party form.
Actual, material solidarity in our world almost inevitably requires a political party. Attempts to achieve liberation without a broad network and coherent organization will be relatively powerless in the face of the overwhelming forces imposing hierarchical structures on our societies.
Joining a party is also a helpful spiritual exercise for Christians. As the CfS Manifesto points out, Christian privilege is a reality in many societies (in most of the Americas and Europe). From the perspective of Christian doctrine, that privilege is something to give up.
Christians are, in theory at least, imitators of Jesus, who gave up his position and dwelt among those of us who were nothing like him. If a divine being can carry that out to the point of death, it is a relatively small sacrifice for Christians to submit to the practice of organizing with people from other religious or non-religious perspectives.
If we are to be considering the interests of others above our own, there are few better ways of doing that than joining a party composed mostly of people who aren’t Christians, joining with others in fighting for the liberation of everyone.
Jesus told his followers to do just that, to be salt mixed into the world for its flavoring and benefit. He talked about a kingdom of God that is like a tree that provides shelter to all. So Christians must be willing to organize with others, even in a form as imperfect and impure as the political party.
Toeing the churchly line
Toward the end of his response, Allen takes an sudden turn. He asserts that “heterodoxy is more viable politically than orthodoxy.” He considers “the expansive possibility of thought” to be something that is only possible in a context of heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy.
That, I think, is mistaken. To say why, we have to define orthodoxy. As I understand it, Christian orthodoxy does not involve ethical issues. I, like most Christians, disagree with many historically-dominant ethical teachings in the Christian tradition, such as the acceptance of slavery.
Orthodoxy, as I understand it, means belief in the basic doctrines outlined in the primary creeds of the ancient church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
Is it politically unhelpful to believe that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate? I actually find it extremely politically relevant that the most truly holy person was unjustly arrested by the police, tortured by an occupying army, and executed at the hands of European colonizers.
I find it remarkable that this person, of all people, was considered worthy of being resurrected and seated at God’s right hand. It’s almost too perfect that a victim of imperialism and unjust policing has been appointed to judge the living and the dead.
There’s the thought that there is a communion of saints, of imitators of that resurrected person, who are also raised to life forever: Óscar Romero! Fannie Lou Hamer! Sitting at the right hand of God the almighty from which justice will come!
There’s the promise of the resurrection of the body. The body, beaten under the reign of the evil powers of this world, beaten by racism, by poverty, by patriarchy. The queer body, the black body, the Muslim body, raised and brought to the fullness of life, free from material oppression. Is that politically viable?
And the Spirit, the one who haunts our world with the spectre of life, the one poured out upon sons and daughters alike. That Spirit is fully the Lord and the giver of life. That Spirit is the one who spoke by the prophets when they raised their voices against the collectors of ivory couches, against those who crush the poor.
Is every line in the creeds reducible to a political meaning? Of course not, and no one would expect that. At some level, orthodoxy is simply a question of theological truth or falsehood. But one cannot deny that those doctrines, which lend themselves to endlessly creative thought, have shown the potential to inspire movements toward human liberation among people who believe in a God who has brought and is bringing salvation.
Is liberation possible without a party? Probably not. Is salvation available without orthodoxy? Yes, one might make enough qualifications to fill a book, but yes.
But while one could strive toward liberation outside a party, that seems unnecessary. And while one could think Christianly without orthodoxy, it appears to be at the cost of no longer speaking a deeply persuasive language.
Whatever the problems with parties and orthodoxy (especially when used in the service of claims to authority and hierarchical structures), neither are inherently opposed to human liberation. Christians who are also socialists can actually benefit greatly from deep immersion in both.
In the midst of a fierce struggle for control of the churches, the pro-Nazi “German Christian” faction preached sermons, edited Bibles, revised hymn-books, altered liturgies, and changed the church calendar. Sometimes they made drastic changes. At the same time, they inherited a form of Christianity that offered little opposition to Nazism.
In some parts of the Bible, rich people are portrayed as the worst kind of criminals. They grind vulnerable people into dust, and they are the enemies of all that is good and holy. But wait…
Surely you’ve heard there are also good rich people in the Bible. So the problem of wealth must relate to some sort of internal sin, a “problem of the heart.”
It is true that one thing that Jesus points out is that people’s hearts are often in the wrong place. They are. But the point Jesus was making by linking hatred to murder and greed to wealth wasn’t “The tangible expression of wickedness isn’t all that bad after all.”
Rather, his point was that the moral sickness runs much deeper than his listeners might have suspected. The wealthy are not off the hook just yet. Their greed only compounds an already unjust situation.
Another part of the religious defense of wealth stems from the Just World Hypothesis, the psychological desire that people have to think that the world is just and that people generally get what they deserve. That hypothesis is false, but it is also extremely attractive, especially to religious people who believe in an infinitely good and powerful God.
That false hypothesis is popularly linked to the idea that there are rich people in the Bible who, like God (or at least Spider-Man), combine great power with great responsibility. On closer examination, this improvised defense of economic inequality falls apart.
Before dismantling biblical defenses of the rich, though, let’s remember just how harshly biblical authors condemn accumulated personal wealth. Biblical texts that critique those who hoard wealth are found across time periods and literary genres, and they are not easy reading for millionaires and billionaires.
The Torah, a collection of five books traditionally associated with Moses and sometimes called the “Law,” envisions an Israelite society in which wealth is equally distributed among families and periodically redistributed to prevent inequality from happening. For the ancient Near Eastern context, it is a fairly radical vision of how wealth should be treated.
Land, which was the main form of wealth (along with domesticated animals), was to be held by each family in perpetuity. Any sale of land by one family to another was only a temporary purchase to be undone every 70 years during a Year of Jubilee. (As with most great ideas in the Bible, no one seems have tried this one out.)
That’s one reason why it was so appalling that King Ahab killed his neighbor Naboth to steal his vineyard (his “ancestral inheritance”). It’s also why the Israelite prophets were so angry at those who “join field to field.”
Their stone houses and pleasant vineyards are linked to their theft of wealth from those who have been made poor. There’s little more vivid in the Bible than the descriptions of the idle rich that we find in Amos: their beds of ivory (how many elephants were killed!?), their idle songs on the harp, their bowls of wine, their simultaneous lounging and revelry. The Hamptons are nothing new.
The prophet Micah even uses the metaphor of war to describe what the rich and powerful have done to their neighbors. Those driven from their houses by elites are depicted as war refugees, and even religious officials were complicit in this class warfare. Wealth is connected to violence.
Well, maybe the ancient prophets had some issues with wealth accumulation, but Jesus was a nice guy, right?
For the most part he was, but not really to rich people. It’s kind of embarrassing how rude he was to them. It started with his mother predicting that, with the arrival of Jesus, the rich would be sent away empty-handed.
And they were. In a story that made it into 3 of 4 gospels, Jesus told a rich man that he had to give up his possessions to inherit eternal life, then he delivered his classic “camel through the eye of a needle” line. That guy apparently didn’t inherit eternal life. In contrast, when the rich man Zacchaeus gave his wealth to the poor and repaid those from whom he had stolen, he became a shining example of what “salvation” looks like. Apparently, it looks a lot like economic redistribution.
As if this was not enough, in one of the few stories in the Bible about hell, a rich guy goes there for being rich. We have no idea what his religious beliefs or practices were, just that he was rich, that another man was poor, and that the rich guy went to hell. In this story, it seems that God literally afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
That gives a concrete image to the declaration Jesus made that his followers who were poor would be blessed and those who were rich would be cursed. Jesus also told his followers not to invite rich people to dinner, and he pointed out the foolishness of accumulating wealth for yourself because you’re going to die anyhow.
OK, but surely other New Testament authors weren’t as angry at job creators as the writers of the Gospels seem to have been?
They were. 1 Timothy assures us that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation,” while James borders on making death threats against the wealthy. Not content to merely argue that “God [has] chosen the poor,” James further contends that is it “the rich who oppress you.” The gold and silver of the rich are going to... um... eat their flesh, and, by not paying their landscapers, the rich have “condemned and murdered the righteous one” and “fattened [their] hearts in a day of slaughter.” Well then.
There are a few “good” rich people who get trotted out every time the wealthy need a defender, but these cases don't stand up under a little scrutiny.
First of all, the whole point of Paul’s argument about Abraham in Romans was that Abraham didn’t do much that was especially righteous, he just demonstrated “faith,” faithful trust in God. As Hebrews points out, Abraham was significant because he believed God and left his hometown to go on a journey, then later tried to kill his own son.
But still, he ended up owning a lot of animals and slaves, so that means God blessed him with wealth, right? Oh… slaves.
Maybe he was at least a good family man, though? Except that Abraham obtained much of his wealth from the Pharaoh by giving away his own wife because he was paranoid. It all makes sense in the context of the story, though.
There’s also the part where Abraham wanted a son and used his wife’s slave to try to make that happen, which was basically just rape but maybe it was ok because she was a “slave-girl?” Then, once Abraham had a son with his own wife, he sent Hagar and her son into the wilderness to die.
Maybe Abraham wasn’t so righteous and was only blessed despite what a terrible person he was, not because he was somehow good.
Well, then, what about God’s servant Job? He was wealthy before calamity struck, and God made him twice as rich afterward. Surely that’s an example of God blessing a good person with wealth.
First, we have to acknowledge the obvious fact that Job is a completely fictional character. There’s no reason to think that Job existed outside this peculiar book that is supposed give readers wisdom about life, not information about actual events. (Unless you think someone was taking verrry extensive notes on clay tablets as Job scratched his sores with broken pots and complained to his friends in between their grandstanding speeches.)
Furthermore, the point of the book is not about Job’s wealth. Instead, it’s about things like the question of suffering and the frailty of human existence. The fact that Job was wealthy is just part of telling a good story. If he had been at the median wealth level, the story of his downfall and suffering would be far less gripping.
Joseph of Arimathea
Although the Gospels don’t say much about Joseph of Arimathea, he is mentioned in all four Gospels as the one who asked for the body of Jesus and buried it in a rock tomb. One Gospel, Matthew, describes him as a rich man, while Luke describes him as “good and righteous.” Mark and Luke say that he was waiting for the kingdom of God, while John says that he was secretly a disciple of Jesus because of his fear.
There’s one simple explanation for how this guy could be both rich and good. He was good from the authors’ perspectives because he did something nice for Jesus. He was rich (according to Matthew) in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53:9:
They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
If Joseph of Arimathea, who provided a tomb for Jesus, was rich, then Jesus would have been buried “with the rich.” This verse from Isaiah offers a clear and unflattering parallel between the wicked and the rich, though. Being buried “with the rich,” like having a grave “with the wicked,” was an undeserved punishment for someone who had been innocent of being either wicked or rich.
What is to be done?
Politically, there is plenty that can be done about the accumulation of personal wealth, and you can figure some things out on your own, I’m sure.
On a personal level, you probably shouldn’t spit in the face of every rich person you meet, for many reasons. But the Bible says we shouldn’t treat rich people especially well either.
Most importantly, we should not assume that rich people are good. As much as those who already own virtually everything would also like to own God, that is an unacceptable form of idolatry. It involves remaking God as one who wants people to accumulate wealth at the expense of others and is happy when they do so.
Instead, we have to presume from the teachings of Jesus that the accumulation of personal wealth takes people far from the kingdom of God. Much more than people with average wealth and incomes, rich people ought to repent and save themselves from the coming wrath. Like the man who built larger and larger barns to store his growing wealth, their lives will soon be demanded of them. After all, the only person we see in hell in the Bible went there for being rich.
[To read more posts on Apocalypse and Analysis, see the blog home page here.]
The fundamental reality of racism is an imbalance of power, and the God revealed in Jesus faced that sort of problem head-on.
Jesus said that we should love our neighbors, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. As a result, it’s easy to accuse people of not loving their neighbors.
For instance, people who don’t support government action to alleviate poverty are sometimes accused of not loving their neighbors.
Conversely, people who support the role of the state in providing for their neighbors are sometimes accused of the same lack of neighbor-love. Dostoyevsky’s character Father Zosima (in The Brothers Karamazov) wittily remarked that “the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is separately, as separate individuals.”
So who is right?
Well, both and neither. The first thing to note is that loving your neighbor is difficult, and no one has it all figured out. If someone says they do, they’re probably lying.
But that cannot be taken as an excuse for giving up on some aspect of neighbor-love. Instead, we can better love our neighbors if we start by acknowledging that neighbor-love is a multi-leveled thing. There are personal, communal, and societal aspects to loving one’s neighbor. All three of these can be seen in the story that Jesus told to illustrate what it means to love one’s neighbor.
There is an obvious personal aspect to neighbor-love. The Samaritan man helped the victim of the bandits by picking him up and dressing his wounds. He tangibly acted as an individual after seeing his neighbor’s obvious need.
There is also a communal dimension of neighbor-love. Members of the victim’s own Jewish community had failed to adequately love someone who was part of their own community. But there was also an improvised community of sorts. The Samaritan man and the innkeeper together provided a communal safety net for the victim.
Finally, though, there is a societal dimension of neighbor-love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out,
“On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
If we don’t transform the whole road (the whole society, even) in whatever way we are able to, we are also failing to love our neighbors.
That’s a lot of stuff. Loving your neighbors at personal, communal, and societal levels seems like too much for anyone to handle. That’s because it is.
This is where St. Paul’s metaphor of one body with many parts is especially helpful. A short while later in the same letter, he gives his well-known definition of love. It’s a really demanding vision of what love means, but the idea that each part of a larger communal and even social body can play its own role in living up to this practice of love makes it at least a possibility.
That being said, each of us is responsible to do what we can when we can. It won’t do much good to serve at a soup kitchen while advocating for cutting the budgets of agencies that fund the well-being of the very same people eating the soup.
The problem isn’t so much that failing to love your neighbor at one level or another is hypocritical (though hypocrisy isn't great). Instead, the issue is that we can undercut our own efforts to love our neighbors, which will ultimately make us what Paul called clanging cymbals. All of us can do better, but until we acknowledge that neighbor-love has personal, communal, and societal layers we won’t even know how.
[To read more posts on Apocalypse and Analysis, see the blog home page here.]
Apocalypse: from the Greek apokalupsis; meaning revelation, unveiling, uncovering
Analysis: an investigation, an examination, a breaking-up into parts
When we read ancient stories about the god worshiped by the early Christians, we don’t get careful reasoning about what the deity must be like. Instead, we read claims to have seen, heard, and touched a god in the form of flesh, blood, and fire. The biblical God is a living god. Something deep in the human psyche longs for this kind of unveiling of what Rudolf Otto called “the numinous,” an encounter with a mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
But if you took that kind of earthy, apocalyptic, utterly-convinced religion too literally, you’d be a delusional fanatic. Some brilliant thinkers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard) have tried to rehabilitate the irrational side of Christianity, but it’s still mostly attractive if the person practicing it isn’t a close family member or friend.
All the fire and ash and thunder needs some kind of filter to be good for human life, which is where theology comes in. Theologians look at the work of God in the world from philosophical and historical perspectives. They analyze what happened in the past, what those events say about God and the world, how that reality about God and the world can interpreted in contemporary contexts, and how to communicate those contemporary implications to people.
That might sound boring, but, if claims about the divine grounding of all of reality happen to be true, then, as Rilke put it, “You must change your life.” Theology is an act of playing with fire, and the playing is done with a knife. The dangers of that sort of thing (false messiahs, brainwashing of the ignorant, abuses of power) mean that things must be reasoned as precisely as possible. Theology is a kind of surgery done on the mind and the soul rather than the body.
Jesus might have had a clear idea of what he was asking when he said “Follow me,” but we don’t possess such clear ideas ourselves. Instead, we have to continually guard ourselves against drifting into either a sleepy way of life that changes nothing and has no relation to God or an irrational fanaticism detached from reality. Theology is the act of analyzing the unveiling that has happened so we know what to do next.
[To read more posts on Apocalypse and Analysis, see the blog home page here.]