theology and power :: what’s the use?

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation that I thought others might want in on – feel free to add your two bits, eh?:

I’m going to throw a few words back; you said:

    “I’m really trying to figure things out – especially the power of nations against nations…especially “doing” theology while comfortably existing in a nation – I mean really – how does this work. Maybe they are right – in order for our ‘lil theology centers to keep tick’n out happy theology that “cares for the poor” we better keep piling money into our military piggy bank…because ALL nations will do this, so we better be the best at it.”

If theology is a detached “merely academic” enterprise, then you are right; theologians are the worst of the bourgeoisie – lazy, overfed men (and women) peddling metaphysical delicacies to those with the capital to buy a few years of listening leisure. If doing theology isn’t really “doing” anything and we need a big brother with a big stick to protect our little project on the world’s playground from other goons with sticks, then let’s call it a good two thousand years, pack up our bags, and move to a “real” vocation. Obviously, I don’t think that’s the case. Theology used to be called (ah… the good old days) the queen of the sciences, because it is, like the sciences that originally grew from theology, an attempt to describe reality as accurately as possible. I can see why the distinction exists, but lumping theology in with “the humanities” can occasionally make it sound like a really creative thing that humans have been doing for a few thousand years. “Now, we need some more creative folks to cook up some new theology for us.” Theology is a creative discipline, and I’ll stand by the statement that theology without poetry is theology without truth. But, it’s not merely creative – it really is an attempt to understand our context and help people to live the best lives possible. This is why you will see theologians fighting side by side with scientists for the reality of objective truth, however limited our access to it might be. Good theology corresponds to reality, otherwise it is bedtime stories and fairy tales; and Plato was right to banish such poets from his Republic.

On the other hand, on an entirely worldly level, theology has a lot to say (to anyone who will listen) about who gets to carry the sticks, how they carry them, and when they get to use them. Even if we want to think on an entirely materialistic/naturalistic/I-don’t-bother-thinking-about-what-I-can’t-see level, theologians have a few handy suggestions for how we might want to structure our society. In fact, I would be willing to venture that even the best parts of our pluralist/materialist/secular culture are vestiges of a Christian worldview, existing parasitically on the roots of value still left in the veins of the people. Rome had no welfare system, and as bad as Europe’s religious wars were, they were never total wars (the idea that even in war there are rules to be obeyed is the product of consciences guilt-stricken over the idea of war in the first place) – it took secularized nations deliberately cutting themselves off from their roots to start using their big sticks against women, children, and anyone with a different vision of reality. (Hitler, Stalin, Fr. Revolution…. etc.).

Theology isn’t merely the quiet hobby of a few irrelevant ivory tower residents. Theology is the memory and the identity of the church. Theology is our best link to God’s gracious offer of love, and to his commands.

Who tells the government to put down the stick? Who is willing to stand fast in the face of its violence? Who is willing to pick up the pieces when everything goes to hell? Who is willing to love their neighbor regardless of that neighbor’s political position, past, or ethnicity? Who is willing to call to repentance the rich and the powerful who abuse their neighbors? Who has a moral vision on the basis of which to call for that repentance? Which people’s revolution in history has not merely turned the tables, the old poor become the new rich and powerful – one dictatorial minority swapped for another.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that God has a plan for the government. God has a command for the government. I’d even be willing to say that God works through the government, whether or not the government recognizes it. God’s command for the governments of our world is that they should protect and preserve life and freedom. They should make the space where the people of earth can work hard, love their families, and worship their creator.

Theology is important (among other reasons) because it recognizes the limits God has placed upon any and every government. The church’s place in the world is to call the government (and others) to respect those limits. The church can speak God’s word to the world. When the institutions of the world quit paying any attention to the role that God intended them to fulfill, who will speak out for those left in the lurch?

The way I see it, we could endlessly organize new activist groups, set up new infrastructures, and write new mission statements (until these become outdated and the issues have changed)… or we could attempt to organize and motivate an enormous group whose infrastructure is already in place, whose calling is to love and serve endlessly, and whose mission statement is written on the heart of every person baptized in to the name of the Triune God who made the whole stinkin’ universe in the first place. If “doing” theology only amounts to keeping the church (or even small segments of the church) faithful to its identity, then I’m all for it.

That’s a load of dogmatic booya for you…

2 Replies to “theology and power :: what’s the use?”

  1. I thought the quote of the week from the Sojo mail may be allowed to casually slip in as a comment…

    “I find this so unsavory … they‘re going out and killing people around the world to spread democracy, and what are we spreading? A form of government based on how much money you can raise from rich people.”

    – Chris Matthews, host of Hardball with Chris Matthews, on the record-breaking campaign fundraising figures for the 2008 presidential election. (Source:

    And with that I will say that I disagree with you Eric.

    This all sounds like a scholarly way to ask those who are oppressed to “hang on a minute!”, just stay down in poverty while we, the privileged, putts around in our cushy office chairs figuring out a way to pull you nameless poor folk up to our level.

    And (I proceed sarcastically), I think it would work! As long as we keep them illiterate and unaware of those who are oppressing them they will even think that it is God’s will for them to be poor! Unaware that their poverty is actually directly coorelated with the affluents wealth!…Atleast they can find peace in the proposition that these baptised folks in the US gov’t, though living off of this perverse imbalanced economic system, are going to come up with a way to take money from the rich (themselves) and give to the poor…

    I feel your job is to be in relationship with the poor, the voiceless, the oppressed – empowering them with the love and spirit of Christ and letting God run wild in their lives…allowing the gift of life (humanity) to come to fruition.

    They may decide to demand their rights today! And can you blame them? Should they wait for the long winded process of the US gov’t to change their world? Christ didn’t – He started small and went big!

    You said,
    “Which people’s revolution in history has not merely turned the tables, the old poor become the new rich and powerful – one dictatorial minority swapped for another.”

    I know this is important to acknowledge but it may also be irrelevant.

    When dealing with actual people our primary concern is that they find the humanizing message of truth and love that empowers one to seek full life, to confront injustices, to become aware of all of reality. What happens when extreme structural oppression silences this? Wait for the Catholic Church and the US gov’t to amble into position? What if these two structure have somehow been part of this silencing, this oppression? (I’m referring to my exposure with Latin America)

    Being closer to the struggle of the actual daily poor may also help us realize that large structures are powerfully tied with money. It is the dams, oil well drilling, and drug trade that does not make the daily news because many of these companies strong arm gov’ts to eliminate a few peasants in order to secure a steady flow of energy that will go straight to the United States and straight to the piggy bank of the CEO (who will probably never see the faces of those whose homes are destroyed in the process).

    I do think the US gov’t can do good things. Our senators and congressman truly are concerned for what the people of Montana are concerned about and they, as other state reps, are doing the best they can.

    It is those who we can’t hear that I fear for.

    If you want to look at history, don’t leave out the part about the people who were hung out to dry by theology and the structures of privilege.
    Maybe “keeping the church faithful to its identity” is listening to the reality of the poor who have faces and names.

    (Thanks for letting me use strong words to a bring up a point that you would agree with – I just don’t know if going through large structures will really work – I’ll bet that it is a fantastic combination of the two – for I agree with a wise sage who told me that even those structure are made up of poor humans!)


  2. Casey,

    As always, we have more to agree upon than to disagree over. Thank you for your thoughts and reflections and exhortations. Thank you for all your words, especially the srong ones. I/we need to hear this voice, and be reminded over and over again of our responsibilities for our neighbors.

    I’m sure that you too think to yourself, “What is all this emailing and blogging going to do for anyone? We’d be doing more if we were out serving at a soup kitchen or picketing the front lawns of aristocratic, elitist, warlords of oppression.” And there is something true to that. I hope that both of us are involved in prayer and responsible action for others even as we carry on this dialogue. I’m sure that you are. But each of us has a sphere of influence – people who are willing to listen to our voices. And perhaps a few people will listen to what we have to say, and just perhaps, that might lead to an increase in the amount of prayer and responsible action for others going on in the world. So, let’s talk on…

    A Good Friday Meditation:
    The Church’s identity IS the poor “who have faces and names” – they are the ones Christ came to save. When we were baptized, we were baptized into fellowship with them, they are our brothers and sisters. When we all pray together the Lord’s prayer, I stand with them as I say, “OUR father,” and “give us this day OUR daily bread.” This teaches me that the bread I eat is not my own (even though I buy it with money i earned at my job by my own sweat). This bread is our bread, and if my neighbor with whom I share the table doesn’t have enough, then I should break my bit in half and pass it down. How much “closer to the poor” can I get than regarding them as members (with me) of the Body of Christ?

    I don’t want to elide over the difference in our situations. I don’t want to pretend that saying the Lord’s prayer is enough to bridge the gap between my own situation and the world’s poor. To do so would be less than Christian. “If your neighbor is hungry and you pass her by how can you say that you love God.” On the other hand, saying the Lord’s prayer and sharing in the Lord’s table does establish for me a connection and a responsiblity that many of the people in Vancouver don’t believe in. Why should I care about people on the other end of the world about whom I never hear, whom I never meet? Somebody commented cynically that Mickey Mouse is a real person in our world in ways that many brothers and sisters in Africa simply are not. Why do the TV networks recieve letters grieving the soap opera characters they kill off, but no one cries out for the poor.

    That said, I’m not sure the comment about the “people’s revolutions” actually is as irrelevant as you say. If your ultimate goal is real justice, real peace, real shalom for our brothers and sisters around the world, then it really does matter how we go about changing the structures that oppress them. It really does make a big difference whether (as in Zimbabwe) liberation from the oppressive Rhodesians leads to an oppression far worse (but not constructed across racial lines) from Robert Mugabe and the “people’s party.” This is not justice. The problem is not solved. The revolution didn’t deliver on its promises, and people are dying because of it. So, we are left with two questions:

    1. How can we change oppressive structures as fast as possible so that no one has to live in garbage dumps and squalid slums begging for the opportunity to destroy their bodies working for someone with no regard for their value as human beings?

    2. How can we inculcate moral character, vision, and a willingness to be accountable so that the structures that replace the ones in place at present are different from those that went before? How can we ensure that people understand their neighbors in such a way that they can’t ride roughshod over their backs? How can we ensure that the structures incorporate the means to listen to the people who usually don’t have voices in the public square?

    Both questions become big and complex pretty quickly. If we want to answer the first one alone, then leave “God-talk” behind, pick up a gun and march to the capitol with a few thousand of your closest buddies. But be careful – absolute power corrupts absolutely – we all know how easily rules bend as soon as we are the ones that are supposed to follow them.

    But if we want to answer the second question – our answer to the first had better change. To my mind, that means that a lot of people need to do a lot of study, learn good international politics, learn economics, learn ethics, learn theology, and work together teaching and putting these things into practice. It means that we need to be committed to listening to the people we don’t usually hear. It means we need to be committed to service over selfishness. History, theology, and the church are not irrelevant here.

    My other question for you Casey is about my sphere of responsibility. (more on this later)…

    I’ve got to go participate in (ironically) a repentance walk for the injustice happening right here in my Vancouver backyard…

    P.S. Carolyn says that Oliver O’Donovan’s book “The Desire of the Nations” is really quite relevant and interesting on these subjects – especially the first few chapters. In fact she would rather I was reading it right now before I presume to know what I’m talking about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: