Progressive Politics, Chiliasm and the Kingdom

Via Tripp, comes a post on Utopia, progressive politics and the Kingdom.

The angst exhibited in the post is fairly typical of what one finds among those evangelicals who are anxious to remain faithful to their core Gospel convictions, but, for varying motivations, want to embrace a more socially activist way of living. And that’s a problem.

Don’t get me wrong, we have it on dominical authority that we are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prisons, visit the sick. And we also know, if we but just gaze navel-ward for a few moments, that we are, most of the time, the goats. This obligation to care for the poor, destitute and needy in our midst is non-negotiable, and, if I am any measure, much-neglected.

So, why am I starting off with such a negative take on the linked post above? Let me demonstrate.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think the government can save us or bring about a perfect world. No one political party has all the answers or will automatically make this world a better place. But I don’t think that is reason to just abandon politics or give up altogether. And (as I’ve mentioned before) I don’t think working to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” can just be written off as the modern myth of progress either.

Here is the false dilemma: either progressive politics or just abandon the practical reality of a more just world. But notice also how the author first dismisses one horn of the dilemma, only to smuggle it back in. (Which is what a false dilemma is meant to do.)

Now, having rescued a utopian ideal from itself, the author goes on to conflate two things: radical discipleship in a fallen world, with the salvation and healing of the fallen world.

To take to heart Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” – would imply that one actually believes that it can be done. If we are following in the way of Christ, living out the Kingdom values, and teaching others about the things Jesus taught then part of the idea is that we are attempting to make this world a better place. If we follow in Jesus’ footsteps to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” then we should be actively working for those things believing that God has the power to make them happen. So in seeking to feed the hungry, to heal those with AIDS, to stop sexual exploitation of children, and to end slave like conditions in the factories we are not just buying into liberal ideas of progress through science, we are following Christ’s commands.

Let’s stipulate these claims for now, but let’s question the premise: will these activities truly bring about a better world? In a word: no. These activities most certainly care for a person’s physical needs, but a full belly, healing from terminal diseases, prevention of sexual exploition, and ameliorated working conditions will not save a person’s soul.

In other words, by creating the false dilemma (between the bodily and the spiritual), the author inadvertently turns her face away from a hierarchy of good. Feed the body yes. But take greater care to feed the soul.

But apparently to think that any of that will actually work is wishful Utopian thinking. And to think that the government or technology might assist in bringing those things about is to place our faith for salvation in such organizations. At least, so I have heard. But I’m not buying it.

Which is to say, to accomplish this better place in the present age, we should utilize the tools and resources of this present age. But once again, this better place is the material existence. It cannot address the spiritual.

Then the author once again tries to drive her ship to opposite shores. First, let’s activate the earth-bound.

The world is broken – God’s kingdom is not on earth as it is in heaven. And often it has been the very people who claim to follow Christ that have caused the brokenness. If there is something that can be done to bring healing and reconciliation to the World, is it not a good thing to do it? And if a big organization or a government (many of whom caused the problems to begin with) are in a position to help heal the ills of the world, why the hell would I not support that? Even Jesus when the disciples reported that they had seen a man driving out demons in his name said, “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

Note the difference: driving out demons (spiritual activity), feeding the hungry (material activity). One cannot drive out demons apart from Jesus’ power. But many demonic enterprises have feed the hungry. Or, rather, call to mind, Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Now that we’ve foundered on this shore, let’s drive to the other. (Note the bold.)

I don’t think the government will save us or that they have all the answers. I don’t think that the world will just get better and better because of the wonders of technology. I am not deluded into thinking that Utopia will just appear if enough people vote a certain way and start recycling. But I do believe in Jesus and the mission he has called us to. I do believe that as Christians we are expected to care for others and to stop the injustices in this world. And I have no problem using the government or technology to help make that happen if that is what it takes. The mission is bigger than the fear of being consumed by an secular agenda of progress. And if working to make Kingdom values a reality gets dismissed as an Utopian delusion, I really don’t care. I’ll just keep on following Jesus.

Herein is the chiliasm referenced in my post title. We are not called to “make Kingdom values a reality.” Nor are we called to establish Christ’s Kingdom on this earth. Christ’s Kingdom, as he himself said, is not of this world. If Christ wanted to establish his Kingdom on earth in this present age, he had plenty of opportunity before Pilate. An opportunity he rejected, as I recall.

The author is correct, though, in her heart and motivation. Christians should be about the business of acts of corporal mercy (as well as, and in tandme with, the acts of spiritual mercy). But in contradistinction to the author, we do not do so to accomplish some vast project of “making Kingdom values a reality.” “Kingdom values” (whatever that phrase means), cannot be a reality in hearts and minds set at odds with Christ. And Scripture, and the Fathers, are clear, things will go from bad to worse, even to the point that Christ himself asks whether there will be any faithful found? Antichrist must come. Great tribulation lies ahead. We delude ourselves into thinking that somehow, if we just work hard enough, we can make spiritual realities obtain in worldly hearts and minds.

“Kingdom values” only become real when they are the motivating energies from which a believer acts. One cannot institutionalize them (even in a religious institution), because, apart from their Divine Sources, they cannot exist outside the human heart. We change hearts. Not diets.

Again, let me be clear: let us feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. But not because we want to “make the world a better place.” But, rather, because we are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, and, Lord willing, in so doing, we convert those around us.

There’s a reason the phrase “His Kingdom will have no end” was inserted in Creed at the Second Council. It was to emphasize a) the Kingdom is a reality now (not some mythic future thousand years)–it is not something we have to work to make real; and b) the Kingdom is not of this world.

8 thoughts on “Progressive Politics, Chiliasm and the Kingdom

  1. I think that we are indeed called to work towards a transformation of the world around us, as living out the Gospel precepts cannot but help to bring about a change in the world external to our own personal souls- ie if I take the injunction to live peaceably seriously it will have definite real-material-world implications. Christ was very much about transforming the world qua world- hence He did not order His disciples off into an Essene-like compound to await the End whilst purifying their souls. However, He was equally not about raising a violent revolution and instuting a new regime of justice and peace and whatever else. Instead, He very forcefully, if you will, engaged the world, but His “direct action” is not throwing a brick in a protest, but rather it is to die upon the Cross for the redemption of the world.

    This was not lost on the early Church: the martyr, the “witness,” is the Christian par exalance in ancient (and to some extent medieval, though in a modified degree) Christianity. This is especially true in the pre-Constantine age, before the Church begins to collaborate with the State in a widespread manner. The Church does not simply withdraw into passitivity: rather, they engage the world around them, and their consumate “direct action” is the witness of martyrdom.

    Jesus lived a political life- a cursory examination of the Gospels reveals this. He was in continual conflict with the various civil and religious authorities of His day, challenging social mores and ethical lapses, among other things. But His conflicts, and His acts, were not “of the world,” but rather transcended the expected human categories, because they were all rooted in the supreme theology and praxis of the Cross. He did not seek to take over the State- the assumption so common on both Left and Right that the true solution is to have “our side” in power, and then all will be alright, did not register with our Lord. At least not in the sense of seizing temporal power. His Kingdom is not “of this world,” but it still operates within this world, and hence has a transformative power.

    I think that as Christians we are also obliged to take the “social justice” sections of the Old Testament, particularly the Prophets, seriously, and draw them into the particular political ethic of Christ. This is all the more true for people living when and where we do, in a society in which we are able to voluntarily take any number of actions, and hence must grapple with whether or not they are in line with the ethics of Christ- hence it would be unwise to simply ignore issues and evils beyond our own personal orbits. At the very least I would hope that the Church would avoid collaboration or conspicuous silence in the face of State and otherwise oppression and injustice- something that has unfortunately occured more than once in the past. Without seeking to seize the power of the State, the Church may speak out against injustice and offer the ethic of Christ as a counter, holding forth the grace and redemption of Christ- and not usurption of State power- as the alternative to the power-systems and evils of the world.

  2. Jonathon:

    How does one transform “the world”? Where is it? What does it look like? How can one know one “has it”?

    One of the problems of chiliastic thinking is the sort of Millsian “greatest number” category confusion. One does not give “the world” a cup of water in the name of Christ. One gives one’s neighbor that cup of water. One does not transform “the world.” One alleviates personal suffering and need.

    Christian acts of charity and mercy are not done to some amorphous thing (“the world’) but are done for some named person or persons. Certainly one might speak in category terms by advocating “clothing the naked” referring to that class of persons who are without clothes. But in acting so to do, one can only clothe specific, named persons.

    One of the problems with chiliastic thinking is just this sort of anthropomorphizing of conceptual entities that have existence only on the backs, if you will, of named persons. Chiliasm deals in personally nameless groups. “For the betterment of mankind,” “for the welfare of the poor,” and so forth. Christian acts of corporal mercy can only be done for Sally, and James, and Angela. One does not clothe a personally nameless category.

    Similarly, the political activism you mention fails likewise the test of particularity, first and foremost by chiliastically reducing specific and contextualized groups of persons to generic political entities. Yes, indeed, Jesus was at odds with “the world,” but not in the sense you describe.

    Jesus did not seek to resist evil political structures. He came to do the Father’s will. If this had political consequences it did so as correlative to the primary spiritual realities. That is to say, Jesus didn’t dine with sinners to engage in political resistance to the Pharisees and scribes. Rather, Jesus’ fulfilling the will of the Father had accidental, if you will, “political” consequences.

    What you attempt to describe turns the telescope the wrong way ’round. One does not consciously seek “political engagement,” one simply does one’s Christian duty to one’s neighbor. Since the spiritual reality of such acts is opposed to the spiritual reality of “the world system,” then frequently such dutiful acts will have political implications. But only secondarily.

    Again, the point here is not to refrain from doing good to my neighbor, let alone to dichotomize our existence into compartmentalized spheres, but, rather, to avoid the very grave error of chiliastically depersonalizing (and indeed dehumanizing) the neighbor for whom we are doing good in obedience to the Father.

    I cannot stress enough how applicable Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” is, in it insight, to this newly popular “Christian activism” phenomenon, whether that activism be of the right or the left. For whatever reason, Christians today, at least in the U.S., seem hell bent on programing over duty. If Christians simply did their rightful duties obliged them by Christ, there would be no need for this chiliastic activism. And when it comes to social activism there is such a spirit of self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction, and little overt repentance from moral evil and little prayer (again on both right and left), as though somehow, by engaging in “activism” we have done our Christian duty. And yet, how many who sloganeer, march, blog, write their congressman, and so on, can even put together a list of names of persons whom they’ve personally clothed, given a cup of cold water and so forth? And if they can put together such a list, the next question is: did they really need an “activist” program or group to do so? Or were they living in such a way as to share life with the poor, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned?

    In the words of St Seraphim of Sarov, if we work to acquire the Holy Spirit, thousands around us will be converted. Prayer and repentance and the doing of our Christian duty will accomplish this. Activist engagement will not.

  3. Steve:

    “The world” is not an entity to which we do any acts of evangelism or works of mercy. We cannot transform “the world” simply because we have no access to such an amorphous concept.

    We (or rather God through us) transform persons by such acts of dutiful Christian obedience.

    Furthermore, this notion of “transforming the world” makes assumptions at odds with the eschatology of Scripture and the Fathers: that we can somehow, by our “acts of transforming the world” bring about the Kingdom on earth. And that, unless I am mistaken, is chiliasm.

    I don’t know that I’m making the claim that “transforming the world” is necessarily utilitarian (I was merely riffing on the Millsian/Benthamite “greatest number” amorphism), but I think it usually very quickly degenerates to such–thus the “I’m not advocating social activism, but we should be socially active” hedging evidenced in the post I’m critiquing.

    But to answer your first question more directly, I twice alluded to FD’s “Grand Inquisitor.” In my view, the analysis FD engages in fits rather squarely with present-day Christian activism (or “non-activist” activism).

    However, look, I’m not against human efforts to ameliorate pain and suffering–not at all. Nor am I against efforts that are larger in scope than the one-to-one dynamic that I think is the Gospel paradigm and our Christian duty. It is a good thing that Christians did what they did, in large scope, to abolish the institution of slavery in the Northern and Western hemispheres; efforts that required changing of laws and so on.

    Rather, what I’m opposing is the notion, buried in such activist expressions, that somehow our doing these sorts of things realizes or actualizes the Kingdom on earth. Look, the Kingdom is already here. It is already actualized and, in a sense, realized–most certainly at every Eucharist. We don’t need to “transform government structures” or “institute a more just society.” We need transformed government servants, and transformed persons in institutions.

    Or to say it another way: the demonic brutality of Communist Russia, or certain Islamic societies in no essential way hinders the actualization or realization of the Kingdom of God. Nor, conversely, do the democratic freedoms and representative republics of Europe and the U.S. in any essential way promote the actualization or realization of the Kingdom of God.

    Can and should Christians work to change social structures and institutions? Sure. In specific contexts and places. But not at the cost of doing their simply Christian duties of repentance, obedience, and prayer for and with their neighbor.

    (Hey, and by the way, I’m INTJ!)

  4. When I talk about a transformation of the world, I aim at using the sort of language that begins in the Gospels and is unfolded in the Christian Tradition. Christ gives Himself for the “life of the world,” God “so loved the world,” etc. This transformation is truly cosmic in aim, but it manifests itself in an intense personalism- which means that we as followers of Christ cannot subcomb to “ends justifying the means,” and hence, no violent angry revolutions. We manifest the already existent- in some ways- eschaton in ourselves through becoming more closely conformed to the image of Christ, through our own deification. In so doing we will of necessity act as participants in Christ’s work of cosmic transformation and reconcillation, as we seek to bring others into the Kingdom and as we, through conformity to Christ’s image, engage the unjust and fallen world around us. The Saints are the exemplars in this- indeed, one of the persistent themes of hagiography is how not only the social and political but even natural world around the saint is transformed- not into the final Eschaton, but into, if you will, a manifestation of it, a foreshadowing.

    You write that Christ did not seek to resist evil political structures. Sed contra, His entire life is one of resistance against evil political structures, both the mundane earth-bound sort and the “powers and principalities” of the air that St. Paul describes. Hence Christ is pursued by the power of the State under King Herod from His very childhood! In His ministry He comes into conflict with evil political and socio-economic structures because His message- or rather, His very Life- is contrary to those structures. I do not think you can properly describe such “engagement” as “accidental,” for Christ set out very deliberately to live a public life. The be political, after all, is to live actively in the polis, and this Jesus certainly does. In so doing He comes into direct conflict with the prevailing power structures- and sometimes He does this quite deliberately, besides the already inherent deliberateness of coming into human political and social life in the first place.

    I suggest that this is exactly the sort of political engagement we are primarily called to- living a life that is- whether you consciously set out to do so or not- an act of engagement against unjust structures, which is to say, living an authentically Christian life. We do this as martyrs, witnesses, by refusing to participate in the hate and violence and craziness and greed and so on of the fallen world and its structures. On this I think we could agree, so long as we don’t talk past each other. I’m not advocating chiliasm, and you’re not advocating quietism.

    Finally, as far as moving beyond my immediate personal sphere into wider political action in the traditional, standard sense of the term: if I am, say, personally involved in ministering to refugees and immigrants on a person-to-person basis, why should I not be interested in working towards a change in wider structures that impact the people I am personally involved with? If the possibility exists- and it generally does in a more-or-less democractic society- for my compassion towards persons to work on the level of changing or at least challenging unjust situations and systems, is it somehow chialistic thinking to do so?

  5. However, look, I’m not against human efforts to ameliorate pain and suffering–not at all. Nor am I against efforts that are larger in scope than the one-to-one dynamic that I think is the Gospel paradigm and our Christian duty. It is a good thing that Christians did what they did, in large scope, to abolish the institution of slavery in the Northern and Western hemispheres; efforts that required changing of laws and so on.

    OK then, because it sounded as if you were saying things like “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one,”or “If you don’t like slavery, don’t buy slaves.”

    Chiliasm is indeed the idea that by our efforts we can build or even create God’s kingdom here on earth. That was the error of the communists.

    But we need to realise that, since the death and resurrection of Christ, God has already established his kingdom in on earth, yet we still pray “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”. The point is that the kingdom is Gods, and there is no need for us to do what God has already done. Our responsibility is to proclaim that, and make it visible, primarily in the way we live.

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