I should begin by saying that this bit of writing is not a rant. I can assure you that at no time in the composition was the screen spittle-flecked. I remained in a good humor the entire time. And I mention all this because it is my intention to step out a bit, high, wide, and handsome. My criticism of Wright at this juncture is going to have a little tang to it. My adjectives and my metaphors are going to be slathered in West Texas barbecue sauce, that one for instance.
The title of this chapter is “Our Politics Are Too Small,” when the actual problem is that our politics are far too large. If responsible government were considered as two or three of those little marshmallows, the kind you put into jello for the kids, our modernist concept of idolatrous government is that marshmallow puff monster at the end of Ghostbusters.
True, our cultural vision is truncated and pinched, and much of what Wright is arguing here could be used to broaden that vision — but he doesn’t do it. If, under the lordship of Jesus, our politics assumed a more reasonable size and shape, our culture, free of coercion, and also under the lordship of Christ, would be in a position to truly flourish.
But Wright doesn’t do this. He is like the constables in Penzance. “We go, we go, we go!” “But you don’t go!” Let me splain.
First, Wright is absolutely correct that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is necessarily political. Jesus rose from the dead in the middle of history, and so the old ways of doing politics must be abandoned. This happens progressively in history, not all at once. Building on the foundation of the resurrection, the Church is God’s plan for getting this task done, and He is willing for it to take a while. And those who hold to power in the old ways don’t want to let go of it. “God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world in a way that gnosticism in all its forms never is” (p. 173). The “political implications [are] inevitable” (p. 163). Wright correctly stands against the notion “that God doesn’t belong in public life” (pp. 164, 169).
The structure of his position is marvelous, but what does he fill it up with? Picture a four-hundred-year-old bookcase, made out of seasoned walnut, the kind you can easily find in the part of the world Wright lives in, crammed full of bodice-buster romances, the kind you can find in the part of the world I live in, like at Safeway.
To his credit, Wright does invites scrutiny of his position. “We could do with a similar analysis of the political setting of all Gospel criticism, my own included” (p. 174). Okay. Let’s do this thing then. I am just going to swing from skyscraper to skyscraper here, like basic mistakes were buildings, and book reviewing had somehow given me spider powers.
He begins with an irrelevance. “In Britain, the issues are bundled up in different ways than in America” (p. 164). So? If we must reject the split thinking of Heaven/earth dualisms, let us practice by rejecting any dualisms caused by the Atlantic. Jesus was the one who rose, so we don’t care how Americans bundle things. Jesus conquered death, and so the Brit bundling is also a nullity, theologically speaking. How does Jesus bundle them? Let’s answer that question, from the Bible, and then call it the Christian worldview.
Then he does something really odd, and he does it repeatedly, throughout the chapter.
“I want to suggest that the Bible enables us to navigate a path of wisdom not just halfway between secularism and fundamentalism but on a trajectory that shows up those ugly brothers as simply missing the point, representing two opposing wings of a now thoroughly discredited worldview” (p. 165, cf. pp. 166, 170, 174, 180).
In another place he calls fundamentalism a “conservative analogue” to gnosticism (p. 172). All this is just pulled out of a hat somehow. He defined secularism very clearly (and very well), but the closest he gets to a definition of fundamentalism is a slight hint at the top of p. 173. With his reference there to the rapture and Armageddon, he appears to be saying that Christian fundamentalism is simply dispensationalism. Readers of this blog know that I am no dispensationalist, but let’s be fair to them. I mean, crikey. If you are going to say that the most materially-oriented saints you ever saw are gnostic analogues, then please, an argument would be nice.
But, having done this, he then says . . .
“You won’t be surprised that I believe such a way can be found by returning to the foundation documents of the Christian faith, in particular the four Gospels” (p. 167).
Returning to the foundations, eh? Kind of like recovering the fundamentals? Apparently there must be a way to affirm stuff without falling into the “shrill certainties of fundamentalism” (p. 180). I wonder what makes it shrill. These are deep imponderables. How do we declare that Jesus rose without sounding like those other people who really think that?
Next building. Whoosh. Wright quotes Jim Wallis to the effect that he grew up in an evangelical church never having heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount (p. 167). This kind of story is very sad, and that lack of early training certainly shows. If we don’t teach children the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, they might never find out.
Coming to the next point, Wright makes an astute observation about certain tendencies in Gospel criticism that then leads to his central confusion.
“The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental, and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions” (p. 169).
In other words, liberals don’t get that death and resurrection stuff, and conservatives can’t figure out the monga-preamble to the death and resurrection stuff.
But notice what Wright does next. It is done very deftly, and if you weren’t paying attention, you might not notice it.
“Those who emphasize his death and resurrection do their best to anathematize any attempt to continue Jesus’ work with and for the poor” (p. 170).
This understated slam amounts to a misbegotten slander, and it reveals the heart of all the confusions that are going on in Wright’s analysis. There are two sides to this. First, Wright apparently doesn’t count it as compassion unless Caesar is standing there with a gun at your temple. Private generosity doesn’t count for anything because opposition to food stamps, say, amounts to a repudiation of any mercy ministry whatsoever.
So let’s talk about that. “Anathematize any attempt” to feed the poor? Let’s consider for a moment who really cares — to borrow a phrase from Arthur Brooks’ fine book of that title. When it comes to private philanthropy, private generosity, the kind of giving that is not spurred on by Caesar and his shiny coercion gun, who really cares? I will tell you. Americans are far more generous than Europeans. Inside America, the red states are far more giving than the blue states. Christians of every stripe are far more generous than secularists. Protestants are more generous than Catholics. Evangelicals are way more generous than the Protestant mainliners, and I would be willing to bet a can of corn for your next food drive that dispensationalists are at the very top of this particular food bank chain.
They are also least likely to vote for a candidate who will, if elected, send people to your house with guns and big block letters on their windbreakers after the IRS has determined you have been Insufficiently Generous. Keep in mind that dispensationalists are the least likely to correctly identify the beast of Revelation (who was Nero), but most likely to correctly identify all the contemporary beast knock-off brands.
Wright is correct to note that Christ’s program for this world calls for “radical personal moral demands” (p. 173, emphasis mine). But let me say this again. I am not tired of saying it. Personal moral demands of this nature do not flow from the barrel of a gun. That’s not how mercy works. That’s not how compassion goes. Hiring Smith (with Murphy’s money) to extort more money from Jones so that Winston can give it away to Cooper is not compassion. And putting Murphy and Jones in chokey until they start feeling the love is not what Jesus was urging in the Sermon on the Mount. And never forget that Jim Wallis is the one who eventually gets us SWAT teams out of that sermon, and they might even shoot your dog. C.S. Lewis once mentioned the kind of preacher who, if his text had had small pox, wouldn’t allow his sermon to catch it.
On paper, Wright is aware of the possibilities of governmental abuse. He mentions the “hermeneutic of suspicion that we rightly apply to anyone in power” (p. 169). He says this, but doesn’t do it. Nary a suspicion anywhere.
“Human power structures are the God-given means by which that end is to be accomplished — otherwise those with muscle and money will always win, and the poor and the widows will be trampled on afresh” (p. 175).
So what happens when the ones with muscle and money send lobbyists to hobnob with the great and powerful? When was the last golf game that Obama played with a poor widow? When governments put privilege up for sale, it will always be the muscled money that buys it. What did you think would happen? And the way you fight this is not through some joke of a legal reform that puts a law on the books that says government privilege will always be sold to the lowest bidder. Good luck with that. The way you fight it is by establishing a government — as we used to try to have — that is not permitted to sell privilege to anybody, at any price. And the only way to do that is by reducing the size of government to such a libertarian extent that Jim Wallis starts having nightmares, with personal freedom and responsibility riding down upon us like the galloping horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Now to reduce the size of government, incidentally, you must reduce the caloric intake. Get, in other words, between the hogs and the bucket. You must buy a rattlesnake flag for your truck, and attend Tea Party rallies. You must think that David Brat is a pretty okay guy for a liberal.
So Wright does acknowledge that there is “satanic possibility of tyranny” (p. 176). But I think he must be thinking of goose stepping armies and missile parades. What about soft despotism? What about the nanny state? To modify Mencken, what about those who think America is a gigantic milch cow, with three hundred million teats?
Quoting Kofi Annan, Wright says “we urgently need to develop ways of holding governments, especially powerful governments, to account” (p. 179). Huh. This is Boromir-talk. When you get the Ring, you will take it back to Gondor, and you will put safeguards in place. There will be a Review Commission. You will establish a Council of Advisors. There will be periodic audits, conducted by responsible civil servants. We should let Sir Humphrey be the chair.
You actually hold powerful governments to account by throwing their damned ring into Mount Doom.
So then. Jesus is Lord. Jesus has risen. Because of this, our task is not to try to get this swollen government of ours to go on the right path. Nor should we want it to go on the left path. We should tell it — in the name of Jesus, mind you — to go on a diet.