Niebuhr or Wink? “The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology,” Yes—But “The Powers Can Be Redeemed”

Richard Beck has written a series of blog posts that have been churning in my thoughts for many days. The essential thrust of his posts is that progressive Christian political theology thinks it is Anabaptist when in actual fact it is Niebuhrian—or perhaps should be. Here’s how he states the paradox:

Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.

But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.

In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.

I commend the whole series highly (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth).

I don’t dispute Beck’s central insights. I think Beck is onto something important, and he has stated the matter well, with his usual probity and clarity. Nevertheless, something about the posts hasn’t felt quite right to me, and it’s taken me several days to put my finger on it. The question that has been stirring in my mind is whether he has captured the full range of Anabaptist theology related to political engagement.

I think he has accurately described a common Anabaptist political theology, probably the most common Anabaptist political theology. Essentially, this is the idea of “the church as the locus of life and political witness,” to use Beck’s words. In this common Anabaptist perspective, the church and the world are utterly distinct. The world will do whatever the world does. The church’s call is to bear witness to an alternative political reality shaped around the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are variations on this Anabaptist perspective, though, that have a more positive view of the world and thus a more positive view of political engagement in the world. Some of these might well be an accommodation to non-Anabaptist ideals (Niebuhrian realism, perhaps). However, at least one of these variations grows out of a more distinctly Anabaptist theological framework: Walter Wink’s notion that “the powers can be redeemed.”

Walter Wink has been profoundly influential in Anabaptist circles, in particular for his description of the powers-that-be in the world and how Christians should engage these “principalities and powers,” to use some of the New Testament language. For Wink, this biblical language is not describing independent, personal spiritual beings that mess with our world like malevolent poltergeists. Rather, this biblical language of “powers” is describing the forces at work in our world that seem beyond our control yet have control over us: the systems and structures of power in the world, including the humans who direct them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. In Wink’s view, three things are equally true about these powers-that-be: 1) they were created good, but 2) they are fallen—yet 3) they can be redeemed.

In Winkian Anabaptism, this is where political processes fit, among these “powers-that-be.” Political processes are intended by God to be forces for good—we need good ways of organizing ourselves as human societies, and that means politics. Our political processes, though, are fallen—they inevitably get abused as people with power are corrupted by that power. However, these political processes, like all the powers-that-be, can be redeemed—they can again become forces for good in human societies.

Wink is clear that we cannot simply use the outer shell of the world’s political structures and systems; the internal spirit that drives these must also be changed. However, Wink holds out real hope that this can happen at least to some extent, and not simply as an ultimate eschatological event or only within the church-as-alternative-society. He speaks, for example, of political systems such as democracy as, in their best forms, reflecting kingdom values. Democracy, he even says, is in principle an outworking of “nonviolence,” a core Jesus-and-kingdom-of-God reality (Engaging the Powers, 171-172).

With Walter Wink we have an Anabaptist approach that is more positive to the world than many other Anabaptist approaches—and, one might say without irony, more “realistic” about the world. It is realistic both in the acknowledgment that every human group, every community, every society, needs structures and systems in order to function, as well as in the recognition that these social structures and systems are always prone to abuse of power. It is positive in the sense that it holds out real hope even within this age for social structures and systems that reflect, at least in part, the upside-down reign of God revealed in Jesus.

All this raises a question for me related to Richard Beck’s “Paradox of Progressive Political Theology”: when does political engagement remain “Winkian Anabaptist,” and when does it cross the line into “Niebuhrian Realism”? To put this another way, using Beck’s own examples, is “voting” and “calling Congress” really Niebuhrian realism, or do these non-violent political actions actually reflect some measure of redemption of the powers-that-be, à la Walter Wink?


I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”