I’m almost tempted to say that political theology in the broadest sense is irresistible. We cannot escape it. Suppose that pretenses of being apolitical are themselves political gestures and that self-avowed secular discourses continue to make reference to particular religious traditions and rely on certain theologically debatable ideas about the meaning of religion. Given these presuppositions, one must conclude that even the most apolitical theologians and even the most secular political theorists will somehow be caught in the net of political theology, again very broadly construed.
The question on my mind, then, is not whether to do political theology but how to get it right. And, in part, getting it right means resisting the ways that it goes badly wrong, as it so often does in this merciless, hardhearted world. When Augustine juxtaposes the city of God with the earthly city, he does so not to argue for or against political theology per se but rather to express his Christian vision of a political society oriented by the gift of divine peace and to present it as an alternative to the demonically violent political theology that he perceives in the Roman empire. Whether one agrees with Augustine’s vision in all its details, and there are many things to question, his general strategy of seeking the right sort of political theology, or even just a better one in the midst of violent circumstances, seems sound.
How to discern whether one is getting political theology right is a very large and daunting question, and perhaps it is even a little presumptuous to approach the matter in this way—as if a perfect form of political theology were representable to a finite intellect and practically attainable; as if I had the criteria for it and could simply tell them to you. Instead, I’d like to approach the matter by a more negative, dialectical, critical route, by asking what are some signs that one is getting political theology wrong. Perhaps with David Newheiser I should call this a “negative political theology.”
I submit that one clear sign we are doing political theology wrong is cruelty. The Oxford English Dictionary calls cruel those persons or, by extension, things that are “disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.”
Liberation theologians who draw on the Book of Exodus do so to resist the hard-heartedness represented by the Pharaoh’s kingdom, which relied on slave labor and the suppression of a marginal religious and ethnic group. A similar hard-heartedness, a similar cruelty, can be found in modern Euro-American imperial domination, anti-black racism, and white Christian supremacy. Lynching is a ritual in which crowds take pleasure in the pain and disfigurement of a black body. I do not care whether those gathered claim to believe in God or not, their cruelty demonstrates the corruption of their political theology. It exposes an idolatrous veneration of whiteness, complete with a bloody sacrifice.
Examples of cruelty are not hard to find in today’s political milieu. Consider the so-called “Muslim ban,” the refusal of assistance to refugees, the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement which especially threatens the lives of poor coastal communities, the discrimination against transgender persons in the military, the pardoning of racial-profiling sheriffs who torture their captives, the mocking of persons with disabilities, the ridiculing of veterans and the disrespect showed to the families of fallen soldiers, the silencing of victims of sexual assault, the dismantling of Title IX protections, the gutting of public funding for education and social services, the disregard for endangered animal species, the brinksmanship on nuclear war, the political indifference to mass shootings, the targeting of Dreamers and the escalation of deportations, the tax cuts for the wealthy and increased tax burdens for the poor, the obstruction and denial of health care, the dog-whistling endorsement of white supremacist hate groups, the desecration of indigenous lands through oil-spilling pipelines, the dismal response to hurricane-raved Puerto Rico—virtually every major decision coming out of the Trump administration. I am frankly astounded by the relentless cruelty, and I am horrified by the level of support this administration continues to receive from so-called Christians. Trump styles himself as an omnipotent sovereign, but he has no compassion. His government is less the secularization of the divine (as Carl Schmitt might say) and more the secularization of the demonic. His religion is self-worship.
Ignatius of Loyola’s “Meditation on the Two Standards” suggests a criterion for distinguishing divine and demonic movements in the soul. The latter are characterized by an attachment to riches, a desire for “vain honor from the world,” and a “surging pride” (Spiritual Exercises, paragraph 142). These are the affects that make one prone to cruelty. And they are daily on display in the highest office of this land.
In Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, a mystical text with deep political wisdom, God teaches her about the meaning of cruelty: “This is spiritual cruelty: to make oneself the instrument for depriving others of life and dealing out death. Bodily cruelty springs from greed, which not only refuses to share what is one’s own but takes what belongs to others, robbing the poor, playing the overlord, cheating, defrauding, putting up one’s neighbor’s goods—and often their very persons—for ransom. O wretched cruelty! You will find yourself deprived of my mercy unless you turn to compassion and kindness!” This prophetic exhortation from the mouth of God concludes with the chilling, prescient words: “If pride is in a position of authority, it gives birth to injustice and cruelty, and becomes a dealer in human flesh” (section 6). How abominable to profit from the suffering and death of living, breathing bodies!
I do not know what political theology ideally ought to be. But I do know that, minimally, it should not be cruel. I wish this went without saying. A cruel political theology is a bad political theology. Whatever we worship and proclaim, whatever policies or movements we support, let us please resist the many forms of cruelty that threaten to destroy such political theological activities from within. Let us resist the deadly metamorphoses of political theology into political demonology—the pretenses of sovereignty devoid of compassion; the affects of greed, vanity, and pride that manifest as selfish indifference; the policies and institutions that betray the hardheartedness of their authors and, by extension, are themselves cruel.