Christ and the Common Life

Political Theology and the Case for Democracy

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Luke Bretherton
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     2019.
     480 pages.
     $49.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802876409.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Christ and the Common Life, a versatile introduction to the field of political theology, Luke Bretherton seeks to orient readers to major concepts and approaches to the field in Europe and North America, and simultaneously to make a constructive case for Christian participation in democratic politics (1).

While both tasks are interwoven throughout this sprawling book, Bretherton’s constructive work is presented directly in the latter half of this volume, which grounds his theological case for democracy in our shared humanity (291). The first half of the book broadly serves to orient readers to the landscape and history of political theology, both directly and through distinct investigations of representative approaches to politics.

For Bretherton, a “cradle and still-confessing Anglican” with experience in charismatic Christian movements and democratic organizing (122), attention to political matters is itself a form of neighbor love (41); and while theology cannot be reduced to politics, “theology always has a political valence” (18). By politics, Bretherton means the kinds of negotiations that happen as people construct a common life between friends, strangers, enemies, and the powerless (44, 47).

Such negotiations are not optional for humans, as we are always already in power-laden relationships with various others; the question is whether we will enter these negotiations consciously, thoughtfully, and faithfully—seeking to respond to particular injustices without abandoning one’s theological convictions in the process.

Defining politics in this way, Bretherton splits the difference on the classic question of whether politics is a post-Fall necessity (and thus, inherently sinful) or an original part of creation. As Bretherton describes it, politics is a way of organizing relational power (35), and as such is a creational good—it is decidedly not “war by other means.” Statecraft, however, “which entails the use of coercive, unilateral power,” is a postlapsarian reality that (at best) inhibits evil (25).

Christian involvement in politics so defined is at once unavoidable and permissible. To begin with, “talk of God and talk of politics are coemergent and mutually constitutive” (2), such that to attempt to avoid questions of the political is to misunderstand one’s own theological tradition.

Indeed, reflecting on the figure of Pilate in the Nicene Creed, Bretherton notes that political theology is bifocal: it seeks to articulate the nature and purpose of political life in light of the revelation of God in Jesus, while also “attending to the historical realities in which that life is lived” (21). That is, while theology and politics serve different ends, there can be a “mutually disciplining, critically constructive” relationship between the two which aids in sustaining a more just, loving common life.

Furthermore, as the church participates in politics, it can give witness to “a horizon of reference beyond politics and economics, thereby pointing to how political economy neither exhausts nor defines human fulfillment” (451). Indeed, a helpful feature of Bretherton’s work is his defense of a dyadic (rather than binary or dialectical) relationship between church and world. Bretherton argues that the relationship between church and world is not either-or, but that each term is constitutive and regulative of the other, signaling a reality that is more than the sum of its parts. Put simply, “church cannot be church without the world, and vice versa” (120, 234).

So understood, there can be no single approach to “the” relationship between Christianity and politics, and as such Bretherton organizes the book into a series of interweaving investigations of particular political questions and theological frameworks. Bretherton argues that the “stitched-together character of the book” reflects the provisional, contingent nature of our judgments about how to live together (7), and as a way of organizing the book it has strengths and weaknesses.

Theologically, Bretherton is correct that attempts to systematize political theological reflection too often end up excluding voices that need to be heard, and make the interactions between people and God’s role in such interactions too tidy. This organizational structure also allows the book to be useful in a classroom setting, as chapters on influential approaches to political theology (Catholic Social Ethics or Black Power, for instance) and key questions for political theology today (on toleration and secularism, for instance) can be read and discussed on their own.

Each chapter ends with selected readings that aid the book’s usefulness in this way. The downside of this stitched-together character is that what the book gains in versatility it loses in readability, at least if one reads from cover to cover.

Bretherton summarizes the form of politics he thinks Christians should support (and that he assumes throughout the book) in the last chapter. The alternative to authoritarianism, Bretherton writes, is a “distributed, bottom-up, cooperative, and pluralistic conception of sovereignty” that thickens various theological forays into politics (398). As such, Bretherton argues for “a democratized economy, in a confederal polity, with a pluralistic common life politics, undergirded by a moral commitment to generating forms of shared flourishing that are ecologically attuned” (464).

Because politics is a penultimate endeavor located within a meaningful cosmos, Christians are free to cooperate with others in the pursuit of this vision; one can “compromise without compromising the end of history” (40). Christians should commit themselves to forms of democratic politics that extend who can participate in political negotiations as widely as possible (445), and in so doing work for goods in common. Christians should not cease doing works of mercy, but we should also recognize that if we are not to simply Band-Aid over structural problems, we “need to be involved in wider forms of democratic politics” that address the creation of societal problems in the first place (443).

Beyond his introductory material, which is itself lucid and comprehensive, Bretherton has presented us with an approach to politics that Christians should pursue, even (or especially) in the face of neoliberalism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism. Each of these forces are defended on theological grounds and reinforced in places of worship each week, and Bretherton makes a strong case that Christian theology has a role to play in countering their spread in the coming years.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Andrew Newson is Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Campbell University.

Date of Review: 
June 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Luke Bretherton is Robert E. Cushman Professor of Moral & Political Theology and Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. His other books include Christianity & Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness, winner of the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.