Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

Elected to be consumed

challa bread
challa bread

Challa bread photo by the.pinoyboy via Flick/CC license.

I used to be Jon Stewart’s guy. I was one of those “young people” who didn’t read mainstream news sites, much less newspapers, and happily cherished the postmodern irony of getting my news from the “fake news” of the Daily Show. Streamed off the internet, even. (Take that, “old” media!)

Then this past spring I reached my saturation point. My wife and I were both in our final semesters of grad school, and I was teaching adjunct at a nearby college, when I started to notice that I wasn’t laughing as much while watching the Daily Show. Although comedic, it struck me that the show was parasitic on the symbiotic circus of American politics and 24-hour cable news, and therefore, substantively no different. Rather than partisan moral outrage, though, I was left feeling only cynical and agitated. And in a social media world, my first impulse was to rush to Facebook, drop a link to the video segment in question, and make some snide remarks about the sad state of affairs in American politics. It was stress I didn’t need.

So I stopped paying attention. Now after graduation and in the heightened flurry of party conventions and heated campaigns, I’m still not paying attention and it’s been a liberatory experience. And this November, I will almost certainly not vote. In the remainder of this post I hope to show why such tactical abstinence from American politics and news media is not necessarily irresponsible, but can be seen as righteously “therapeutic” (in a Wittgenstinian sense) or as residing in what Mennonite writer, Tim Huber, has recently called a “holy silence.” I will do so by meditating on the word “election” in light of two different traditions. First, in the context of American politics, and then in the biblical/covenantal sense.

The choice of a new generation

The word “election” in American society has come to function commonly as a noun, i.e. the election, and is understood in an entirely liberal-democratic sense. As a verb, election is understood as free, sovereign choice in the political process. Such choice is seen as residing squarely in the individual-as-citizen. This “many constitute the one” scheme can be seen in the ominous frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan, with the torso and arms of the namesake being comprised of hundreds of individual figures, facing away from the viewer, into the body of Leviathan. If this is read teleologically, election’s end is the nation-as-state, a view that holds to this day.

By contrast, the Christian tradition understands election – and related concepts of sovereignty and nation – in a completely different way. Election in the Old Testament describes God’s sovereign choice of a particular people, Israel, through a particular person, Abram/Abraham (and Sarai/Sarah). To Abraham, God promises, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3).

Lest “nation” and “election” be read imperialistically here, it’s worth noting a few points. First, consider the narrative arc of Israelite political formation, deformation, and dissolution; from familial tribe to tribal federation to Temple monarchy to synagogue diaspora. John Howard Yoder has noted the anti-state dimensions of Old Testament narrative, such as Samuel’s lament of Israel’s desire to be like other nations in having a king. God’s response is “they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:7, emphasis added). In the crumbling of monarchy a few hundred years later, Yoder spots a “Jeremianic turn,” or the seeds of what would become the church, in God’s message through the prophet to Jews in Bablyon, that they “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its shalom you will find your shalom” (Jer. 29:7). Taken forward into New Testament narrative, the early church is similarly scattered yet called into the one body of Christ. This tension is evident in Peter’s first letter, addressing his hearers (then and now, as Yoder and Hauerwas would have it) as both “aliens and exiles” (2:11) and “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), here appropriating his own Abrahamic tradition.

This is a good point for the second note, on election. Lesslie Newbigin has cautioned against understandings of being “God’s own people” that result in attitudes of pride and privilege. Pride being a great sin, often traditionally depicted as the root of the tree of vice. Newbigin’s emphasis is on the virtue of humility with respect to election. In The Open Secret, Newbigin urges “(a)gain and again it has to be said that election is for responsibility, not privilege” (32). Election in the “royal priesthood,” therefore turns worldly understandings of power and privilege on their head. As Jesus impressed upon his disciples, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:25-28). Here, the telos of election entails imitatio Christi in the missio Dei, God’s reconciling of all things in and through Christ.

Conclusion: Whose body?

By contrasting “election” in two different, competing traditions – one ancient, one modern – I hope to remind American Christians mired in American politics whose we are and what we are for, and where our collective life as church is pointed toward. And quite frankly, it’s not toward the state or market. It’s plain to see in this season on the American calendar that the virtue of Christian humility has no place in American politics and news media. As political campaigning becomes an endless cycle, into which is invested inordinate amounts of money and is increasingly beholden to profit-driven media, one cannot simply “keep informed” by participation in such a system. Such a detached, instrumentalist will not do.  By consuming, one is thereby consumed – the many are drawn into a new Leviathan.

In Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh describes the Eucharist as an act of “anticonsumption” (84), whereby “(t)he individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but is taken up into Christ… The act of consumption is thereby turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it” (54).

So in both cases, we are taken up into something greater than ourselves. But “great” in which sense? Whose body are we elect(ed/ing) to be taken into? Whose body will have the primary formative influence on the Christian social imagination in the United States?

While I have some reservations which I’ll let others address, I do see tactical promise in the Election Day Communion movement, something dreamed up by a few Mennonite pastors. In the hands of a careful, discerning congregation, this could be a great way to break into the high point of secular American liturgy, election day, reminding us that “real power in this world — the power to save, to transform, to change — ultimately rests not in political parties or presidents or protests but in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus,” and that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.”

May it be so.

(17) Comments

  1. Very well written, Brian. I do appreciate your take on the abstinence from voting as being a necessary theraputic. I’ve taken to starting to separate myself somewhat from the partisan conversations and seeking to speek truth into the dangers of either camp.

    I’d be curious to hear more about your reservations about the Election Day Communion. I’m not sure I share thoe reservations but I’d like to hear what potential problems you see.

    God bless!

    • Thanks, Robert. I actually had a Facebook conversation today w/ one of the pastors who started the Election Day Communion “campaign” – and read this post – and he asked the same question. So here’s what I said there…

      One of the primary concerns relates to calendars and time. The liturgical calendar of the church is different than the American “liturgical” calendar. So to tie the Eucharist to election day in the US can, if we’re not careful, make it increasingly difficult for Christians to understand the ways in which we (Christians) inhabit time differently (or should, anyway).

      The second concern relates to homogeneity in denominations and congregations. If there’s a high degree of political agreement within a particular group (congregation, district/conference, denomination) – celebrating Eucharist on election day could run the risk of “baptizing” the American political values that everyone already agrees on.

      Finally, the third concern relates to images and language. Of their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ElectionDayCommunion) – they’ve posted an image of the Eucharistic bread and cup w/ the text: “in order to form a more perfect union.” This mingling of language from American foundational documents with Christian imagery made me squirm a bit more than what I’d seen before from them. On the one hand, it really boils down what they’re trying to say (good marketing) – but on the other it also makes it easier for their project to be co-opted and taken in directions they wouldn’t necessarily be happy with. To a degree, that’s an unavoidable tension, so it’s not like it should paralyze us into inaction or silence…

      Now, saying all that…I’m still really excited about the idea, and I’ll happily be communing with the saints at Park View Mennonite Church on election night. So the “tactical” qualities of the idea are still worth it, in my assessment.

      • Good points all. I hear that you are concerned with that thin line between redeeming cultural ideas for the Kingdom and the syncreticism that has given rise for the apparent need of the movement itself.

        For me, while I can see how the imagery, date, and even the political undertones can be preempted by certain camps, I also can’t help but remember that the language of the New Testament is rife with political imagey and terms from the Roman era. Evangelion and ekklesia both have political references to the lordship of the ceasars. The cross itself, in the minds of the 1st century, is an image not of hope but of torture and oppression. And the phrase “Jesis is Lord” flies in the face of the similar proclamations of the Roman empire.

        So, to your points specifically, I see the church exercising time differently by taking a day dedicated to the American religion and using it as an opportunity to exercise and remember the unity of the body of Christ in probably the most central of sacraments of the Christian liturgy. I see the service itself overcoming the partisanship that churches have adopted and, instead of baptising the day, “subverting” it (as Greg Boyd likes to point out). And finally, the phrase “in order to form a more perfect union” redeems the phrase for use in exemplifying the one perfect union, the union of Christ with his church.

        But I don’t think necessarily, if I understand you properly, you would disagree with these redeeming ideas, but are simply expressing caution and concern…and to that, I cannot argue in light of how much politicization has already happened in the USA. We’ve slid a long way down the slope and it will take caution and discernment to climb back out.

        • Thanks for pushing this out, Robert. You’re right on re: the politically charged nature of the New Testament, especially in the gospels and Acts. There was no religion/politics split in ancient Rome, and “Caesar is Lord” was a theopolitical confession on the lips of any “responsible” Roman citizen of the day. To confess Jesus as Lord was a direct affront to that.

          And you’re right that my tone is more one of caution, or – put positively – to help develop a deeper sense of what Yoder calls a “gospel realism” with respect to the workings of whatever fallen age we find ourselves in, and how to tactically proceed more faithfully.

          (With thanks to my friend, Josh Brockway – who’s posted on here a time or two – for getting the language of tactics in my head.)

          • Indeed the statement Jesus is Lord (Kurios) was a direct confrontation of the imperial theology. Although I think the title today might not ring as subversive today. Could these communities breaking bread on November 6th speak with as much resistance by saying “Jesus is President”?

            I have a very high theology of the Eucharist for a person rooted in the Radical Reformation. Yet this idea sits very uneasy in my mind.

            I agree with Brian’s assessment here and would simply add this: the American Political discourse is totalizing. It has stretched into so much of our lives and the way we think and imagine that I am not convinced the practice itself can subvert the civil religion of Enlightenment Democracy- especially in traditions that have a very symbolic theology of the Eucharist.

            Take for instance the section of recollections on the Election Day Communion site. These are so true and yet they contradict the very assumptions within the electoral process. How many outside academic theology hear the discontinuities between participation in what I have called the High Holy Day of American Democracy and the Anamnesis?

  2. Thanks for this reflection Brian. I am writing a four-part series on why I will not be voting in this year’s national election (I am not as concise as you!) and the fourth post will focus on issues related to what you are writing when you write: “whose we are and what we are for? Thanks for helping me think through this a bit more. I really appreciate the interesting juxtaposition and exploration of the concept of election. Neat!

  3. Hi Brian,
    Thanks again for the post. I’m happy to do this by email, if you’d rather, but I thought a few other folks might be curious as well. Of your intended audience–I’m guessing Brethren and Mennonite–do you have any sense (percentages?) of how many will be voting, for whom, and why?
    Ready for the follow post?
    dave

    • Gratitude all around, Dave!

      To your question, my quick answer is that nearly all Brethren and most Mennonites in the US are now voters, and probably enthusiastically so – and their partisan commitments span the spectrum. There’s some good sociological work done by Carl Bowman for Brethren and Conrad Kanagy for Mennonites – that show the ways in which these two groups from the Anabaptist tradition have become assimilated into US cultural institutions and practices, such as participation in the national political process. Perhaps only the Old Order Mennonites and Amish remain non-voters.

      To put it more bluntly: There are plenty of Brethren & Mennonite Niebuhrians! 😉

      So the work of this post isn’t necessarily something that even most contemporary Brethren and Mennonites would agree with, though it may feel a bit more familiar. You might describe the perspective I’m bringing as “neo-Anabaptist.”

      • There are some of us in the Mennonite tradition who, while we don’t necessarily say, “Don’t vote” do call for a serious reconsideration of how deep we’ve delved into secular politics. Not sure if “neo Anabaptist” applies to us because we are already Anabaptist. 🙂

          • It’s actually been one of my pet peeves fo a while. I have a commentary on my own blog called “Wait, is that what it says?” which comments on article 23 of our COF as Brian noted above…I try to go back to the roots of the schleitheim and dordrecht confessions and point out our need to evaluate our political activities in light of our allegience to Christ’s Kingdom…

      • Thanks. That would have been my guess, though I wouldn’t describe them as Niebuhrians:) You mention a spectrum, but I would tend to think the majority would tend to vote Republican — thinking it a vote to preserve “traditional” mores. That said, I don’t have any real data or evidence of this. If so, I wouldn’t see them as being captured or consumed by the nation-state, but by a particular party’s ideology.

        You may say, “No. Both sides have been captured or consumed by an alien ideology or faith,” in which case I would respond that this does happen, but not by necessity. The same might be said of family, but this is no reason to not participate in families.

        My guess is that you would want to challenge this analogy as a false one, seeing the nation-state as inherently violent. I take the contested position that differences in politics matter. I realize that this may appear naive.

        • Actually, in my experience, many Mennonites vote Democrat because of the peace and social justice issues…so there’s a split there which, in the contentious realm of secular politics, can be extremely detrimental to the health of the body of Christ, both at the congregational level as well as at the larger levels of conferenced and denomination.

          • Yeah, in my context it means we don’t talk politics. My worry in this case is that politics becomes its own little fiefdom — that sometimes overwhelms faith. Of course, other contexts may be different. Thanks!

        • In terms of sociological survey data, Bowman’s work within the last decade has shown your hunch to be correct for the Church of the Brethren, David; that most members of my denomination are now for all intents and purposes conservative evangelicals. For Mennonites, it’s a bit different. Robert’s right that Mennonites tend to have stuck with peace and justice issues more than Brethren, but those tend to be Mennos who’ve gone through Mennonite higher education. More rural, less educated Mennonites tend to be fairly conservative.

          So you’re right that commitments to particular US political ideologies are more of a “presenting reality,” but you don’t get those particular political ideologies without the deeper reality of the US nation-state sanctioning them as the field of play.

          I’m not saying that differences in American politics don’t matter, because they do. Policies have real effects on real people’s bodies, as “ideas have consequences.” That’s one reason why I’m articulating here a “tactical” vs. “principled” abstinence from US politics. I’m more than open to being convinced that some level of participation in US politics might be good…I just try to keep my expectations/hopes/aspirations in that system in check.

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