10 May 2016

Icons of Political Christianity: Sometimes Inspiring But Always in Error


Roman Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan was despised by the Christian Right for using verses like the one in Isaiah 2 referring to the beating of swords into plowshares.

Indeed such an action will only take place when Christ returns and to utilise that verse for political action (even if anti-war) is rooted in a hermeneutical and thus doctrinal fallacy.

And yet I constantly hear conservative Christians equally abusing the Scripture by quoting 2 Chronicles 7.14 and applying it to America.

If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

If my people....

That's not America. That was Israel the Old Covenant nation. I'll grant it is applicable today but only to the Covenant nation, New Covenant Israel (Eph 2)... the Church of Jesus Christ.

America is not in covenant with God. America is not God's people.

America is not called by God's name. I don't care what historical myths or theological heresies are used to justify America's status as a holy nation, America can make no such claim.

It's just another example of the same kind of Sacralism that has dominated so-called Christian thought since the time of Constantine.

Heal their land...

This land is not holy. This land is not a type of Jesus Christ. It's not a land of milk and honey, symbolising Eden lost and Eden promised. We are not ruled over by a Solomonic type of Christ. Our leaders, our government, our civil religion are not pictures of the heavenly Zion.

At best they are counterfeits, as is American Evangelicalism.

The funny thing is that if, and that's a big if... I was political and did truly believe that we as Christians are called on to change and transform the world then I would have to say Berrigan's sabotage of nuclear weapons and war protesting would probably represent a more Christian expression and application of ethics than the imperial mindset of Christendom in all its forms.

Berrigan was wrong and actually was not a pacifist. Neither was Martin Luther King Jr. or even Gandhi. I suppose I can admit they represent a type of pacifism, namely political non-resistance.

True Pacifism does not have political aspirations, understanding all politics and all statecraft are ultimately forms of violence and retribution contrary to our Christian calling in Romans 12-13, and certainly in 1 Corinthians 5 and the Sermon on the Mount. I could cite many more passages but that's certainly a start.

New Testament pacifism is prophetic and rooted in witness and martyrdom. It is transcendent finding meaning and hope in the Age to Come. Our rejection of the world is not political. We're not trying to change, coerce or co-opt Babylon. We live in it and yet refuse it. We submit to its laws and pay our taxes but we won't worship their gods or help them steal and murder in the process of warfare.

We bear witness and if need be suffer and die.

All that said, it's hard not to somewhat admire someone like Berrigan. He certainly puts the Falwell's and their ilk to shame.


  1. I love the Berrigans. The whole Catonsville Nine is a fascinating story and stands out for its bizarre placement in Vietnam War history. Considering that most Roman Catholics authorities tended to be pro-establishment in the US only contributes to the strangeness of the episode.

    Though you're right to say America is not the Holy Land or the People of God, Jeremiah does implore Israel to seek the peace of the city. The Berrigan witness is a bit two-fold 1) shame christians for participating in the American project 2) shame the American government for its clear hypocrisy and violation of all it claims to protect. I don't see anything unbiblical about that.

  2. http://issuesetc.org/podcast/20470510162.mp3

    And here's some hard-hitting analysis from Issues, Etc. featuring Dr. James Hitchcock on Roman Catholics and the November elections. Of course, no mention is made of the recent passing of Father Berrigan but to be fair, I had never heard of him until I read your post.

    I think the key point Hitchcock makes in this podcast is that while the Roman Catholic church won't explicitly tell people for whom they should vote, they communicate their position on a certain issue pertinent to an election such that the catholic voter can deduce for him or herself what would be appropriate, or sanctioned. It's kind of like the difference between an explicit and implied order. While it doesn't produce the sort of unanimity of opinion the church would wish, it nevertheless ensures that they retain the influence they want in world affairs.

    Here's what I don't understand. If these people aren't satisfied with either the Democratic or Republican party, what's stopping them from voting for a third-party candidate? I'm sure there are plenty of them from which to choose. Is it really "throwing your vote away" when you vote for someone whose platform most closely resonates with your own personal political beliefs?

    1. That never happens among Roman Catholics. There is no world-wide, or country-wide, or even state-wide, sense of unanimous voting. This is especially so in the US. American Catholics are notorious for rejection of pretty much all of the magisterial teachings. I see Roman Catholics who are just liberal Democrats and I see Roman Catholics who are nationalist, milataristic republicans. The Roman Church just gives off an illusion of political control among its members, but that's really just an Anglo Protestant hysteria about Roman Catholic peoples as Papal drones ready to usher in a theocracy.

      The authority of Pope Francis, or any cardinal, is as equally influential as Franklin Graham, David Jeremiah, Jerry Falwell Jr. or any other celebrity preacher involved in politics.

  3. Hi Cal,

    I'm not saying you're wrong but what would lead someone like Dr. Hitchcock to imply otherwise in this broadcast? He seems surprised and disappointed that Catholics aren't unanimously supporting a traditional, right-wing establishment conservative.

    If I had to venture a guess, I would opine that because the Republican Party has traditionally relied upon evangelical Protestants for electoral support, the Catholics have turned to the Democratic Party to counter their influence in order to safeguard their civil rights.

    1. I can't speak to why he, particularly, argues such. But it's not an unsurprising trend among leaders of a certain establishment to project a sense unanimity.

      I'm sure you've heard preachers saying that "the Christian candidate is...", "the only biblical position is...", or "the Evangelical candidate is...".

      This is in part based, possibly, on a combination of sociological data and rhetoric. But it's also attractive, and deceptive, to connect dots and present a unified position than to hem-and-haw about complexities and varieties within your own group.

      American Catholics are an interesting group, and Dr. Hitchcock should know this as he is a historian of the Roman Church in America. However, considering the fact that he's on Issues Etc. and got his Ivy League degree over 40 years ago, I suspect he's a rather partial onlooker. Many forces in the Roman-American church are a kind of vanguard for Roman Catholic acculturation into the American empire. Some of the most vicious things I've ever read came from the lips of Baltimore's Archbishop during the First World War.

      The Northern Democrats used to stump for the Catholic vote, being the party of the immigrant worker in places like New York. This carried over among many Catholics, but some have changed to reflect the liberalizing values of the Democratic party. I think quite a few traditional Catholic authorities have made the shift to the Republican party, starting back among neo-Cons in the 80's. But most of the laity reflect standard social values of their particular region. In this way, the Roman Church is essentially a Christo-American branch of Mainline Protestantism, and I'm not the only one to think so.

      So with the exception of weirdos like the Berrigans, some Liberation theology priests, the RCC has remained solidly, institutionally, conservative. But, nowadays, with the waning of anti-Communist rhetoric among the Vatican II types and rise of a Third World Pope, things might be changing among the American establishment. Certainly, there's a lot of animosity from conservative Catholics against Francis I. Dr. Hitchcock's surprise and dismay is probably rooted in this kind of shock to the system Francis offered the American branch.

      Your question might, in fact, be eventually answered. With the implosion of both parties, Roman Catholics might follow Francis' "Third Way" and create a Christian-Democrat party, or at least a special interest group to fix one or both of the parties. Or we might get a form of Fascism. Who knows.

      2 cents,

    2. Just a quick note, I've only got a few seconds, but I've always found it interesting that the RCC has never officially taken a Just War or Pacifist position. Both are part of their larger tradition and both positions fall within Orthodoxy. Of course consistent Pacifism will also be anti-state but that anti-statism can either take the active form (like Berrigan) which is sometimes condemned by the Magisterium or it can take the apolitical prophetic form, like Francis or me (if I was RCC).

      Protestantism on the other hand repudiated this element of the Catholic tradition. This is one of the tragedies of the Reformation. All the Proto-Protestant groups were sucked up into Magisterial Protestantism. Granted not all were pacifist, but some were and that heritage was lost except with the Anabaptists. They're the only Reformational group that has retained the position. Since then some of the unorthodox groups like the JWs have embraced a practical pacifism akin to my own but overall someone like me is more likely to find common cause(on these points) with an RC social critic than a Protestant.

      Interestingly there's one very fascinating chapter of Church History that's largely been forgotten and that's in reference to early Fundamentalism. Some of the Fundamentalists were Pacifistic (along my apolitical lines) and very critical of any Christian involvement in the state or war. They would even quote secular anti-war activists (WWI timeframe). Of course this heritage was completely lost by the time of WWII and after. The Evangelicals embraced the state, politics and war and most of the Fundamentalists did as well... if anything they were as likely to go extreme (John Birch etc...)

      I just find it interesting that RCCism can accommodate both the Crusades and Francis. They've never officially ruled although again, Christendom itself is pro-war. I guess that's why the Franciscans immediately ran into trouble and fell into internal divisions. That too is a really fascinating chapter of Church History.