Thursday, June 18, 2015


My faith in God is not shaken. Rather, a basic premise of my understanding of western culture has just been called into question by the historical scholarship of the ever-brilliant Karen Armstrong. Like the folks who have to rethink their faith after discovering that the world was not literally constructed in seven days 10,000 years ago, I have discovered that “the creation myth of the Westerns secular state” rests on a historical mistake.

The creation myth of the Western secular state goes like this: in the 16th Century, as part of the Protestant Reformation, European Christians began slaughtering each other wholesale. So the secular state arose to save us from religious fanaticism. The state took control of the weapons and banished religion to the realm of private spiritual beliefs that could do no harm, while the secular state managed the important stuff of life according to rational principles.

That story has been behind my understanding of church and state all my life. I have in fact told this story as gospel truth in catechism classes. The problem is “it ain’t necessarily so.” In her exhaustively researched tome, Fields of Blood: Religion And The History Of Violence,, Armstrong demonstrates that the wars in 16th Century Europe were about the usual human objectives: wealth, resources, and power. Much of the warfare concerned efforts by imperial powers like the Habsburgs to extend their dominion, while pluralist/ nationalist princes and potentates fought back in order to preserve, extend, or seize ab initio their autonomy. In these wars, the princely powers used religion as a tool to get their people to vilify and dehumanize their enemies, but it wasn’t really about religion per se. In fact, Catholics and Protestants fought shoulder to shoulder on one side against other Catholics and Protestants on the other in the so-called “Wars of Religion.”  

Nor was the ecumenical character of war just for the grunts carrying spears. It went right to the top. Catholic France consistently supported Protestant German princes in fighting the Catholic Habsburgs. It was none other than Cardinal Richelieu who persuaded Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant king of Sweden to invade the Catholic Habsburg Empire.

This doesn’t mean religion was innocent then or that religion has ever been innocent. We religious folks have been in bed with the powers and principalities of this present age for a good long while. But we have also sometimes remembered ourselves and stood up against them. Witness the protests of the 8th Century prophets against the corrupt monarchies of Israel and Judah. Religion has not been the principal culprit. Coopted religion has been the pawn.

That power/ pawn dynamic did not begin in the 16th Century. Armstrong shows how major religions were coopted by the “powers of this present age” (as Paul puts it) going back to the birth of agrarian society circa 10,000 BCE. So we have a lot to atone for. Great religions have been born in protest against that pawn-of-the-prince religion – Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to name a few. Then over time, they too have all too often been coopted. Clearly we Christians have. But we have not been the instigators of mass violence. If we are to mend our ways, we need to “do the power analysis” as we say in community organizing. We need to get clear on where we go astray.

Armstrong’s study of Martin Luther is a helpful cautionary case study. Luther’s initial theology led him to conclude in summary that the world is a fallen place, that people are fallen, and that we are simply incapable of behaving righteously, so salvation lay in right beliefs rather than right actions. In fairness, later writings suggested that a “living faith” had some influence on our behavior. But the fallen state of the world meant that we could not expect much justice from government or economics. So it was best to leave those things as they are and attend to getting our doctrines right. However, withdrawing into a politically neutral heavenly-minded spirituality is itself a cooptation by the powers that be. As Bishop Tutu said:

            If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have
            chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant is
            standing on the tail of a mouse, the mouse will not
            appreciate your neutrality.

The pro-principalities intent of Luther’s neutrality was unmasked by the Peasant’s Rebellion against their feudal overlords. His prescription of passivity seemed to be call for political neutrality, which served the status quo right well. But when there was a peasant uprising, he penned his classic treatise Against The Thieving, Murderous Hordes Of Peasants accusing them of blasphemy and sanctioning all manner of lethal violence against them:

            Let everyone who can, smite slay, and stab secretly or openly,
            remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful,
            or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad
            dog: if you do not trike him, he will strike you and a whole land
            with you.

So Christianity was politically neutral when neutrality served the feudal powers, but when the feudal powers wanted Christianity to take a political stand against the poor, we were quick to hop to.  Catholics and Protestants joined forces to put down the rebels who were themselves Protestant Christians in that case, though in 1562 hundreds of Catholic peasants joined a revolt of Huguenot  peasants against a Catholic nobleman who had banned Protestant worship.

Armstrong attributes the Creation Myth of the Western Secular State largely to enlightenment philosophers, especially Thomas Hobbes. He rewrote the history of the preceding century as one of savage fanaticism from which only an absolute monarch can save us. Hobbes had a fang and claw understanding of human nature and believed that submission to a totalitarian ruler was the only way to avoid tearing each other limb from limb. The chief prophet of excluding religion from public life was the proponent of tyranny.

H. Richard Niebuhr (Reinhold’s more concise brother) set out the options for how Christians have engaged (or disengaged from) the surrounding culture including the government through the centuries in his classic book, Christ And Culture. Niebuhr’s options are Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ and culture in tension or paradox, and Christ transforming culture. There seems to me to be some legitimacy and value in each of these models, but far be it from me to know how to reconcile them theologically.

As an Anglican and a lawyer, I am inclined toward the moderate and pragmatic approach. So I am much impressed and persuaded by James Davison Hunter’s political science assessment of how religion can be an effective and positive force in the world. To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility Of Christianity In The Late Modern World.

Hunter examines the efforts of the Christian Right and the Christian Left to shape American politics in recent decades. Both have played the game of power politics, using an essentially secular power model to achieve spiritual and moral ends. Both have failed. And that’s probably a good thing because, as the Christian classic The Lord Of The Rings trilogy illustrates, that kind of power corrupts. But we can be effective when we are at the table speaking persuasively from our spiritual and moral perspective in conversation with those who hold a different worldview.  Hunter’s approach may be a bit of Christ transforming culture and Christ in tension with culture, because Hunter believes we can influence but not control the surrounding culture. I would add a Walter Brueggemann appendix to Hunter. The Kingdom does not come incrementally but through sharp disjunctures. Sometimes we can be the catalysts or instigators to cause disjunctures. Other times, when disjunctures occur from other causes, we can influence the new course of events.

I would add three points to further support Hunter’s approach. First, this is a godly way of dealing with the world since God influences but does not control it, as I argue in God Of Our Silent Tears.

Second, this conversation model accords with the definition of differentiation and health in psychosocial systems theory: differentiation is the ability to remain oneself while in relationship with others. We make a difference in the world by being authentically Christian while in relationship with a world that is far from what God intends. It is not ours to judge the world, but to love it by speaking truth, calling for justice, and modeling compassion.

Third, as Christians, we are on to something but that doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. We too are in need of constant conversion so we can learn from people of other faiths and people of no faith. Besides, the real action isn’t in getting other people to think what we think and do what we think they should do but rather to form mutual transformational relationships with them.

The western secular state has tried to exert power unguided by religion. That has given us the Crimean War,  WW I, WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, the Gulf Wars, etc. Clearly political ideologies are as deadly as religious ones. We need to be at the table but we need to be there speaking for Jesus, not speaking as coopted stooges of the principalities and powers.


Unknown said...

Bottom line, we are judged as individuals, not as a group. The sum total of the Reformation was a good brought the Catholic Church, the only Christian Church (if I have that right?), to heal, more in line with Christian principal and fostered many other denominations to carry the torch, so to speak. All in all, God wins as God always wins, the game is rigged, it is His world, lest we forget. What this or that individual does is between he and His maker, as it should be!

Bishop Dan said...

Well, that is a frequently held view, especially from the standpoint of Evangelical Protestantism, and there is good authority for it in Ezekiel. But Walter Brueggemann is powerfully persuasive that the Bible shows God saving humanity through a covenant community. E. P. Sanders shows Paul as along the same line regarding community (the Body of Christ) instead of individualism. N. T. Wright is even stronger on putting Jesus in the same community camp. So the individualist perspective is definitely legitimate, but it may be more in sync with modern America than ancient Christianity.

Jon M said...

Thank you for this insightful analysis. I remember seeing an analysis of newspaper articles published in what was Yugoslavia leading up to the terrible violence and war there. It showed Christian voices on both sides, some increasing the conflict while others were trying to prevent war. Amen to a pragmatic approach to finding solutions focused on Christ and in genuine conversation with political leaders and people of all faiths!

Bishop Dan said...

Thank you John M. That seems right to me. Relationship and pragmatic approaches instead of divisive ideological politics of which we have more than enough.