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Prayed Politics

by Robert Bachelder

Mr. Bachelder, who has worked in banking, in 1987 was minister of Worcester City Missionary Society (United Church of Christ) in Worcester, Massachusetts. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 29, 1986, p 92. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas have charged that the church’s theology and ethics are atheistic (see "Embarrassed by God’s Presence," January 30, 1985) To this it can be added that the church’s approach to political life is unrelated to God -- unrelated, that is, to the transcendent God of reformed Protestantism whose thoughts and ways are different from our own. Church assemblies do indeed take positions on many public issues, frequently invoking Scripture as a defense for their viewpoint. Too often, however, this appeal is mere biblicism. As a result, we are close to forgetting how to think theologically about politics.

Understanding that "a theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God," Anselm began his Prologue with a prayer, giving us what Helmut Thielicke calls "prayed dogmatics." A similar understanding of politics might be called "prayed politics."

Such an approach to politics should mirror the movements of Christian life as they are reflected in worship. We are a people both summoned and sent. We are summoned before God to be judged and forgiven through confession and pardon. Then, nourished by Scripture and edified by preaching, we are sent again into the spheres of our public responsibility. These movements are held together in a dialectical tension.

One reason that public issues evoke controversy in congregational life is that people tend to see themselves as either being summoned or sent, not both. This division is not peculiar to the church, but reflects a perennial debate in political philosophy.

In his essay "Does Political Theory Still Exist?" Isaiah Berlin discusses the monists and the pluralists, who correspond respectively to the sent and the summoned (reprinted in Concepts and Categories, Henry Hardy, editor [Penguin, 1978]) For the sent, "human ends are objective: men are what they are, or change in accordance with discoverable laws; and their needs or interests or duties can be established by the correct (naturalistic, or transcendental, or theological) methods." On the other side, the summoned "believe in some form of original sin or the impossibility of human perfection, and therefore tend to be skeptical of the empirical attainability of any final solution to the deepest human problems" (p. 153).

Throughout intellectual history, these two camps have engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. In the church, the distinction has helped create the pit between the pulpit and the pew.

Professional church leaders tend to stand in the ranks of the sent. Their view is sounded by the Office for Church in Society of the United Church of Christ, which says -- without any reservation or sense of irony -- that politics consists of "turning beliefs into policies," that missions consists of "translating the Gospel into works and deeds that build up the reign of God," and that we must work to "eliminate the institution of war."

In the pew, however, the summoned predominate. These are people who voted for Ronald Reagan. Many are merely complacent, but some are articulate in their skepticism that public policies will ever succeed, given human perversity. The summoned are distrustful of politicians in general; and they suppose that since public issues are messy at best, religion does better to confine itself to the interior life of the spirit.

James Fowler tells us that a mature faith knows that truth has contrasting dimensions that need to be held together. The faithful are neither the summoned nor the sent but those who are both coming and going. One ear hears the imperative to active public life expressed in Amos: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." The other ear listens to the parable of the growing seed in Mark 4:26-29 with its rebuke of self-righteous zealotic activism, and its claim that God, not the people, will establish the kingdom when the time is ripe. "Prayed politics" is the fruit of mature faith, and its prayer is drawn from T. S. Eliot’s "Ash Wednesday": "Teach us to care and not to care." That petition perfectly expresses the Christian paradox that individuals are responsible, yet God is sovereign; that individuals are sent into the world to work, but they are also summoned away from the world and must submit themselves to God. To live this way is to be in communion with a living God who speaks to us -- sometimes with encouragement, sometimes with sternness.

The faithful, then, are those who are both summoned and sent, who both care and do not care. They are what Jacques Ellul calls "active pessimists" (The Meaning of the City [Eerdmans, 1970]) They are active because God through Jesus Christ has made the city into a "neutral world" where we are free and where we can find "possibilities for action." And yet they are also pessimists, because "where we are working we absolutely must not take our actions seriously, neither ours nor that of our companions." God "creates this city as he creates the bodies of all those who are dead when he calls them to life" (pp. 170-172)

Prayed politics, then, permits our public lives to participate in the central mystery of Christianity: human/divine encounter. A problem with much of the church’s thinking about politics is that it emerges not out of this intractable mystery, but out of one or another of its constitutive poles. This leads either to the frantic hyperactivism of our church assemblies where dozens of issue-oriented resolutions are passed in the name of prophecy, or to a "we’re doing the best we can" kind of complacency in the name of a pallid Christian "realism." Both these tactics are really escape routes from a God who wants us simultaneously to care and not to care.

Lincoln also thought he was an instrument of history. But behind Lincoln’s understanding of history was his idea of a God "who at times seems to want to frustrate the Statesman" (John Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics [Basic, 1984]) Lincoln "doubted that man could ever grasp God’s will and therefore believed that human action would always be estranged from divine intention" (p. 330) Lincoln divined that God is both hidden and revealed. Thus, for him, politics was a function of both theodicy and providence. Lincoln the Calvinist held Americans responsible for the war, Diggins writes, and never stopped reminding them that they deserved their "divine punishment."

Roosevelt’s style of decision-making was immensely self-confident, even breezy, reflecting his belief that he was an instrument of God’s inevitable progress. He succumbed, therefore, to what André Malraux called "the temptation of the West" -- the illusion that humans can master historical circumstances. Roosevelt was an active optimist because he did not grasp, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, that while people were meant to master the creation, their arrogance has alienated them from God and made them, in some measure, slaves to creation. He thereby opened himself to the charge leveled at Bismarck by Bamberger: "Prince Bismarck believes firmly and deeply in God who has the remarkable faculty of [ways agreeing with him."

Furthermore, just as Roosevelt believed wholeheartedly in himself, he believed in theirs as well. In FDR, Ted Morgan observes that Roosevelt made his mistake, with Stalin at Yalta by assuming "that the their fellow is a good guy who will respond with decency if he is treated right" Simon & Schuster, 1985, p. 756) In this respect, Roosevelt was heir to the attitude of Woodrow Wilson, of whom Arthur Link writes: "His faith in the goodness and rationality of men. . . and in the inevitable triumph of righteousness sometimes caused him to make illusory appraisals of the situations at hand and to devise quixotic or unworkable solutions" (Wilson the Diplomatist [Quadrangle, 1963], p. 17).

Lincoln, on the other hand, had few illusions about himself or others. In Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, the abolitionist Senator Wade says to the president: "There is no doubt in my mind as to the justice of our cause and the evil of theirs." Lincoln rejoins: "Naturally, I believe we are right, Mr. Wade. But I wish I had your absolute certitude, and lack of any doubt about the evilness of the other" (Ballantine, 1985, p. 553) To radical Republicans like Wade, Lincoln seemed slow-moving and indecisive. At the same time, he did not allow his self-skepticism to become weak resignation, and he managed to be humble about his plans and decisions without being passive and defeatist.

Lincoln is almost a paradigm of active pessimism, which is one reason that Americans today enjoy "liberty and union" from sea to sea. Had the radical Republicans carried the day, they would have handed the government to the Democrats in 1864, ensuring the perpetuation of slavery.

Over a lifetime, Augustine tried to defend a complete view of grace. Against the Manicheans, he had to maintain the inherent goodness of being after the Fall. Against the Pelagians, he maintained the necessity of grace if nature were to be perfected.

So, too, pastors and church officials must be more than cheerleaders for one or another political position or philosophy. We should exhort the pessimists to go into the world, reminding them that the resurrection of Christ shows that God fulfills divine purpose not only through our obedient deeds, but even when we rebel. We should then remind the activists that, while their work may be a parable of God’s kingdom, as Luther said, this kingdom does not depend on their efforts, which are always enfeebled by a self-love that elicits God’s judgment.

When we speak of politics in our congregations, we try to fit our words to specific people. Assemblies and synods, on the other hand, are always asking what word they need to speak to the churches and to the world -- as though there is some single, coherent message for everyone. Different people need different words at different times. As Karl Barth said, one mark of our stupidity is that we say things to the wrong person.

By fostering a sensitivity to human diversity, a prayed politics can push us beyond the current unedifying public debates. Diplomatic historian E. H. Carr wrote that two approaches -- utopian and realistic – "determine opposite attitudes towards every political problem. . . .The characteristic vice of the utopian is naïveté; of the realist, sterility" (The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations [St. Martin’s, 19461, pp. 11-15)

Prayed politics, however, does not settle for these tired terms of debate. It was the active pessimist Reinhold Niebuhr who recovered the classical Christian insight that while we are sinners who need to be forgiven, we also are sent into the world with some measure of grace to do justice. In George Marshall’s State Department Policy Planning Council, Niebuhr argued that humanity’s sinfulness made necessary political strategies that balanced power against power. At the same time, however, he rejected the nonchalance of those who, because of their skepticism, were unconcerned with the relative merits of various political systems.

A political ethic does not tell us what to do, so much as what not to do. Active pessimism makes us distrustful of policies that rely either on force or on beautiful ideas. It suggests that U.S. foreign policy must contain elements of both power and principle, and that it must promote both security and justice. Thus we are skeptical of Jimmy Carter’s early posture of refusing to use military power, and we reject Ronald Reagan’s position that force and bluster can solve our problems.

Within the church, we question those church leaders who immediately condemned the Grenada invasion without troubling to ascertain the relevant facts, while also rebuking the people in the pews who rejoiced in the operation as a reassertion of American greatness. Concerning Nicaragua, it means that we listen less to high-decibel advocates for the administration and for the Sandinistas, and we listen more to people who offer ways to peace without supposing that all would be well if only Managua would cry "Uncle," or if only Washington would emulate a dove.

Active pessimists, then, are among the world’s great curmudgeons. However, this crankiness is precisely what generates innovative responses to the day’s demands. Active pessimists steer their way between the Scylla of the utopian’s pride and the Charybdis of the realist’s despair. They forsake the safe harbor of stale political pieties, entering instead those open, uncertain seas where, as Stanley Hoffman proposes, we acknowledge the stark realities of the struggle for power, while working nonetheless toward a more cooperative world order.

The church should be cultivating a public disposition to launch this political adventure. Indeed, the church has a special responsibility because it has a special capacity -- a disposition that is a fruit of prayed politics. It is a gift to the world from those who know that they are both summoned and sent, and so have communion with a God who is doing something new.


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