If Not a Confessional State, Then What?
Does my opposition to a Catholic confessional state mean that I see no place for the Gospel in the political sphere? Does my politics bid me to leave my faith at the doorstep of city hall or the lawn before the U.S. Capitol? Do I believe we’re best served when the framers of public policy cover their ears against the whispers of the Word?
Philosopher John D. Caputo speaks to how I would answer these questions, and so I give him the floor. In his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, he writes:
There is no “derivation,” no straight line, from the poetics or theo-poetics of the kingdom to any concrete political structure or public policy, but that does not mean there is no line or connection at all. Rather we are called to imagine the kingdom of God in the concrete political structures of the day, and that requires political imagination and judgment. The kingdom provides a politica negativa, a critical voice rather like the voice of a prophet against the king, like Amos railing against Jeroboam, calling for the invention of justice, which in turn requires, in addition to prophets, the hard work of concrete political invention, the cleverness of inventive political structures.
What a poetics of the Gospel gives to the political sphere isn’t a roadmap toward the ideal polis, but a critical and imaginative voice, a voice that echoes with dissent and creativity, that ceaselessly calls for the deconstruction and reconstruction of the current constructions of power. It is a voice that speaks for the poor, the oppressed, and the least among us. A voice marked by the madness of the cross, like the voice of John the Baptist, mad for forgiveness, generosity, mercy, and hospitality. It is the shaken and weak voice of the crucified Christ, inspiring our fear and trembling, calling us to think and act politically with the folly and foolishness of the cross. “It is our responsibility,” says Caputo, “to breathe with the spirit of Jesus, to implement, to invent, to convert this poetics into a praxis, which means to make the political resonate with the radicality of someone whose vision was not precisely political.” Caputo continues:
The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty. The call that issues from the crucified body of Jesus solicits our response, for it is we who have mountains to move by our faith and we who have enemies to move by our love. It is we who have to make the weakness of God stronger than the power of the world.
If a Catholic confessional state uses the strength of political power to give preference to Catholicism, a politics that listens to the voice issuing from the Crucified God resounds with the weakness of God and gives preference to the powerless, to those forgotten, ignored, or exiled by the boundaries of law and order and the exercises of political power.
What would our politics look like if we really listened to and took to heart this voice? To this question I don’t have a precise answer. Caputo remarks that if we took the New Testament as our literal guide and the Jesus of the New Testament as our model political philosopher, we’d have a tax rate of 100% and an annual Department of Defense budget of $0 (no swords). Caputo himself doesn’t call for this, though he does point us, and in particular his “friends on the Christian Right,” to the Vatican. Caputo’s not exactly known for swimming anywhere near orthodox shores, so it’s surprising (though not really surprising) to read him calling the popes (along with Jacques Derrida) mad about justice while most of us are simply mad about paying taxes: “The papal social encyclicals are a model of Christian economics, of bringing the spirit of the gospels to bear on modern economic realities.” He goes on to say:
The encyclicals contain unambiguous warnings about the greed and insensitivity to the poorest and the most defenseless people in our society that is bred by capitalism. They speak eloquently of the rights of workers, or requirements for “social” checks on “individual” freedoms, and of the priority of the “common good” over egoism and individualism. I share the passion of the Reformers to rid themselves of papal imperialism. But I heartily recommend to my friends on the Christian Right—both Protestant and Catholic—a summer spent reading the Vatican’s social encyclicals, in which they will find a good deal more of the spirit of the New Testament than presently parades around today on bumper stickers, bracelets, and T-shirts emblazoned with the name of Jesus.
Is there not something theocratic in all this talk of a divine voice resounding in our political structures and public policies? Does this voice not offend against my principles of pluralism and secularism? How do we listen to this voice and repeat its calls to those who do not share our faith? Caputo, again, provides a workable solution, one I’ve suggested before:
If you want to draw your vision and influence from the New Testament, bless your heart, but you need, in addition to a good reading of the text, an independently good argument.