As a liberation ethicist, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States raised one of the most important conversations in the political process of negotiating a life with dignity for all within a pluralistic society: is it possible to legislate the preferential option for the poor? President Obama’s dream of providing universal access to health care sought to address one of the deepest divides in quality of life in the nation. The “Affordable Care Act” (ACA) was signed into law in March 2010 promising to provide access to affordable health care for the millions of Americans whose employment or lack of employment did not grant them medical insurance. This law had the potential to ease one of the most crippling financial burdens for many in the US. In my estimation, the law was an example of the possibility for legislating the option for the poor because its central thrust sought to attend to the particular vulnerabilities of the nation’s poor when trying to access and navigate the medical insurance and health care industries.
Significant challenges and opposition to the law abounded during its legislation and have continued since its passing. These have come from a variety of constituencies for whom the question of universal healthcare and how to frame its principles and practices was not only an unsettled debate, but one that needed to include particular objections with respect to public funding of the law such as: religious exemptions to the availability, access to and funding of reproductive technologies and birth control—especially abortion—the possibility of price controls for medications (and its impact on the business model of pharmaceutical companies), and end-of-life care.
This experiment highlighted the seeming political impossibility of safeguarding the bodily and mental integrity as well as the dignity of all, especially the poor and most vulnerable in our society. This episode in recent US legislative history came to mind while engaging Bretherton’s Christ and the Common Life, and his central proposition that “politics […] refers to forming, norming, and sustaining some kind of common life between friends, strangers, enemies, and the friendless amid their ongoing difference and disagreements and as they negotiate asymmetries of various kinds of power” (445). Bretherton’s robust yet flexible understanding of democracy and politics offers the promise of engaging diverse others in constructing the common good for all, with particular care for the destiny of the poor and vulnerable. Bretherton’s conversation is not grounded in defining and defending essential human rights as the foundation for building a life together based on a common humanity, as is the case in David Hollenbach’s The Common Good and Christian Ethics or Claims in Conflict, or Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice. Rather, Bretherton offers an expansive understanding of democracy as the practices and virtues that bring people—diverse, disparate, kin, strangers, friends, enemies, and those we might even find repulsive—together in a web of relationships of “double listening” (174), with the purpose of “building a common life between multiple loyalties, while at the same time honoring” differences in cultural, ethnic, religious, and other forms of belonging (452). It is within this framework that Bretherton offers a Christian political theology that seriously (and consistently) takes into account how people build communities for the thriving of creation with awareness of the horizon of the promise of redemptive and transformative love in Jesus Christ (40-41), enabled by the Spirit’s grace, while also acknowledging the deep wounds to the human family caused by sin and fallenness (43).
While other Christian thinkers of the common good and political life have focused on developing “thick” over “thin” conceptions of human rights and our life together, the depth in Bretherton’s politics comes from the humility to listen to what is needed “now, with these people, in this place” (453). When I consider the possibility of engaging the preferential option for the poor as foundational for political theology listening to the “now,” perhaps a renewal of the pastoral circle of see-judge-act of Catholic social thought, would be a central virtue. Furthermore, Bretherton hopes that this practice of double listening in humility is one of the measures that “ensure[s] that the loss [of political and economic change/transformation/conversion toward greater justice] is not borne disproportionately by the poor and marginalized” (43).
Humble listening to what is needed in the political and economic now, especially by the poor and most marginalized, is evidenced in Bretherton’s discussions of the political theologies of diverse movements for racial justice, the promises and failures of humanitarianism, the heritage of Catholic social thought, and the consideration of humanity as nepantla (in the in-between of being grounded in place and project, and transmigrating toward deeper and more expansive projects for thriving in our shared life). Throughout, Bretherton considers where Christians have stood in the different political projects of the last three centuries in the North Atlantic, which gifts from the tradition have been deployed successfully for greater humanization, and the places where distance from others, and sin have placed Christians squarely on the side of oppression and exclusion, which contributes to the commodification of human life and creation.
But it is this last element—critical self-reflection from within the Christian churches with regard to their contribution to or obstruction of diverse political and social projects toward greater humanization—where I feel I part ways with Bretherton’s masterful exposition of a Christian political theology and democracy potentially grounded and guided by the preferential option for the poor. While he periodically mentions the ways in which Christians have failed to make neighbors of enemies and strangers and to protect the humanity of all, I fail to see the robust critical self-reflection engaged by thinkers like Jennifer Harvey, Orlando Espín, Gregory Baum, or Christine Pae that our churches so sorely need. In my estimation Bretherton fails to apply his radically biblical political theology, grounded in the transforming power and political possibility present in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, to the earthly structures entrusted to teach and uphold such radical hope. Periodically Bretherton mentions the distortions that can promote idolatry of particular political and economic projects as the totality and fulfillment of the promises for our life together in Christ. The fallen character of all our attempts at designing the common good—and the great suffering these distortions impose on others—is never far from Bretherton’s hope in a democracy that gathers people in building the kinds of consociational structures, practices, and projects that most effectively promote and protect human dignity and flourishing.
But a political theology grounded in humble double listening ought to realize that the cries of the oppressed are both coming from our churches and are often directed at our churches, which have been complicit with structures of oppression and exclusion and have served as theological apologetics for the same. Historically Christians cooperated in political and economic projects that totalized economic and political systems for the benefit of some at the expense of the many, which led to making it part of our own theological and ethical project and silencing the internal critique and defiant calls for transformation which are key in Bretherton’s understanding of democracy. A Christian political theology ought also to promote within its own religious structures the kinds of social and political virtues it suggests for society at large.
I anticipate full agreement from Bretherton on this point, as this kind of tension and often conflict between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of the churches is hinted at periodically in the volume. But my closing appeal to Bretherton is the following: all Christians, but especially white Christians in the North Atlantic, must give witness to the conversion that leads them through the process of humble double listening, often placing them painfully at odds with the Christianity in which they were formed and which continues to hold dearly and painfully to oppressive and exclusive political and economic power. David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind and Still Christian represent the kind of public and open witness that exhibits the risk, allyhood, consociality, and conviction that Bretherton suggests is the result of humble listening to the needs of these people, now. As a Puerto Rican, Latinx scholar I was deeply touched by Gushee’s journey of conversion when he intentionally designed the 2018 annual meeting of the Society for Christian Ethics to center around sessions for humble listening to the academic margins, of which I am a part. For Bretherton change, conversion, and transformation—the central hope of the Christian message—are critical for the kinds of democratic political projects he envisions are needed to promote greater humanization for all. I need to hear more of what this change has entailed for him. This need stems out of a curiosity for understanding the people and experiences that have mentored and guided Bretherton’s journey. It stems from knowing that in the theological academy a statement such as “Humanity is Nepantla” (314) does not flow naturally from the course of mainly white, Euro-centric authors that dominate syllabi and comprehensive exams, authors for whom the experience of the in-between of political and geographic borders is not the stuff of enfleshed identities, but rather, a phenomenon to be dissected. I need to hear Bretherton witness to how the process of decentering the canon (the daily bread for Latinx, Black, Asian, American Indian, and other marginalized scholars) became foundational for building a Christian political theology.
A masterful proposal for democracy, such as Bretherton presents, will and ought to be discussed, studied, argued with, applied, and remembered. But my wager is that the witness of how a Christian got to that point—to truly consider the possibility that the option for the poor could be the grounds for a political project in a diverse and changing social landscape—might be a more important, and ultimately more effective tool for engaging the kinds of conversations that might truly lead to cooperation and consociationalism on essentials for the human flourishing of all, such as universal access to health care, especially for the poor, the excluded, and the political and economic friendless.