Where there are people, there are politics, and I write about church politics (‘I give you three years to narrate yourself #7)

Where there are people, there are politics, and I write about church politics (‘I give you three years to narrate yourself #7) September 13, 2018

This is the seventh and final post in a series reflecting on what I’ve been doing on the blog. The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth are here.

I said at the beginning of this series that I had stumbled upon what I was looking for on this blog and that I would eventually get to it after telling the story of how I got there. Sam Rocha wrote me mid-series to tell me that it was kind of a tell-all insincerity. In saying that, he exposed the core of where I was about last year, which were the posts that were under review. As my friend Daniel Chen confessed to me when he attempted to blog with me through the series, he had expected a more straight-forward confession from the depths, but if this series was confessional, it was meta-confessional, a review of my confessions, some of which are truer than others. Sam also said to me that there is of course some pleasure in the telling, but all of that would have to be negated too. I agreed with him, knowing where I think I was going with all of this, and now it is time to cash in. The negation begins, or rather, has already begun, or rather, probably has been going on this whole time.

My realization about what I have been trying to do all this time spinning my wheels on this blog occurred after I wrote ‘The Francis Ideology.’ In writing it, I realized that I had been misreading Pope Francis since the beginning. My account of politics, especially those practiced in the church, had been too romantic. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of romance, but without the tempering power of the abyss that gives it the gravitas of wisdom, it remains shallow. Mistakenly, I had simply thought that the implicit consensus of institutional privacy that contemporary social, political, and economic institutions had invested themselves in – that which I called the private consensus – would just unravel because of practices of public transparency and critical conversation. Obviously, as my more mature readers might surmise, these were the musings of a twenty-five year old punk kid. Even as an Asian American evangelical in the Anglican Communion at that time when these thoughts began to develop (when I really was about twenty-five), I saw the present Bishop of Rome as an avatar of this kind of romantic publicity. Because of that, I longed to become Catholic. I eventually did, but joining the Kyivan Church has offered me a perspective on this romance that has pressed me to deepening honesty about what politics is, what it has to do with the church, and why I as a lay person should care.

Politics, I am slowly being able to discern from my cursory reading of Aristotle (some day, and may that day come sooner than later, I will invest some time into a deeper examination), is simply that which concerns the polis. As far as the Philosopher seems to be concerned, politics is what you have to do in order to keep a society running. There are, as he puts it, households that are managed, and the technical term for this is oikonomia. A society is when all these household economies are pooled together into a kind of commons, and the style of that kind of pooling is a koinonia. In order to make a koinonia work, you have to politic – that is, you have to invest in living together as a people, which means that you argue, you reason, you cajole, you sometimes manipulate, you back down, you concede, and so on and so forth. It is, as I discovered early on in my blogging journey, an investment in the agon, in fully giving yourself to social conflict in order to work out the terms of co-existence. Politics in this relational sense is an art, and not for the faint of heart. As Aristotle says in the opening of the prequel to the Politics, the Nicomachean Ethics, young people probably shouldn’t be learning too much about politics because they haven’t even done the first thing yet, which is to get a handle on their passions. If you want to get a handle on the art of politics, you have to have a kind of intellectual chastity. If not, your judgment of political situations will be seriously clouded, and you’ll be fighting blind, which is the worst way to invest in the agon of the agora, the arena for politics.

The geographer Erik Swyngedouw says that the problem in contemporary societies is that we are moving toward what he calls the post-political. For Swyngedouw, the symptomatic case for this problem is in the movement to stop climate change. The modus operandi of this kind of environmentalism is to bombard people with facts. The idea is that if people have an information overload, then it’s evidence that demands a verdict – they’ll be completely won over to enact a policy that will avert an ecological disaster. The problem is that most people hate being treated as tools, especially not for a bureaucratic class that wants to use institutional structures to control their lives, even if it’s for the good of the planet. Swyngedouw notes that this is why the environmental movement often doesn’t get it when people who are otherwise sane might reject climate science.

To invert the evangelical formulation, just having evidence does not demand a verdict. You have to argue it out, using reason and argumentation and the powers of persuasion that does not take ordinary people for fools to advance ecological causes. You have to accept that there will be what Swyngedouw and his theoretical master Rancière call the antagonism – that what politics entails is people not getting along, not agreeing, not willing to concede. Politics is the art of duking it out. The post-political averts that process. It skips the deliberation and the conflict and goes straight to a solution that can be implemented by an institutional bureaucracy. It substitutes the political with policy.

What I’ve come to see at this point in my self-narration is that while I learned to be political in school, I was also taught to be post-political in church. Even though I went to an evangelical school and then a Catholic one for high school – institutions where the uninitiated might think that we were brainwashed into faith – we were basically taught as students to question authority, to pose challenging inquiries, and to advance arguments. We were instructed, in a word, to be political, although I am not sure that we had the integrative process it took to take the passions out of the equation. But in church – and this is Chinese Protestantism I’m talking about, although the same might be said of my friends growing up in white Protestant churches and even the Latin Church – there was always the lament that where there are people, there are politics, as if that were a bad thing. The thing is, we never used the word politics to describe what we were doing in school, so the term became tainted with sin, corruption, and meanness at least for me in my childhood. It was also used to describe factionalism, where this auntie formed a group of people to advance their agenda over that other uncle. This understanding carried over to a view of secular politics where it’s just the political parties – and therefore no actual people – duking it out. Politics became equated with the partisan. And so it was that the churches I grew up in would appeal to everything but human deliberation – the Bible, the bylaws, the civil law itself – casting politics as manmade and therefore susceptible to pride and arrogance and risking the church’s purity by turning it partisan.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that the academy is going through a much harder post-political phase than anything I’ve experienced in evangelicalism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy. This was strange to me because academia was always my safe space for being able to question everything. A colleague of mine told me that my problem as an academic was that I was too political. I stared at her blankly, wondering what she could possibly mean, and then she clarified that I had so much experience and so many stories about how arenas of contestation both within and without the school actually worked. That kind of knowledge scares people, she says, because many people want to believe that schools are fundamentally meritocracies, based on metrics and rules and grades and policies and bylaws and laws. Politics means that you actually have to engage in a way that takes into account emotions, affects, and passions. It requires chastity to practice the art of reason. Democracy necessitates sobriety. It is no secret, as Jürgen Habermas suggests, that the first sites of bourgeois public deliberation in the meaningful sense of a public sphere that wedged itself between the public authority of the state and rabble of the masses took place in the coffee shop. Caffeine has a way of making an argument come alive.

In the last month as I wrote about the sex abuse scandal in the Latin Church and the ideology of Pope Francis, I realized that I had come full circle on the question of politics. I remember the days when I used to blame evangelicalism for everything and make Catholicism seem like the grass really was greener on the other side. When I wrote about the private consensus and the blind spots of Asian American evangelicals to it within the global infrastructure of Anglo-American evangelicalism, what I was really complaining about was that the post-political seemed to have become the evangelical modus operandi. I was so naïve, having previously been convinced while reading the literature on the sociology of publics that evangelical morality movements from the nineteenth century are responsible for the conversionary politics of contemporary public spheres, that I did not realize that words like evangelize and convert are not necessarily political terms. More often than not, they function as post-political, using foreclosed conclusions to gaslight people into acquiescence. When I saw my friends on the other side of the Tiber – especially on Vox Nova, but also in America and Commonweal – having a grand old time duking things out, I was pretty jealous. At least, I’d say to my evangelical friends, those Catholics know how to have an argument, and I was very offended when those evangelicals would say back to me that the real reason I wanted to become Catholic was to have a stable authority structure. I was interested in the capacity of Catholics to fully engage the intellect in political antagonism, and I became convinced that that was what Catholicism basically was.

But the evangelicals spoke more truth than they knew. As an outsider to the Catholic Church, I surmised that the reason they could have this kind of politics of agonistic dissensus was because they did have a stable arena in which to fight it out. Whenever evangelicals get into a fight, they start new organizations; the system ruptures and goes into crisis before the match can be complete. At the time, I felt that the Catholic Church, as well as the Orthodox churches both Constantinopolitan and Coptic, were entering a phase of this kind of radical political work, and I wrote about it as a movement of the Spirit against what Pope Francis at the time denounced as the propensity of the Church to be ‘self-referential.’ In fact, I even included changes in the Anglican Communion in that mix, as I had great hope for Justin Welby as the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013 to bring some closure to the ruptures of the Anglican realignment in the 2000s, the very avenue via which I entered the Communion in 2008. I felt, in other words, that having hierarchical systems where bishops were in charge would be able to stabilize an arena for the people of God to duke things out, and I really liked the way that Francis, Welby, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros II accompanied their people as they got involved in the politics of the Arab Spring, anti-capitalist protest, and a reckoning with sexual abuse.

The most recent episode in the long saga of sexual abuse scandals in the Latin Church gives the lie to this romance about bishops and politics. As I mused on the report about Cardinal McCarrick’s longstanding abuse of sexual power and the Pennsylvania grand jury report exposing Cardinal Wuerl for knowing what he was doing and doing it anyway, it occurred to me that the Latin bishops were doing precisely the opposite of the stabilizing thing that I thought they were there for when I was a naïve Asian American evangelical in the Anglican Communion. The grass, it turns out, was not greener on the other side, and as I thought about it, it also dawned on me that my impulses toward politics had driven me to the Kyivan Church, with whom I was inspired during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement when I learned that the hierarchs of all the churches of Kyiv had gone down to the Maidan with their people, along with an interreligious and ecumenical entourage, and had really accompanied the people on their political journey. Here, it might even be fair to say that my congregationalist upbringing is showing, with its suspicions of the clergy written into the by-laws and the insistence that the people of God who are free of state intervention and have the political agency to make decisions for their own future. I was, in other words, raised with a sense that the church is a radical democracy, and to this day as an Eastern Catholic, I still chafe whenever my Latin sisters and brothers glibly tell me that it’s not a democracy. Maybe it isn’t for them, but – I muse – that’s probably also why their church is currently in trouble.

Some may say that I am introducing an inappropriate Protestant experience of democracy into Catholicism by calling for attentiveness to lay agency, and I suppose that if their experience of the Catholic Church was exclusively in a Latin reduction, their mistake might be excusable. But that is not what I wrote. I said that we have to examine the practice of liturgy in our churches, as in what the actual practices are, for as my patron saint Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr suggests, that is the only apologetic that we have. The church that I am in practices its liturgy by having the people self-organize into cantors, servers, and readers. We work in synergy with the clergy, who are mostly behind the iconostas, but there is not really a sense in which the bishops and priests are leading the service. There may be an argument that the deacon that goes between the altar and the people is the leader of the litany, to which we respond, Lord, have mercy, but that is a picture of our service as a church to the world, which is described in our theology as diakonia. Certainly, it can be said that my reception into the Kyivan Church may have occurred because I resonated with its style of koinonia – I am, after all, human and need analogical hooks to get me from one place to another – but I am also saying that what I’ve learned to be Catholic in this church is precisely what the Holy Hieromartyr Ignatius of Antioch spoke of to the Smyrneans: where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. And if one were to protest that that formulation is in discussion of obedience to the local bishop – which Ignatius does spend quite a bit of time discussing – he talks to the Ephesians about the bishop being like a conductor for the antiphonal choir that is the people of God, which sounds an awful lot like the synergy we experience in our liturgy.

In some ways, what I am advocating is the inverse of the sentiment behind where there are people, there are politics. As a child, I was taught that that was a sad reality, but now, I am not so sure that this is a statement of lament. Beyond being a fact, it is also to be celebrated. The argument that I came to with regards to the Latin Church’s crisis is that the real problem seems to me that it has become a church of all bishops and no people. Some have reminded me that one cannot have a Catholic Church without bishops, but my contention is that as one cannot have the liturgical synergy between clergy and people without clergy, one also cannot have it without people. Indeed, one does not have to get down to the brass tacks of Kyivan Church practice in which we even have a ‘no-priest’ tradition of readers’ services because of our particular experiences of deprivation and colonization throughout our history – by the Mongols, by the Muscovites, by the Polish, by the Hapsburgs, by the Nazis, by the Soviets, by the neoconservatives, by the proponents of the ‘Russian World’ ideology. Even in the Latin Church where the call-and-response between people and priest is central to liturgical action, you cannot have liturgy without people, and where there are people, there are politics. As I told a friend last night who shares a Cantonese evangelical background with me and has been raised with the misperception that ‘church politics’ is of the devil, a Christian liturgy insists that our sociality is built around the Lord Jesus who is in our midst, and the acts of building that society around the Lord is a political act in the sense that it results in the debates, deliberations, and diversities proper to our koinonia in the polis.

In this sense, I am back to where I have always been, which is the position that there is no substitute for politics, not even the public figures (like Pope Francis) who advocate for the political over against the post-political. As part of the people of God, I need to be a political agent, and I need to recognize my fellow person also as endowed with agency in the polis as well. I suppose this is why I spoke of my gay priest friend with such hesitation, as I recognized that there were many post-political attempts to frame the whole abuse crisis as symptomatic of a lavender mafia. But speaking as someone engaged in the political, I spoke of what I observed of him, what I learned from him, and how I lived together with him and his community for two weeks. I wrote of our koinonia and our economia. I am not going to substitute my agency with what an institution tells me to think. I am a person with a face that faces and is faced by other persons; that mutual facing is the interface of politics, as the situation in which we are faced with each other is an arena that can be described as political.

When I saw this reality, I grasped my mistake and found what I was looking for. I have been looking for a way to write about church politics and the political activities of the churches in whose life I have shared in the world, and my mistake was to glom onto someone like Pope Francis as a shortcut to that writing. In the sex abuse crisis, Francis has been quite the disappointment, acting as he has been in a kind of post-political way that reinforces the notion that his is a church of all bishops and no people. What I have learned from my error is that even the people who advocate for the political over against the post-political are themselves subject to the same temptations toward institutional entrenchment in policy over politics, and the problem with looking for avatars of politics is that one ends up engaging in a kind of substitutionary politics instead of actually acting with an innate sense of one’s agency.

In other words, substituting my political agency with Francis’s led to my overdeterminations what I was trying to discuss instead of describing the mess of the churches I try to talk about. I thought that that kind of substitution was what it meant to be Catholic. But it is not. To be Catholic is to be the people of God, fully invested in making Christ presence through our liturgical action. To write about the politics of the churches is simply to attempt to put into words how the koinonia of a gathered people is constituted and the modes of economia that they practice. Whether it is the Asian American evangelicalism of my past, the Cantonese Protestants of my research, the Anglican Communion of my most recent journey, the Latin Church with which I am in communion, and the worlds of Orthodoxy in which I find my home, the task is the same. I write about their church politics as they are, and this does not turn me into an apologist for any of them because my task begins with description and ends with theory. It starts with observing their political practices, moves through the networks through which they operate, and ends up revealing what they imagine to constitute the world.

My actions as an academic who writes about church politics are not post-political because I am invested in understanding the political agency of the people I am writing about and sharing in their social freedom. In this sense, I finally am coming to understand what I am doing: I do not write about church politics because it is a perverse interest of mine, but because where people are, there are politics, and those people are the very icons of the One-Who-Is. To me, this newfound anti-substitutionary conviction has been one of the most startling realizations of my participation in the Catholic Church, that ours is a participatory politics because as it happens, our churches are not devoid of people. They are full of them, and in many ways, people is all we have.

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