Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

Surveillance, the Church, and the Prophet’s Mantle

This post takes the form of a critical response to “First They Came for the Whistleblowers,” an op-ed by my friend Chris Iosso over at Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice. Chris, like many of us, is concerned with the Obama administration’s tough stance on leaks and its expansive surveillance program. The op-ed, however, spends little time making the case against these policies. Instead, Chris denounces the administration (for bowing before the altar of the “surveillance state”) and defends leakers such as Edward Snowden as modern-day prophets. Running throughout the piece is a call to the church to awaken to its prophetic role.

It is this underlying point that I want to question, that and Chris’s presumption against surveillance. My point here is not to have the last word, but to open a conversation about our political culture, the identity of the church, and the values of security and privacy. From my perspective, that’s what’s lacking — conversation in and beyond the church about the surveillance programs as well as other moral and civic issues. I worry that because of our failure to talk about these things in our churches, we resort to shouting prophetic condemnations that go largely unheard. By this I don’t mean to say that there is no place for the prophetic. My worry is that our prophetic impulses are too easily confused with partisan rancor. The question is what do we mean by prophetic?

The prophetic element in religion, as Chris points out, offers something other than the accommodated worship that makes a fetish or even an idol out of a mundane object or loyalty, such as the state. Where a religion of the state offers its assent, a prophetic religion is thought to hold the state up to a higher standard of criticism, such as the Torah or covenant.

If prophecy is simply reduced to criticism, then an open and democratic society such as ours is full of prophets. Whistleblowers might well be included in this lot, but surely they are not alone. The internet has given rise to countless outlets of relentless criticism (like this one). There appears, then, to be no shortage of criticism–despite the government’s surveillance.

By this I don’t mean that our criticism is sufficient. The problem, however, is not the lack of social criticism, but the failure of criticism to penetrate our echo chambers. We lack genuine dialogue in which positions and perspectives may be challenged (rather than simply mocked or dismissed). Unfortunately, to claim the mantle of the prophet is too often to insulate oneself against such challenge.

My question is how do we get out of our echo chambers? Is there a role for the church here?

God may on occasion give the church a prophetic word, but if Chris is right about whistleblowers, even analogously, then we need not think that God depends on the church for prophets or prophecy. Scripture itself seems to indicate that prophets are dependent on the will of God, rather than the church. This is important to remember if we are to avoid confusing the prophetic with a partisan agenda.  After all, there are a cacophony of different “prophetic” voices in the church.

So, if it’s not criticism that we lack but genuine dialogue and consensus, then the church may prove most helpful in pursuing its call to be a community of moral discernment. Given the fractious nature of our political culture, the habit of reasoning with one another may aid in policy questions, but more importantly it may, by cultivating relationships, serve as a restorative balm in our local communities and perhaps even our civic life.

Such conversations would do well to question not only security as a false absolute, but the right to privacy as well. The exaltation of the latter may go a long way in explaining the decline of the church as both a respected moral authority and as a community of moral-discernment.

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I teach religion and ethics at Wilson College, serve as Managing Editor of the journal Political Theology and Executive Editor of the journal's blog, Political Theology Today. Currently, I am working on an article on the Tea Party's political theology.
  • Brown Jason

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