words elsewhere :: conversation on church and societal structures

I wanted to post the contents of a conversation in progress at a friend’s site. Dan is a fellow Regent student whose thinking is perpetually helpful and provocative. This conversation touches on a few posts that have appeared here previously.

“Politicians are ‘like’ that—all crooked. Nothing ever changes” (read: “I refuse to think the world can change so I myself won’t have to”).
~ Brian Massumi, A user’s guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, 97.

It is interesting to place this quote in the context of other hopes for social change.

For example, while I am quite certain that politicians will not bring us the change that we desire, I remain adamant that change can, and must, come from the Church. Consequently, following Massumi, my belief that “when the Church is the Church, the World is made new” can be read in the following way: “because the Church changes things, I must change.”

Of course, most everybody (Christian or not) tells me that the Church is just as hopeless — just as “crooked” — as the World. Christians, and the clergy, are said to be “‘like’ that” just as much as the politicians. Does Massumi’s reading also apply here? “I refuse to think the Church can change so I myself won’t have to”? I wonder.

The view that I hold to says this: “change is coming, so we will begin changing now.” Thus, those who share this view with me, tend to do things like move into inner-city neighbourhoods, and move into deeper levels of intimacy with those for whom change is most desperately needed.

The other view that I have described says this: “nothing really changes, so I’ll just keep doing what I’ve always done.” Consequently, when those who hold this view encounter those who hold the view that I do, they ultimately only ever respond in one way. Whether they admire us or despise us is irrelevant, in both cases they respond from a distance. And that, as far as I can tell, is a problem (for everybody involved).


Thanks for the blogging efforts – your stories are unbeatable… Have you made the move East yet, or are you still out in Vancouver?

At any rate, to my mind it comes down to a few basics:

– yes, politics, politicians, and “the system” are corrupt – perhaps some are even hopelessly corrupt.
– we still have responsibility to make things better
– this means getting involved in the system in one way or another
– while this means acknowledging the corruption of the system, this doesn’t necessitate embracing it personally or collectively
– we are all responsible to work for the good of others and to maintain our personal integrity.
– if we lived up to this responsibility together, the “hopelessly corrupt” system would be less so – to the great benefit of all concerned.

Your lament about our “distance” is exactly right. That distance can be motivated by fear of the others’ othernesses, but it can also be motivated by a defensive “purity” that refuses to interface with a corrupt system. To my mind it’s a matter of personal integrity and a matter of degrees. The structures that govern will never be flawless (morally, functionally, or otherwise), but we can certainly recognize “better” and “worse” and work for change. I suppose that this approach could be called “critical realism” – a different sort. “Realist” because it doesn’t pretend that things are any better than they are; “critical” because it aims toward the possibility of their improvement.

On occasion, you seem to edge toward the view that God could not/would not work through societal structures for the good of his people. Or at least that God’s people would do better working outside those structures than within and through them. Is that a caricature? I’m less convinced than some friends that a step toward anarchy is a step of social progress. Will the “change that is coming” arrive in, through, upon, or despite societal structures and institutions?

God’s Peace,

Hey Eric,

Good to hear from you! Hope all is well with you and your wife. My wife and I are still in Vancouver for the next few months.

The “critical realism” that you propose sounds like Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” (and makes me uncomfortable). Of course, I’m all for not pretending that things are any better than they are, and aiming toward “the possibility of their improvement,” but these things do not lead me to seek that improvement within the socio-political structures that have been provided for us.

I do remain somewhat confused about why so many Christians see those structures as necessary for change. As far as I can tell, we have been given an alternate structure — the Church — and it is in and through this structure that we can best work for change. So, yes, I do think that the people of God would “do better” working through the Church, rather than through other socio-political institutions.

Indeed, that we deem these other institutions to be so crucial or unavoidable, suggests to me that, in our context, our Christian imagination has (mostly) withered away. That we think we have no alternative but to participate in a “corrupt system” that crucifies others, can only be because we have allowed something other than Cross/Resurrection/Pentecost, to shape our understanding of what is “realistic.”

Of course, speaking of the “system” in this way does bring us to your comments on “purity,” understood as “a defensive ‘purity’ that refuses to interface with a corrupt system.”

As we think about these things, it is worth noting how Jesus responded to issues of purity in his day (cf. Blomberg’s Contagious Holiness). What we see is Jesus overturning notions of impurity as they applied to individuals who were marginalized by the purity codes of his day. What we don’t see is Jesus situating himself within those purity codes in order to do some (realistic) good. Rather, Jesus starts a whole new community wherein those purity codes no longer applied (and the Church, IMHO, is the continuation of that community). Jesus “interface” with the corrupt system of his day took the form of a confrontation from without, not a paradoxical participation from within (hence, this comes to a climax in Jesus’ death, as a blasphemer and a rebel, outside the walls of Jerusalem).

Let me provide another example of why I think the whole “participate to do some (realistic) good, although some harm will also follow” argument strikes me as absurd.

In my neighbourhood there is an open drug market and an open sex trade. Most of the people that I interact with are actively involved in one of those structures. Now, as I enter into relationships with these people, I would never consider becoming a dealer, and/or a pimp, in order to do some (realistic) good by acting in those roles in a more “Christian” way. Rather, I exist as a part of a community that embodies an alternate system — and to suggest that I should fill either of those roles in order to create some sort of (realistic) change, would strike pretty much everybody as complete nonsense. Remaining “set apart” from participating in such things as dealing and pimping, is a form of “purity” that has continued on after Jesus. Christian “purity” is able to go to those who are dealers and pimps and see them as “clean” and as forgiven children of God, but it is not able make the same judgment about pimping and dealing in and of themselves.

Consequently, I would like to suggest that the same approach applies, mutatis mutandis, to how we, as Christians, should view other markets (like capitalism) and structures (like the government). Of course, I’m not suggesting that a pimp or a dealer can never do any good, nor am I suggesting that a capitalist or a politician can never do any good. I’m just suggesting that trying to be moral capitalists and moral politicians, is just as problematical as trying to be moral pimps and moral dealers.

Of course, the “reality” is that we already are capitalists and active participants within this “corrupt system.” That is why we must learn how to journey in another direction. That is a process, and I suspect that we only discover what steps are necessary, after we have already begun walking in that Way.

What do you think?


Thanks so much for the extensive comments in reply to my question, and thank you for taking the time to think through this with me. I’m sure you’ve been through this conversation more than once…

I think we agree more than we disagree, but I’m still not comfortable with your approach in the long run. I wholeheartedly affirm that the Church is a structure for real positive change in society. As such it provides a viable alternative to the destructive ways of the world. But the final trajectory of your argument is a Christendom model, isn’t it? Posing the Church as an alternative to the government and the economy is perfectly legitimate – so long as you are convinced that it is within the church’s mandated responsibility to provide comprehensive economic and political structure for its members. I am not. The church has a lot to say about how a government and a market ought to be arranged; its aim is to keep all God’s beloved children off the world’s crosses. But the Church is not responsible for presiding over all the tasks currently allotted to the state. Responsible Christians may take up those tasks, but the Church’s main function and goal is the proclamation of God’s word (including it’s political and economic implications).

I realize that it is laughable to compare your efforts on the East side to Christendom – if only folks like you had that much power and influence! (Believe me, if I had the ability to put anyone in charge of that neighborhood, you’d be at the top of my list.) The Church is an agent for change, and the Church must keep an eye out for those who fall through the cracks, for those who are dropped through the cracks, and those for whom the cracks seem to be designed. The Church has good news for all of these people; and one component of the Church’s good news is its political and economic advocacy on their behalf, attempting to change the structures that reinforce the destructive cycles. I’m not convinced that the Church’s good news includes a take-over of those structures, even if that envisioned take-over is a slow one effected through the Church’s successful stance as “alternative.”

The example of the pimp or dealer as compared to the politician or economist is a good one, but to my mind, the argument contains a pretty big leap, one that might render it invalid. The “tasks” of a pimp or dealer inherently involve exploiting people and doing violence to them in one way or another. The idea of a “moral” dealer or pimp does involve a contradiction [though a dealer who refused to sell to kids, or a pimp who refused to detain, abuse, or drug hookers would certainly be “better” than one who had no qualms about these things]. But a politician’s tasks do not inherently involve abusing and exploiting people. Neither do an economists. Granted, within the present system, that assertion might be a little dubious; it is difficult to imagine a genuinely honest politician making it very far. But to my mind, that is a reason why we need to change the system, not a reason to abandon it altogether and start working on an “alternative.” We can (with enough creativity and hard work) imagine political and economic systems that do not necessarily involve exploitation and manipulation. We cannot imagine informal societal structures like the networks of dealers and pimps without the exploitation, manipulation, and destruction that those systems deliver. At least, I can imagine the one but not the other. As the Church, we ought to spend our imagination’s energy on actively improving the lot of the oppressed, not masterminding an administrative takeover.

Your final admission is telling. Of course we are all “participants and capitalists” insofar as we still need Wonderbread from the mini-mart on the corner to keep our hearts beating. Societal structure is inevitable whether it is formal (like the government) or informal (like the networks that “govern” life on the East side), the question in front of us is the question of what kind of structure will be around, and who will be giving it shape. As Christians, we need to learn to walk in a new Way, do we need to jackhammer and re-pour the sidewalks in order to do it?

That brings up the “purity” comment. The original remark was aimed at those whose basic strategy is one of withdrawal – I’m confident that you are not in that camp. Your reply rightly pointed out the way in which Jesus subverted the purity codes that left people beyond the margins of “acceptable” company. Jesus was not ashamed to be involved with anyone (he ate with a few Pharisees too, as I recall). But you don’t follow this through far enough. Doesn’t writing off our current political and economic structures as inherently “impure” and suggesting that the Church could provide an acceptable alternative fall into the same fallacious pattern of thinking? Purity doesn’t involve abandoning prostitutes to the system that keeps them in bondage; purity means reaching out to them where they are without embracing the culture and lifestyle they inhabit. Likewise, purity doesn’t entail abandoning the current societal structures, though it does mean calling into question much that they hold dear. Did Zachaeus leave tax-collecting… or return with a whole new vision for how it ought to be done?

Does God have a command and a will for government? [I answer yes.] Is that command and will synonymous with His command and will for the Church such that the one could replace the other? Or, are there tasks for which government is suited that the church is not and vice versa? [I suspect that the two function best when they are neither structurally identified nor totally unconcerned with the other’s doings]. We do violence to both institutions and the human life that takes place under their auspices when we imagine that we can collapse the one into the other or separate them into “worldly” and “spiritual” spheres.

How would the “alternative structure” the Church could offer society avoid the political and economic problems that the present system faces? Surely you don’t imagine that the Church’s alternative system will be able to eliminate sin and corruption within the borders of its control? Won’t many of the same problems arise? In that case, are we silly to try and work to transform the present system rather than expect a whole new system to be categorically better?

Thanks again, Dan. Enjoy your last few months in Vancouver. Can’t say it’s quite as nice on the East end of the continent…

God’s Peace,

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