Symposium Introduction

How might democratic politics be “a work of love”—and a crucial, if not necessary, practice of faith for Christians? At a moment when many despair of the viability, even the possibility, of democracy, theologian Luke Bretherton not only rises to its defense but raises its stakes. This much is clear from the title of his latest book, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy. The work is both a drawing together of many strands from Bretherton’s prior work, and his clearest articulation yet of the character and content of Christian “political theology.” As he seeks to demonstrate, the latter cannot remain indifferent to democratic politics. For theological no less than historical and political reasons, the two are closely bound together.

In this programmatic sense, Christ and the Common Life is evidently a work of democratic theology. But it is also a book that aims to invite, perform, and embody the kind of democracy it advocates. As Bretherton understands it, “democratic politics”—as distinct from the governmental structures and electoral procedures with which it is often conflated—is a set of constitutive practices for weaving together a “common life,” and discerning “goods in common,” across many vectors of difference. Broad-based community organizing in the Alinsky tradition, the subject of Bretherton’s previous book Resurrecting Democracy, is an exemplary praxis of democratic politics in this sense. Democratic politics in general, like organizing in particular, aims to distribute political agency as widely as possible, and works to enable the formation of shared (though always fallible) judgments, the performance of shared action, and the conversion of possible enemies into friends (445). And this is just what Bretherton himself attempts to do via the avowedly “stitched together” character of his book (7). After an opening chapter that surveys the field and maps the features of “political theology,” he proceeds not by directly laying out his own account political vision, but by engaging and interrelating five distinct traditions of Christian political theology (some explicit, some “implicit”): humanitarianism, Black Power, Pentecostalism, Catholic social teaching, and Anglican political theology. (The third and fifth of these are traditions with which Bretherton himself confessionally identifies.) Having drawn these traditions into conversation, he then proceeds to analyze the characteristic challenges that confront any attempt to form a “common life,” and to provide the core conceptual frameworks requisite for undertaking that project. The book’s ensuing topical chapters focus on class division and worship; religious plurality and secularism; hospitality and moral disagreement; theological anthropology; economy; sovereignty and “statecraft”; peoplehood and “populism”; and, finally, “democratic politics” itself. All the while, Bretherton draws on a wide variety of disciplines, genres, and theoretical resources. Though the book’s persistent pluriformity can make it challenging, in any given moment, to grasp how the whole fits together, it is also what enables it to be at once “a collection of essays, a companion, and an introduction” to political theology (12). It is all those things, because it is itself a work of democratic politics, as Bretherton understands it.

But Christ and the Common Life is also, just as much, a work of ecclesial politics. For Bretherton’s provocative thesis that talk of God and talk of politics are “coemergent and mutually constitutive” has significant implications for the church, the body of all those who confess Christ’s lordship. The church itself, on his account, is constituted by human politics, even as the latter is always also inflected by the unexpected and uncontrollable activity of the Spirit—or its demonic parodies. (The Spirit’s activity within and without the church is a recurring theme, since Christ and the Common Life is also, to date, Bretherton’s most pneumatological work.) (Democratic) politics is no less necessary to weave together the “people of God” across its own diverse lines of tradition and social division than it is to weave together the “secular” body politic. Furthermore, the political and theological relations between “church” and “world” turn out to be far less obvious, and far more porous and dynamic, than many Christians and non-Christians might assume. Bretherton’s book is thus a summons for Christians to engage in democratic politics with others who include themselves. And, as companion and introduction, it aspires to provide the conceptual tools and the model to do so.

In the essays which follow, five contributors of diverse backgrounds, traditions, disciplines, and perspectives offer their own responses to Bretherton’s summons. Sarah Azaransky opens our symposium with an appreciative reading that highlights the close parallels between Sheldon Wolin’s approach to political theory and Bretherton’s account of political theology, whose character she describes (adopting one of Bretherton’s terms) as “consociational.” Sympathetic to Bretherton’s argument, and specifically its commitment to expanding and enabling political agency, she invites him into further dialogue about two issues central to her own current work, namely, the place of “motherwork” and of children in democratic politics. In his reply, Bretherton takes up her invitation wholeheartedly.

Gustavo Maya offers the next response, which focuses on the related themes of social practice, social relations, and practical reason. Using these concepts as his frame, Maya first draws out the theoretical and methodological moves that set Bretherton’s work apart from other approaches to political theology in valuable and constructive ways. Alongside the book’s emphasis on practical reason and social power, he finds particularly useful Bretherton’s treatment of the church/world relationship, which he contrasts with unduly ecclesiocentric construals thereof. At the same time, Maya also calls on Bretherton to address several substantive critical concerns. One regards the coherence of Bretherton’s account of the church/world distinction with his apparent “Augustinianism.” Others include his failure to treat the War on Terror, and the reality of American empire; the lack of definition in his account of “domination”; the apparent ambiguity inherent in his concept of “common life”; and the irresolvable uncertainty in which Bretherton appears to leave moral reasoning. Bretherton’s replies to Maya’s critiques, in turn, offer clarifications not only of his arguments in Christ and the Common Life, but of his larger political and theological project.

Lisa Sowle Cahill’s response, which follows Maya’s, draws in a different set of themes, this time of a more overtly theological kind. Like Maya, Cahill finds many elements of Bretherton’s political theology congenial, yet is left with significant unresolved concerns. While especially appreciative of Bretherton’s pneumatology, Cahill is less satisfied with his account of Catholic social teaching—her own tradition—and not wholly clear on the place Bretherton leaves for the state in political life. More fundamentally, however, Cahill is not convinced that Bretherton’s theology succeeds in coherently holding together the theological and historical reasons for hope in transformational social change, and the countervailing reasons for pessimism about it, that any viable political theology—and political praxis—must balance. At the same time, Cahill admits, the vexing challenge Bretherton faces in weaving these dimensions together convincingly is not unique to his project, but endemic to political theology itself. Bretherton’s reply to Cahill represents both a further attempt to face this challenge and a proposed revision to Cahill’s way of framing it. It also provides him an opportunity to draw out the specific Left political traditions with which his theological vision is in dialogue.

With Megan Black’s response, the terrain of conversation shifts still closer to the ground of political praxis. Black, herself an interfaith community organizer, finds in Christ and the Common Life a welcome stimulus to theopolitical imagination. Concerning the project of “democracy” in particular, she laments, participants in community organizing often evince either a skepticism or a distinct lack of imagination—a point Black illustrates all too well with an anecdote from her own experience. In Bretherton’s work, she discerns useful conceptual resources for addressing this problem, though she also identifies further challenges from the field which, in her judgment, he leaves unaddressed. Black’s essay creates a natural opening for discussing the place of “popular education” within community organizing, an opportunity Bretherton takes up in his response.

Finally, in his concluding essay, Nimi Wariboko expands the conversation—geographically, theologically, and politically. Wariboko engages Bretherton’s book from the vantage point of Nigerian Pentecostalism, his own theopolitical context, which contrasts, as he emphasizes, with Bretherton’s intentionally “Western” or “North Atlantic” center of gravity. Even while lauding Bretherton’s inclusive, dialogical, and pluralistic approach to political theology—a great improvement on many Euro-American works in the field—Wariboko contends that it betrays the limitations of its originating context by over-privileging order and failing to reckon adequately with chaos. Bretherton’s account of democracy, on Wariboko’s take, frames the task of politics as creating political order across difference. For Nigerian Pentecostals, on the other hand, as for many others in Africa, radical disorder—chaosmos, not cosmos—is the order of the day, and the reality with which both politics and theology must cope. How does this change in context transform the content of political theology? Among other things, Wariboko suggests, it necessarily expands the constitutive task of politics beyond the weaving together of commonality into the territory of emancipatory struggle. In his concluding reply, Bretherton responds to Wariboko’s challenge by reflecting on the relations between their contexts, between order and chaos, and between politics and violence.

Sarah Azaransky


Political Theology as Vocation

In 1969, Sheldon Wolin called for political theory to recover its voice and purpose. His seminal essay “Political Theory as Vocation” noted a turn toward “methodism,” his term for data analysis and what purported to be scientific knowledge.1 This emphasis on technique meant, according to Wolin, that political theory was no longer able to address—or even perceive—root problems and provide imaginative and creative solutions to civic questions. Technical approaches to political analysis and focus on method, Wolin suggested, had limited the kinds of questions political theorists were asking and, as a result, diminished their capacities to offer visionary and prescriptive ways to broaden and deepen democracy. Method had superseded theory, and as a result political theory had cut itself off from what had been its lifeblood, “summarized as cultural resources and itemized as metaphysics, faith, historical sensibility, or more, broadly, as tacit knowledge” (1074). Wolin asserted that political theory was a vocation: this calling was academic, but more importantly it was a call to civic life. He championed “the tacit political knowledge which is so vital to making judgments, not only judgments about the adequacy and value of theories and methods, but about the nature and perplexities of politics as well” (1069). A political theorist’s vocation is to draw from the best cultural and intellectual sources to give an account of public life that can provide hope and resources for better living.

Wolin was especially concerned with intellectual history and in this essay—and much of his other work—he appealed to historical sources. He did not employ ideas and vocabulary from the ancients through to his contemporary period as mere antecedents (e.g., Aristotle was the first behaviorist); rather he studied ancient, medieval, and modern theorists’ accounts of political dilemmas to help him better understand and analyze contemporary political crises. Indeed, the history of political theory shows that for millennia theorists were informed by what Wolin called “public concern”: they were interested and invested in the civic health of their communities. They were not principally concerned with being correct or winning an ideological contest, but rather they worked for their communities to be more whole, for there to be more flourishing for more people.

I was reminded of Wolin’s essay because Bretherton appeals to Wolin’s conviction in local politics, in the possibilities of people engaging in multiple publics. But more than this, Bretherton evinces Wolin’s urgency that his discipline has an important contribution to make: Christ and the Common Culture is political theology as vocation. Whereas Wolin bemoans methodism as undermining the civic-generating potential of political theory, Bretherton does not conjure an ism against which he argues. And yet just as Wolin calls political theorists to task, so does Bretherton seem to grab political theologians by the lapels to insist they do work that is constructive, dialogical, and attentive to many different moral, theological, and political sources. Like Wolin, Bretherton imagines his academic discipline as having something important to say about and to contribute to “forging a good or flourishing life” (17). Like Wolin, Bretherton believes something is at stake in imagining new ways of being together that are also and necessarily realistic about asymmetries of power. Like Wolin, Bretherton wants to nourish creativity and playfulness, as he notices the interconnectedness of human beings and the created world.

The book itself, more than 450 pages, has the breadth of topics and depth of analysis to serve as an excellent account of “political theology.” Part 1 describes different approaches to address suffering and injustice (e.g., humanitarianism, Black Power, Catholic Social Teaching, among others). Part 2 outlines challenges that corrode common life over time (e.g., class, secularism, toleration, among others). Part 3 proposes “concepts for thinking about democracy as a means for generating patterns of common life characterized by mutual flourishing” (e.g., humanity, economics, and democratic politics, among others) (11). There is much to say about each section, indeed about each chapter, but I’ll underscore that throughout Bretherton communicates a compelling anthropology, premised on interdependence and mutual care. Humans are political animals, “whose temporal and eschatological fulfillment requires the formation of a common life” (26). And we are not alone. In one of my favorite sentences, Bretherton describes how “lung-like, the church breathes the works of the Spirit within any given spatiotemporal order, thereby oxygenating the work of being human” (389).

The form of the book is essential to the argument—it is inherently pedagogical, carefully defining terms, repeating key phrases such as “with these people, in this time, in this place,” in a way that equips a reader with a rich, and yet realistically circumscribed, sense of her field of action. He repeatedly calls for listening as key to cultivating conditions for common life. And his book models it. He draws from actually diverse sources and thinks with a range of authors (across eras, geographies, and methods). Bretherton’s analysis is careful and specific, but he does not rely on easy distinctions. For example, he avoids setting up binaries (e.g., traditional/radical; conservative/progressive; Western/decolonial), for “too often they are reductive attempts to stabilize and simplify what are inherently dynamic and often paradoxical relations” (27). In so doing, Christ and the Common Life demonstrates new ways of being in conversation that are not merely polemical or defending ideological terrain. Rather the book exemplifies constructive work: it is a consociational book.

Throughout Bretherton calls attention to asymmetries of power that demand acknowledgment, analysis, and collective efforts to overcome. He contends that “all political formations and structures are provisional and tend toward oppression,” yet he is not defeatist (193; 389). On the contrary, he reminds us that “theologically, friend-enemy relations ought to be relativized, but cannot be wholly superseded, at least not until Jesus returns” (40).

The book’s affirmation of moral community struck a rhetorical chord in this reader. Bretherton’s constructive tone invited me to think with him. I admit that too often when I read I bring my “what abouts” with me. In this case, I read with a series of questions for the author that are not challenges about what he missed. Rather, I am curious to hear more so that he can help me think through concerns in my own work. Three examples relate to questions about children as political actors, motherwork in light of labor and class, and spiritual practices to foster listening.

In research about 1950s campaigns to integrate and reform New York City public schools, I’ve come across examples of middle school students petitioning and protesting for safer school buildings and better trained teachers. These children articulated striking accounts of moral agency, vulnerability, and struggle (I underscore “children,” because these middle schoolers were importantly younger than late teens who have been recently organizing in Chicago and suburban Miami against gun violence). Children are one-third of humanity, yet they rarely feature in conversations about “forming a people.” When Bretherton calls “the negotiation of a common life through shared speech and action by a board cross-section of an entire polity,” I am curious about whether and how he imagines children as interdependent agents in our common life—how kids are part of the polity (404).

To help me analyze children and parents’ activism in midcentury school protests, I have been thinking with sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of motherwork, which describes efforts that go beyond ensuring the survival of one’s biological children and one’s chosen family.2 For racial ethnic women, mothering as motherwork “recognizes that individual survival, empowerment, and identity require group survival, empowerment, and identity” (47). Economically elite white women like me presume, and dominant culture all but guarantees, the physical survival of our children. Hill Collins attests that while my two white children “can be prepared to fight racial oppression, their survival does not depend on gaining these skills. Their racial identity is validated by their schools, the media, and other social institutions” (57). I am interested in the kind of work that rarely counts as labor (in terms of labor vs. capital, communion and class), but that entails most of the work of our common life, including cooking, cleaning, and caretaking of sick, elderly, and children. For women of color this includes advocating that their children have teachers and textbooks that affirm their humanity. As Bretherton points to bell hooks’s work as a model for “holistic vision of change,” I wonder what resources political theologians have to make phenomena like motherwork even more visible and therefore accountable (225, 203).

Underscoring both these issues—paying attention to children’s moral agency and to motherwork—is what Bretherton recognizes as “the challenge [of] how to listen to those who are without an archive and increase the range of figures who count as doing political theology” (27). I hope that other political theologians consider what kinds of contemplative practices will cultivate our capacities to listen as Bretherton does, and so to communicate given our differences (not in spite of them). Christ and the Common Life can be an invitation for political theologians to heed the call for actions and practices that move political theology in the direction of a practical political theology. As we do, we will be living into political theology as vocation, that can include “telling stories, creating rituals, imagining other possibilities” so that we may live and work together in the shared work of justice, of building a common life.

  1. Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory as Vocation,” American Political Science Review 63.4 (1969) 1062–82.

  2. Patricia Hill Collins, “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, ed. Evelyn Nanko Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (New York: Routledge, 1994), 45–66.

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    Luke Bretherton


    The Political Agency of Children and Motherwork: A Response to Sarah Azaransky

    It is an enormous delight to respond to Sarah Azaransky, whose work I greatly admire. That she locates Christ and the Common Life in direct relation to Sheldon Wolin’s account of the nature and purpose of political theory demonstrates her usual perspicuity. Although not explicit in the book, his work is a key inspiration, and his account of an agonistic and populist democracy informs my own constructive account of democratic politics. Azaransky is exactly right that my conception of political theology parallels his conception of political theory as contributing to the formation of judgments attuned to the “nature and perplexities of politics.”

    Provoked by the book, Azaransky invites me to consider a compelling a set of concerns around the political status of children and the role of “motherwork” in democratic politics. Both relate to fundamental questions about what does and does not count as political and who is counted as having political agency. As concerns they present the challenge of how, on the one hand, to resist defining what is political over and against what is deemed private or prepolitical, without, on the other, falling into the equal and opposite trap of rendering everything political, thereby making nothing distinctive of politics. As a way of charting a pathway through the horns of this dilemma, I will explore here the proposition that children may at times act politically but not all acts of children are political.

    The division between public and private is central to liberalism, while that between what is prepolitical and political is arguably one central to civic republicanism. Rather than view these distinctions in positive terms, feminist political thought points to how what is marked private or prepolitical is thereby depoliticized. When consigned to the private realm women and children do not appear in public and so lack voice, or rights, or political status. Those whose lives and bodies are judged private can be acted upon but never act in public, so are vulnerable to exploitation. Likewise, those aspects of life—sexuality, gender, etc.—judged prepolitical are thereby rendered nonnegotiable or simply don’t appear as subjects of public concern.

    Conversely, as black feminists and womanists contend, there is a parallel but distinct problem of one’s very existence being denigrated, so that how one exists socially is inherently rendered a political act; for example, even how you wear your hair or dress is seen as seditious. One’s way of being in the world becomes a political struggle, but the struggle is to restore to oneself and others the freedom for much of one’s life to be simply social again—one can walk down the street without the fear of being arrested for being black—or to create enclaves where one is free to be social without being harassed, surveilled, criminalized, or brutalized on the basis of one’s skin color. This is the struggle Patricia Hill Collins invokes in her conception of “motherwork” in the essay Azaransky cites. As Hill Collins points out, for racialized ethnic mothers and their children, there is often no dichotomized existence between a public and private sphere; work and family life are interwoven. Moreover, it is the struggle of the group for power and autonomy rather than the individual that is a primary concern.1 In a different vein, also instructive is Danielle Allen’s critique of Hannah Arendt’s argument that children should be sheltered from the public sphere, which Arendt developed in response to the role of children in the desegregation of schools at Little Rock.2

    In short, given the limitations of rigid distinctions between public and private, we should expect that neither childhood nor motherwork are a solely private or prepolitical matter and that both can be sites of political struggle depending on one’s institutional and structural location. I will unpack this statement further through examining the various ways in which childhood in particular can be a political matter. Let me note at the outset that I am folding adolescence into childhood, while recognizing that as a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, adolescence is a necessarily contested and ambiguous season that exists on the penumbra of full citizenship.

    Childhood is a social phenomenon that is constructed through an array of social norms, institutions, and practices—parenting, schooling, diet, games, healthcare, etc.—that are also shaped in part by structural locations of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class. Changes to conventional norms, institutions, and practices through which childhood is assembled often drive societal change and so become sites of political negotiation as they inherently relate to the good of the whole and to broader conceptions of human flourishing. In other words, childhood is not a private matter. But saying this in no way necessitates seeing children themselves as possessing political agency.

    Part of the Western construction of childhood that reflects a broader way of conceptualizing social and political life is the notion that children have rights. Saying children have rights makes childhood a public matter, but again, that does not necessarily enfranchise children. While the rights of children are enshrined in the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the document does not necessitate seeing children as political agents.3 The rights-based discourse it draws on depends on an anthropology that emphasizes self-reflexive rational autonomy as the criteria for political agency. Such a framework must necessarily see children as prepolitical or private, as they are either prerational or dependent. John Rawls exemplifies such a view.4 This kind of anthropology is more often than not combined with a reduction of democracy to the formal institutions and processes of a liberal constitutional order: voting, parties, division of powers, etc. But a relational anthropology opens the way to a very different conceptualization of the political status of children, especially one that moves beyond a dialogic and intersubjective framework (think Buber’s account of I-Thou relations) to the kind of anthropology I work with in the book, whereby we are constituted through a meshwork of relations with human, nonhuman, and divine ways of being alive, along with material and nonmaterial forces. In such a view, agency is not indexed to either autonomy or rationality. Rather, humans are always already enmeshed in a series of interdependent relations that enable or disable different kinds of purposeful human political, social, and economic agency. When such an anthropology is combined with a view of democracy as about negotiating a common life and solving shared problems then children can be seen as exercising political agency in certain situations or institutional configurations (the school, the home, the skate park, etc.). The distinction to work with is not then between public and private or between political and prepolitical, but between political and social. And here we may desire that children can be free to enjoy a social life untroubled by political struggles, but given that the social is always latently political, it may happen at times that children, even elementary school children, become political agents as part of a fight for the ability to enjoy certain public and common goods they are being denied: e.g., decent education, housing, or somewhere to play.

    A relational, meshwork anthropology also allows for attention to how children practice “intramural” forms of small “p” politics among themselves that can and do feed into wider patterns of social and political life. They cultivate or fail to cultivate a common life in schoolyards, malls, and increasingly online, and this common life both refracts and feeds into other forms of life together in which children are enmeshed. What comes into view in such an account is how children are not simply subjects of governmentality in (say) schools, or wholly subject to processes of cultural reproduction. Children can exercise agency within systems and institutions and produce their own culture (e.g., children’s games, rhymes, songs, jokes, etc.) and their own spirituality. As per the work of Ada María Isasi-Diaz that I discuss in the book, this quotidian, ordinary and everyday life can become a ground of political reflection and agency—although this is probably more likely between adolescence than younger children.

    Children are not simply future citizens but are already active agents in the production of forms of social and political life that contribute to the wider meshwork of life together. But does such a view demand we see children as fully-fledged political agents who must have a say in issues that directly affect them: i.e., nothing about them without them? I think we can reject a view of children as prepolitical or private without then having to see their agency as equivalent to or the same as that of adults. But this raises the vexed question of how to conceive patterns of social authority. Unpopular as it is to say so, surviving and thriving necessarily has need, at times, of hierarchies of social authority—even if these are contingent in form and vary enormously across cultures. Examples include the doctor-patient, teacher-student, master-apprentice, and of course, parent-child relation. While necessitating a certain vulnerability that makes them always open to abuse, and fraught with misapplication by false analogy (e.g., paternalism and patriarchy), such structures are essential to the material conditions and formation in the kinds of practical reasoning through which we come to judgments about what to do and how to do it. The problem of making children of equal authority to parents (or adults in general) is that it undermines the very structures and material conditions through which children gain access to and formation within that which makes parity possible given the inherent asymmetries of agency. The parallel is saying students or patients are of equal authority to teachers or doctors: while students and patients should have agency, making them of equal authority inhibits learning and access to health. That said, such structures of authority are rightly always under renegotiation and contestation and need means of accountability: something is wrong and oppressive in the parent-child relationship when a teenager is treated the same as an eight-year-old. Or when the treatment prescribed leads to addiction yet is prescribed anyway.

    One fruit of an array of hierarchies of social authority—when they are functioning in just and loving ways—is that children have the freedom just to be children. But this then begs the question of what we think the meaning and purpose of childhood is—which in addition to being a theological and philosophical question is also in part a political question. Part of what is at stake here is the specifically modern way childhood came to be understood as a domain divorced from the world of work and economic production (even as childhood increasingly became a key site of consumption). This is not to say childhood is a solely modern phenomenon—Nicholas Orme’s wonderful book on medieval children makes that clear—but there are specifically modern constructions of childhood.5 The ways modern childhood is separated from the world of work is the fruit of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but also of the struggles to free children from industrial labor: i.e., children did not have to work plantation fields, or be sent down the mines or up chimneys. The freedom of all children—not just those of the elite—to be nonproductive members of a household is an ongoing political struggle that at times involves children.

    Alongside the ongoing need to free children from the Moloch-like grip of capitalist modes of production, there is a need to uphold the freedom of children to enjoy the common good of childhood over and against their conscription into various state-driven ideological programs. As exemplified in Soviet, Fascist, and Maoist regimes and that of the Khmer Rouge, state- and party-driven deployments of children as agents of revolutionary change were part of a wider politicization of every area of life within totalitarian systems, and the destruction of social life through making it wholly subject to state or party imperatives.

    We may not live in a totalitarian system, but one way childhood is politicized problematically in contemporary Western societies is through its romanticization and instrumentalization as a site of innocence to hold the adult world accountable. (One could interpret the reception of Greta Thunberg in this way.) Here children are no longer members of a shared body politic. Instead, they become an “other” or a collective identity, or, at worst, enemies deployed to shrive the adult world for their sins. On my account, childhood should be characterized as both part of and a distinct experience within a shared realm of meaning and action that helps constitute the body politic. But for this to be possible, the political and economic conditions necessary for the good of a childhood—e.g., clean air to breathe, roads that are safe to cross, not being shot at, food that will not poison you, parks to play in, schools that teach rather than act as a pipeline to prison—must be secured through politics. As part of creating the conditions that ensure our common life is a realm of mutual flourishing, children (particularly adolescents) can become mobilized. But their mobilization cannot be required or expected of them (as it can say of mothers) and like adults, they should never be exploited and instrumentalized as tools of social control. Nevertheless, while the condition of being a child should not have to entail politics, if it does, then this is not always a deformation of politics. Rather, it can reflect a deformation of society when childhood is, of necessity, a realm of political struggle. This contrasts with motherhood, which on the logic Patricia Hill Collins’s argument, always entails a certain political obligation. I would also point to the work of Jane Addams and her emphasis on the political obligations entailed by motherhood in democratic societies.6

    If the freedom to enjoy childhood as a common good requires resistance to certain political and economic forces “from above,” it can also entail resistance to forces “from below.” Hill Collins conception of motherwork is directly relevant here, as is bell hooks’s conception of “homeplace,” and Iris Marion Young’s argument for a positive, feminist valuation of home as a site for the “materialization of identity” and “homemaking” as a means of building and preserving the kinds of meaning vital to generating agency, sustaining dignity and fostering resistance.7

    Extending these arguments, I contend that under certain conditions the home becomes a site of formation in a form of political subjectivity to fit children for the ability to enjoy some measure of childhood in a world that refuses to recognize them as persons either capable of or in need of simply being children. They are harassed by one set of forces as putative criminals or delinquents (e.g., by the police), and by another as recruits for gangs or sex workers. Both are refusals of childhood, while the latter exploits the condition of childhood for brutal ends.

    This is a rather longwinded way of saying we should put people before programs and, yes, the kids are part of the polity. But the focus on how to conceive the political agency of children also lays out more directly some of the logic of my underlying position. I am very grateful to Azaransky for the provocation to do so.

    1. Patricia Hill Collins, “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, ed. Evelyn Nanko Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (New York: Routledge, 1994), 45–65.

    2. Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 25–36.

    3. It comes to be interpreted in this way so that the 2005 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child states that “children, including the very youngest children, [are to] be respected as persons in their own right,” thereby implying that children have a right to be heard and take an active part in matters concerning them.

    4. See, for example, John Rawls’s discussion of children in A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 405–11.

    5. Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

    6. See in particular her Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), and the “Utilization of Women in City Government,” in Newer Ideals of Peace (London: MacMillan, 1907), 180–208.

    7. As hooks puts it:

      Historically, African American people believed that the construction of a homeplace, however fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack), had a radical political dimension. Despite the brutal reality of racial apartheid, of domination, one’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely confront the issues of humanization, where one could resist.[footnote]Hooks, “Homeplace,” 43.

    • Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Lisa Sowle Cahill


      The political and the formation of moral agency

      Sarah Azaransky’s essay inspires me to think more about the relation of politics to moral identity, agency, and knowledge, as well as to church and theology specifically. (All to be continued in Gustavo Maya’s essay.) Azaransky lifts out that, for Wolin, people participate in multiple publics, and I would add (or interpret that to include) that we necessarily participate in multiple social networks, which is what grounds, forms, and enables agency, while also limiting its possibilities. I take the point from Luke Bretherton about not making everything equally “political” nor (from both authors) expecting children to be “political agents” prematurely. Yet in a sense, ordinary life is already forming and educating children politically, in terms of what to take for granted, what to question, and what to value actively in their relationships and actions. In a recent essay in the Jesuit publication America, a Catholic father (Michael Pasquier) recounted how, after he read his seven-year-old daughter a biography of Harriet Tubman, she announced matter-of-factly, “I go to a segregated school” (it was a private Catholic school). The school, the story, and the parent were all forming her moral, political and Christian consciousness, and hence her agency, present and future. Domestic life in general (as Azaransky points out) is a school of political formation, for good or ill. Azaransky quotes Wolin as saying that judgements depend on “tacit political knowledge,” that in turn emerges from the political practices and associations in which we and our discernment capacities are embedded. For example, calling domestic care “motherwork” implies that mothers do it–as in fact they often do. This reality educates children in gender expectations, and contributes to the ongoing moral-political formation of adults regarding the domestic sphere and their relation to it. “The personal is political.” How does “motherwork” form political “knowledge” and agency in regard to gender in the paid workforce or the employment of migrant women as domestic laborers? Bretherton is getting to all this when he mentions Ada María Isasi-Diaz and the “small ‘p’ politics” of children. I see no implication that the political agency of children gives children authority equal to that of parents, or somehow conscripts children into political activities that are more directly or properly “political” and adult. It is simply the way human sociality and identity-formation work. Maybe the or a bigger take-away is that when political or ethical thinkers talk about “freedom” as key to agency, they should keep in mind that freedom always contextual, that it is always already oriented and perhaps constrained by the communities in which the agent participates and to which he or she is accountable. Thus political mobilization or organizing can mean bringing different communities and their participants into new relationships of association that expand their vision of what political goals are not only desirable, but possible to achieve. I see this as already behind both the book and the two first essays.



On the Importance of Social Practices and Practical Reason to Democracy

A Response to Christ and the Common Life

With Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy, Luke Bretherton has gifted us with a generous and generative work of Christian political theology. In it, his argument models a form of democratic engagement across a range of differences and disagreements, both theological and political, that he commends within its pages. Like his previous work, Bretherton here displays an acute capacity to listen deeply and synthesize a variety of competing perspectives with the aim of contributing to a more just and loving common life. As evidenced by the many glowing reviews Christ and the Common Life has already received, this is a work that will help set the course of Christian moral and political theology for the foreseeable future. In my contribution to this symposium, I highlight a few of the theological and philosophical moves that Bretherton makes which are worth emphasizing, and I raise questions which Christ and the Common Life left insufficiently addressed. My goal throughout is to encourage others to engage with Bretherton’s arguments because Christian theology could learn much and benefit greatly from sustained engagement with the argument’s found in the pages of Christ and the Common Life.

Because the book blurs genres and Bretherton denies that he’s offering a framework for political theology, I want to highlight some of the theoretical and methodological moves underlying Christ and the Common Life. There are three in particular that are worth highlighting: the priority of practical reason, the centrality of social relations, and a loosening of the church-world dichotomy. Throughout Christ and the Common Life, Bretherton prioritizes practical reason. This allows him to focus on prudence, judgment, action, contingency, context, and other related concepts. Politically, this places Bretherton at odds with the contemporary adherents of John Rawls or proponents of natural law both of which begin with accounts of reason that are presumed to be universal and set the parameters of political debate before it has occurred. Bretherton, on the other hand, prefers the common law—and its concern with cases, context, and custom—over the natural law. He is more at ease with the give-and-take of genuine agonistic-democratic exchange and of following it where it leads. On many of our most contentious and intractable disagreements—abortion, for example—we cannot simply stipulate that certain views are presumptively irrational and therefore not a valid basis from which to reason if we want to come to some shared judgments. Dictating the terms and limits of political discourse before it occurs, as Rawlsians would have it, merely generates resentments that get expressed in virulent ways as we have seen in recent years. Theologically, the priority of practical reason places Bretherton at odds with theologians who believe that better doctrine will resolve our problems, as if a better doctrine of the Trinity would eliminate authoritarianism or hierarchical social relations (386–88). For Bretherton, righting our relationships requires that we put in the work of building our relationships and cultivating the virtues that enable us to live rightly with others. Theology aids this process by viewing politics as a form of neighbor love. Christ’s command to love the neighbor calls forth action and therefore provides a theological warrant for the priority of practical over theoretical reason. Another way of putting the point is that followers of Christ are called to live in loving and just relationship with God, neighbor, and self. Loving and just relationship is available to us here and now as a penultimate good and is also the final good in which we find our happiness and fulfillment. Theological doctrine ought to aid us in achieving loving and just relationship, and to the extent that it does not, it ought to be avoided.

Another important move Bretherton makes is prioritizing social relations. Without fail, each of the major concepts Bretherton expounds upon is a product of our social relations. Power is created and exercised relationally. People are the product of covenantal (read: social) relations. Sovereignty is a function of relations. Democracy itself is a product and a form of tending to the common life—that is, the sum total of our relations. Indeed, there is very little that is not relational or social on Bretherton’s account. This is a strength of the book. By centering social relations, Bretherton keeps his, and our, sights on what matters. In the more abstract forms of political theology or political philosophy, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that what is most important and most basic are our relationships with God, neighbor, and self and that most of our talk and activities are directed at getting those relations right—right relation being a kind of justice. Theologies and philosophies that strip relational connections from their concepts often have difficulty making contact with the daily lives of ordinary people and can lead to overly rationalist approaches to politics. Bretherton, of course, is not alone in prioritizing social relations. Each of the major concepts mentioned above has an extensive academic literature, from which Bretherton draws, delineating relational approaches to this or that topic. For instance, theologians who study what it means to be human in relation to God (theological anthropology) have recently made of much the fact of our essential relationality. The same can be said of social theorists of power, philosophers of autonomy, and political theorists of freedom. What makes Bretherton’s account interesting is how he’s pulled together the various threads into a coherent whole that interlaces theological and political concerns.

A final move worth underlining is Bretherton’s loosening of the church-world dichotomy. One gets a sense of this early on when Bretherton writes, “A basic premise of the book is that talk of God and talk of politics are coemergent and mutually constitutive. Underlying this descriptive statement is a more substantive claim that politics is a crucial arena of human activity through which we come to grasp the truth of many theological concepts, learn how to love our neighbors, and discover what it means to flourish as creatures” (2). Such a statement would have been ill received in the deeply ecclesiocentric era of theology kicked off by George Lindbeck and John Howard Yoder and which culminated in the work of Stanley Hauerwas. On this view, “the” church has its own language, practices, and politics which it uses to bear witness to the world. The church is a self-enclosed institution set apart from the world. The notion that one might grasp the truth of theological concepts in the political arena would have been anathema because it reverses the traditional polarity of theological semantics or at a minimum acknowledges the porousness of the linguistic and social practices of church communities and those communities beyond the church. Bretherton, however, appears to backtrack, in his discussion of common objects of love as constitutive of a people, when he cites approvingly Augustine’s account of the two cities (412–14). Bretherton’s resolution of the typical problems that arise—a sharp distinction between the heavenly and earthly cities, the impossibility of pagan virtue, etc.—seems to entail some measure of eschatological deferral, preferring instead to let such issues be sorted out by God at the final judgment.

I prefer Bretherton’s earlier statements over the latter. At a time when churches have come under judgment for the prevalence of sexual abuse and how they have handled it, we need a theological account of the church that is not hermetically sealed off from what occurs beyond the church. Such an account would also be an antidote to the nostalgia and myopia of those who advocate for the Benedict Option or Integralism, both of which look to the medieval, western European church as a high point of Christianity without due acknowledgment of the rampant abuses necessitating its many reformations in early modernity. These abuses arguably stemmed from the hierarchical, non-democratic structure of the medieval church which disempowered the laity from holding church officials accountable. This lack of accountability is a problem that we continue to struggle with and which advocates of the Benedict Option and Integralism have no means of addressing. Bretherton’s democratic political theology begins to provide resources for addressing this issue.

Let me end by raising some issues which Bretherton left insufficiently addressed.

One of the largest omissions in the book is the complete absence of the war on terror and its influence on politics and political theology. It is difficult to overstate the political-theological centrality of the attacks of 9/11 and the American response in recent decades. The rise of something called “political theology” in the humanities largely coincides with the war on terror. Before 9/11, our political and cultural elites were awash in Rawlsian political liberalism. They took for granted that religion—understood as essentially apolitical, concerned with belief rather than conduct, and individual rather than corporate—was a private thing to be kept out of our politics. For this and other reasons, the attacks of 9/11 were a complete surprise. That a group of Muslims might claim religious justification for their actions was a political distortion of religion. Our elites had, and continue to have, difficulty understanding religion, mainly because they have a cramped notion of what religion is. This is one way in which political theology has been influenced by the war on terror.

Another has been the American response. Some of our anti-liberal elite have taken to Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, his critique of liberalism, friend-enemy distinction, conception of sovereignty, and political theology. In response to the Rawlsian notion of reason, the Schmittians have emphasized the importance of the will to power, arbitrariness, and decisionism. Abstract reason gave way to arbitrary will as America pursued its global war on terror. We have been mired in unwinnable wars ever since. We have indefinitely detained (Guantanamo Bay) and degraded prisoners (Abu Ghraib). We lied about our reasons for attacking a country (Iraq) unconnected to 9/11. We have conducted drone warfare with little accountability. We have completely destabilized regions (Middle East) and destroyed ancient communities. Unsurprisingly, American warmongering has been led by Christians, mainly white evangelicals, thoroughly suffused in Schmittianism. In survey after survey, for example, Christian majorities supported the use of torture on terror suspects. This gives lie to the Christian claim that we are made in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity. It also undermines a Christian commitment to absolute prohibitions on horrendous evil, underwritten by the Apostle Paul’s claim that we may not do evil that good may come. There is now no limit to what we may do in the name of survival in our supposed civilizational struggle. This is a far cry from Elizabeth Anscombe’s arguments in support of absolute moral prohibitions during World War II. Our current regime and its base of support, far from being an anomaly, is of a piece with our recent past since 9/11 and our longer history as a nation founded in genocide and slavery. Is it shocking that a nation that murdered Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and approved the torture of Muslims would then support a man willing to detain Latin American refugees and separate children from their families? The disposition to violence and domination runs deep in the American character and has yet to be dealt with in any manner commensurate with its seriousness.

All that to say, the war on terror looms large over our recent politics and political theology. To have left it out of the discussion, misses a very important influence on political theology. This is not a call to discuss just war theory or frame politics as war, but instead a call to discuss how history, contingency, and context have influenced our own political-theological discourse here and now.

Another issue Bretherton left unaddressed was his use of the concept of domination. It takes on special significance when, for example, Bretherton writes that “a truly good, happy, and meaningful life cannot be built on the domination of others” (17). Nowhere does Bretherton define or explain what he means by domination. This is important because our conceptualization of domination affects our conceptualization of freedom. Perhaps no one has been more central to conceptualizing domination in the study of religion than Jeffrey Stout. (Disclosure: Stout is my doctoral advisor.) Stout, borrowing from republican political thought, conceives of freedom as non-domination and domination as subjection to the arbitrary power of another. The importance of freedom and domination so conceived is that it accounts for defects in the structure of the relationship. Freedom is a relational concept. I am free to the extent that I am not subject to the arbitrary power of another. But freedom does not necessarily conflict with non-arbitrary power. For example, my freedom is not violated insofar as I am constrained by laws which give due consideration to my interests or concerns, or I am able to hold those in power accountable or influence and contest their decisions. As should be clear, this is a democratic account of freedom due to its emphasis on the ability of those affected by a decision to have a say in that decision.

Many in the study of religion, however, conceive of freedom merely in terms of negative and positive liberty as set out by Isaiah Berlin. Negative freedom is conceptualized as the absence of constraint or interference. One is free to the extent one is unconstrained or not interfered with. Positive freedom is the ability to act upon one’s free will. This way of setting up the concepts, however, renders freedom as something inherently unsocial or cut off from relations with others. Thus understood, social relations, norms, laws, etc., inherently violate freedom because they constrain or interfere with one’s negative liberty. This is evident, for instance, in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. For Sullivan, freedom is the ability to choose without restraint (156). Religion, on the other hand, is to be restrained by a rule given by God or something else beyond oneself or government (156). According to her, “To be religious is, for most people, to live without a certain amount of freedom. To be religious is not to be free, but to be faithful” (156). Freedom understood as the absence of constraint and religion understood as constraint by God obviously leads to the conclusion that something called “religious freedom” is an impossibility.1 But if we introduce the republican conception of freedom as a third conception alongside negative and positive freedom, then religious freedom is not a conceptual impossibility.2

The relational account of freedom that Bretherton develops in chapter 11 on economy would dovetail with freedom and domination as I have explained thus far. Such an account would move us beyond the impasse between those who would oppose freedom with law, norms, equality, and the like.

There is also an ambiguity in Bretherton’s conception of “the common life.” It is the condition for our possibility as humans (our linguistic and social practices) and yet something which we must work to build (political community and solidarity). It is good but should not be confused with the common good. It is singular despite the exclusion of many who have had to create their own common lives. The concept of “the common life” does much work for Bretherton, but its many uses makes it seem incoherent. For example, Bretherton has long contrasted his conception of the common life with the concept of the common good. His objection to the latter seems to be that it assumes there is a single good which can be ascertained by the community and should be the aim of politics. Given our pluralism, Bretherton believes this is unfeasible. His preference is to focus on our common life. His biblical warrant is the command from Jeremiah 29 to seek the good of the city in which one finds oneself exiled. On the other hand, Bretherton appears to believe there is a single common life and that this common life is good. Does the common life not fall prey to the same objections Bretherton levels at the common good? If we conceive of the common good as constituted by the many goods we hold in common which includes our relationships with each other, is the common life not included in the common good?

Finally, given Bretherton’s emphasis on practical reason, prudence, agonistic democracy, and the like, how do we know when we have gotten a moral or political matter right? What is the source of our norms? And how do we access this source? As argued above, Bretherton disavows the accounts of reason offered by Rawlsianism and natural lawyers. The answers to our moral and political problems are not solvable like arithmetical problems, that is abstractly and a priori. He also rejects Aristotle’s reliance on prudent people as offering access to norms. Where does that leave Bretherton? If our norms are merely the product of democratic debate and contestation, then on what basis might a social critic challenge the status quo? If, on the other hand, scripture and tradition are the source of our norms, then how do we know when we have interpreted them rightly? Does not the history of Christian disagreement on precisely these matters undermine the claims of scripture and tradition as the source of our norms? I think Bretherton has responses to these questions, and I would like to hear him develop them explicitly.

Overall, Christ and the Common Life is a wonderful and creative work of political theology that should inform our debates in the years to come, and we will all be enriched because of it.

  1. For a devastating criticism of Sullivan’s account of religious freedom, see David Decosimo, “The New Genealogy of Religious Freedom,” Journal of Law and Religion 33.1 (2018) 3–41.

  2. Elizabeth Anderson has done much to draw attention to republican freedom as a third form of freedom.

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    Luke Bretherton


    Creatureliness, Freedom, and the Negotiation of Church-World Relations: A Response to Gustavo Maya

    I am deeply grateful for Gustavo Maya’s nuanced reading of the book. It is a great gift to an author to be read in this way, especially given the length of the book in question! Out of his close reading Maya asks some extremely insightful and critical questions that I hope to do justice to in my response. Before addressing them, I need to clarify some points in relation to Maya’s account of the book. It is not so much that I am not offering a framework for political theology—I am; it is rather that I refuse certain kinds of what I call “one-size-fits-all blueprint” approaches for conceptualizing the relationship between Christianity and politics (4). As Maya rightly notes, my alternative framework focuses on beginning with practical reason; a particular conception of the church-world relation (that challenges certain ecclesiocentric conceptions of this relation); and envisaging political relations through the prism of my account of neighbor love. Alongside this is my theological anthropology, which is not just about intersubjective relations between God, neighbor, and self, as Maya suggests, but conceives humans as mutually vulnerable, finite creatures, whose flourishing is dependent on being entangled in a life with God, neighbors, and other-than-human ways of being alive. This is an important point as modern political theology has paid little to no attention to creation as having agency. More often than not creation is treated as a mere platform that humans make use of for their moral lives and extract from for their political economies. In the book I try to attend to how, as creatures, humans are inherently political animals who must cultivate a common life with various nonhuman others.

    Maya worries that at certain points I become over-invested in Augustinian talk of two cities and common objects of love as constitutive of a people, and that this undermines my normative account of the mutually constitutive, dyadic relationship between church and world (120–21). Let me try to assuage this concern. Contrary to what is often assumed or how I am labelled, I am not or at least do not identify as an Augustinian. In relation to the question of church-world relations, I see Augustine as developing a paradigmatic and hugely influential framework for conceptualizing this relation through his argument about the saeculum as an ambiguous time, a field of wheat and tares, neither wholly profane nor sacred. However, it is not the only account of church-world relations I discuss, and I am by no means bound to it. Instead, I contend that Augustine’s is a central one to think with even if one rejects it, and while Augustine’s approach informs my own, I do question its adequacy both in this book and elsewhere.1 This is why I turn instead to the New Testament uses of the term kosmos/world to conceptualize this age before Christ’s return (233–35), to a pneumatological and missiological conception of church-world relations (128–43), and to a theological anthropology that emphasizes the need for attention to and reception of a lifeworld we did not make and do not control, in order to heal and convert our own forms of seeing, hearing, and talking about the world around us (291–322).2 Thus I would argue that, combined with my account of democratic politics, my approach fosters forms of active listening to the world around us and generates a way we can discover just and loving forms of common life with and for others. It also enables recognition that the church can look very much like the world and the world can look and feel more church-like than the church (130).

    Nevertheless, what Augustine’s account does help bring into focus is the threefold challenge of: (a) cherishing the particularity of Christian beliefs and practices, while (b) cultivating a just and loving relation with various non-Christian others, and at the same time, (c) agitating and rendering accountable everyone, especially Christians, given the fallen and finite conditions of life in this non-eternal age. My account seeks a way of honoring one’s own tradition while at the same time hallowing others among whom one lives—while also recognizing everyone is frail, fallen, and finite. For Christians, as I argue in the chapter on hospitality (and in my first book), our encounter with strangers is more often than not a means of grace for the healing and renewal of our institutions and traditions, so that they remain conduits of creaturely flourishing and bearers of faithful witness to the lordship of Christ. It is through encounter with others not like us and with whom we disagree that we not only forestall the church from becoming an idolatrous and oppressive repristination of a dead faith, but also encounter the new work of Christ and the Spirit in creation. In seeking the welfare of the “earthly city” not only do we find our own welfare, but also we encounter God in new and surprising ways. I take this formulation to be Jeremianic rather than Augustinian. Conversely, what “the Benedict Option” and Integralism offer in denouncing plurality and circling the wagons is a program for the euthanasia of Christianity.

    My account of consociational democracy is an attempt to show how churches as bearers of a specific tradition of belief and practice are vital qua churches to the cultivation of a just and loving common life with and for people of other faiths and no faith. As I state in the book (443), the church’s involvement in forms of participatory democratic politics as one consociation among others enables local churches to recognize their need of others and to own in practice that their welfare is intricately bound up with the welfare of the demos. Conversely, the congregation, as part of a moral tradition with an eschatological vision of the good, brings a wider horizon of reference and relationship to bear upon the immediate needs and demands of the demos. This mutually disciplining and reciprocal relation helps ensure that congregations, along with numerous other consociational bodies (unions, professional associations, universities, etc.) are themselves directed toward building a common life rather than toward authoritarian and anti-democratic ends—a concern Maya rightly highlights—and enable democracy itself to be democratic rather than mutate into a form of majoritarianism, technocracy, or plutocracy. My earlier detailed ethnographic work on community organizing portrays how this is not idealistic speculation, but operates on the ground in ways that can be touched, tasted, seen, and smelt.

    I turn now to each of Maya’s other critical insights, the first being why the war on terror was not an explicit point of reference in the book. Certainly, the war on terror is a key contextual factor that informs the current concerns of, and (in many ways) the widespread interest in, political theology. Indeed, it is an explicit point of reference in my three previous books and a tacit point of analysis here in the chapter on secularity and secularism, even if it is not discussed directly. In this book I try to excavate the ground from which the plausibility and possibility of something like the war on terror grows; namely, libertarianism, white supremacy, an absolutization of friend-enemy relations, particular formations of sovereignty and conceptions of the secular, along with anti-democratic forms of populism and binary conceptions of church-world relations. But I could have made the connections more explicit.

    On the question of the relationship between domination and freedom I fully endorse the kind of account shaped by Philip Pettit’s conception of freedom as non-domination that Maya sets out with great clarity; and in Resurrecting Democracy, I discuss Stout’s deployment of this framework appreciatively.3 But the account is not free of shortcomings and thus needs supplementing and extending. Like liberal conceptions of freedom conceptualized in terms of negative and positive liberty, freedom as non-domination not only fails to capture certain kinds of domination but renders them licit. In Resurrecting Democracy, I focus on debt bondage as a widespread mode of domination that is either entirely justifiable or rendered invisible within liberal and civic republican frameworks. In this book I extend that analysis to think through how addressing white supremacy, classism, and the “slow violence” of extractivist approaches to creation needs a different kind of anthropology from those that undergird civic republicanism and liberalism. It also requires refusing the ways civic republicanism and liberalism operate with public-private and political-prepolitical sets of distinctions so as to enable proper attention to the subjective and cultural, not just the objective, dynamics of domination. One place this last point comes to the fore is in the chapter on Black Power and my account of how citizenship is not just a matter of rights but also identity and performance. Overall, as I say in the book (46), questions of freedom pertain to both the oikos (the private and prepolitical) and the polis or public sphere, premised as it is, at least in my account, on the ecological, structural and interpersonal capacity to inhabit relations of dependency, intimacy, and care more justly and lovingly. Interdependency and mutual care are a condition for the possibility of autonomy, understood as purposeful agency; equality, defined as parity, not sameness; and freedom, conceived of as the liberty to act with and for others as fellow participants in a creation humans did not make or control but must receive as a gift to share and bless others with (even though, as fallen creatures, we insist on thingifying and exploiting it).

    Lastly, as Maya notes, central to my framework is a conception of politics as a way we pursue a common life. Maya rightly challenges me to clarify what I mean by “common life” given its centrality to my account and how it connects to normative conceptions of human flourishing. My account of a common life does depend on a normative commitment to understanding humans as inherently social, a commitment that also has an empirical warrant and is shared by many traditions of moral and political thought. A commitment to a common life is a commitment to pursuing and upholding the social, political, economic, and ecological conditions for the good of association. As a moral good it is not simply the aggregation of individual choices. The individual’s ability to survive and thrive (and thereby have a choice to make) depends on participating in this social good. Pursuit of this good both enables and is enabled by pursuit of particular common goods, which are also irreducibly social since they can only be achieved and used by participating in some form of association (e.g., health, education, citizenship). Common goods have a moral end, as participation in and fulfillment of these goods are constitutive of human flourishing. I do hold that we can pursue the common good of a family, university, hospital, small to medium-size business, or small-scale community. But beyond that scale, a claim to know the common good of a conurbation, region, nation, or the globe is antipolitical. It denies the plurality and contestability of moral visions in complex societies and the conflicts that arise in pursuit of divergent moral goods, all of which must be negotiated through politics (32).

    Democratic politics, and the dance of conflict and conciliation it entails, is a means through which to foster shared worlds of meaning and action across different traditions, institutions, and forms of life, and their respective normative commitments, even as these traditions share a commitment to the good of association. But democratic debate and deliberation alone does not generate the norms and institutional forms needed to sustain a common life over time. Its own deliberative norms need testing against those of particular religious and moral traditions even as the norms of these traditions need testing against the practices of democratic politics. Likewise, democracy cannot produce people with the virtues necessary to cultivate or sustain it. Here we meet the democratic paradox.

    Democratic politics presumes the existence of, and depends on, people and institutions committed to respecting the dignity of each individual; suasion not violence as a means of resolving conflicts; cultivating a sense of shared humanity; and the participation of people in the decisions that affect them. Yet democracy is forged out of immoral people, hierarchal and often authoritarian institutions, and divisions of faction and identity, and it is plagued by the despotism of either the one, the few or the many. But if human and other-than-human life—and their entangled ways of surviving and thriving—are to be put before a top down procedure or ideological program, then some combination of an agonistic democratic politics, as a means of distributing power as widely as possible, with forms of life that cultivate just and loving people, is vital for ensuring humans and the environment are neither reduced to administrative and abstract units of the state, nor commodified as a resource for extraction and exploitation. Moreover, if freedom and justice are achieved first and foremost through the quality and character of relations between people—rather than through a legal or bureaucratic procedure, market mechanism, historical dialectic, revolutionary vanguard, or the implementing of an ideological program through a process of social engineering—then “communities of character” are needed to foster the people capable of such relations. Yet, as I argue here and in the book, those same communities equally need something like democratic politics if faithful, hopeful, and loving relations with others are to be fostered and sustained.

    Maya asks how we can know when we have gotten a moral or political matter right. We can’t. Moral and political judgments are always a risk, and politics as action in time is necessarily contingent. There is no final solution, only the ongoing work and vocation of being a creature with and for others. But we can know that pursuit of a common life through democratic means is better than killing or coercing others we disagree with or find threatening. In these dark times, let’s just start there. It seems like enough of a challenge in itself.

    1. Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 105–9.

    2. Insofar as there is an eminence grise in the background of all this it is Irenaeus rather than Augustine.

    3. Resurrecting Democracy, 252–57.

    • Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Lisa Sowle Cahill


      Practical Reason and Moral Discernment

      Gustavo Maya makes many great observations in his essay, especially the priority he gives to practical reason in ethics and politics. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, practical reason is to be distinguished from speculative reason, and it is practical reason that is concerned with morality, including social ethics and politics. A line often quoted is “the practical reason…is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned….” . Thus, “in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to general principles…” (Summa Theologiae, II-II.Q94.a.4). Practical reason is necessarily contextual (“contingent”) reason, and it is guided by the virtue of prudence. This also means that moral-political reason is shaped and formed–as well as limited and constrained–by the contexts and contingencies, not only within which it operates in any given instance, but even more importantly, within which the reasoning agent’s identity is formed. Therefore the three distinct Bretherton “moves” that Maya highlights near the beginning of his essay are all aspects of the same thing: “the priority of practical reason, the centrality of social relations, and a loosening of the church-world dichotomy” (for members of churches are shaped by all the relations and communities in which they participate and these are not and cannot be limited to the ecclesial). I agree, as Maya goes on to say, that this makes Bretherton different from Rawls. Yet it does not make him different from all “proponents of natural law” because not all do “begin with accounts of reason that are presumed to be universal,” except at the general level. Even then, reason is not abstract “Kantian” reason, but located, practical, and to a large extent inductive.

      Maya then associates the priority of practical reason with the gospel call to live in loving relationships, and I agree that practical reason figures out what this means at the practical, political level. Maya adds that doctrine should be judged in light of whether it advances such relationships. True. But the two (practices and theories/doctrines) are in a mutually constitutive relationship. (Maya notes that one of Bretherton’s premises is that theology and politics are “coemergent”). There is in fact no such thing as “abstract” theology or political theology. Seemingly “abstract” theologies are coming out of (and reinforcing) ecclesial or political relationships or structures that proponents are invested in and want to preserve, and critics believe are out of touch with and distortions of what relational-political justice requires in the moment.
      Hence the value of Bretherton’s claim (backed by Maya) that it is through politics that we grasp the truth of theological doctrines and of “practical rectitude” in the “contingent” realities of politics. But political action and its discernments can go wrong. Like Maya, I was disappointed that Christ and the Common Life did not give more attention to the concrete realities and choices that are shaping political judgments in the current time (like the “war on terror,” and also the emergence of right-wing, nationalist, zenophobic and often racist politics around the globe). Maya comments that “violence and domination” run deep “in the American character.” I am enough of an Augustinian to think that they run deep in the human character as well. And distorted loves and reasons can invade practical reason just as easily as doctrines.

      Maya questions how political agents might know when they have gotten the matter right, and how a critic might challenge the status quo, if all norms are “merely the product of democratic debate and contestation,” and if biblical and theological interpretation are part of a similar historical process propelled by disagreements. Bretherton answers that moral and political judgements will always be contingent and risky, and that political “work and vocation” must be ongoing; though at a general level, “killing and coercing” are best avoided. This is where the contribution of the gospel, the church, and theology can make a contribution. Maya says that “forms of life that cultivate just and loving people” are vital. Yes: just forms of life are the authentic political expression of Jesus’ ministry of the reign of God, inclusive table fellowship, nonviolence, willingness to die for others, and sending of the Spirit. These biblical touchstones do not end all practical, political uncertainty, risk, and debate. They do not guard infallibly against distortions by and in the church itself. But they do nourish a world-transforming imagination and a priority on what liberation theologies and Catholic social teaching have called “the preferential option for the poor.” This is one important way to ground and validate the prophetic voice challenging the status quo. In principle and ideally, an inductive cross-traditional consensus about the basics of justice should also ground and back critics of injustice. This was Aquinas’s view. But Augustine was right that “natural” political reason is liable to distortion by the libido dominandi. Christian narratives and communities should and can (do not always) help reorient the political imagination around Maya’s standards of love and justice.

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      Gustavo Maya


      On Practical Reason and Justice

      I am grateful to Luke Bretherton and Lisa Sowle Cahill for their replies to my review of Bretherton’s book. Here, I will respond to them and clarify some of my comments. But before responding, allow me to locate myself theologically and politically.

      I write as both a committed Christian and a (small “d”) democrat. Having been baptized in the Roman Catholic church as an infant, my family began attending a Pentecostal church when I was a teenager. I have attended various Pentecostal churches in the 24 years since then, even if I find many aspects of Pentecostal belief and practice troubling. Theologically, I identify most with the prophetic call for justice found throughout scripture and Christ’s command to love God and neighbor as oneself. I am also a committed democrat, which is not to be confused with the U.S. political party bearing the same name. For me, being a democrat entails having a say in the decisions that affect my life or holding the decisionmakers accountable for their actions. Democrats assume responsibility for and in turn hold others responsible for the conditions of our society. These commitments take many expressions as when, for example, institutions are designed to spread power so that no single individual or group can dominate another. Democrats also (ideally) possess certain virtues or habits such as the refusal to bow and scrap before one’s social “betters,” which by my lights entails some combination of justice and courage. I am also a son and grandson of Mexican immigrants who labored as farmworkers. This experience as a Mexican American growing up in rural farming communities in central California informs and shapes my theological and political commitments at their most basic. This is where I first learned about the need for justice, the importance of love, and the dangers of too little democracy.

      I am thankful that Cahill discusses Aquinas on practical reason because I had Aristotle, Aquinas, and John Dewey in mind when writing about Bretherton’s emphasis on practical reason. The point that practical reason is necessarily contextual reason and is guided by the virtue of prudence describes well not only Aquinas but what I take to be central to Bretherton’s political-theological method—and one which I find congenial. (In another post, I will have more to say about this aspect of Bretherton’s method.) This attention to context is also why I gravitate toward praxis-based theologians and philosophers.

      I hope that I did not give the false impression that I believe all forms of natural law presume an abstract and universal account of reason. I had in mind the accounts of natural law prevalent among legal academics and practicing lawyers, such as those behind the recent initiative at the U.S. Department of State on human rights and natural law. They work from a more Kantian account of reason, which accounts for their similarities with Rawlsians.

      On the point about practical reason and doctrine in theology, I want to emphasize, first, that I merely prioritized practical reason over theoretical or speculative reason. I did not argue for the latter’s elimination (and I do not interpret Cahill as claiming that I did). That would be nonsensical seeing as how practical reason needs input from theoretical reason and vice-versa. But I do hold that, like the priority of praxis in certain theologies and philosophies, the realm of practical reason ought to take priority to theoretical or speculative reason in theology. In other words, the question of how we ought to live should guide our inquiry and doctrine should enter when necessary to help us achieve our aims.

      Second, the point of Christianity, as I see it, is to live in virtuous fellowship with God, neighbor, and self. Virtuous fellowship is our final end which is only available to us now, penultimately, imperfectly. The right relations enabled by virtue contribute to our flourishing or happiness. When Christ said the two greatest commandments are to love God and neighbor, I take it that he was enjoining a way of life, as further specified in the parable of the Good Samaritan that immediately follows Christ’s command. Christ’s command to love is a call to action. Doctrine ought to aid us as we attempt to love others, which entails rightly ordered relationships. To the extent that doctrine does not aid us in this, it is, at best, an exercise of the imagination and, at worst, vain speculation. Of course, doctrinal formulations such as those regarding the Trinity or Christ’s two natures were more the products of power politics than genuine love of God and neighbor. Moreover, those doctrinal formulations are fuzzy compromises regarding issues that are ultimately mysteries. Theologians shed little light when applying such doctrines analogically to other areas of concern. To say theological topic “x” is analogous to the Trinity or Christology does little to clarify or enlighten “x” since the nature of the relations among the members of the Godhead are ultimately unknowable to us, and we have no clue how Christ’s two natures actually relate to each other. Fortunately, we do not need knowledge of such matters to love God and neighbor. Like William of Ockham, I see no need in positing more metaphysically or ontologically than is necessary. To clarify, I do not argue for ignorance of Christian traditions. But I do worry that much contemporary theology is an evasion of the practical demands placed on us. Many theologians would rather produce yet another reformulation of a well-trodden doctrine than do the hard work of cultivating virtues, building relationships, and creating organizations up to the tasks challenging us today. In this, I follow the examples set by love-driven, practically-oriented, prophetic Christians such as Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer, Cesar Chavez, and Cornel West. Without attributing to Bretherton my theological and political commitments, although I took myself to be in agreement with his criticisms of social trinitarianism (386-88), I find his approach congenial precisely because he is willing and able to face these challenges and does so in refreshing ways that are not heavy-handed doctrinally.

      I take Cahill’s Augustinian point about “violence and domination” running deep in the human character. I agree. But I made the point in the context of discussing the American history of domination and oppression. As the backlash to the NY Times 1619 Project demonstrates, many Americans, particularly white Christians, are invested in a myth of innocence and goodness, as if the atrocities of genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow had not occurred. Even when acknowledged, their significance is minimized. On this view, slavery and Jim Crow were bad, but it is possible to separate the good people from the bad institutions such that slaveowners and virulent racists can be seen as basically good, if a little misguided. I think this is wrong. The horrendous evils that genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow name were neither minor nor incidental to the American project. They infect everything in this nation’s history since before its founding. These acts and institutions were supported by people with vicious habits and deformed characters. These people had children who also acquired these vices and deformations, though perhaps to a lesser degree. This is what I was alluding to when I wrote, “The disposition to violence and domination runs deep in the American character and has yet to be dealt with in any manner commensurate with its seriousness.” When it is easier to erect monuments to slaveholders and their supporters than it is to discuss the horrors of slavery in public, you know that there is something deeply wrong in the American character.

      Bretherton responds to my concern about his discussion of Augustine by assuring me that he questions the “adequacy” of Augustine’s account and by pointing to the other aspects of his framework that would mollify the harmful effects of Augustine’s account. Let me explain my worry in a bit more depth.

      The language about the coemergence of theology and politics that I quote from Bretherton’s book appears early on (2). In the same paragraph, a few sentences beneath it (3), Bretherton cites Augustine’s reconceptualization of Cicero’s definition of a people as a “paradigmatic example” of theologians translating political concepts into theological ones. Because Bretherton assigns Augustine’s discussion paradigm status for political theology, I was particularly interested in his discussion in chapter 13 of precisely this topic.

      As Bretherton briefly sets out, Augustine does not believe that there was ever a republic or commonwealth according to the definition provided by Cicero, that is, the “weal of the people.” On Cicero’s view, according to Augustine, a people is a multitude united in association by a common sense of right. But there can be no right without justice and there can be no justice without true religion because if one does not give to God what God is due then there can be no justice. Justice, here, is understood as the natural virtue of giving to each his due. Religion, understood as a natural virtue, is form of piety which is a kind of justice because it is concerned with giving God what God is due. Piety, understood as a natural virtue, regards asymmetrical relations, such as those with one’s God, parents, or people, in which the debt can never fully be repaid because there is no way of repaying another for one’s very existence and progress through life. Because the Romans did not worship the one true God (religion), by Augustine’s lights, they could not possess the virtue of justice and therefore could not agree on what is right. Augustine’s conclusion is that a people could not exist on Cicero’s terms. (Interestingly, in the course of Augustine’s discussion, he notes that slavery for Cicero is an injustice. But Cicero is forced to justify the imperial practice of subjugating foreign peoples by arguing that they are better off under the imperial yolk than left to their own devices. This is a point to which I will return later.) Instead, Augustine defines a people as a “multitude of rational being joined together by common agreement on the objects of their love.” The better the object of love the better the people.

      Bretherton acknowledges most of these points. But here is what I have trouble understanding: Bretherton appears to embrace Augustine’s argument that justice is impossible without true religion while simultaneously claiming that talk of God and talk of politics are coemergent and mutually constitutive, that in the political arena we grasp the truth of theological concepts, and that “the church can look very much like the world and the world can look and feel more church-like than the church.” On Augustine’s view, at a fundamental level, pagans do not and cannot possibly know what the concept of justice means (which would preclude Cahill’s call for an “inductive cross-traditional consensus about the basics of justice”). But on Bretherton’s view, there can be a shared concept of justice in religiously pluralistic societies such as our own. Creating shared concepts, including a concept of justice, is the work of democracy according to Bretherton. How, then, can Bretherton hold to his view of theological semantics and his notion of democracy as creating shared meanings while approvingly citing Augustine—in a way that appears to undermine Bretherton’s approach—as a paradigmatic example of what Bretherton takes himself to be doing? Something has got to give.

      If Bretherton is right, then perhaps Augustine’s reconceptualization was misguided, and Cicero was possibly right. This would put Augustine’s discussion as a paradigm of political theology in jeopardy. If Augustine is right, then I do not see how Bretherton can hold to his notions of theological semantics and democracy as creating shared meanings. Much of what Bretherton has to say about encounters with strangers and those not like us would seem to militate against Augustine on these points. But I am genuinely puzzled at how to reconcile the two positions. I think Augustine is wrong. I side with Bretherton on theological semantics and democratic shared meanings. Justice is a concept like any other concept. It acquires its meaning from its use in our social practices, including our linguistic practices. Augustine, like ecclesiocentrists such as Yoder, Lindbeck, and Hauerwas, seems to think that Christian and pagan conceptions of justice are entirely at odds. I disagree. Moreover, the track record of white Christians in America does not fare well on this point. To quote David Walker’s Appeal, whom Bretherton mentions a few pages after his discussion of Augustine (418), “white Christians of America, who hold us in slavery, (or, more properly speaking, pretenders to Christianity,) treat us more cruel and barbarous than any Heathen nation did any people whom it had subjected, or reduced to the same condition.”

      Bretherton also argues, “One implication of Augustine’s framework is that politics is a moral realm: love and justice matter” (413). But does justice matter in religiously pluralistic societies such as our own? Based on my reading of Augustine, I have reason to doubt that it indeed matters. What then are the prospects for justice in our society?

      In response to my query about domination, Bretherton claims that republicans such as Philip Pettit hold a public-private or prepolitical-political distinction. I do not think this is right. For example, Pettit is quite fond of illustrating his point about domination through reference to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Pettit’s point is that Nora is dominated by her husband, Torvald, despite Torvald indulging Nora’s wants because Torvald is in a position to exercise arbitrary power over her by virtue of his status in a patriarchal society. This would seem to counter Bretherton’s argument regarding a public-private or prepolitical-political distinction among republican thinkers.

      The bigger problem with republican thought is that, as argued by Alex Gourevitch, it never superseded its origins, at least not until the developments among the labor republicans. Although republicans are sometimes accused of hypocrisy because they held slavery to be a paradigmatic form of unfreedom while simultaneously possessing slaves, Gourevitch argues that premodern republicans believed that some people deserved servitude. Premodern republicans were at ease with social hierarchy. They did not possess a modern democratic conception of universal equality. Augustine’s discussion of Cicero on imperial domination confirms as much. According to Gourevitch, it was not until the advent of modern democracy and the notion of universal equality that slavery for some and freedom for others became a problem for the republican conception of freedom. The labor republican solution to the paradox of slavery and freedom is the cooperative commonwealth where workers are also owners. Without going into detail, I believe labor republicanism addresses Bretherton’s concerns that republicanism fails to capture certain forms of domination or renders them licit, including the concerns about debt bondage.

      When Bretherton writes that “democratic debate and deliberation alone does not generate the norms and institutional forms needed to sustain a common life over time” and that “democracy cannot produce people with the virtues necessary to cultivate or sustain it,” I suspect that he is working with a much narrower conception of democracy than I do. In Resurrecting Democracy, Bretherton claims that democracy is not a tradition but instead a “constellation of practices that mediate between a wide variety of traditions” (92). While it is certainly true that democracy involves such practices, I would argue that it includes more than that. I am uncertain why, for example, Emerson, Thoreau, Dewey, Wendell Berry, Saul Alinsky, Ernesto Cortes, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Ella Baker, and Myles Horton might not constitute a democratic tradition.

      Finally, I was a little disappointed in Bretherton’s closing comments regarding when we can know when have gotten a moral or political matter right. Would he not agree that it was right to abolish slavery, undo Jim Crow, and grant women the franchise? I suspect that he does agree that these developments were right. And what I would like to hear from him is how we know when we have gotten something right. Bretherton’s response seems to assume that I was asking for a God’s-eye view of things, declaring some matters resolved for all time. That is not what I had in mind. Of course, our judgments and actions occur in history, are therefore contingent, and entail risk. But that does not prevent Bretherton and others from claiming some things are right and others are wrong. How else could abolition and the civil rights movement have worked? This is especially pressing given Bretherton’s claim that churches bring to bear “a moral tradition with an eschatological vision of the good” that serves a disciplining role in his conception of consociational democracy. How might churches serve this role if they are hesitant to claim some action, relation, or institution unjust?

      Let me close by saying that I do not want to exaggerate my differences with Bretherton. I find myself nodding in agreement with most of what he writes. The questions I pose to him, I also pose to myself as I wrestle with these perplexing issues. My hope here is to provoke one of our foremost political theologians into thinking through these issues in a public forum for the benefit of people (many of whom are students) like me who also struggle thinking through these issues.

Lisa Sowle Cahill


Transformational Politics and Interminable Injustice

How Can Political Theology Account for Both?

Luke Bretherton offers an intriguing and timely book—in an era when the relations between theory and practice, theology and the life of the churches, social ethics and sociopolitical facts, are ever more salient, yet vexing to the analyst. As captured by its title, Christ and the Common Life leads readers through a series of complex investigations of these same relationships. Bretherton’s work is an occasion to confront and to examine—though perhaps not ultimately to resolve—three related issues that should command the attention of all political theologians and theological ethicists. First is that political realities, and the participation in them by Christians and churches, furnish a practical, existential test of some theological convictions that seem to flow, systematically and compellingly, from the logic of the gospel and of Christian faith. For example, Christian doctrines of incarnation, resurrection, and the sending of the Spirit may inspire a Christian eschatology of God’s inbreaking reign, yet historical realities test it harshly against continuing exploitation and violence. Second is that theology and practices exercise de facto a mutual authority, presenting the problem of where to strike the normative balance in any given case. For example, theologies of atonement through Christ’s sacrificial death (and even penal substitution) are biblically defensible, and dominate Western soteriology, yet liberation movements contest a God who inflicts violence, and a savior who sacralizes submission to it. Third is the diversity of Christian communities and practices, and therefore of their theologies, although Christians have always proclaimed one gospel and one faith. Global Christianity is an obvious illustration, but even in this book, Pentecostalism, Anglicanism, and Augustinianism (resources for Bretherton) are shown to have different points of origin and different implications for Christian political theologies.

In successive chapters, Bretherton gives us an array of angles on the relationships among Christian faith and theology and the political interventions by which Christians try to generate greater justice in society. Among his additional sources are African American nationalism and other liberation movements; the virtues of toleration and hospitality; Christian liturgical practices, especially the Eucharist; populism, democratic politics and community organizing; and the ideal of a common life. Yet the positions implied in different chapters can lead in different directions, as Bretherton weaves together variant political theologies, making his own insights from each. For me, the book’s central tension is between Bretherton’s commitment to popular democracy and transformational community organizing inspired by the Spirit; and his acknowledgment of the deep, strong, and interminable nature of conflict, along with his invocation of Augustine as a model public theologian. One must admire so hospitable an author, who so relentlessly subjects his own claims to cross-examination. This very strength makes it hard to summarize the book fairly; and hard to determine where its argument finally leads. Perhaps Luke Bretherton’s ultimate gift to his fellow theologians is to make it clear just how difficult it is to specify the relations among Christian theology, the Christian life, and politics in a theologically coherent way. I will return to this possibility later.

First and more centrally, I want to display the power of Christ and the Common Life to inspire hopeful Christian commitment to social change, backed by a theology that is biblically based, and politically accountable to “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). Only somewhat apologetically, I will identify a center of gravity that may not be demanded by what Bretherton has actually written here, but that I think makes most sense of his work as a community organizer (treated more extensively in his earlier Resurrecting Democracy).1 Not coincidentally, it also coheres with my own related experience (in peacebuilding and its theologies),2 my perception of God (as healing Holy Spirit), my ecclesial location (a “Pope Francis” Roman Catholic indebted to the social encyclical tradition, yet critical of gender teachings), and my political proclivities (“progressive,” leaning left).

Bretherton tells us that he was raised in a Charismatic home, within the broader Anglican tradition, and that his parents were socially and civically very engaged. His version of Pentecostalism is not the more typical (or stereotypical) and often fundamentalist kind that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through baptism with the Holy Spirit, personal moral asceticism, and charisms such as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and exorcism. Bretherton recognizes that Pentecostalism is prone to dualisms, and can emphasize the individual’s “spiritual warfare, living righteously, and proselytizing,” while short-circuiting “political spirituality” and collective action (144–45). Pentecostalism binds socially marginal groups into a new community of support, but too rarely, Bretherton believes, challenges the larger institutions that exclude them.

Bretherton’s own revised Pentecostalism is socially committed and politically engaged. Pentecostal churches have always functioned as counterweights to capitalism by creating enclaves of mutual care (150–51). Bretherton takes the socially radical nature of the church further, arguing that the church’s work for justice is a necessary correlate of personal conversion and ecclesial formation. He is quite confident that Christian action can produce significant transformations, even if it cannot be argued that history on the whole is on a course of progress. Bretherton backs Christian social activism with an eloquent theology of the Holy Spirit, who brings “eschatological transformation and consummation of creation as a new creation.” The Spirit’s work reconfigures “social, political and economic life to become disruptive, proleptic disclosures of eschatological patterns of human sociality” (156–57). Politics and economics are themselves “crucibles of divine activity,” where “the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is animating, healing, delivering, and generating new life” (157). In Bretherton’s Pentecostalism, “all may now participate in the work of healing,” since “the Spirit is poured out on all flesh.” Thus, the church at times can “look very much like the world or the world can look and feel more church-like than the church” (130). Community organizing comes in as a historical vehicle of the Spirit’s eschatological action, seen as a component of democratic politics that empowers groups with different identities and agendas to unite in the name of common interest (449–50). Democratic politics forges “a shared political space,” cultivates local leaders, accepts compromise, and invests in long-term organization and education (436). Its ultimate aim is a “common life” in which shared goods are pursued despite “conflicting visions of the good” (463).

I see this depiction of political theology and Christian political activity as cohering well with Catholic social teaching (CST), particularly in its more solidaristic and liberationist streams. Among these are Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens and Populorum Progressio, John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei Socialis, and Francis’s Laudato Si’. These see human beings as inherently and naturally social, so that individual dignity and rights are inseparable from the equitable participation of all in the common good. Most important is the priority in CST of the past fifty years on what is often captured as “the preferential option for the poor,” a responsibility not only of individuals, churches, and local communities, but of national and international governments.

While from its inception (Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, 1893), CST has always emphasized social reform in defense of workers and the poor, its original framework placed authority and responsibility for ensuring their rights and welfare in the hands of economic and political elites, to whom appeal was likewise made by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), greater emphasis has been placed on learning from, as well as cooperation with, other religions, social institutions and disciplines of knowledge. More recently, CST has begun to locate capacity and accountability for change in civil society, and in local-to-global collective action. A more “grassroots” manifestation is evident in local churches’ active resistance to injustice, including their advocacy for structural change recognized and protected by legislation and policy.

Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on ecology (Laudato Si’),3 whose refrain is “everything is connected,” takes this tradition significant strides ahead. Issued six months before the 2015 United Nations Paris Climate Accord talks, it calls out the powerful interests that invariably have made international climate agreements “ineffectual.”4 Throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis prioritizes the effects of environmental degradation on the poor. Citing at least seventeen national bishops’ conferences, he calls upon the local churches to mobilize popular support for climate control through education and political action. Francis recognizes the importance of local expertise, organization, and solutions, connected to higher levels of government agency.5 Finally, the encyclical appeals for international and interreligious cooperation, concluding with two prayers, one uniting Christians, another inviting all who believe in a divine Creator.

Bretherton does see CST as congenial to his project, but has another take on what CST is and means. As he tries to align CST with a “consociational” political model, he constructs an interpretation that in large part relies on Jacques Maritain, Russell Hittinger, and John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. In contrast to what Bretherton conceives as a unitary, “top-down,” sovereign state, a consociational polity “is made up of a plurality of interdependent, self-organized associations” to which “freedom of association” is essential, and that through it achieve “self-rule” (168–70, 183). In my view, Bretherton seems to endorse a minority interpretation of CST that is out of line with the trajectory of recent papal encyclicals, insofar as they stress that the common good and justice for the marginalized place severe moral constraints on liberty and especially on the free market. A consociational polity as he envisions it bears affinity with another model of politics of which Bretherton speaks approvingly, “civic republicanism” (428–29). Civic republicanism is defined (following Michael Sandel) not in terms of legal protections of rights, but as upholding “a shared political project of collective self-rule and pursuit of the virtues required to sustain that project, that best guarantee and secure individual liberty” (428).

One sort of civic republicanism is American and Madisonian, a version which—arguably influenced by Locke—makes the common good and the associations that comprise it secondary to individual freedom, focused on the pursuit of individual interests.6 This type does not comport well with CST, nor with the social vision that I see in Bretherton’s Pentecostalism chapter. Bretherton grants that “we are always already constituted through relationship with others” (429). While his preference for consociationalism need not be jettisoned, it should be interpreted in a way that clearly furthers progressive social justice goals. Keeping in mind community organizing, it might be possible to see consociationalism as more like a local and more solidaristic version of the “disaggregated” and networked forms of governance that Anne Marie Slaughter (and others) have described as the “new world order.”7 Here governance consists in many cross-cutting institutions, organizations, legislation, as well as higher and lower forms of international, regional, national, and local government. Community organizing likewise produces collective action that networks across public and private sectors to achieve sustainable change.8 I wonder whether Bretherton would be open to a model more like social democracy (sometimes conflated with democratic socialism),9 which along with civic virtue and popular politics, preserves a role for both the market and the state, if accountable to the people. Governmental regulation and programs, from local to national and international, can help control capitalism, reduce inequality, ensure that basic needs are met, and protect public goods like earth’s oceans and the ozone layer.

Let me conclude briefly with two further difficulties that all political theologians must face. The first is the reality that imperfect justice and enduring conflict will always be part of democratic politics and any “common life” they are able to produce. The second is the prospect that, given this reality, a Christian eschatology of the politically inbreaking reign of God cannot be securely warranted. The challenge to deal theologically with ongoing sin and conflict, while still affirming Christian political action as a significant change agent, confronts CST as much as it does Bretherton’s Pentecostalism and his vision of democratic politics as a “work of love” (464).

The problems of injustice and conflict receive their due in Bretherton’s chapter on “Black Power.” Bretherton credits “the constructive role of power, anger, and conflict” (105) as necessary to “black self-determination” (106). But after recognizing black nationalism as a valid form of anti-racist community organizing, he does not fully develop the consequences for Christian democratic action for “the common life.” Instead he grounds theological approval of black nationalism in God’s formation of “a people” through the exodus (108), while passing over the facts that exodus does not empower the people to advocate in their own interests, and that the people’s God sends plagues indiscriminately on the Egyptians, then commands the annihilation of the Canaanites. These aspects raise precisely the question of whether God necessarily provides that vindication of the oppressed will result in “the formation of a common life in which the thriving of all is the aim” (453). This question raised by Scripture is also raised by contemporary reality. Continuing anti-black racism in the United States is currently and shockingly manifest in killings of unarmed black men and boys by police officers. The political theologian is forced to ask, not only what levels and forms of continuing resistance are warranted, but whether racism—nationally and globally—will ever be defeated. What exactly is the theology that is honest to reality, but offers realistic hope that change will come?

Bretherton’s answer to this question is uncertain because, along with Pentecostalism, he endorses forms of Anglicanism and Augustinianism. Anglican politics aspires to “the right ordering of church, nation, and state,” envisioned for a church with a particular location and history, by those who take their own power as a given (177–78). Bretherton is drawn to Augustine to transcend both conservative and progressive varieties of Anglican “providentialism.” He argues (against John Milbank) that Christians can seek “just and loving forms of life” in the earthly city of the modern world. But whether Augustine himself would go so far is open to dispute. Augustine did enjoin Christians to take on political responsibility in the name of Christian virtue; and similarly to Anglicanism, portrayed the social ideal in terms of “tranquility of order” and “well-ordered concord.” Yet the libido dominandi that corrupts all earthly cities at the core is overcome only by divine love and grace, and that grace does not in fact, for Augustine, transform historical polities into a “new creation.” An Augustinian caveat counsels caution even to political theologians who ultimately dissent from it, as I do. Yet the work of religious peacebuilders in conflict zones, who bridge lethal divisions to take up risky work for common goals, shows grace at work within and without the church. In a practical rejoinder to Augustine, they nurture realistic hope for sustainable changes, despite the reality that violence will never be historically abolished.

In order to demonstrate concretely what he means by democratic populism, and how it deals with conflicts and injustices, Bretherton turns to historical examples, the most recent of which is the formation of the United States People’s Party in the 1890s. In a work written in the era of Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populist, nationalist, right-leaning, and white supremacist politics internationally, I would have appreciated a contemporary case study. Bretherton rejects expressions of popular politics such as the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthyism, and “the Trump campaigns” as “antipolitical” and undemocratic (442). But how should political theology and democratic politics contend with these, and what do they signify for political theology going forward? Bretherton’s transformationist pneumatology and Augustine’s historical pessimism need to be brought into more direct confrontation in reply.

In sum, Bretherton’s theology of the Holy Spirit is most coherent with his Christian political agenda. I concur in the theology and the politics. Yet in chapter after chapter, Bretherton exposes the theological, historical, and practical counterarguments. I share his apparent perplexity over how exactly to answer them. Maybe the book’s final message is that, speaking theologically, it is virtually impossible to do so. Perhaps we theologians need to give more weight to the life of the churches, where the efficacy of the Spirit is attested in courageous work for justice that brings “resurrection joy and the birthing of new ways of being alive” (119).

  1. Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

  2. Since 2005, I have been a theological advisor to the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (; have twice participated in conferences related to peacebuilding in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina; recently published Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Just War, Pacifism and Peacebuilding, Georgetown, 2019), and teach courses on just war, pacifism and peacebuilding.

  3. Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015,; accessed June 26, 2019.

  4. Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 169.

  5. Francis, Laudato Si’, nos. 142–45, 179–83.

  6. Andrew Peterson, Civic Republicanism and Civic Education: The Education of Citizens (New York: Palgrave Macmilllan, 2011), 52–55.

  7. Anne Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

  8. I discern a similar idea in Luke Bretherton, “State, Democracy & Community Organizing,” in A Companion to Public Theology, ed. Sebastian Kim and Katie Day (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 95–118.

  9. US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has attracted attention and a significant following by calling himself a “democratic socialist.” Yet democratic socialism places all ownership of production in the hands of the workers, whereas social democrats still see a place for a regulated market. On definitions, see Maggie Astor, “What Is Democratic Socialism? Whose Version Are We Talking About?,” New York Times, June 12, 2019,

  • Avatar

    Luke Bretherton


    The Tragic, Apocalyptic, and Georgic Dimensions of Political Theology: A Response to Lisa Sowle Cahill

    It is a great honor to have Lisa Sowle Cahill respond to the book. Her wide-ranging writings have featured regularly in my courses over many years, so on my part this feels like taking up an ongoing conversation. Although Cahill has a different set of philosophical and theological reference points than I do, I see a deep sympathy and resonance between my own approach and hers, as set out in her book Global Justice, Christology, and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

    Cahill’s wonderfully lucid opening formulation of the three challenges facing moral and political theologians is exactly right, as is the source of perplexity she ends with—namely, how to keep open the possibility of “pneumatological transformation” within the brutal realities of history. As Cahill discerns, I don’t think there are neat solutions to these challenges, but the challenges as she identifies them are angels to wrestle with, and wrestling with them ensures we think better about political and social questions. To put this another way, writing about politics in a theological key requires kneading the smooth, hard abstractions of moral and theological concepts with the rich loam of human particularity and historical complexity in order to generate tentative yet specific judgments sufficient to live by in a fallen and finite world. This is a difficult task, and it is easy to either get lost in a maze of description or obsessed with building a clear conceptual scaffold which provides no actual shelter in the storm. In the book I try to combine conceptual frameworks and distinctions with sufficient description of contexts and practices, so as to display processes of theological reasoning that are both open to the Spirit’s leading and aid wily wisdom regarding political judgments.

    A central argument of the book is that the attempt to cure or overcome contingency in politics is extremely dangerous and should be resisted. The very messiness of acting faithfully, lovingly, and hopefully in politics is something to be embraced. To deny or control for it means we deny politics as a way of acting with others not like us in and through time, which is, in effect, to deny the possibility of a common life. At stake here is theological anthropology. To be the kind of good but fallen creature open to redemption that we are is to begin in the middle, never getting to act by starting at the beginning or at a point of our choosing. With a nod to Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante, a properly Christian conception of our condition is that we are a viator—one on the way—rather than a comprehensor—that is, one who has arrived or who comprehends. As a viator—whether in the form of a pilgrim or a fugitive—we are always already having to act in a world we did not make and do not control. The implications of being a viator are firstly, that theological reflection on politics must wrestle with what it means to act together with others in a context shaped by the violence and brutality we inherit from ages past, whether that is the legacies and ongoing impact of patriarchy, the Atlantic slave trade and its afterlife in white supremacy, antisemitism and the holocaust, or the destruction of ecosystems through the depredations of an extractivist capitalism. As the inheritors of various brutal histories that determine the world in which we act with others, we must also wrestle with the dilemma of how to balance the pursuit of justice with the need for some kind of order if the world around us is not to collapse into random violence through the settling of scores. This tragic orientation involves a certain realism about what can and cannot be achieved through politics.

    But we also find ourselves in an eschatological middle ground, living between Christ’s ascension and return when the Spirit is poured out on all flesh. An eschatological orientation to politics means Christians must trust that history is open to change, that a new creation is coming, and that the Spirit can bring into being a radical, surprising, and unanticipated newness in the midst of history, often in response to the cry for justice and love by those on the underside of history. So alongside a tragic register, political theology must have an apocalyptic one as well. An apocalyptic register is born out of a revelation of what is really happening from a heavenly perspective and a discernment of the active and living presence of God on earth. An apocalyptic register also sounds a note of judgment on the present order of things, making clear that the world as it is, is not the world as it should be, and so we should repent and humble ourselves. Political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture; in a place where new beginnings are possible, and so established ways of doing things need reevaluating; and in a season when it is not good enough to simply go with the flow, because the messianic age is dawning and lives are subject to the judgment to come. This apocalyptic orientation must stand alongside a tragic one.

    Lastly, we always already find ourselves in the middle of the quotidian, everyday world of ordinary life that must be cultivated if children are to be raised, crops planted, and life is to go on. Thus, political theology must also have a georgic or pastoral register.1 The Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures are awash with pastoral imagery and concerns (e.g., the laws around land and Sabbath keeping, and divine rule envisioned in creational and pastoral terms). Likewise, Jesus’s teaching and parables are suffused with agricultural and pastoral imagery, populated as they are by shepherds, sowers and vine keepers. But alongside the world of work through which we cultivate shared realms of meaning and action, the pastoral also refers to the everyday world of family life, another stream of scriptural reference: sons run off and return, children are healed and nursed, food is prepared and eaten. The pastoral encompasses the mundane joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives. These too are crucibles of divine disclosure and constitute part and parcel of political life. A georgic register, no less than the tragic and the apocalyptic one, is vital for a faithful, hopeful, and loving political theology.

    One way to read the book is as an attempt to hold in tensional relation the tragic, apocalyptic, and georgic registers needed to make sense of humans as political animals. My broader contention is that political theology goes wrong when one or other register is deployed to the exclusion of the others. Political theology must have a tragic key, bringing to light the way human sin, folly, and frailty—and the oppression these breed—shape political life. But suffering and injustice are not the whole story of political life. In and through politics there can be moments of prophetic insight, repentance, healing, and transformation, as well as disclosures of the living and active work of the Spirit here and now, making all things new. So political theology must synthesize tragedy with an apocalyptic note. It must find ways to speak of hope cradled in grief, love swaddled in death. But to only speak of hope and grief or feasting and fasting, without being able to consecrate and bless the common joys and hallow the everyday activities that make up a life, then Christian political theology will be disconnected from and irrelevant to the realities of how humans survive let alone thrive. The tragic highlights immanent and visible historical, cultural, and structural dynamics (e.g., the state, capitalism, etc.); the apocalyptic emphasizes divine agency and unseen principalities and powers; while the georgic foregrounds human and nonhuman agency and their entangled possibilities.

    I turn now to some of Cahill’s more specific comments. She poses a contrast between her conception of Catholic social teaching (CST) and the one I set out. It may well be a failure of understanding on my part, but I see neither a contrast nor a tension. As Cahill notes, I draw out the consociational and pluralistic conception of the body politic that Maritain and Yves Simon helped articulate. Specific judgments regarding such matters as gender and sexuality, for example, are in no way entailed by this consociational account, which is to say that such an account is neither “conservative” nor “progressive” on a range of contemporary social questions. I do contend that the account I give is a pathway into the more explicitly “solidaristic and liberationist” ways of interpreting CST that Cahill gives voice to. What I try to do is lay out some of the conceptual hinterland from which Laudato Si’ emerges, and foreground why democracy becomes a central commitment in CST—a focus that is often missing from general overviews. I worry that driving a wedge between the account I give and her own creates an unnecessary bifurcation. The real contrast I think is with the kinds of account of CST she and I articulate and those regnant in North America, as exemplified in the work of Michael Novak and George Weigel on one side, and those by exponents of the New Natural Law theory on the other.

    I affirm Cahill’s suggestion that my consociational account of CST feeds directly into advocacy of networked forms of governance. This way of reading the social encyclicals shows how they can make a vital contribution to breaking the stranglehold of the Westphalian order of nation-states on our collective political imagination. But it also tempers the kind of transgovernmental and technocratic approach to networked governance that Anne Marie Slaughter’s work exemplifies. In place of Slaughter, I point to the work of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize–winning economist. Her empirical work on polycentric governance provides a point of reference for the non-state-centric kind of consociational conception of economic democracy and sovereignty I develop (341; 393).

    A consociational approach is also crucial to how I approach the question Cahill poses about whether my account is compatible with social democracy and the pursuit of social justice. The short answer is yes, but this affirmation needs unpacking. I see a role for the market and the state in securing and delivering public goods and pursuing social justice (understood in the technical, CST sense of that term). But the question of the limits of state and market is a crucial one that political theology must address as it seeks to articulate a vision of creaturely flourishing in which each gives according to their ability, and each receives according to their needs. Attempts to articulate such a vision in the twentieth century oscillated between state-centric and market-centric approaches. Both state and market centric solutions to issues such as slum housing or the need for potable water see the primary problem as one of scarcity, and either the state or the market is then positioned as the most efficient, effective, and just means of allocating scarce resources. But what this does is ignore another aspect of the problem: the distribution of power. States concentrate power in hands of bureaucrats (the problem of social democracy), while markets concentrate power in the hand of plutocrats (the problem of what Novak calls “democratic capitalism”), while both concentrate resources in the hands of technocrats, thereby deskilling and stripping citizens of the agency through which they can solve their own problems. A much underrated but important North American Catholic critic who saw this clearly was Ivan Illich.

    So while I answered “yes” to whether there is a role for the state and the market, I am not a fan of simply repristinating social democracy. Indeed, a tacit backdrop to the book is a set of debates among left-wing thinkers about the relationship between democracy and socialism, and their attempts to articulate non-state centric and non-vanguardist theorizations of socialism. Forgive me if what follows is a bit too “inside baseball” on these debates, but it gets at something important to the challenges confronting political theology that Cahill articulates, and at her concern as to whether my account of CST is indexed to the pursuit of social justice.

    The first set of thinkers who inform my thinking is the British New Left (notably, E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor).2 I would situate a number of British Catholic intellectuals and theologians in these debates as well, notably Herbert McCabe, Brian Wicker, Denys Turner (and arguably, Terry Eagleton).3 While it has parallels in Germany, France, and Latin America, the kind of engagement with Aquinas, on the one hand, and Marxism and socialism, on the other, that this group of British Catholics undertook does seem almost entirely absent in the US context. From the 1950s onwards, the British New Left wrestled with how to take forward a radical emancipatory politics when the primary agents of emancipation had proved to be deeply oppressive. These thinkers read the collapse of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism not as a historically unfortunate turn of events, but as a direct outcome of Marxist-Leninist conceptions of revolutionary vanguardism. They developed a critique of forms of social democracy driven by Fabian and other technocratic programs that envisaged the state as the sole locus of emancipatory agency, emphasizing instead the role of everyday life and popular cultures as sources of radical insight. They were suspicious of positing any single or singular revolutionary subject such as the proletariat or the stigmatized as inherently bearing within itself an emancipatory consciousness. They wrestled both with the place of culture as a form of domination and the multiple vectors of identity beyond class. They questioned whether socialism was the progressive superseding of capitalist relations or a harking back to an idealized agrarian moral economy centered on the commons.4 All this was done alongside a critique of bourgeois liberal capitalism as constituting a realm of freedom and, crucially, a focus on the vital importance of moral agency in all political struggles.5

    The second, earlier set of debates was that between the “Johnson-Forest tendency” and the “Shachtmanites,” who were groups that split from the Socialist Workers Party in 1940 in the wake of Stalin’s terror. The Johnsonites were led by C. L. R. James (who, as Cedric Robinson notes, is a key figure in the development of the modern black radical tradition) and Raya Dunayevskaya (a former colleague of Trotsky’s), and included Grace Lee and James Boggs, who went on to be a major influence in the emergence of Black Power in Detroit. The two debates were connected. For example, in 1958 MacIntyre reviewed Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, which critiques Stalinism and Leninism; more recently, he has written a deep appreciation of C. L. R. James as a moral exemplar.6 The British New Left echoed the critique of Stalinism and Leninism that James, the Boggses, and Dunayevskaya generated, and like them sought a non-statist, cooperative, and humanistic alternative. Grace Lee Boggs, who eventually broke with C. L. R. James, came to advocate a humanistic socialism, radical democratic politics, and the need to attend to the personal moral and spiritual dimensions of political struggle (see especially her important biography, Living for Change).7

    These concerns are picked up on in some strands of postcolonial thinking. As David Scott puts it:

    With the collapse of the Bandung and socialist projects and with the new hegemony of a neoliberal globalization, it is no longer clear what “overcoming” Western power actually means. Moreover, with the weakening of the cognitive-political vocabularies of nation and socialism in which oppositional Third World futures were articulated, it is no longer clear how alternatives are to be thought, much less defended. In short, there is now a fundamental crisis in the Third World in which the very coherence of the secular-modern project—with its assurance of progressive social-economic development, with its dependence upon the organizational form of the nation-state, with its sense of the privilege of representative democracy and competitive elections, and so on—can no longer be taken for granted. This crisis ushers in a new problem-space and produces a new demand on postcolonial criticism.8

    The heart of the challenge that David Scott, the British New Left, and the Johnson-Forest tendency wrestled with was as follows: if one cannot turn to the state, the nation, representative democracy, the market, a revolutionary vanguard, or a singular subject of history as the means of ushering in emancipatory change, where does one turn?

    One option, emerging from debates within Continental Philosophy, is to take a catastrophizing (rather than apocalyptic) turn, renouncing any kind of real existing politics as inherently reinscribing systems and cultures of domination. This is a move that Slavoj Žižek, among others, has made and is, more broadly, one direction of travel in political theology. This generates despair and pessimism as a positive political good and calls into question the merits of any and all movements for social justice.

    Another and very different kind of response is to turn to virtue and traditions of belief and practice. Outside of the context of the debates I have just summarized, such a move sounds conservative. It is not. The call for a more moral and humane political economy necessitates wrestling with the situatedness and historicity of thought, and so demands recognizing that there are a plurality of traditions with different conceptions of freedom, justice, and visions of the good. The debate is then not about means (state, vanguard, market or revolutionary subject)—all of which end up treating actual people as means rather than ends—but about ends or teloi, and what normative vision of the good or human flourishing politics and economics are seeking to embody in pursuit of that good. As well as raising questions about which traditions of belief and practice can sponsor a just and loving vision of human flourishing, such a move also raises questions about virtue: freedom and justice are not achieved through a procedure, historical dialectic, or implementing the correct ideological program through a process of social engineering, but through the quality and character of relations between people. Tradition and virtue become the means, then, of discovering and inhabiting freedom and justice under conditions of finitude and fallenness.

    Christ and the Common Life should be read as an attempt to articulate what a Christian vision of democratic politics that is alive to the challenges not only that Cahill sets out in her response, but also to the challenges wrestled with by the likes of Scott, the British New Left, C. L. R. James and Grace Lee Boggs. A consociational conception of sovereignty and economic democracy is a crucial next step in connecting a turn to tradition and virtue to a meaningful democratic politics, and it is a move that is intrinsic to the development of Catholic social teaching. Or at least, that is the case I try to make in the book.

    1. Georgic is the technical term for pastoral literature and is derived from Virgil’s poem The Georgics, which depicts scenes of farming and cultivation.

    2. It is a source of endless frustration that MacIntyre is mostly read in the US context, especially in Roman Catholic circles, outside of these New Left debates of which he was a part.

    3. And as with so much of post-1945 British theology, the influence of Donald MacKinnon must also be referenced here.

    4. See esp. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973).

    5. For an account of the British New Left, see Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995).

    6. Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

    7. Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

    8. David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 14–15.

    • Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Lisa Sowle Cahill


      Good before Evil, Hope before Tragedy (All In the “Everyday”)

      I am appreciative of Luke Bretherton’s gracious replies to his interlocutors in this forum, and for the exchange it continues to make possible. Having read his reply to my review of his book, I am still left with the feeling (worry?) that his Augustinian “tragic” outlook on politics has the edge over his Spirit-empowered transformationist outlook on community organizing. In Bretherton’s Pentecostalism, politics and economics are themselves “crucibles of divine activity,” where “the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is animating, healing, delivering, and generating new life” (157 in Christ and the Common Life, cited in my original reply). It is the latter outlook that I see having more affinity with Catholic social teaching (CST), as compared to Bretherton’s “civic republican” consociational model, at least if or when its bottom-line value is individual liberty. For CST individual liberty is a value, but liberty is subordinated to and serves the dignity of the person and the common good. Of special significance is that the “preferential option for the poor” informs and orients dignity and the common good; it demands the empowerment of the poor, and the voice and agency of the poor, as advocates on their own behalf.

      CST would agree with Bretherton that the common life involves the negotiation of multiple particular goods about which there is divergence, disagreement, and even confict. That being said, it also presumes that at the general level, certain shared human goods can be identified that guide and measure negotiations about the form of context-specific forms of life: life itself, basic material needs, family, religious affiliation, education, employment, and just and participatory political institutions are non-exhaustive examples. These are the components of “human flourishing.” It is to realize these goods and distribute them more fairly that justice-seeking communities organize for political action.

      I appreciate Bretherton’s compact tutorial on “the British New Left,” but since I am not familiar with the work of most of its representatives, I will not presume to comment directly. What strikes me, though, is that “takes” on Catholic social teaching, or just about anything else, are highly responsive to the social contexts of the interpreters. As positioned to receive, transmit, and implement CST, Catholics in the U.S. are more in dialogue with Latin America than with Eastern Europe; liberation theologies are huge influences on Catholic social ethics in the United States; and we have a system of Catholic universities (not under direct ecclesiastical control) that provide a rich and unparalleled environment for the development of Catholic intellectual and political thought. For the most part, the profile of CST in these universities is world-engaging, justice-oriented, and more rather than less confident that solidarity is possible and that changes can be made. The last three or so years have made us newly aware of counter-indications, and this is a salutary (and Augustinian) development; yet hope still predominates over tragedy in our outlook, as in papal social encyclicals since Vatican II (1965).

      Bretherton proposes that political theology has three dimensions: the tragic, the apocalyptic and the pastoral/everyday (“georgic”) I would put these in exactly the opposite order, make the everyday the existential condition of all, and redefine apocalyptic more broadly as eschatology. Ordinary existence is the condition of possibility of experiencing and desiring basic human goods; of protesting against their deprivation or violation; and of salvation as healing by the risen Christ, who eschatologically sends his Spirit to make a “new creation.” Tragically, selfishness and violence will always mar history and the historical church. But the heart, center, and power of the Christian common life is the gospel promise that, eschatologically, the reign of God is near (Mark 1:14) and already in our midst (Luke 17:21). The Christian life, Christian ethics, and Christian politics are about trying to live out of that promise confidently, realistically, and with hope.




Organizing Our Common Life (Burn the White Picket Fences)

A few years ago I was in Baltimore for a gathering of community organizers, community leaders, and clergy, all of whom were affiliated with Faith in Action—the nation’s largest network of federated community organizations and congregations advancing political and social change at the local, state, regional and federal levels. This meeting brought together staff and key members of our leadership from across the country to strengthen relationships and strategize together on a way forward for the whole network. We began the three-day convening arranged around tables in groups of eight, with a handful of colorful markers and a big white piece of chart paper in the middle of the table. Our facilitator invited us to take the next twenty minutes to imagine together and then illustrate our vision of the world as it should be—the promised land, the mountaintop, the land of milk and honey—that we were working to realize for and in our communities. Six different tables leaned into the task, loudly negotiating the particularities of the prompt and attempting to navigate the diversity in the room; racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, language, and generational difference were all well-represented.

At the end of the twenty minutes each table presented their illustration to the group. As the tables reported, I was astounded to see a very familiar trope emerge from this remarkably diverse group of visionary clergy and justice leaders. With scarcely a single exception, each illustration was dominated by a two-story colonial house with a tree in the front yard, a dog frolicking nearby, and a white picket fence. Some of the illustrations featured additional context (like a church spire and the dome of a masjid in the background, or children of different races playing in the yard), but the central image of nearly every single illustration was a traditional American colonial family home and the iconic white picket fence.

There is something to be said for being united behind a common vision, but I found myself disappointed by the lack of imagination in our group that this activity revealed. There are many possible rationales for how such a diverse cohort oriented toward radical politics could end up toeing the company line so reliably, but I remain the most interested in my initial gut analysis: that we are constrained by the absence of a theologically-informed and socially relevant political imagination. (A quick point of clarification: I write this from my perspective as an organizer currently employed by Faith in Action, formerly PICO National Network. The “we” to which I refer, then, is the community of social change practitioners with whom I spend my days: congregational and denominational clergy, lay community leaders, community organizers, movement leaders, organizational allies, funders, political and social movement consultants, and elected officials who together enact democracy on a daily basis at its most grassroots level.)

Christ and the Common Life steps very nicely into this political imagination breach, offering context and insights into both this particular anecdote and other challenges the organizing field is encountering, while also posing a compelling series of questions for theologians, organizers and political practitioners. The root argument of the text is not, at first blush, all that remarkable. That forming and sustaining democratic politics is a work of Christian faith does not come across as a radical notion to the informed contemporary observer, especially given the degree to which American democracy (and democracy globally) is threatened today, and the oppressive origins of this threat in patriarchy, white supremacy, Christian imperialism, and exploitative capitalism.

Certainly community organizers working with faith communities are convinced of this argument. Indeed, much of our organizing is predicated on the notion that faith communities have an obligation to be present in the public square to provide moral reason, spiritual authority, and prophetic clarity to our collective social and political projects. But fundamental tensions have emerged in the world of broad-based community organizing as the effort to dismantle the power structures that maintain white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonial Christianity comes face-to-face with the historical role of Western democracy in erecting, enshrining, and sustaining structural inequality, prejudiced power, and violent racialized, sexualized, and gendered xenophobia. The 2016 democratic election of Donald Trump serves as both the clearest recent example of this tension and a cause for renewed urgency and intensity among progressive grassroots organizers.

These tensions have left the grassroots rhetoric on the future of our democracy unclear. Though enthusiastic “This is what democracy looks like!” chants are still common at rallies and marches, my anecdotal experience in progressive faith-based organizing spaces is that democracy as an ideal is rarely named. It is more common these days to hear the aspirational (and vague) term “liberation” than the more specific “egalitarian democracy” when discussing organizing objectives. This is especially true in communities and organizations oriented toward racial justice and racial equity, which see in the complicated legacy of American democracy a reason to be pessimistic about the utility of democracy as a just and sustainable political system.

In this context, Luke Bretherton’s contribution becomes a welcome agitation. Grassroots organizers—especially those of us who work within the faith community—must get clearer about the aims of our organizing, the role of democratic politics in achieving those aims, and the consequences for the prevailing forms of democracy in the world today. Helpfully, Bretherton distinguishes between democracy as a system of governance and democratic politics as a political endeavor, a distinction that allows for criticism of Western democratic systems while firing up the political imagination. Democracy may not be a given but neither is its dismissal, and Christ and the Common Life reassures us that politics rooted in democratic ideals offers the potential to serve not just civic and social flourishing, but religious and theological ends as well.

This potential comes through clearly in the text, and in doing so highlights and gives language to multiple realities currently unfurling in my organization and in the field of faith-based organizing. For one, developing the skills and insights to meaningfully navigate plurality has become a central feature of organizing in an era when oppositional power is now traced back not to an obstinate county sheriff or over-stepping local business entity, but to the vast corporate and political interests that conspire to maintain global supremacist power structures. Our allies and partners are no longer just our neighbors inside four square miles. They are all people who experience oppression and marginalization—especially the kinds promulgated by the West—anywhere in the world.

This may be a remarkable development in the concept of solidarity, but it also leads to painful and digressive clashes within the justice movement as awareness builds that an overarching unifying experience or analysis—no matter how high the stakes—cannot smooth away power differentials that persist even where there is broad ideological and political alignment. Consider, for example, the disruption inside the social justice community over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Or consider a very different but related conundrum: what does “loyalty to the collective struggle”—to borrow Tommie Shelby’s quote from the chapter on Black Power—mean to the black women organizers who find themselves systematically disenfranchised and exploited by their allies, funders, and leaders in the movement? The “Jacuzzi of modern life” that Bretherton describes bubbles up far more than belief and unbelief: ethnic, racial, and religious allegiances all surface to contend for our spiritual and social identity (249). The shift into religious and racial/ethnic plurality in progressive faith-based organizing has brought with it not only theological squabbles and misunderstandings, but an as-yet-unfolding internal reckoning with the impact of racialized religious power on specific marginalized peoples (i.e., racial, gender, and sexual communities, as well as particular ethnic and national identities—the Cherokee nation, for example) even as these same communities/peoples seek to align against a global supremacist power (el pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!). The means by which this patchwork coalition holds itself together is messy and plagued by power clashes that pit traditional instincts for hegemony and self-preservation against an emerging understanding of relational, liberatory power practices. These clashes sorely test the resolve of community organizers and political strategists.

Consequently, I think Bretherton could say more about the practice of power—as a tool of oppression and means of liberation—in the forming of a common life. There is still much work to be done to reconcile how gendered and racialized oppression create power and energy imbalances that disrupt democratic politics. On a related note, I worry that Bretherton does not adequately grapple with the costs of organizing on those who engage in it from marginalized communities (refer to my comment about black women organizers, above). The idea that “through acting in concert, the weak can resist the unilateral actions of money power and state power to establish goods in common” (448) does not account for the amount of effort and the cost to oppressed communities to organize and win against money power and state power. This is a toll that needs to be reckoned with theologically, socially, economically, psychologically, physiologically, etc.

To this end, the “impatient endurance” virtue that Bretherton identifies in his chapter on toleration with hospitality (269) stands out as a potential offering to the narratives of healing and spiritual resilience that are currently sustaining justice-minded organizing communities. The work of building a common life inevitably begins in the past, as organizers, clergy, and leaders attempt to redress the past to enable a different future. Often lost in this process is the means by which we make sense of our location in the present. “Impatient endurance” offers a useful conceptual framework for how to occupy the present in order to usher in a better shared future, though I would be interested to know if and how this concept resonates with the growing community of “movement chaplains” who—with public awareness of the personal cost to activists and organizers growing—seek to bring a healing and resilience sensibility to the work of community organizing.

The emphasis on the present and the process by which we form a common life may shed some light on that profusion of white picket fences at the meeting in Baltimore. My initial disappointment was not only with how boring the results turned out to be, but what they revealed about how colonized our notions of the Mountaintop have become: The traditional American family home is undoubtedly a symbol of prosperity, well-being, and security, but it is also designed around the concept of a singular, defined family unit, usually isolated from other members of their own extended family and meaningful nonfamilial relationships. The white picket fence is charming and quaint, on one level signifying the achievement of the American dream. But fences also circumscribe land, cutting it up into pieces and reducing our natural resources to property that can be claimed. And fences easily become borders, literally dividing us from each other. Bretherton’s chapters on class and economy were helpful for understanding the contrast between these legacies of our inherited American ideal and the rich economic and social alternatives that “the commons” might provide.

I suspect, informed now by Bretherton’s argument regarding the task of democracy for Christians, that the fault was not with our representative room of participants but with the prompt we provided, which bypassed any acknowledgment of our role as faith-based organizers in the penultimate endeavor of politics that Bretherton articulates, and flung us headlong into the eschaton itself. A more grounded approach would have been to ask the room to imagine what, from our faith-based perspective, needs to be different about our democracy. This question, I believe, would have generated a broad and fascinating range of responses and opinions and meaningfully contributed to the work of creating a sustainable democracy.

I am grateful to Luke Bretherton for this timely and relevant political theology, which is much needed in the grassroots organizing world as we grapple on the ground with the same fears, hurts, and pessimism that afflicts our society today.

    • Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Lisa Sowle Cahill


      Working Together When Burdens and Benefits Are Not So “Common”

      Megan Black makes a good point (which should be obvious but isn’t always) about different levels of power and oppression and hence costs experienced by different participants in community organizing. This is true of any work for just social change, include writing and teaching political theology and theological ethics. I am now meditating on what to do about it. Luke recommends public education, which is certainly necessary. Educating and being educated concerning a particular inequity and strategies to resolve it can increase mutual understanding and help form empathy and solidarity. But “conscientization” around a shared goal (health care, education) can also still leave in place a certain amount of (willful?) ignorance of how work toward that goal demands more of some partners than others, or even of how the real achievement of a goal is going to require that some of the underlying inequities in access be addressed. And greater awareness of inequities might generate resentment on the part of those currently positioned to enjoy greater benefits if a goal is reached. (I can see how this might play out, even in my own academic department.) How do community organizers handle this, within the process of public education? Or is Megan Black’s point that they don’t? How should they and we?



The Pentecostal Incredible in Nigeria


Luke Bretherton has made a solid, incisive case for democracy as a key concept and veritable vision under Christian political theology. He brings together democracy (that affirms plurality and distinct identities and traditions) and Christian theology under the rubric of what he calls a common-life framework, which is a methodology, a form of discipline, and a vision for life in Christ (54). “The common-life framework is distinct from either identity politics or multicultural approaches because recognition and respect are not given simply by dint of having a different culture or identity; recognition is conditional upon contributing to and participating in shared, reciprocal, common work” (455).

The book is crafted as a discursive site of multiple voices, some sort of a complex diptych painting with several hinges and panels. In its deep structure it conveys the sense of an African-Cubist artwork. “The deliberately stitched-together character of the book reflects something of the kind of creatures we are, namely the sort who must find ways of coming to and making shared judgments if common action is to be possible” (7). Indeed, the book is constituted as fundamentally polyphonic, dialogical, and unfinalizable in the Bakhtinian sense.1 The cubist methodology of the book is integrally related to or is summoned by his fundamental understanding of politics as human endeavor to create “a common world of meaning for human flourishing, a world where actions and relations are possible despite manifold differences” (36; see also 6, 12). He draws from diverse schools of thought and Christian traditions to weave a story of how Christianity forms, norms and sustains a common life.

Part of the intellectual achievement of this book is rendering political theology more understandable for everyday Christians. For the theological academy, it even does something greater by shifting the focus of the discipline of political theology away from the rarefied and provincial frameworks of most Western scholars’ staples of “usual suspects.” He avoids the “sin” of most political theologians and political philosophers in the Western academy who egregiously only legitimize forms of knowledge coming from their narrow enclaves and marginalize others to the benefit of Western hegemony or (unconscious) white supremacy (27). His book in over 460 pages relentlessly shows us what kind of scholarship or politics can generate a common life as against a sociality dominated by a few powerful interests or groups. His brilliant scholarship, on display in this book, his deliberate choice of interlocutors, and his astute selection of spheres of social life for analysis are a demonstration of what the common life in Christ looks like in theologizing. The ethos of the common life he advocates in the world of concrete lived experiences is the ethos of the abstract book-world of his scholarship. Bretherton opens things up to multiple voices not as a politically correct ploy, but as a genuine and rigorous engagement with others.

Indeed, the core achievement of the book is to contest the received meaning of political theology and to successfully launch an expanded, inclusive, accessible—yet rigorous—definition and meaning of Christian political theology. In this way, Bretherton’s book generates a richer sense of what political theology is and the good that it can do toward advancing human flourishing.

Does this all mean that Bretherton’s political theology is without place? We can locate it in a historical space and time. His work is sustained by a depth of Western reality and as such it is not a decontextualized appearance of political theology. Not by any stretch of imagination will anyone argue that his political theology fully coincides with the real being of Christian political theology. Bretherton is beholden to Western social sciences and philosophy in a very hereditary, reproductive, and extensional way. Western scholarship in these fields are too orientated to order, how to create order and sustain order. Now there is nothing fatally flawed with this orientation to academic inquiry. My only concern is that it often takes our eyes away from the irruptions and disruptions that are part of every order, from the disorders that sustain orders, and from places and peoples who have only perpetual disorder, ruptures, and fragility to contend with 24/7 as their form of common life. This concern compels me to make not only a geographic shift, but also a parallax shift from his analytical focus. His book is an attempt to describe, analyze how the order of common life in Europe and America can be sustained or understood in the light of Christian theology. My interest in this essay is to make sense of the disorder that is the common life in Africa and explore how to understand it in the light of Pentecostal Christian experiences.

Trinity of Disordering Powers

Instead of talking about Christ and the common life, let us talk about Christ and the chaosmosic life. Is Christ only God of the cosmos (common life, organized life) or is he also Lord of the life at the verge of chaos and cosmos? Please note that I am not championing disorder as the locus classicus of political theology, but aiming to draw our attention to places in the world where theology cannot proceed from the presupposition of preexisting order which needs to be Christically transformed. I only want us to think with those who live in disordered situations, which are the order and command of their precarious life-worlds. I am also not here to celebrate those radical theologians and philosophers who live in ordered, manicured societies and dream of exploding their inherited order of being and privileges to initiate something new. I am thinking of radical thoughts, new ways of relating Christ to the common life in societies that are already uprooted and always uprooting—radical in the old sense of life, a lifeworld whose roots are upended. I am thinking of infusing Christian political theology with the kind of radical energy that will upend its theorized foundations.

This is why I want to take Bretherton’s thought to places in Africa where chaosmos reigns rather than order, to sites where his theology is put at risk and all theologies that take order for granted are vulnerable to a merciless becoming that never comes, to intersections where we might pretend to map out order where incipient order and chaos intersect and riff off each other. To begin to flesh all this out, let me turn to a colorful Nigerian politician who was gifted rhetorically. I am going to riff off on late Kenneth O. Mbadiwe’s enigmatic saying, “When the come comes to become and we all come to close combat, we shall come out.”2 How do we think or what do we do when existing order has been unraveled, only perpetually becoming such that things are constantly falling apart and no center can hold? The option is to come out and give fight to secure a place to stand amid turmoil and to think of possible deep transformation. When there is no preexisting order and all decisions have to be based on the actor’s (or concert of actors’) own abyssal freedom for which he or she has to take full responsibility, then thinking of common life in Christ as the fundamental basis of political theology becomes very tricky. I struggled to fit Bretherton’s book to the rupturous, disjunctive process philosophy of Mbadiwe’s statement, which profoundly urges us to think political philosophy at sites where worlds come undone, at sites of perpetual uncertainty, where we must always put a fight of Wolinesque “politicalness” just to survive, just to create workable, livable order. Indeed, Bretherton’s book does not take us far enough into “the tears, blood and shit that ground and suffuse . . . political orders” (28) so as to reach the spaces where tears, blood, shit, and death is the order itself. At these necropolitical sites, common life looks vastly different. Let me parse Mbadiwe’s statement to give a sense of what this vastly different common looks like or demands from those of us from Africa. I will say that when the common comes to be-common and we all come to close to death, we shall cast out. This bizarre be-common, the common that is ever coming, that is perennially becoming but always deformed enough not to come to form, is connected with the trinity of governance-as-trauma, the Postcolonial Incredible, and the Pentecostal Incredible. This connection must be cast out of social life to make space for meaningful common life in Christ.

Governance-as-trauma is the ground, the common indeed, of Christian life in Nigeria. Governance, just like the daily existential condition, is an incredible phenomenon, a situation of perpetual crisis, crisis-as-norm.3 Governance in Nigeria is a state of government autosuspension. Government is in force only in the form of its absence, nonpresence, suspension. Governance is a civil war within the body politic, holding the people into a life consecrated to death. Governance is a source of traumatic events or as the prime unyielding traumatic event on Nigerians. This trauma is not a result of a single event of magnitude and horror, but relentless micro daily events that produce anxiety related to the potential for shattering cessation of existence quite possibly from sudden devastating illness, increased poverty, terror, vulgarity of power, or death. This is daily, constant, ongoing exposure to heightened vulnerability to disable or terminate physical, psychic, or social lives. The vulnerability, contingent, dispersed, all-pervading can suddenly become materialized absolute disaster “anytime, anywhere, by any means, and for any reason.”4

Pentecostal Christianity in the country is a struggle to survive the perpetual trauma of national political governance. Caught in this agonistic struggle, Pentecostalism has become part of what the Nigerian scholar, Tejumola Olaniyan calls the postcolonial incredible. “The incredible is not simply a breach but an outlandish infraction of ‘normality’ and its limits.”5 I will transform Olaniyan’s Postcolonial Incredible into the pentecostal incredible. There are many Pentecostals—certainly not all of Nigerian Pentecostals—who claim to have direct insight into God’s mind with the idea that this divinity demands critical resistance to today’s society’s knowledge systems and habitus. This God they believe often asks his followers to perform psychotic-delirious actions to prove their faith. The pentecostal incredible is not simply a breach but an outlandish infraction of “reason” and Christian “normativity” and their limits. If the postcolonial incredible is the reality of the everyday actual existence of Pentecostals, then the pentecostal incredible is the “abstract” spectral logic of Nigerian Pentecostals that determines their interpretation, engagement/confrontation with, and adaptation to the postcolonial incredible.

One of the ways Pentecostals perform the postcolonial incredible is the enactment of an epistemological guide to everyday life, which is formulaically stated as, “It does not make sense, but it makes spirit.” They take decisions that might not make sense to you and me, but they are explained away with this formula. In this way they are able to “explain” the unexplainable or affirm what a preexisting community fund of knowledge, justificatory system, and cultural logic will not accept. This seems a yielding to the loss of meaningful rationality or intelligibility, provoked by the daily assaults from governance-as-trauma.

Jesus and the Common Life and the Pentecostal Incredible

Let me conclude by stating that I know that Bretherton wrote his book for communities in North America and Europe. But I want to examine the applicability of its ideas to the Nigerian situation I have described. The great solution that Bretherton’s scintillating book suggest for Nigeria amid the triumvirate of governance-as-trauma, the postcolonial incredible, and the pentecostal incredible is the combination of the virtue of tolerance and efficient administration and coordination of interests, all as undergirded by a Christian commitment to democracy. Alas, something does not quite fit. Democracy is not big enough; there just ain’t enough material in it, in the Western capitalo-parliamentary size-five democratic dress to fit the Nigerian body of size twenty.6 It is emancipatory politics that can only provide the ample material to sew a dress that will cover the nakedness of the current extensive necropolitical “democratic” flesh of Nigeria. Alas, Bretherton’s book evades discussing emancipation, political struggle, armed revolutionary struggle to overturn a ruling, oppressive class. Can the common life in Christ not be engendered by emancipatory violence (divine violence as per Walter Benjamin)? The reader may be bristling at this question.

I agree with her that this question is a wrong one to ask because it is not within the purview of the book. At the heart of the book is a conception of politics as a problem of intolerance and quest for human flourishing, not the problem of the absence of the egalitarian logic in the distribution of places and roles, fundamental wrong and capitalist exploitation, and the relevant quest for human flourishing. To think politics in the way Bretherton has done is to engage in culturalization of political theology; political theology as a theorization of harmonious living into different ways of life. We need to a politicization of political theology; that is, political theology as a theorization of emancipatory politics.7 What Nigeria needs today is a political theology that is “creatively destructive and constructive.” At the dimension of the creative destruction it must accent the politics of emancipation (rupture, radical politics of equalitarianism) as new foundation for human flourishing. At the dimension of construction, it must show us what kind of radical social ethics can prepare the citizenry to disrupt the transfer of fragility from capitalist markets and other devastating social forces to them and make themselves antifragile.8

Christian political theology needs the ethics of antifragility. Antifragility is not the opposite of fragility; it goes beyond resilience or robustness. A fragile system breaks under stress, disorders, or volatility. An antifragile system not only withstands shocks, stress, disorder, uncertainty, and volatility, but also benefits from them. The ethics of antifragility is about developing the capability in the citizenry to resist the fragility of socio-economic life imposed upon them, even as they learn to deploy their resistance toward their own human flourishing. The combined weight of governance-as-trauma, postcolonial incredible, and pentecostal incredible has rendered the life and livelihood of ordinary citizens fragile. Nigeria needs a political theology that can demonstrate how ordinary citizens can build an antifragile social ethics capable of resisting these triune powers and promoting freedom and human flourishing. The good news is that Nigerian Christians, after years of relentless bombardments by the triumvirate of powers, have fashioned out in pragmatic terms just such a political theology.9 How else do you think they have been surviving the bombardments?

What we need now are scholars to investigate and properly articulate it, theologize their experiences. This is a task suitable to only those who can craft a political theology within the framework of disruptive grace, virtue as irruptive actualization of human potentialities, and unfinishable commons.10 Among other things, this will be a theology that seriously considers the possibility of the impossible in the way life hangs together in the common. Those Christians living in abyss of governance-as-trauma requires an impossible theology that can conceptualize a common that allows human creativity and freedom to manifest, disrupts hierarchical distribution of places, and makes spaces for persons to creatively resist obstacles to human flourishing. We need to liberate political theology from its excessive concern with order and good citizenry to serve as a liberatory principle for interrogating all extant social organizations in the name of a better future. This will be a nice way to appropriate the Bakhtinian unfinalizability of Bretherton’s political theology.

  1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxxiv.

  2. Emmanuel Obiechina, A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 79.

  3. See Nimi Wariboko, Ethics and Society: Identity, History, and Political Theory (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2019), 73–97.

  4. Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 13.

  5. Tejumola Olaniyan, Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 2.

  6. Here I am making an allusion to Delores S. Williams, “The Color of Feminism or Speaking the Black Woman Tongue,” in Feminist Theological Ethics: A Reader, ed. Lois K. Daly (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 42–58.

  7. Slavoj Žižek, Violence, 140.

  8. See Nimi Wariboko, Economics in Spirit and Truth: A Moral Philosophy of Finance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), for detailed explanation of this ethics.

  9. This is not to say that the version they have worked out is exactly benefiting them; nonetheless it is a starting point for academic study.

  10. Nimi Wariboko, The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 3–4, 25–26, 151–54; and Wariboko, Economics in Spirit and Truth, xvi, 166.

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    Luke Bretherton


    Order, Chaos, and Cosmology in Political Theology: A Response to Nimi Wariboko

    I greatly welcome Nimi Wariboko’s response. I have found his work enormously challenging and enriching and engage it directly in the book. In directing attention to how life in many parts of Nigeria is subject to “governance-as-trauma” that generates a “necropolitical” and “merciless becoming that never comes,” he raises fundamental questions about how to conceptualize chaos, and whether order should be an underlying value in political theology. And in doing so, he touches on the place of violence in the pursuit of emancipatory ends.

    Wariboko rightly points to how Christ and the Common Life is self-consciously beholden to Western academic protocols and primarily addresses the North Atlantic world. But the characterization of my constructive proposal as advocating for the “virtue of tolerance and efficient administration and coordination of interests all as undergirded by a Christian commitment to democracy” is not an accurate one. At the risk of sounding overly defensive, I consider it important that I refute this characterization, because it obscures how the account of politics I develop does address Wariboko’s concerns and context.

    Contrary to Wariboko’s contention, disruption and conflict are central to my account of democratic politics, which I envisage as a tension-filled dance of conflict and conciliation.1 Indeed, the need for often radical change and how to imagine and narrate such change undergirds my conception of conversion—one of the organizing concepts of the book. Moreover, I explicitly expand politics beyond statecraft so as to account for contexts where a common life can be constructed in the face of state actors who are the primary agents of disorder and trauma—this is a key focus of the chapters on Black Power and Pentecostalism.

    Wariboko charges that I, along with the rest of Western political theology, overvalue order. He is right insofar as conceptualizing the nature and proper form of political order is a central concern of Western political theology, a point made with great force by Eric Voegelin in his magisterial, multivolume work Order and History. But I think that no form of political theology, whether Western or not, either can or should avoid addressing how order understood in terms of right relation (love, justice, and communion) connects with or disrupts order as determined by sovereignty, structure, law and governance (with their cognate significations of stability, organization, hierarchy, sequence, regularity, classification, discipline, and institutional arrangements). I am critical of political theologies, notably Anglican political theology, that presume a givenness to the existing order, never questioning who has power and why (e.g., 177; 195–96). Such approaches wrongly presume an identification between order as right relation and order as sovereignty, structure, law, and governance. Conformity to the former can entail the derangement/chaos of the latter. Likewise, I consistently critique the reduction of order to a conglomerate of self-interests, and the associated ways of trying to order and stabilize the world through top down state administration, technocratic procedures, and market mechanisms that subvert a common life. This is part of my overarching account of how, more often than not, existing forms of order are the “sleep of Behemoth”: that is, an unjust tranquility and deranged quiescence that generates order and invulnerability for some by displacing fragility and vulnerability on to others. Rule is often misrule, and those taken to be paragons of virtue frequently need naming as whitewashed sepulchers.

    The question of the precarity of life and how to generate the kind of politics Wariboko calls for—that is, an “antifragility” politics through “agonistic struggle” that promotes “freedom and human flourishing”—animates my project as a whole. Indeed, my conception of a common life politics is precisely an attempt to articulate a theological account of what he identifies as vital, namely, “a Wolinesque ‘politicalness’” that creates and energizes a “workable, livable order” amid the depredations of state and market. As part of my account I directly address the Nigerian context (and a parallel one in Guatemala) in the chapter on Pentecostalism, reading what Wariboko calls the “Pentecostal incredible” as a response not only to governance-as-trauma but also to a brutalizing form of capitalism. That said, one does not have to go to Nigeria or Guatemala to experience kleptocratic and exploitative economic regimes and modalities of governance-as-trauma: they are present in the detention centers along the US border, the labor camps in the fields of North Carolina, the streets of Baltimore, and toxic devastation left by mountain top removal in Appalachia. All of which is to say that I don’t recognize the contrast Wariboko draws between the case I make in the book and what he says political theology needs to do. Whether successfully or not, I try to do what he asks for.

    This brings me to Wariboko’s constructive suggestion concerning the need to talk of a “chaosmosic” life rather than a common one. This is fertile ground to explore, but much depends on how the relationship between order and chaos is conceptualized. In his account, Wariboko seems at times to operate with a binary between order and chaos, so that each is perpetually divided and opposed to the other in a zero-sum game. More of one equals less of the other. This is a common frame of reference in both ancient and modern political theologies, and one that envisages the order-chaos relation in spatial terms. As I note in the book, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Sumerians all saw themselves as the bearers of a civilized order, in contrast to various “barbarian” others who exist in a realm of chaos outside of the bounds of civilized order. Their creation myths inscribed this distinction into the cosmos. The civilized were children of the gods—and so masters by divine inheritance—whose social and political order was an analogue of the cosmic divine order, while those outside the boundaries of that order were savages in a permanent state of war with the civilized, and thereby naturally fitted to be slaves of the civilized (300). Western colonialism operated with an analogous political imaginary.

    Another way to think about the relation between order and chaos is to see the relation as dialectical. As with the binary relation, chaos and order oppose each other, but the conflict is dialectical rather than a zero-sum game, so that it generates a new development that supersedes and sublates the existing forms of order and chaos. Each new settlement generates its own undoing, which in turn generates a new dialectic. Here the relation is not spatial but temporal and takes either a cyclical or progressive form. In the classical Roman and Greek cosmology at work in Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid, there is a golden age from which subsequent ages decline. History cycles through the rise and fall of ages (or empires) and politics is mostly read through a declension narrative. An echo of this can be heard in the use in early modern political thought of an Arcadian state of nature, against which to read either the corruption or civilization of the current order (e.g., Rousseau). There are also contemporary versions of this trope, the current spate of liberal declension narratives being a case in point. In Marx’s historical dialectic, each political economy generates its own undoing and the conflict between the status quo and its “gravediggers” generates a new, better settlement: the chaos of revolution gives birth to a new, better order. Or in libertarian versions, the demand is to “move fast and break things” in a permanent technological and economic revolution of creative destruction where chaos is the price of progress.2 Rather than decline, an ascension narrative of ongoing development towards a final end of history is the dominant frame of reference.

    A third way to read the relation between order and chaos is as a dyad: they are mutually constitutive rather than opposed. Conflict can arise between them, but it serves to reestablish a harmony of forces. In the ancient Chinese cosmology associated with both Zou Yan and Daoism, this is symbolized by the yīnyáng symbol. Here the concern is not with order or chaos per se but with the harmony of the whole. A very different, bleaker conception of the mutually constitutive, dyadic relation between order and chaos is increasingly apparent in contemporary political theology; the recent work of Giorgio Agamben is but one example. Such approaches contend that there cannot be freedom without domination, the livable without the unlivable; that order for some is always premised on chaos for others; that a kernel of abjection and horror necessarily lies at the heart of civilization, anarchy at the heart of governance. There is neither progress nor decline, only ever changing, always becoming assemblages of chaos and order. There are times in Wariboko’s response where he seems to draw on this kind of conception.

    Christian political theology has drawn on all the above approaches at one time or another. But I contend that normatively a christocentric cosmology is required, even while it echoes and can include elements of those cosmologies just sketched.3 In the New Testament, the term “world” (kosmos) is a synonym for the universal order of things. Before the day of judgment, this order is coterminous with a worldly system opposed to God’s creative energies. New Testament usages of the term kosmos resist a strict dualism between order and chaos (234). In the New Testament, the kosmos is envisioned as a single creation that is at once good but corrupted, and subject to nihilistic forces yet open to its healing and participation in God—and thence open to change. Christ’s rule liberates the kosmos to be the world (an arena of human flourishing to which the church can contribute) rather than worldly (the world turned in on itself so that social, political, and economic relations diminish and desecrate creation). So while I argue in chapter 4 that the church-world relation should be understood as dyadic, the relation between chaos and order should not. Order and chaos are both present within the cosmos, both are subject to Christ’s rule, and each may or may not generate conformity to Christ. What is in question is not chaos and order—as if these are settled matters—but what gets named as chaos and order and by who. Paradigmatically, crucifixion is on one, Roman view a reassertion of order, and on another, theological one, an act of violent chaos that paradoxically points to a deeper order of love (20–21; 195).

    Contrary to dialectical notions, history does not bear within itself its own resolution, and there is no inherent direction to history: things will not always get better or worse. To be faithful, Christians should resist both ascension and declension narratives about the direction of history. An eschatological view of history challenges both cyclical and progressivist views. The noncyclical and nonprogressive nature of history means that the fulfillment of the whole is not realizable within history, so any human system or ideology that claims to provide the means of bringing about a final solution is a denial of the fallen and contingent nature of historical existence. Change and redemption are always possibilities, and good and bad are present in all political systems. Theologically understood, this noneschatological age is a deeply ambiguous and paradoxical one in which the world is complexly faithful and unfaithful, loving and idolatrous, chaotic and ordered.

    The New Testament language of “empire,” “anti-Christ,” and the “principalities and powers” reckons with the capacity of political, ecclesial, or any authority to act in wholly malevolent ways. It articulates how idolatrous cultural patterns and political systems are something more than simply a distortion: they are evil. A Christian conceptualization of the world as kosmos—a good creation that, after the fall, simultaneously contains the possibility and moments of its own inversion and dissolution—helps capture the ambiguity of our participation in this world. To enable the world to be a place where the gift and vocation of being a creature can flourish, the prevailing social, political, and economic orders must neither be sacralized nor nihilistically divested of all meaning and purpose (236).

    The implications of such a view for politics in the kind of sacrifice zones of extreme precarity that Wariboko highlights can be indexed to the history of community organizing. To do so, it is important to realize that someone always benefits and derives value from chaos. This was a central insight of Saul Alinsky when working amid the abjection of the Back of Yards neighborhood in 1930s Chicago, where both animals and humans were treated as commodities to be exploited on an industrial scale, until nothing was left but waste to be discarded. As I document in Resurrecting Democracy, community organizing arose in this context.4 The approach it developed contrasted with numerous other approaches that looked upon such a context and saw only chaos and no basis for political agency. But to see only chaos and victims in such contexts is an anti-democratic fallacy born out of a failure to do a robust power analysis. Alinsky made no such mistake. He saw multiple forms of organization: arrayed on one side were the capitalist corporations of the meat packing industry, the gangs, and big-man machine politics, while on the other were religiously, ethnically, and racially hostile groups, and ideologically opposed factions, with each organized against all. In such a context, the first task of organizing is disorganizing. As Alinsky puts it:

    There is no such animal as a disorganized community. It is a contradiction in terms to use the two words together of “disorganized community.” . . . Call it organized apathy or organized non-participation, but that is a community pattern. They are living under a certain set of arrangements, standards, accepted modus operandi and a way of life. . . . Here I would like to state my first proposition; the first function of community organization is community disorganization.5

    In other words, the existing assemblage of chaos and order—both always being present—needs redistributing so that a common life in which all might flourish can be pursued. Beside the eighty-plus-year history of community organizing, evidence for the salience of Alinsky’s insights comes from populist, democratic work around the world to reorganize slums and other sites of precarity so that they benefit those who live in them not those who extract from them. Wariboko advocates for taking seriously the kinds of pragmatic political agency already present within such contexts. I wholeheartedly agree and suggest that the kind of theological anthropology, Christian cosmology, and conception of democratic politics I outline in the book contribute to identifying and valuing such agency.

    It is precisely my desire to hallow this pragmatic political agency, and to advocate for the kind of christocentric cosmology just outlined, that makes me rule out revolutionary or what Wariboko calls “emancipatory” violence as a form of politics. Contrary to what he suggests, I do not avoid discussing it. Rather, I make the point that the bullet and the ballot box are two incommensurable ways of solving shared problems (35). I also contend that there is no room for being coy or evasive by using a vague term like violence. What is being advocated is the use of beatings, bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and the like to achieve political ends. Like Hannah Arendt, I see the use of such measures as inherently anti-political.6 That said, I distinguish self-defense of one’s home or immediate community when legal authorities don’t act, or refuse to act, or are the source of intimidation or domination, from the proactive use of violence by nonstate actors to achieve political ends (35). The former can be licit within the framework I develop, while the latter is not. In reference to the book, the Black Panther Party advocated the former, and the Weathermen Underground and the Black Liberation Army, while tiny in number, advocated the latter. The influential work of Franz Fanon can be heard in the background of calls for the latter. However, Fanon’s frame of reference is very different from the long tradition of resistance theory within Christianity that I discuss in the book, and from how it sets up when, where, and how recourse to physical violence may be morally required (417–18).7 Resistance theory feeds into framing such a move within Christian ethics in terms of just revolution/just war theory.8 Such justifications still entail the recognition that in resorting to violence one is stepping outside of politics. While the line between them is blurry and full of grey areas, revolutionary violence is a different moral and social terrain from that which the book addresses. As an aside, it is important to say that even if justification can be made, advocates of revolutionary violence must still contend with the pragmatic and empirical matter of whether it ever actually delivers emancipatory ends (the evidence suggests it does not), and the ways it inherently destroys democratic life with and for others.

    To move beyond just revolution / just war theory and consider the possibility of “divine violence” (Walter Benjamin’s phrase) as Wariboko does, demands reckoning with how, in the contemporary context, ISIS/Daesh, al-Shabaab, or any number of other related groups are the paradigmatic form of decolonial messianic violence. We are a long way from the postcolonial nationalist struggles of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that Fanon’s work spoke to. In light of this, if Wariboko wants to advocate for “emancipatory violence” then the question of whether or not Boko Haram in Nigeria exemplify what he calls for must be engaged with.

    Let me close by acknowledging Wariboko’s unique and creative voice in contemporary political theology. He brings an important perspective to bear upon debates mired in the parochial concerns of Europe and North America. I consider it an honor that he would be in conversation with me and I sincerely hope we might find opportunities to talk further in the future.

    1. On this, see also my prior response to Lisa Sowle Cahill on the necessary interrelation between tragic, apocalyptic and georgic dimensions of political theology.

    2. This was the original motto of Facebook.

    3. In what follows I draw directly from chapter 8 entitled “Secularity not Secularism.”

    4. Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 21–56.

    5. Saul Alinsky, “From Citizen Apathy to Participation,” paper presented at the 6th Annual Fall Conference, Association of Community Councils of Chicago, Chicago, October 19, 1957, 2–3. Box 32, file 523, Industrial Areas Foundation Archive, University of Illinois at Chicago.

    6. Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1972).

    7. For a systematic treatment of these resistance theories, see David Henreckson, The Immortal Commonwealth: Covenant, Community, and Political Resistance in Early Reformed Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

    8. An example of one recent account is Anna Floerke Scheid, Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation (London: Lexington, 2015).