The paradox of progressive political theology

May 4, 2017 by

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I’d like to try to point out, as a progressive Christian, something that has been bothering me about progressive Christian political theology — a paradox, tension and inconsistency that keeps popping up.

The tension/paradox is easily stated.

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.

Why does this paradox exist?

I think it’s because progressive Christians have an anemic ecclesiology. Progressive Christians aren’t known for showing up on Sunday mornings.

Progressive Christians resonate with Anabaptist, anti-empire political theology as it aligns well with the language of the prophets — indictment of oppression and injustice — which connects with the social justice impulses of progressive Christians. But lacking a robust ecclesiology, church as counter-cultural polis, progressive Christians are forced to turn to the state as the only player able to address the oppression and injustices they are calling out. Without a church, democratic engagement — guided by Niebuhrian political theology — is the only tool available to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Thus the paradox running through much of progressive political theology.

Denouncing Caesar while embracing Caesar.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.

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  • Berry Friesen

    Beck writes, “I think it’s because progressive Christians have an anemic ecclesiology.” Well yes, that’s true for most Christians.

    Nearly all of us in the West have become philosophical liberals, meaning we see the individual and his/her happiness as the moral yardstick by which to measure all things, including the church. Thus, it has moral legitimacy and authority only insofar as it blesses and enhances our personal projects of one kind of another.

    Thus, there is me and there is the state and there is little of consequence in between. So when we speak of big questions of justice and shalom, it only makes sense to turn to the state for answers, even though it remains fashionable as Anabaptists to insist Jesus is Lord.

  • Harvey Yoder

    Or would it be possible to have a robust ecclesiology (and a settled conviction that the nations of the world are only a drop in a small bucket in God’s economy) while still tossing an occasional pebble of influence into that bucket, sometimes in the form of a vote but more often in expressions of witness to the powers about concerns of justice and non-violence. In other words, do Anabaptists who are a part of a nation that is “of, by and for the people” (not the case in the 16th century) simply bury the opportunities they have to influence secular government? Even Menno Simons did not dismiss that option, as in “Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them, how they should rightfully execute their office to the glory and praise of God… to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration, not contrary to God’s Word but to the benefit of the common people.”

    • Berry Friesen

      In theory, I agree with you, Harvey, not Beck. But practically speaking, we mainstream Mennonites illustrate Beck’s point. That is, by our refusal to defer to denominational decisions, and by our corresponding refusal to forbear with those who refuse to defer, we reveal a worldview that does not include a church with authority in our lives, one strong enough to embody an alternative to empire’s way. Isn’t that “a weak ecclesiology?”

      • Harvey Yoder

        You make a good point.

      • Trevor Bechtel

        It’s a congregational polity, but not necessarily a weak one.

  • Aaron Yoder

    Well stated Richard!

  • Karen Rath

    As a politically conservative Anabaptist Christian, I very much appreciated Beck’s post. It is common for conservative Christians to criticize progressive Christians for misinterpreting Jesus’ commandments to help the needy to mean having the state use force to make people give to the needy, rather than doing it ourselves. But before we conservatives go too far in congratulating ourselves on having a better understanding of faith and politics, we need to look at the log in our own eye. We claim we want limited government according to the founding principles of the Constitution, and yet we often support increased spending and government power for the military and criminal justice. We are also guilty of putting far too much of our time, money, and energy into electoral politics, acting as if the kingdom of God cannot be made manifest if the wrong party is elected. Both sides are guilty of losing perspective, and it is my prayer that we can begin to learn to work together as followers of Jesus who have different solutions to problems, but who all want to get better at loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

  • Rainer Moeller

    The greater paradox seems to me that progressive Anabaptists strive for inner-wordly goals ( a kingdom of god on earth), but don’t want to use all means to succeed. Why does anyone deny power if he doesn’t give up his goals for life-before-death in order to search for a life after death?

  • Trevor Bechtel

    Anabaptist rhetoric is not anti-empire, it just refuses to acknowledge the empire as having any authority. There is an important difference which is why, while there is much common cause, progressive Christians and Mennonites can be like ships passing.

    Caesar is only ever denounced for a specific something that Caesar has done.

    I worked hard against the election of Trump because I value, like many Anabaptists and Mennonites, a stable state. The longer Trump stays in office the less stable American democracy is. Right now, Niebuhrian approaches to democratic engagement and Anabaptist values line up very neatly. But, hopefully again soon, our only options will not be either the supposed idealized and separated life that is occasionally attractive to progressive Christians and full one Nieburian engagement, but also the service oriented engagement that seeks to tilt the world toward peace and strong community Mennonites can also be.

    • Berry Friesen

      So Trevor, do you perceive progressive Christians to be anti-empire? If so, why? For example, Jim Wallis is a progressive Christian, but far as I can tell, he is pro-empire so long as the person is the White House suits his preferences.