How Do Christians Practice Democracy?

Aaron Stauffer on Luke Bretherton

Cover of new book Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy
Luke Bretherton. Christ and the Commonwealth: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp. 480. $49.00.

Christian commitments make democratic politics spiritually significant. That’s why Luke Bretherton thinks Christians should to listen to their neighbors. In a time when our political life seems to be stricken by divisions too wide to bridge, Bretherton argues that democratic politics is a means by which Christians can listen to those different from them and exercise wise theological practical judgement in our collective life. Over the last decade, Bretherton has developed a theologically sophisticated and politically apt argument for Christian engagement in democratic politics. Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy is perhaps his most intimate, clear, and powerful political theological case.

The seed that has grown and blossomed into Bretherton’s core methodological claim in Christ and the Common Life was first planted in his earlier works: Hospitality as Holiness, Christianity and Contemporary Politics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and most especially in Resurrecting Democracy . It’s a deceivingly simple claim: theology and politics are mutually divulging and co-constituting. This claim is at the heart of nearly all of Bretherton’s work, but it is acutely evident in Bretherton’s writing on the study of churches, which shows up in nearly every chapter. By attending to this relationship Bretherton “shows how understanding politics demands paying attention to theology and how understanding theology necessitates attention to politics.” Honoring the tension between these two generates proper Christian political judgement, even amidst vast differences. Christian political theology is concerned with proper judgement, especially as it is “faithful, hopeful, and loving.” Proper Christian judgement is not possible without a fruitful mutual imbrication of theology and politics. As Bretherton says in his introduction, “A basic premise of the book is that talk of God and talk of politics are coemergent and mutually constitutive.”

The book is broken into three parts. Part I explores five paradigmatic examples of political theology: humanitarianism, black power, Pentecostalism, Catholic social teaching, and Anglicanism. The chapters on Anglicanism and Pentecostalism are close to Bretherton’s own story, as he grew up between Pentecostal altar calls and the high liturgy of Anglican smells and bells.

Part II is a collection of chapters that displays Bretherton’s attention to difference, power, and plurality by taking up sites of contestation and fracture in our common life. Politics is fundamentally about crafting a common life in the midst of vast differences, power differentials, and competition over penultimate goods. These topics have tended to eclipse genuine Christian political theology. They distract and mischaracterize politics and the penultimate goods that support our lives. The language of penultimate goods is a familiar one for Bretherton, and it helps stave off what Bretherton calls “projects of salvation.” Class, secularism, and toleration each need to be readjusted by his reflections on communion, secularity, and hospitality. The pages are ridden with dyads: church and world; eschatology and history; religious and secular; church and state. Bretherton likes to think through and beyond supposed antimonies.

If Part II helps orient Christians in our contemporary political life, Part III seeks to dig deeper into the conceptual foundations of Bretherton’s political theology: He’ll tell you what he means by “people of God,” and why a populist democratic politics ought to be embraced over Marxist socialist strands of democratic movements that emphasize class analysis. All of this honors insights garnered from his tension-ridden and co-constituting method.

The chapters build on one another, but they need not be read in order. At one point Bretherton suggests that one could begin from the end, starting with the conceptually-focused chapters, and I agree: there he defines his terms while making his political theological case for democracy. But a reader gains just as much reading it straight through, or picking the chapters that prick one’s interest. Christ and the Common Life is a long book, but it reads well. Professors could happily select any number of the chapters and all ranges of students would be deeply enriched and introduced to a broad and ever broadening field of political theology.

If all of this isn’t enough to merit attention from fellow travelers in Christian political theology, two additional aspects of Christ and the Common Life are worth serious consideration. The first is an increased level of engagement with liberation theologians, the black radical tradition , and decolonial thinkers that shift the geography of political theology away from Eurocentric frames. The second is Bretherton’s explicit and sustained account of the Holy Spirit in Christian democratic political life. The rudiments of this pneumatology were laid out in Hospitality as Holiness, but here Bretherton devotes his longest chapter of the book to exploring the value of a Pentecostal pneumatology for Christian political theology. But it is Bretherton’s ecclesiology that is crucial to Bretherton’s work beyond Christ and the Common Life.

 Bretherton argues that we find ecclesiological concepts in political language and vice versa. Concepts such as “citizen” or “neighbor” have an ecclesiological and political logic. In no way, however, is ecclesiology to be reduced to politics, nor politics to ecclesiology. The church qua church might be in the world, but it is certainly not of the world. Only the pietas of the church qua church is self-sustaining; a common life politics is a penultimate story shared by neighbors and brought to life by democratic politics. “Christianity is dependent on the discursive, symbolic, and institutional forms of the world. And the world is constituted by genuine, albeit penultimate goods (e.g., health, family, and education) even if sin cankers the human desire for and pursuit of them.” The church’s position is ambivalent to the world: it is both insider and outsider. This church-world dyad is crucial to much of what he has to say in the rest of the book. So wise judgement is needed in answering political theological questions. Pentecostalism provides a form of political theology that can help us when we need it most.

Bretherton’s turn toward Christian judgement creates the theological space to consider ad hoc relationships between Christians and non-Christians. In his previous work, Bretherton has argued that the church is its own social-logic, that can even be “oppositional” to non-Christian political social logic. Thus the proper political relationship between Christians and non-Christians is not one of commensuration between rival traditions ( Alasdair MacIntyre) but ad hoc political action determined by ecclesiological judgement. He builds off the work of Oliver O’Donovan in making this case. This more recent turn to Pentecostalism breaks open “western rationalist epistemologies” to the free movement of the Holy Spirit. Everyday life is “resignified” in a new “spatiotemporal register” and political agency is offered a “truly emancipatory” power.

There is a threefold movement to this power of the Spirit. It first “enables” creation to be itself. It then “fructifies” it, but this rejuvenation is a “departure, a rupture” even of what was. Finally, the Spirit envelops creation in its “eschatological fulfillment.” God as Spirit “mediates the world to the church and mediates the church to the world.” This is Bretherton’s “pneumatological political theology.”  In previous writings, Bretherton has considered the way that forms of democratic politics mediate the appropriate relationship between ecclesial and non-ecclesial institutions and facilitate Christian political judgement as Christians pursue a common life with our neighbors. Here, Bretherton considers how the personal God as Spirit “enables frail flesh to both be itself and become something more than itself,” thus successfully maintaining the tension of the dyad and not disintegrating into a binary. This is a new move for Bretherton.

In previous works, like Hospitality as Holiness and Christ and Contemporary Politics, Bretherton claims that the church is an ontological category and that it lays claim to a distinct way of being in the world characterized by God’s presence. He follows John Milbank, but especially William Cavanaugh in Christ and Contemporary Politics and Resurrecting Democracy by claiming that the church is a res publica, and that the church is primarily constituted by its worship life that “recapitulates” the reconciling work of Christ in its life together as Christians.  In and through the reconciling work of Christ the church is presented with the possibility of being a truly public and political community of justice. The church’s social practices are imperfect examples of a distinctive way of being led by the Spirit. The church’s vocation is the proclamation of the Gospel expressed through its liturgical practices, the eucharist being a prime example. In these works, Bretherton worries that politics can tend to instrumentalize worship, and reduce worship and the church to merely a “resource” for democratic politics. The church needs to maintain its roots in the proclamation of the Gospel. The gift of the Word to the church and its liturgy account for the church’s distinctiveness.

Yet, in those earlier writings Bretherton was wary of proclaiming epistemological mastery over God’s presence, and so argued that the relationship between the church and its neighbors is best understood eschatologically. This raised the question: is the church primarily defined by its distinct relationship to God, and so ontologically distinct from non-ecclesial entities?  My reading of his previous works leads me to think that Bretherton might claim the following: The church is a gift given by Jesus Christ. The church has a distinct ontology and eschatological role. The church is a res publica constituted primarily by God’s distinctive presence marked by the distinct way of life of Christians. But God is not only present in the church, and Christian social practices are fallible. Christian distinctiveness from their neighbors is also determinable eschatologically, and so the church itself — the people of God — is distinguished from its neighbors eschatologically. In addressing the distinct ontology and the eschatological role of the church both over-confidence in the church’s social practices and a pretension of epistemological mastery are assertions to be avoided.

This much was clear in Hospitality as Holiness, Christ and Contemporary Politics, and Resurrecting Democracy. But in Christ and the Common Life, Bretherton sharpens his ecclesiology in the way only a Pentecostal pneumatological political theology can.  In chapter 4, “Pentecostalism,” Bretherton argues that the church is a spatiotemporal reality transformed by the free threefold movement of the Spirit: “the Spirit-empowered, Christ-orientated social relations of the ekklēsia should produce a distinctive sense of place. … This eschatological, relational and temporally defined conception of place reconfigures attempts to sacralized one place or form of life as all-determinative.” The movement of the Spirit mediates God’s relation to the world, but it also builds up and restores the church as the people of God. Bretherton returns to this argument in chapter 7 “Communion and Class,” when addressing the role of worship practices as constitutive of the church: “Worship mediates the possibility of another, eschatological social order in which the proud are laid low and the lowly raised up.” It returns once again in chapter 13 “The People and Populism,” where Bretherton argues that the church is conceptualized as the people of God that involves a particular form of politics.

In previous work Bretherton was concerned with the ontological and eschatological nature of the church. Now, Bretherton turns to the pneumatological and eschatological nature of the people of God. The people of God is a spatiotemporal reality that is enacted, and thus as lived is distinct from other forms of sociality. “Christians are at once a distinct people yet also citizens of existing polities, strangers in their own land, yet strangers to no land (Eph. 2:19; James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11).” “The combination of receiving God’s Word and politics constitutes the faithful, hopeful, and loving mode of discovering what to do and how to do it among these people, in this place, at this time.” Here we have the emphasis on context-sensitive judgement, enabled only by the movement of the Spirit. “As an eschatological and pneumatological people, whose fulfillment is at once given in Christ and yet to come,” Bretherton writes in the last 100 pages of the book, “the forms of life and institutions of the people are necessarily contingent and contextually determined, and thence revisable.”

As soon as Bretherton writes these words he cautions his readers against anti-clericalism. Stay with the dyads, Bretherton tells us. “Forming the people of God involves polity and movement, paradosis and the work of the Paraclete, order and spontaneity, representation of and personal encounter with the living God.” Bretherton prefers the “people of God” over other terms of cultural politics, like race, class, gender, and sexuality that bring people together based on pre-established commonalities. Politics is the art of forming, norming, and sustaining a common life, and so “the people” is best thought of in terms of “peopling.” The people of God is formed and shaped out of a politics of the common life and the free movement of the Spirit: it is never arrived at, and always in formation. The starting place for peopling are the relationships between the people. Attending to these relationships enables wily wisdom and proper judgements that are context sensitive. The people of God is an indeterminate concept, and Bretherton thinks the best way to approach it is to sit with the dyads, revise current models as necessary, and be open to the movement of the Spirit.

Christ and the Common Life is too big of a book to summarize completely, but if Bretherton would agree with my summation of his ecclesiology thus far, two questions occur to me. First, Bretherton cautions his readers against “projects of salvation.” I’ve often pondered what he means by this, besides idolatrous, ever-commodifying capitalist logic. I suspect it’s a warning to fellow Christians to not put all of their eggs in the politics basket. His political theological method might be conceptualized as explicitly anti-projects of salvation. Bretherton argues for a populist democratic politics that allows him “to compromise without compromising the end of history.” The movement — any worldly movement — is not the Kingdom. But most people realize that they won’t find salvation in the movement. I find myself wanting more examples from Bretherton: where does he see projects of salvation in contemporary democratic movements today; where are democratic movements making theological mistakes that classify them as projects of salvation? He is keen to make sure that forms of political theology don’t become idolatrous, and in previous work he emphasized the importance of negotiation and compromise in democratic politics. But I sense there is more at work here: a deeper fear that other forms of political theology — like those exemplified in liberal, social gospel, or Christian democratic socialist types that called for “Christianizing” the world — are deviously mistaken in their substituting penultimate goods in place of the ultimate.

I’ve also often wondered how Bretherton might capture the religious and political significance of “secularized” (in the non-ideological sense of “secularity”) practices in which Christians live out their Christian task. Bretherton uses the image of a jacuzzi to capture how belief and unbelief mix and bubble up together in our world, as opposed to a shower with its separate streams. What does this new image of the jacuzzi (belief and unbelief bubbling up together) offer secular, religiously plural political organizations in which Christians practice their faith? Can it theologically capture what takes place in such organizations in a way that helps Christians practice democracy — which assumedly involves “secularized” practices — in religiously plural political organizations? Or, is every movement of the Spirit included in the ekklesia? Was the Socialist Party of America, say, that attracted radical black social gosplers like George Washington Woodbey, practicing the work of the church? Or, how would Bretherton capture the theological and ecclesiological significance of a religiously diverse group of citizens singing gospel songs at sit-ins or protests? This question returns to the fear of politics instrumentalizing worship and the church. Bretherton’s renewed attention to the pneumatological and eschatological nature of the people of God might allow him to say interesting things about the theological and ecclesial character of “secular” political practices. But his attention in Christ and the Common Life is instead trained to the dyadic relationship between worship and political life, leaving aside questions and tensions that arise due to religious plurality.

Perhaps Bretherton asks too much of his pneumatological ecclesiology. Perhaps both of these questions can be answered by pointing to the co-constituting, mutually disciplining relationship of ecclesiology and politics. But examples help demonstrate and correct. Thick description is needed to practice the art of practical discrimination that Bretherton extols. Despite these desiderata, Bretherton’s ecclesiological framework is provocative and useful in developing a Christian political theological case for democracy. I remain grateful for Bretherton’s contribution to the field of political theology, and will continue to be a student of it.

Aaron Stauffer ‘s work lies at the intersection of the academy, the Christian church, and community organizing. His dissertation is focused on the political role of sacred value in broad based community organizing.