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Essays, States of Exception, The Politics of Scripture

Political Theology or Social Ethics?: Towards The Democratic (Keri Day)

Within Christian traditions, one may be met with this provocative question: does “political theology” or “social ethics” sponsor liberative practices oriented towards human flourishing? Interestingly, the framing of this question requires one to choose a side. One must argue that either political theology or social ethics is poised to address the myriad theo-ethical issues we face, particularly issues of difference, pluralism, and alterity. I believe that this is a false framing of the question.

The Ethics section of the American Academy of Religion has organized an important panel investigating the question “Which is it – Political Theology or Social Ethics? And Does It Matter?”  at this week’s Annual Meeting in San Diego.  We invited the four panelists to contribute preliminary essays on this theme for discussion here, and three have been able to contribute: Ted Smith of Emory University, Keri Day of Brite Divinity School, and M.T. Davila of Andover Newton Theological School.  Ted Smith’s post appeared last week; M.T. Davila’s will go up on Wednesday; here is Keri Day’s:


I am interested in investigating the promises and perils of both political theology and social ethics within Christian traditions, although I recognize that both political theology and social ethics can be articulated in any number of other religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism. Within Christian traditions, one may be met with this provocative question: does “political theology” or “social ethics” sponsor liberative practices oriented towards human flourishing? Interestingly, the framing of this question requires one to choose a side. One must argue that either political theology or social ethics is poised to address the myriad theo-ethical issues we face, particularly issues of difference, pluralism, and alterity. I believe that this is a false framing of the question.

Instead of articulating Christian political theology as antagonistic to Christian social ethics, I am much more concerned with how both fields make room for the formation of the “democratic” (what one might refer to as human flourishing and fulfillment).  I think it may be intellectually dishonest and even dangerous to interpret social ethics as an intellectual remedy to the a priori categories and conquest-driven logics of classical political theology, as Christian social ethics also often deploys Western hegemonic categories in fashioning theology’s engagement with political life.  Instead, my contention is that both contemporary political theologies and social ethics within Christian traditions can sponsor democratic flourishing by first acknowledging the theoretical and pragmatic dangers associated with both discourses.

One should admit the epistemological and practical pitfalls of both classical political theology and Christian social ethics. Classical political theology tended to function with a priori categories and apocalyptic ways of thinking.  For the progenitor of classical political theology Carl Schmitt, the task of political theology involved providing theological justification for the political sovereign, who reserved the exclusive right to exercise unilateral power in response to any perceived and/or actual “threat” to the body politic.  This political theology was grounded in an apocalyptic eschatology in which evil (manifested in the form of anarchy) would need to be destroyed through the leadership of the “righteous” sovereign.  The ruler could call a “state of emergency” in order to fight the impending end by exercising violent force against the enemy in the name of Christian theology.  As one can see, this theo-political logic was deeply problematic as it legitimated Christian crusades and other violent oppressive revolutions seeking to Christianize the world.  Moreover, the old political theology depended on ontological-natural law claims as a way to posit divine moral order.  This divine moral order produced “enemy” logic, punishing all people who refused to acquiesce and convert underneath the Western Christian normative gaze.  This “us vs. them” rationality gave rise to a political theology that was deeply intolerant, violent, and hegemonic.  For instance, Nazi ideology reflects the dangers and pitfalls of classical political theology.

Although Christian social ethics never saw its primary task as legitimating the absolute power of the political sovereign, it nevertheless has possessed Western hegemonic categories that have led to the “othering” of different religious, racial, gender, and sexual groups.  As black religious scholar Charles Long asserts, “The theological and ideological languages of conquest and pilgrimage formed the lens through which the reality of other non-European traditions were refracted, as through a glass darkly, they were obscured.”[1]  Long properly captures the problems of dominant Christian theology and its form of social ethics: its theological and ethical categories have been exclusive and conquest-driven, which have led to the denigration and oppression of  “othered” people.   Historically, European theological traditions (which include political theology and social ethics) have obscured and devalued the epistemologies and practices of non-European religious traditions in efforts to colonize and conquer.   This conquest impulse has not been extrinsic but intrinsic to European theo-ethical traditions.  As black philosopher David Theo Goldberg maintains, European culture and its “drive to colonize” have been funded and fueled by religious projects that have rendered religious and racial others as “primitive, savage, and barbaric,” in need of being “saved” through civilizing missions.[2]  As the Francophone poet and leader of the Negritude movement Aime Cesaire asserted, Christian “missionaries have been among the most virulent racists,” as race has supplied White Christian theology with an imagination that sought to either convert or punish those who were racially and/or religiously different.[3]  This has been a central claim of a diverse number of African-American religions and theologies: that European ideological and theological languages of conquest are always and already present, whether in the language of Christian political theology or Christian social ethics.

Over the last several decades, there has been a reformulation of political theology and social ethics within Christian traditions.  Diverging from classical forms of political theology, new political theologies try to grapple with this conquest-driven logic in European ideological and theological languages by building a bridge between philosophy, social theory, and contemporary theology, taking pluralism and difference seriously. Similarly, Christian social ethics as a field employs postmodern, postcolonial, and womanist theo-ethical discourses (among other contemporary voices) in order to critique and correct European ideological and theological languages of conquest. Religious scholars such as J. Cameron Carter, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Vincent Lloyd, Jonathan Kahn, George Shulman, Emilie Townes, Katie Cannon, and others have re-formulated political theology and/or social ethics in ways that deconstruct Western Christian theological categories in order to account for difference, pluralism, and alterity.  These scholars’ re-articulations of these two fields have sponsored forms of democratic flourishing that make love and justice possible.

For certain, there are valid criticisms in relationship to the possibilities associated with new political theologies and social ethics within Christian traditions.  First, if Jesus reminds us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” or to recognize that even the “enemy” is a neighbor (parable of the Good Samaritan) or to “turn over tables” that economically exploit the vulnerable (Matt. 21:12), why is it that we need political theology to make this explicit? Isn’t this a remembering of theology itself rather than a revelation that only political theology can take up?  Perhaps we simply need to acknowledge the political imperatives that are already present within theology.  Second, one could reasonably argue that in “political theology,” the political ends up as a kind of subcategory to the theological, which raises serious concerns about the political being reducible to Christian grammar and action. Clearly within Christian political theologies, the political is being grounded, explained and located in and through theological categories. Might this re-inscribe the very exclusions Christian political theologies seek to get away from? Because political theologies describe political activity in Divine terms, might this be exclusive for communities who understand politics in purely human terms (for example, atheistic humanism)?  It seems that Christian political theologies would need to see such theologies as applicable to their specific community rather than such claims impinging upon a pluralistic society.  But if Christian political theologies are both descriptive and prescriptive, doesn’t this mean that these discourses unconsciously place their claims upon communities who differ from them theologically? There are many more criticisms.  However, I remain hopeful about the new ways in which Christian political theologies and Christian social ethics can contribute to democratic flourishing and human fulfillment.


Keri Day is Assistant Professor of Theological and Social Ethics and Black Church Studies at Brite Divinity School.  Her work specifically focuses on the ways in which race, class, gender, and sexuality relate to American poverty and how faith communities can respond to such socio-economic issues. She is the author of Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America (Orbis, 2012).


[1] Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 98.

[2] David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 86.

[3] Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 49.

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