The editor of a major newsweekly once told me that if he wanted to double the sales of the magazine for a week, he just had to put Jesus, Mary, or angels on the cover. Newsweek, even after the ousting of its staunchly Episcopalian editor, Jon Meacham, still plays this game more than other newsweeklies. So it was no surprise that the latest acquisition by Newsweek/The Daily Beast, the vaguely Catholic Andrew Sullivan, penned the Holy Week cover story on Jesus and the crisis in Christianity.
According to Sullivan, who often publicly quarrels with his own church, the crisis in Christianity is that the church has become too political, thus corrupting the central message of Jesus. Get Jesus back into your heart, and screw the church. That’s Sully’s thesis.
Many of the bloggers I read disagree. Here’s a round-up of them, including a riposte from Sullivan himself:
The result of this Jeffersonian surgery is Jesus the enlightened sage, the teacher of timeless moral truths concerning love, forgiveness and non-violence. Both Jefferson and Sullivan urge that this Christ, freed from churchly distortions, can still speak in a liberating way to an intelligent and non-superstitious audience.
What Sullivan apparently does not know is that some Christians, from pews, pulpits, and classrooms are asking the right questions–and are working toward a spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity. These new questioners make up what I call America’s “exile” faith communities–the creative but often ignored Christians found in liberal mainline churches, emergent evangelical gatherings, and progressive Catholic circles. With growing awareness over the last two decades, they have been engaging this crisis, listening to the grassroots questions of American religious life, and constructing new patterns and practices of faith. For them, the questions are becoming clear–and some answers are emerging.
There once was a writer named Sullivan
who wanted to give Christ a mulligan,
so he said “people, please—ditch the Church so diseased,
and remember what Jesus taught us again!”
To be Christian, he seems to be arguing, means to reject the use of power, and he responds to a commentator who notes that we’re always exercising power by saying “well: duh,” and referring back to the fall. But I think this sells the question of power short. Power is not simply the power of coercion, which is how Sullivan wants to use it, and thus not simply a product of the fall, rather, power is constitutive of our very being. To exist is to exercise power, not simply because of the fall, but because that’s what existence means.
In this respect, I think that Sullivan has perhaps drunk a bit too deeply from the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, and not deeply enough from the work of Paul Tillich.
Sullivan misses the mark not only on his prescription for the crisis, but on his diagnosis of the crisis itself. It is not that Christianity has been politicized, but that a certain politicization of Christianity is quickly coming to stand for all Christianity.
If Jesus had a political message it does not mean that that message is necessarily theocratic or totalitarian, as Sullivan seems to suggest. If Machiavelli and Locke were not thinking about setting up our political world, but addressing their own in their own terms, that does not mean that they have no contemporary political or philosophical relevance – but that such relevance must work through critical history, not in spite of it. Finally, if liberalism has a metaphysical basis, in common with all other political thought, it does not mean that its historical superiority – if that is what we want to claim – is necessarily called into question. Rather, the issues become contested and qualitative: we embrace the politics of Jesus in better or worse ways, we appropriate history through better or worse practices, and we defend democracy with better or worse arguments.
I’m not sure Andrew’s political framework is up to the task of diagnosing the real crisis we face as inhabitants of Western democracy. If only things were as easy as putting a mutant political Christianity back in its cage…
Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.
I don’t buy this. The Romans executed Jesus reluctantly in the Gospel account, and the Gospels tell us they did not regard him as a political threat. Moreover, his injunction to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s under imperial rule couldn’t be less political. It shocked his contemporaries that he was indifferent to the distinction between colonist and colonized. He even made a point of hanging out with the empire’s most reviled apparatchiks, the tax-collectors; and declared the faith of a Roman centurion as remarkable. He was executed at the behest of the Jewish authorities who rightly regarded Jesus as a threat to their faith. What Jesus did at the last Seder meal was blasphemous enough. Pope Benedict is right that the political actor before Pilate was not Jesus but Barabbas – and it was Barabbas who was freed.
Liberalism (note I mean the whole liberal system, not the American left) is anti-political; it has a constant need to hide its biases, limit the field of discourse, and pretend and that any kind of actual political conviction is a product of “fundamentalism” or crazed partisan zeal. If you read Andrew’s blog or any op-ed columnist in a major American newspaper, you know the deal. The greatest sin in liberal politics is believing in something and refusing to compromise.
Did you read Sullivan’s essay? What do you think of it?