In this column, I want to engage in what Reynolds Price once referred to as “a serious way of wondering” about Exodus 20: 15-18—i.e., the moment at which the Israelites experience the divine self-revelation at the foot of Mount Sinai. Normally, this passage is understood as a theophanic event. To the extent that it involves the constitution of a nation or polity, it has usually been understood as a theocracy. Its intellectual expression (insofar as it addresses the issue of covenantal authority grounded in divine self-revelation) would therefore take the form of a political theology. To the extent that we read the above passage in this way, we have already rendered a decision—the essential significance of the passage would lie in the divine self-revelation. The fear which the Israelites experienced would amount simply and solely to a fear of God. Conversely, an acceptance of the commandments would amount to an acceptance of the political theology undergirding the theocracy.
Carl Raschke argues that, given the ongoing debt crisis, political theology must more adequately grapple with economics, and in particular Keynesianism. The tradition of Catholic social teaching, particularly in the period of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, already provides an example of a political theological response to Keynesianism, and, in both what it gets right and what it gets wrong, can serve as a resource to political theologians today.
The lectionary readings for Epiphany bathe the reader in the language of light. Isaiah 60:1 commands the people of Zion to “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Psalm 72:5 invokes those celestial light-givers, the sun and moon. And of course Matthew 2:2 gives us the splendid star-following magi and their sparkly gift of gold. In our most domesticated and tamed interpretations, we bask in the warm and cheerful glow emanating from these readings. Like our fireplaces keeping the gray winter at bay, these passages have become homey and cozy for many readers. Truth be told, I rather like that warm glow this time of year! Yet when these passages are let out of the house, they open up a larger landscape filled with things other than light and joy. Yes, they celebrate divine justice for the poor and the leader’s power to create it. They also illuminate the darkness and deception of power politics. They lift up the vulnerability of the divine sovereign made flesh, but also blatantly seek world dominion for the Davidic king. They rejoice in the manifestation of God, but also point to places where God‘s justice is eclipsed by political animals. In short, these passages for Epiphany disorient us about God and politics as much as they reveal God‘s relationship to the world…
We are in the middle of a trial of strength between two populations of political actors: guns and children. And children are vastly more powerful. We don’t have to idealize them to recognize that they are far more important as political partners than are our guns. And, if neo-liberals do idealize them, so much the better. I don’t know if the kingdom is ever going to come, but I do know that one way to move toward it is to play idolatries against each other, mitigating the worst features of one by means of appeal to another, rather like alcoholism is sometimes overcome by nurturing substitute addictions.