I read a remarkable essay by William T. Cavanaugh for my Ethics class: “Discerning: Politics and Reconciliation“. As it happens, that entire essay is available for preview at Google Books (it’s found in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics). That’s not the best format for reading the essay, but it’s the only online version I could find. I’d like to cover it in depth here, but I don’t have time.
In a nutshell, Cavanaugh briefly traces the rise of liberal (small-l) political theory (the foundation of our representative governments) and how it is based the autonomy of the individual and the inevitable conflict that rises between autonomous individuals. Some form of political authority (ultimately representative government) is necessary as an enforced reconciler or peace-keeper. Liberal political theory is based on the inevitability of conflict (and possibly the necessity of war with other nati0ns) and the continual suppression of this conflict–a forced peace, if you will. Violence, in other words, is the norm in liberal political theory. It is a tragic theory and true reconciliation is never realized.
The Biblical story on the other hand argues that conflict and violence is not “the state of nature”, it is not natural or foundational to being human. The Biblical story, particularly in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, shows that the way things are now is not the way they’ve always been. Our current plight is not the norm, not the way things ought to be. The Christian story, in other words, allows for true reconciliation to be realized.
He then goes on to argue that the Church’s liturgy (that is, its gathering to worship) is a way of enacting this reconciliation.
I haven’t done justice to Cavanaugh’s essay, so I urge you to read it for yourself. It’s quite something.
(I see that there is a Christian Century interview with Cavanaugh available online: “Liturgy as Politics: An Interview with William Cavanaugh“. I haven’t read it, but it sounds like it might cover similar ground.)
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Also watch the IdeasExchange podcast page at Aqua Books for last Saturday’s talk by Dr. Chris Holmes, my ethics and theology professor. The title of his presentation is “‘Christianity is Basically Amoral:’ Reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Principle-free Christianity”. I’m not sure how long it will be before it’s posted (it’s not up yet), but look for ‘Christopher Holmes 10.24.2009′.
In the meantime, here’s a Bonhoeffer quote from his talk and from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which we are working through in Christian Ethics:
Behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world. God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal world, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. God establishes a most intimate unity with this. God becomes human, a real human being. While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings. (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 84)