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"Noah Gives Thanks for Deliverance" by Domenico Morelli (1901, public domain)

Unresolved Tensions: Common Humanity vs. Ethnographic Frameworks

At stake is the very possibility of democratic politics. Without minimizing or devaluing the experience of oppressed and marginalized communities, the way forward—as Luke Bretherton has convincingly argued—necessarily entails nurturing some form of cohesive social vision.

Luke Bretherton’s new book, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Eerdmans, 2019), is both broad in scope and deep in content, and as such cannot be adequately reviewed or summarized in one sitting but must be engaged over the course of many critical conversations. Nevertheless, if there is a teleological focus to the book it is the desire to navigate (and perhaps resolve) the inherent tensions in human social interactions between a humanitarianism that seeks to build social justice structures by appealing to our common humanity and ethnographic frameworks that argue social justice cannot be built at the expense of vital ethnic and cultural particularities. Throughout, the project is driven by the unshakeable conviction “that the way to thread this needle is through democratic politics” (305).

Theologically, Bretherton discusses these competing perspectives by appealing to the two major covenants of the Hebrew Bible: the Noachian covenant between YHWH and the whole of Creation (Genesis 9:8-17), encompassing all the peoples and nations of the world, and the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3), which calls a particular people—the nation of Israel—to be YHWH’s distinctive witness among the nations of the world. If knowledge “of another as human is always personal and cultural” (298), there are no easy compromises between a universal demand for social justice grounded in an abstract “shared humanity” on the one hand, and the concrete cry for political liberation arising from the experience of marginalized and oppressed communities on the other. A nationalistic reading of the Abrahamic covenant that views the land of Israel (Eretz Israel) as God’s gift to God’s chosen people (Exodus 19:5; Joshua 24:16-18) also needs to account for the prophetic critique that the land belongs only to YHWH, which can be taken away from an unfaithful people (Amos 5:25-27), and that YHWH’s sovereignty extends to all nations (Isaiah 2:2-4). The Hebrew Bible contains a wide range of different—even contradictory—conceptions of God, from the most tribal and insular (the post-exilic nationalist diatribe of Ezra-Nehemiah) to the most welcoming and inclusive (the eschatological promise in Isaiah that all nations will stream to YHWH’s temple mount). In other words, the exclusionary and particularistic Abrahamic covenant ought to be held in tension with the inclusive and universal Noachic covenant, affirming that both are equally word of God, equally authoritative, and each reveals some distinct aspect of the ineffable God. So while the nation of Israel is set apart by God, it is set apart for the purpose of welcoming all the nations of the world into covenant with God, for Israel has been called to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6, NRSV) through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, NRSV). Rather than resolve the tension between these competing witnesses in scripture, Walter Brueggemann allows both testimonies to coexist within a single unified, albeit very complex, biblical narrative: “It is my judgment that this tension between the two belongs to the very character and substance of Old Testament faith, a tension that precludes and resists resolution” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 400).

This tension between an abstract humanitarianism and a concrete ethnocentrism is most clearly illustrated in Bretherton’s discussion of Black Power as a case study for how to navigate a political system built on the systemic exclusion and exploitation of one racial or ethnic group by another, in this case white supremacy in the United States. Bretherton employs the Noachian and Abrahamic covenants as frameworks for better understanding what it means to live as the people of God within a democratic vision of the common good, on the assumption that “talk of God and talk of politics are coemergent and mutually constitutive” (2). Reflecting a democratic ethos, the resulting political theology seeks to both “keep faith with my distinctive commitments while also forming a common life with neighbors who have a different vision of life than I do” (1). Bretherton readily admits that “white supremacy conditions the nature and form of democratic citizenship in the United States” (82), so he does not question the thoroughgoing critique of US democracy by the black radical tradition. Within the American body politic as currently constituted black victims of institutionalized violence do not “choose” martyrdom; they have death thrust upon them by a system in which black lives do not matter and are always subject to death at the hands of the arbiters of power. Accordingly, black liberation theology remains open to the possibility of revolutionary violence within its conception of the Gospel and does not hesitate in rejecting any and all aspects of US democracy, including the US Constitution. The great unanswered question is whether the Black Power movement can exist within the framework of US democracy or if black self-determination and black self-identity “become by definition acts of sedition” (100). In other words, as a revolutionary movement, Black Power strives for “an entirely new vision of the future” (James H. Cone) inherently at odds with both the dominant Christian tradition and the dominant democratic political traditions.

The way forward involves radically transforming our life together as church so that as church we can in turn transform the polis on a more just and equitable foundation. In order to sustain a vision of the common good grounded in our common humanity without dissolving into a meaningless abstraction demands embodied practices grounded in historical emancipatory projects, like the struggle of Black Power to demolish white supremacy, which will inevitably generate cultural resistance and social struggle. Liberation cannot be determined a priori, as only the oppressed community can decide what course its own political liberation will take. Within a democratic framework, standing in solidarity with a community working out its own liberation—what Bretherton calls a “nation within a nation”—means enabling that community to chart its own path in freedom, especially when that community chooses a path divergent from our own. In the US context the insight of Black Power for black theology is precisely this point: what does a society (and church) committed to black freedom look like? Can such a society be built within the framework of the US Constitution? Or does the abolition of slavery (and its seemingly unending legacy) entail the abolition of a document originally designed to preserve the political power of slave owners? If so, how do we move forward? Revolution? Yes…but armed and violent revolution? As Christians, aren’t we called to exhaust other avenues first?

The Abrahamic cannot exclude the Noachic and vice versa. Therefore, as the black church and the Black Power movement continue to chart the African American struggle against the culture of white supremacy in the United States, “there is a need to identify and pursue goods in common, and democratic politics (that is, a politics that aims at forming a people through ensuring that political agency is distributed as widely as possible) is the ongoing way to do this” (114). The Latino/a community in the US has also struggled to articulate a distinctive ethnographic framework that bridges the need for creating a common good with the use of ethnocentrism as a political survival strategy. In the work of Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, mestizaje—originally a derogatory term for the mixed-blood offspring of Spanish Conquistadores and indigenous women, now used to describe the Latin American reality of those whose linguistic, genetic, and cultural history encompass multiple ethnicities—became a theological descriptor for the New Creation made manifest by the work of the Holy Spirit. Granted, the term mestizaje is highly problematic, as it has been used to perpetuate racial stratification within Latin American culture, especially to nullify or further marginalize African and indigenous voices with the fiction that mestizaje has overcome the tragic history of racial division and established a colorblind social harmony. Still, the theological uses of mestizaje by US Latino/a theologians intentionally embrace Pentecost—where everyone was able to hear God speak in their own tongue—in order to resist the temptation to retreat into the relative safety of ethnocentrism while also working to create an inclusive political reality that does not dissolve cultural particularities. 

At stake is the very possibility of democratic politics. Without minimizing or devaluing the experience of oppressed and marginalized communities, the way forward—as Luke Bretherton has convincingly argued—necessarily entails nurturing some form of cohesive social vision that is “committed to learning from and living with others not like themselves” (464). As church, this vision is grounded in the sense of vocation: the ecclesia is not an association of like-minded individuals, but a communion of forgiven sinners risen to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit; and as such, we are called “to discern the active work of the Spirit beyond the church” (134). The challenge ahead: How is this explicitly theological vision articulated and embodied in the midst of a secularized public square?

The Underside of Populism

Populism seems to have at least these advantages: it privileges practical reasoning over theoretical; it binds us to place; it recognizes modernity’s political gains; it does not posit reactionary declension narratives; it affirms “common folk;” it avoids elitism…It also gave us President Trump.

Unresolved Tensions: Common Humanity vs. Ethnographic Frameworks

At stake is the very possibility of democratic politics. Without minimizing or devaluing the experience of oppressed and marginalized communities, the way forward—as Luke Bretherton has convincingly argued—necessarily entails nurturing some form of cohesive social vision.

Dreaming of a democracy driven by the preferential option for the poor…

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…[but] I need to hear Bretherton witness to how the process of decentering the canon became foundational for building a Christian political theology.

Brethertonian Thinking

According to Luke Bretherton, theologians, in forgetting that prophetic critique presumes eschatological affirmation, have yet to understand what the work of theology comes to.

The Author’s Response

Situated on this eschatological middle ground, political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture…To speak truthfully, political theology must also speak to the quotidian joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives.

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