This will likely be the last installment of this little series. I hope that I have offered, up to this point, at least enough reason to consider dialectic and situation not only as valid Christian philosophical categories but potentially helpful tools for thinking about Christian ethics in the world. I have tried to take on words that tend to scare evangelicals (as once they scared me), and this installment I will not tackle the world of dialectic or the flesh of situation but the devil of politics.
Thinking About Everything
Politics is not everything, but everything is political. So I tell my freshman composition students when I set them to the task of writing a political essay. Without fail, I have students tell me, upon finding out the topic, that they “know nothing about” or “do not care about” politics. By the time I explain what politics in its classical sense means, I can generally count on all of my students’ agreement that politics is not only unavoidable but best done well by people who have thought on it.
As is my habit, I begin with Plato and Aristotle. What the Romans came to call Plato’s Republic before that took the Greek name Politeia, roughly translatable as politics. And when Aristotle undertook his Nicomachean Ethics, he insisted in the opening book that any study of human goods must ultimately be a political science. Politics, in the classical imagination, happens when any group of people, living together in some significant way, works together towards a common good.
I offer this classical account of politics for a couple reasons. For one, I want to emphasize that the politics that the 24-hour news networks relay to us from Washington, D.C. are neither the only kind nor the definitive kind of politics; and for two, I want to insist that the politics of congregational life can be better or worse, that they do not start “apolitical” and only become “political” when they begin to resemble Washington, D.C.
The Politics of Allelon
When Paul continues his letter to the Romans from the point I alluded to in the second part of this series (that is to say, chapter twelve), he sets up a spatial metaphor that challenges somewhat the political imagination of Imperial Rome. (As I’ve said before on this blog, I have some respect for Republican Rome, but Imperial Rome makes my stomach turn in all kinds of ways.) In the Empire, power always began high and trickled down. The Imperator (emperor) had power of life and death over everyone. Governors and regional puppet-kings had the same power over their subjects. Men had that power over their wives and children. Masters had it over their slaves. One’s position within an array of hierarchies determined not only who could kill one and whom one could kill but also one’s relationship with other human beings. Brothers could love one another, but a son must fear a father. Wives of legionnaires could respect one another, but the wife of a legionnaire must defer to the wife of a centurion. The scope of “one another” (Greek allelon) was always limited to lateral movement; between Caesar and a slave there was no “one another.” Then came Jesus.
I begin with my standard apology: I have neither the time nor enough of my readers’ confidence to exegete this passage. I simply point to the rather radical repetition of
“one another” to be read not only to those within a tight social sphere but to all the community of Christians:
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12, NRSV)
Haughtiness and the avoidance of the lowly were, if not the bricks upon which Rome built the empire, at least the walls that kept one away from one’s betters and inferiors. Paul, writing to the imperial city itself, calls for a politics in which the showing and not the getting of honor defines life and in which “one another” can be read aloud to all gathered, men and women, slaves and freemen, Jews and Gentiles.
The politics of “one another” thus define this community whose common good is the Christ-informed life. In a community defined by the confession that Jesus is Lord, Jesus and not Caesar, the trappings of Roman social hierarchies become less than unimportant, become in fact hindrances to the Reign of God that has come and is coming.
So What About the Board Meeting?
None of this is to say that the “politics” of congregational life that renders bad tastes in so many mouths is imaginary or unimportant. It’s simply to say that the repentance of sin is always before Christian communities. As we gather together for the sake of worship and for the sake of common life that points the way towards the Reign of God, we often pack up our household idols to take with us. We often take on the corruptions of Ba’al and of Imperial Rome and of Washington, D.C. And we often mistake those who would call us to repent and believe in Jesus rather than our own powers for traitors and worse. So we confess.
None of this is to say that knowing Paul’s vision of “one another” politics automatically translates into concrete ways to live it out. It’s simply to say that given Paul’s vision, we have something towards which to strive. As we live together as congregations and as a global Church, we often think locally and act globally, taking our own little obsessions to be so important that everyone’s common life should be ordered around them. (And this is not a rhetorical “we” that really means “you and them but not me”; I confess that my own life in the academy makes me overvalue academic life far too often.) And we often mistake those who would point to larger common goods for children ignorant of the really important questions that our common life produces. So we confess.
We confess along with the Book of Common Prayer, not for self-flagellation, but so that Christ can soften our hearts, make low the haughty (especially when we’re the haughty), restore us in love to “one another”:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
we have offended against thy holy laws,
we have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
spare thou those who confess their faults,
restore thou those who are penitent,
according to thy promises declared unto mankind
in Christ Jesus our Lord;
and grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake,
that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life,
to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
And with our Amen, we begin again, living together towards the witness to the gospel of Christ Jesus. Amen.