For the welfare of the city

by
22 June 2010

Michael Northcott on a study of Christian political involvement

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Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The conditions and possibilities of faithful witness
Luke Bretherton
Wiley-Blackwell £19.99
(978-1-4051-9969-8)
Church Times Bookshop £18

THROUGH four superbly documented case studies of faith-based organisations, community organising, immigration, and fair trade, Luke Bretherton in this book describes the current state of the relationship between Christianity and contemporary politics.

He does so in a way that acknowledges the “post-secular” turn of late modernity, a turn that is indicated in the fact that the present and most recent Presidents of the United States represent two of the four cases of faith-orientated approaches to politics.

George W. Bush introduced faith-based partnerships first as Governor of Texas and then in the White House. Barack Obama — who graces the cover of the book — cut his political teeth in Chicago, in community organising whose roots go back to the broad-based Industrial Areas Foundation begun by Saul Alinsky.

But Bretherton is closer to Obama than Bush in describing “theological politics” not as an uncritical part­ner­ship between faith-based organ­isa­tions and the state, but as a critical witness — and a source, where necessary, of resistance — to the state and market capitalism.

The key word in the title of the book is “faithful”. The question Bretherton addresses is how the Church may remain faithful in its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord while engaging in its Jeremiahan call to “seek the welfare of the city”. Bretherton sets out to answer the question in a way that sets him apart from his principal dialogue partners. Instead of a normative account of the relationship between the Church, the state, and the market — a strategy Bretherton identifies with Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and the O’Donovans, among others — he focuses instead on how the Church is already acting politically in some of the crucial political contests of the contemporary world, in­cluding the treatment of refugees and international trade.

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This empirical focus grounds the theoretical claims of the book in a way that will add to its appeal to readers who may not have spent as much time as Bretherton has in reading through the current state of political theory and theology, and its classical and patristic antecedents.

In sum, Bretherton describes how it is that the Church can work for the common good with those who do not share Christian beliefs. And, at the same, he sustains the Augustinian political claim that the world cannot know what true politics is apart from the Church’s witness to the Lordship of Christ between the ascension and the Second Coming. When the world forgets that it is the world — and claims for itself the supreme authority that belongs only to Christ — this is when the world is most likely to make totalitarian claims on Christians. And hence the source of freedom in politics in general is the freedom of worship first accorded to Christians by the Emperor Constantine.

This brief account cannot do justice to the scholarship and political engagement that Bretherton displays in this volume. He establishes himself in this book as a leading figure in political theology by giving a profound synthetic account of political theory and theology, while at the same time thickly describing particular and influential political movements and practices in which the contem­porary Church has engaged, and critiqued, the market and the state in the pursuit of the common good of all.

Canon Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the University of Edinburgh.

Barely represented: despite this Women’s Party (Partia Kobet, PK) poster with the slogan “Everything for the future . . . nothing to hide”, for Polish parliamentary elections in 2007, the PK won only 0.28 per cent of the vote. One of the more decorous of many examples of nudity for political and other purposes shown and discussed in A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm (Reaktion, £19.95 (Church Times Bookshop £17.95); 978-1-86189-647-6)

Barely represented: despite this Women’s Party (Partia Kobet, PK) poster with the slogan “Everything for the future . . . nothing to hide”, for Polish parliamentary elections in 2007, the PK won only 0.28 per cent of the vote. One of the more decorous of many examples of nudity for political and other purposes shown and discussed in A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm (Reaktion, £19.95 (Church Times Bookshop £17.95); 978-1-86189-647-6)

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