Culture, Current Events, Faith, Theology — April 3, 2012 10:00 am

Remember the Church: A Response to Andrew Sullivan

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You can bet that in the weeks preceding Christmas or Easter, one of the major weekly magazines will do a cover story that has something to do with Christianity. Sometimes, they are loosely based upon historical investigation into the life of Jesus. This time, it is an opinion piece in Newsweek titled “The Forgotten Jesus” by Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast fame. The cover is an image of a long-haired, bearded white man hipsterfied in a plaid pearl snap-button shirt standing in Time Square. Overlaying the image are the words, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.”

The argument Sullivan makes in his six page centerfold article is this: Christianity has gotten away from “the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity” of Jesus. This Christianity is in crisis and must return to the simple apolitical message of Jesus. When it does so, it will exit the world of partisan politics and focus on those things that Jesus did and talked about: radical love of neighbor and enemy and giving up material gain, power, and violence. Jesus chose to be apolitical even to the end, when he chose to give himself over to crucifixion without resistance and to forgive those who killed him.

In order to solidify this argument, Sullivan draws a line from Jesus of Nazareth through St. Francis of Assisi to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is the modern hero who was able to use common sense and reason in order to decipher Jesus’ real message from all of the doctrinal and political baggage that the early church attached to Jesus’ words. Jefferson, we are told, is trying to make the same point that Jesus made. That point? The importance of Jesus lies not in who he was, but in what he asks us to do and be. If we follow Jesus’ lead, we find that “he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely. … And more intensely relevant to our times.” Jefferson enables us to recover a purer historical Jesus and then to translate his real message into our contemporary situation in a helpful manner. With this move, Sullivan channels Jefferson in order to help us jump Lessing’s ditch.

Jefferson gives us the method for making Jesus relevant. St. Francis of Assisi gives us an example of what this looks like. Should we go back to Jesus and his simple message, we would find that Christianity probably looks a lot more like the life of St. Francis than the lives of most contemporary Christians. St. Francis took on Jesus’ commands to give away possessions, to trust God to provide even his daily bread, and to deny himself in a pure way. For this reason, even as he gained in reputation, Francis cowered from politics. Francis chose to be apolitical, as Jesus was, by letting others take leadership and often physically submitting himself at the feet of their authority.

If Christianity must engage politics, it should do so with the desire to “translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all.” But it would be better to renounce politics for the way of Jesus. From St. Francis, Sullivan concludes, we learn that the saints are the examples we must follow if we would be Christians. These are people who lived holy lives, not people who engaged in political fighting and scheming. These are people who focused on prayer, not politics.

I have spent so much time summarizing Sullivan’s argument because I want to be as fair to him as possible. There are many things that I think are worth noting in his article. First, let me acknowledge that there is a great deal of truth to what he says. It is true that Western, especially American, Christianity often manifests itself in perverse ways. These ways include but are not limited to a prosperity gospel, a patriotism that underwrites American nationalism and the sort of war and torture that comes with it,  a partisan politics that polarizes people by “issues”, and a political machine that sometimes seeks to effect public policy through divisive rhetoric and fear. That western Christianity often reflects these characteristics is in fact a sign that something is wrong. Sullivan helpfully points this out.

Nevertheless, Sullivan’s argument must be rejected for a few key reasons. First, Jesus was political and so should his disciples be. Sullivan’s Jesus is divorced from his Jewish identity. That identity is rooted in the stories that the people of Israel told each other about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This God is the Exodus God who provided food in the dessert, safeguarded the Israelites from the armies of Egypt, and commanded the people to practice a jubilee politics of forgiving debts, resting the land, and trusting God to provide.

Jesus was not being apolitical. Jesus was instituting a different sort of politics. A politic is what we call the way that a group of people come to learn how to live together. Christians aren’t apolitical, they have their own politics. Admittedly, often our churches don’t act like this is true; instead, they act like politics is something that is public and faith is something that is private and there must be some process of translation (like Sullivan suggests) between private convictions and public policy.

Jesus was political. He was so political, according to the first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus, that he was publicly executed as an insurrectionist. You don’t get dead by walking around telling people to love their neighbor alone. You get dead when you start to say and do things that scare the ruling party. That’s political.

Its not that Jesus was weighing in on the political issues of the day. Instead, he was creating an alternative way of living together that undermined the common political configurations we know. He was not afraid to die, and so he didn’t have to kill others to save himself. He was not afraid to starve, so he did not have to horde food and money in order to safeguard his future. He was not afraid to serve others and to let others exercise power over him because he knew that power was not the only political game in town. Finally, he was not afraid to demonstrate his faith in his heavenly Father publicly, preaching and healing, as he traveled throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria because he believed that his Father in heaven was inaugurating a new Kingdom.

What Sullivan calls “apolitical” was in fact very political. Perhaps if we discussed the matter he would concede that he simply meant to suggest that Jesus was not political in the sense that we see politics played out on our television sets. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that this means Jesus was apolitical.

Second, Jefferson and St. Francis are actually contrary figures that are the product of two distinct political communities. Thomas Jefferson is the product of an enlightenment society that created modern liberal politics in order to prevent religious people from killing each other. The assumption was, and is, that the role of the State is to protect numerous factions from killing each other by relegating faith to the realm of the “private.” Jefferson and his Bible can only exist in a world where an individual has the right to decide what Jesus really did or didn’t say.

St. Francis, in contrast, is the product of a different type of society. Its called the Church. Sullivan asks us to “forget the Church”, but if we are going to take St. Francis seriously, that is the one thing we cannot do. Saints are people who belong to the communio sanctorum, the community of the saints. Or, the Church. You can only have saints if you have a community that is capable of producing saints. Sullivan is surely right to point out that prayer is the focal point of the Christian life as demonstrated by St. Francis. Prayer is a practice that shapes the lives of those who do it. Churches are places where people pray daily in ways that are public and private, communal and individual for forgiveness of sin, for daily bread, for deliverance from evil, for the institution of a new politics and “thy kingdom come.” Prayer is political. Communities that are sustained by prayer are the only sorts of communities that are capable of producing people like St. Francis. There is no line from Jesus through St. Francis to Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Sullivan because neither Jefferson nor Sullivan can account for the politic that is called Church.

Third, there are a handful of smaller claims that Sullivan makes that are simply incorrect. There are at least three claims that Sullivan makes that are either incorrect or nonsensical. When he claims that “secular” “once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics”, he is wrong. “Secular” once described the difference from “religious” within the larger sphere of the Church. “Religious” referred to people like St. Francis who were a part of religious orders, often monastic. “Secular” referred to people who inhabited the “worldly” sphere of the Church. This meant both clergy and laity – priests and parishioners.

When Sullivan makes the claim “I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human”, he is (probably) wrong. How can any of us know this? Christians are people who believe that Jesus Christ is the only person who ever walked this earth who knew what it means to be truly human, much less truly God. If Sullivan knows what it means to be God, then it is not clear to me that we are talking about the same God.

Finally, when Sullivan writes, “the cross itself is was not the point …. The point was how he conducted himself”, he misses the point. Oh, how he misses the point. The Cross is the place where the politics of this world tried to strong arm God’s kingdom into submission. Instead, Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead and he inaugurated a new form of politics called the Church in order to sustain hope that the political powers of this world will not overcome the one the Jews called “the Master of the Universe.”

I take Andrew Sullivan’s claims that he believes in the death and the resurrection of Jesus to be true. I can only trust that he knows his own intentions in making such claims. For this reason, I also take him to be genuinely concerned with the way the Church often becomes “excessively entangled” (to borrow a phrase which Jefferson might very well have approved) in the political power struggles of our day. We can learn a great deal about how the Church has compromised itself by assuming that it must align itself with this or that political argument in order to serve Jesus. In fact, it is quite possible that the reason Andrew Sullivan wrongly thinks that Jesus is apolitical is because the Church has actually taught him this by failing to inhabit the sort of politics that would prove him wrong. Instead, we often use our faith merely to underwrite whatever political opinion we already hold, giving the impression that a politicized faith – and not a faithful politics – is what we are all about.

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  • Well done!

  • Thank you for this critique.

    Andrew Sullivan is a complex character. Speaking as someone who has been following his blog for more the five years, I’ve watched his politics and religious predilections develop, sometimes enjoying his anti-establishment perspective and other times with worry. A couple things to keep in mind when talking about him. First, he is Roman Catholic and a disgruntled one. He has written much about the sex scandals and watched as the church as mishandled the backlash. Second, Sullivan is mainly a political commentator and has at length studied “Christianism,” as he calls it, a chimera of conservatism and some parts of Christian ideology. Sullivan has made a career out of crucifying Christianism, particularly in his most famous book The Conservative Soul. Finally, Sullivan is gay and continues to attend–he admits less frequently lately–a Roman Catholic Church that regards his lifestyle as invalid. Taking these variables into consideration as his hermeneutical starting point, it seems to me quite clear why Sullivan would ask people to follow Jesus and not the church and why Sullivan would be wary of mixing politics and Christianity. Furthermore, when Sullivan thinks about the political implications of Christianity, he’s thinking of something very different than a kind of Yoder-style political version of Jesus.

  • I very much appreciate where this piece is coming from, but a fair assessment will reveal that it is also replete with mischaracterizations of Andrew Sullivan’s essay (which was by no means perfect). They stand to be corrected.

    At the root of the problem is the fact that the entire article seems to have been predicated upon a misunderstanding of what Sullivan referred to as “church” and “politics”- by which he really meant any systems of domination or forms of corrupted, coercive polity (or ways of engagement) that are self-righteous and power hungry. He is most certainly NOT arguing against the kind of loving, authentic, spiritually-informed political engagement that we as believers are called to partake in a civil society, or the alternative sorts of politics that Christians can embody as a radical, witnessing community. This is why Sullivan evoked the non-violent examples of Dr. King and Gandhi and made a point to say that he is not arguing for “the privatization of faith.” Indeed, a close reading of Sullivan’s essay will reveal that he’s not against the idea of embracing or living out as a community of believers (or “church” as we’d call it) whatsoever. Far from it. (Sullivan would not have continued to identify himself as a member of the Roman Catholic Church if otherwise.)

    And taking issue with Sullivan for saying that he grasps “what it means to be both God and human” is to completely and utterly misconstrue the perfectly reasonable (and sincere) statement that while he *comprehends* the idea of incarnation, he will never match his grandmother’s simplicity of faith, no matter how smart or well-educated. And a further examination of another statement this piece takes issue with- “the cross itself is was not the point …. The point was how he conducted himself”- will reveal that Sullivan was talking about Thomas Jefferson and how the example of Christ could be understood in secular terms and made sensible to individuals that do not subscribe to the specific doctrines of the Christian religion. Indeed, in a crucial way even for believers, the cross on its own term is not the point- the point is that Christ died for us the way he did.

    While Sullivan’s piece is not without its flaws (that’s a conversation for another time) his simple premise that we’d do well to focus on Jesus instead of getting caught up in politicized institutions or a coercive, self-righteous engagement with the world- be it through an established church or a political party- is something we can all stand to be reminded of.

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