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?