“Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.
In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. […] Why does this paradox exist? I think it’s because progressive Christians have an anemic ecclesiology. Progressive Christians aren’t known for showing up on Sunday mornings.”
The above passage comes from a blog post by Richard Beck titled “The Paradox of Progressive Political Theology.” I usually like what Richard Beck has to say but I’m not sure what he’s trying to do here.
First off, as one commentator on the blog pointed out, Anabaptists don’t have a monopoly on anti-empire rhetoric. I agree; this should be obvious to most. That said, personally speaking, I admit to being big into Anabaptist theology for a while, largely because of the anti-empire stuff that Beck describes above, but I got away from it when I realized that it sort of logically leads to insulated, protected, simplistic, binary, compartmental modes of thinking, like Radical Orthodoxy for instance (yuck!)… If that’s what a strong ecclesiology looks like, then they can have it.
Additionally, I think Beck’s claim, that “the paradox running through much of progressive political theology…[is] Denouncing Caesar while embracing Caesar,” could be applied to Anabaptists as well: Anabaptists denounce Caesar while embracing another Caesar; a kinder, gentler one named Jesus. My point, obviously, is that claiming Jesus as Lord over Cesar is not a cry for no Kingdom, it’s a cry for a different sort of Kingdom. But this is still a political, Imperial-type move. A Lord is a Lord is a Lord, and a Kingdom is a Kingdom. Period. Even if you want to use the term “Commonwealth” as John Cobb does (and which I prefer), there is still a form of social organization implied here complete with a monarchical type ruler/leader of some kind…
Look, despite our Liberal Democratic attempts to separate Church and State, the reality (to paraphrase my friend) is that our 21st Century secular society is integrated/infused/marbled/mixed with religion and expired religious forms so thoroughly that it forms a multiplicity of bricolage pluralities. And this was just as true in Jesus’s day. So it seems to me that by describing themselves as “Progressive Christians” they are being political AND theological (just like Jesus was), and are at the very least opposing certain types of little “c” caesars all of the time… Using Corey Robin’s language, Christians who think of themselves as Leftists or Left leaning could be thought of as revolutionary in the sense that they would naturally oppose any sort of counter-revolutionary, reactionary conservative movement attempting to stifle the advance of a new egalitarian social order.
On the other hand, Anabaptists and others who may fall into the realm of Radical Orthodoxy (and this criticism also applies to various other stereotypical flavors of anarchism), with their strong, exclusive ecclesiology, isolate themselves from the politics of the World (and the people in it), in favor of some sort of Christian utopianism and thus become politically irrelevant. As with most simplistic Manichean views against working “within the system,” this is ultimately self-defeating and pointless at the very least, and openly imperialist and anti-democratic at worst.