Politics on the pattern of the martyrs

In my Comment essay earlier this year titled "The Church and the Common Good," I wrote the following, describing and recommending Paul Griffiths' idiosyncratic spin on quietism as the proper form of Christian political action:

"At bottom it is a radical call for epistemic, moral, and theological humility. For we cannot know either the actual or the unintended consequences of the policies for which we advocate; nor can we know those of the policies we oppose. We must assume our opponents act in good faith, even as we admit we act from mixed motives ourselves. If we fail, we may trust that providence has allowed it, for reasons opaque to us; if we prevail, we are in an even more precarious position, for we will be responsible for what results, and we will be tempted to pride. In any case, what good comes, we receive with gratitude. What evil comes, we suffer with patience.

"Quietism, in short, is politics on the pattern of the martyrs, who, like Christ, did not consider victory 'a thing to be grasped, but emptied' themselves, entrusting themselves in faith to 'the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that are not.' Christ forsook the sword as a means of establishing justice in Israel; the kingdom came instead at the cross.

"Banished is every utopia, including the confident Christian rhetoric of justice in our time. As St. Augustine teaches us, the only true justice is found in the city of God, whose founding sacrifice constitutes the only true worship of God. The celebration of this sacrifice is the eucharistic liturgy. Approximations of this justice in politics are difficult to assess in the moment, not to mention predict in advance. The church therefore cannot be codependent with politics. Its hope lies in a future not of its making."

I then ask the inevitable question: "How, you may ask, is this not secession from politics, a status quo–baptizing desertion of the common good?" I go on:

"Answer: Because Christians remain as engaged as ever, even to the point of laying down their lives, only without the vices that attend a realized eschatology (activism absent resurrection): the desperate need to win, the entitled expectation of success, the assumption of God’s approval, the forgetfulness of sin, the recourse to evil means for good ends. Domine, quo vadis? Christian political witness is figured by St. Peter—the rock on which the church is built, surely an ecclesial sine qua non—following the Lord back into Rome, certain that his end is near, but equally certain that all his noble plans and good deeds are not worth resisting the call. For the End is not in his or any human hands, and depends not one iota on our efforts."

All that is by way of preamble, to make a single and simple point. This week has seen the conservative intellectual world roiled by an explosive intramural spat, sparked initially and mostly carried on by Christians, concerning their proper political witness and their prospects, and strategies, for victory.

Here is my question. Of what relevance, if any, is the witness and example of the martyrs for the way that Christians conduct themselves politically? Is "politics on the pattern of the martyrs" exemplary in some way, and thus possible, and thus a goal to strive to approximate? If so, what difference does that make for Christian theory and practice of public engagement? If not ... well, I would like to read someone make the case either that martyrdom is irrelevant to sociopolitical matters (women and men put to death by state authorities regarding their convictions or deeds) or that, though relevant, the stakes are too high to pay them heed in this matter, today, in our context.

Put differently: The martyrs teach us, at a minimum, that sometimes letting go is more faithful than fighting, dying more faithful than continuing to live. The first three centuries of the church's life attest to the vitality of this witness precisely in the arena of politics, as does the church's experience across the globe at present and in recent centuries.

The martyrs were not doormats, and martyrdom is not despair or acquiescence before evil or persecution. It is the power of the cross made manifest in the world. Surely that power has a word to speak to our moment, and to the dispute alluded to above. If we listened, what might it say?


Popular posts from this blog

On Episode IX

On finding race and racism in the New Testament

Figural christology in children's Bibles