A Retrospective on a Righteous Pagan: The Political Theology of Captain America, Pt. 2 (by Benjamin Wood)

Essays

The myth of Captain America introduces us to a serious quandary. Can liberal democracy be de-coupled from violence or is it doomed to repeat old battles? For Christians the question is doubtless a complex one. The Church can doubtless find much in Rogers’s democratic creed to admire; his sense of self-sacrifice, his public spirit and sense of civic duty. There is something of the righteous pagan in the Captain America myth which should not be lightly dismissed.

(See Part I here.)

The myth of Captain America introduces us to a serious quandary. Can liberal democracy be de-coupled from violence or is it doomed to repeat old battles? For Christians the question is doubtless a complex one. The Church can doubtless find much in Rogers’s democratic creed to admire; his sense of self-sacrifice, his public spirit and sense of civic duty. There is something of the righteous pagan in the Captain America myth which should not be lightly dismissed. Where these values still exist, the Church should do its upmost to nurture them since they can do more than help us survive the indignities of war but point to a world where: ‘Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid’ (Micah 4:4). Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that there is a fundamental gulf between godly paganism and Christianity. The heroic pagan spirit within the body politic of the American republic can’t overcome the belief that righteous violence (war waged for eventual order) is always meaningful and redemptive. In ancient Roman paganism, this was expressed by Jupiter’s struggle and murder of his own father, which established his status as the undisputed king of the gods. According to such mythic logic, there can be no peace without war. Yet, this is fundamentally opposed by the narrative of Christianity. As Milbank expresses it rather majestically in Theology and Social Theory (1990):

Instead of Jove, the stayer of a preceding battle, Christians worship the one true God who originates all finite reality in an act of peaceful donation, willing a new fellowship with himself and amongst the beings he has created. In ‘the heavenly city’, beyond the possibility of alteration, the angels and saints abide in such a fellowship; their virtue is not the virtue of resistance and domination, but simply of remaining in a state of self-forgetting conviviality. Here there is nothing but ‘the vision of peace’, a condition that originally pertained also for the temporal creation, before the sinful assertion of pride and domination introduced a pervasive presence of conflict leading to death in both society and nature.[i]

What might this deep logic of peace mean for Christian engagement in liberal-democratic politics? In the first place, to know that peace is the original reality places a definite vocation upon each one of us. In a world of violence, Christians should never stop telling the world about the radical concord ushered in by the life and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  While the liberal demos is frequently held back by its own fascination with war (wars on terror, wars on drugs, even culture-wars) Jesus attacks these belligerent ways of thinking at their root by repudiating practices of vengeance passing as justice and calling his disciples to suffer rather than be agents of suffering. Yet, by proclaiming a Pax Christi, the early Church never meant to imply the abandonment of valour, heroism or even patriotism, rather their ultimate fulfilment. Jesus invites not only the poor and weary into his company, but also the centurions and patriots of this world who have already learnt something of the way of the Cross through personal sacrifice and public service. Such people are the natural heirs of Christ’s kingdom since they foreshadow so much of what Jesus’ embodied. Yet living under the call of peace places on us a responsibility to be discerning in who we tell our story to, and how we tell it. We must not comprise the Gospel’s edginess in an effort to make more palatable to a culture which is not fully aware of its acceptance of violence.

In our unwillingness to comprise the integrity of the message all our notional loyalties to liberal-democratic institutions are made fundamentally conditional. Of course liberal democrats will try to convince us that our story is also their story and piously declare their support for societies of peace. And when we point out to them that democratic peace is often bought with bombs, drones and economic expansionism, they will solemnly nod and tell us that the world isn’t perfect. They will try to convince us to withhold judgement from their leaders on the grounds of pragmatism: “Just give this leader a bit more time to shine”; “he wants what you want but the opposition won’t let him”, “you should back him but be realistic”. Yet we must not be fooled by such platitudes and must be brave enough to contest such fudges and hypocrisies. This is not to say that we should reject everything liberal democracy offers. There may well be many areas of common concern between us and members of liberal institutions. We are with the law-maker in seeking just laws, with the activists who want a truthful politics and with generous civic republicans who desire the embrace of public duty. Yet, Christians have no reason to preserve the liberal polity for its own sake since the Church’s politics is not of this world; its loyalty to the love of Christ and not to the logic of competition, power and conquest. Its bond with the outside world can only be maintained cursively and selectively. This doesn’t mean that the Church should fall into the dead ends of moral superiority or isolationism, but it does mean a refusal to be identified with a single cause, nation or ideology.

When policy-makers and citizens break through the hum-drum logic of normative violence the Church should be standing with them offering jubilant support. When they fall short the same Christians should be the first to point out their failure and call for repentance (for a turning round and a repair of the hurt which has been done). We should make this call even when (or perhaps especially when) democratic belligerence comes in the attractive garb of Steve Rogers. Captain America believes that his war with totalitarianism is just, and history (written of course by the victors) tends to agree. Yet, despite the propaganda, the Second World War and the Cold War were not grand Manichean matches between good and evil. They had the same motives as many previous conflicts; territory, empire and economic survival. Germany attempted to consolidate its position against economic rivals through the vehicle of National Socialism while Britain attempted to preserve its export-base and empire by pitting itself against the ambitions of Hitler. In these titanic struggles democrats frequently behaved like their opponents; killing civilians, imprisoning suspected dissidents without trial and spying on citizens. No one can deny the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, yet it would be a mistake to think that such monstrous regimes have a monopoly on cruelty and torture. Often the apparent radiance of Western democracy produces in its wake a corresponding dark shadow which we ignore at our peril. As Nietzsche chillingly warns us in Beyond Good and Evil: ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’. A chilling warning indeed.

 

Dr Benjamin J. Wood is a Research Associate at the Lincoln Theological Institute, University of Manchester.  His current research interests include the theological validity of political liberalism, the Christian foundations of secularity and Augustinian theology in relation to individualism.

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[i] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p.394

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