Luke Bretherton: Politics is key to loving your neighbor

Politics is not a necessary evil; it’s an important way to care for a community, says a professor and theologian.

On the eve of another U.S. election cycle, many are disenchanted with politics and democracy. In his new book, “Christ and the Common Life,” Luke Bretherton encourages Christians to refine how they think about the relationship between politics and theology, and to see politics as a crucial arena for Christian life.

Politics is theological, and theology is political, but politics is not theology.

“God-talk and talk of politics are often circulating inside each other,” Bretherton said, but they are not the same.

When we make them the same, we refuse to compromise on political issues, and as a result, we refuse to collaborate with others, which is crucial to democracy.

“Politics always involves a dance of conflict and conciliation,” Bretherton said.

Christians are called to love their neighbors, and democracy directly engages that call by saying that every person and every voice matters, he said.

BrethertonBretherton is a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School and a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. His previous books include “Hospitality as Holiness” (2006) and “Christianity and Contemporary Politics” (2010).

Bretherton spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and how Christian leaders should think about democracy. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: I get the sense that part of the purpose of the book is to define political theology. So briefly, what is political theology?

Luke Bretherton: At its most basic, we can say that political theology is Christian reflection on what it means to be a political animal in light of who we are revealed to be in relation to God, to each other, and in relation to creation as a whole. Political theology explores what that revelation means for us in terms of the conditions and conduct of our shared, ongoing forms of life together.

But when we say the word “political,” we often think in terms of party politics or bureaucracy or the workings of the state. Part of the argument I’m making in the book is that this is only one aspect of politics but not everything that politics is.

We need a more expansive sense of politics as the negotiation of a common life amidst the inevitable conflicts that arise around what our conflicting visions of the good or flourishing life are.

You might be Buddhist, I might be Christian, someone else might be atheist, and we’re living in the same space. We’ve got different visions of the good. How do we negotiate that in an ongoing way without either killing each other or creating systems of coercion whereby one group controls and determines what other groups think and do.

Instead of either of those bad options, we should do politics. Politics is negotiating a common life amidst disagreement and the need to navigate and transform asymmetries of power.

That’s the nature of political life, and it occurs in every context: in a church, in a school -- everywhere.

We tend to think of politics as this special thing. I’m saying, “Look, we’re all involved in forms of political life.”

We need a theological understanding of that, and political theology is the theological reflection from several millennia around the questions that inevitability arise as we cultivate a common life.

The core questions of the book circulate around what we do when we’re confronted with injustice, poverty and suffering; how we encounter and navigate some form of shared life with strangers and enemies; and then lastly, how we can handle power constructively.

It seems to me these are perennial questions that Christians have had to work out how to address, because they always arise when you’re in this dance of conflict and conciliation as you work out how to live with others not like you. That’s really the heart of the book.

F&L: You explore the overlap and separation between politics and political theology. How do politics and political theology get confused with one another?

LB: I think often one of the problems Christians have gotten themselves into is they conflate pursuit of the kingdom of God with pursuit of the common good. Then we overinvest with ultimate significance what are actually penultimate, immanent goods.

There needs to be discernment: is something ultimate or penultimate at stake here?

If I compromise around borders or distribution of tax resources or questions of health care, I’m not somehow compromising the end of history. Disagreement on issues like these is simply a political disagreement that takes place in this age before Christ’s return, not a metaphysical disagreement.

Contingent, political matters pertaining to this age before Christ’s return often become seen as ultimate questions. Then those we disagree with become enemies with whom we cannot compromise or foster forms of common life with. And those that do work across “enemy lines” are considered traitors.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t certain things that really are about the kingdom of God and we really should make a stand. For instance, Karl Barth famously used the term status confessionis from Luther to say that standing against the Nazis wasn’t just a political matter; it was a kingdom matter. But these are rare.

I am not saying we should avoid conflict. It’s right that we have conflicts and disputes. It’s a question of how much do we freight those conflicts and disputes. Is the end of history at stake, or is this simply a matter where there’s a better and worse?

If it is a political and not a kingdom matter, then there needs to be a dance of conflict and conciliation. Too much conciliation and we jump to reconciliation too quickly. Think about issues of racism or sexism. If we don’t take seriously that there are real conflicts here, we jump too quickly to resolution and don’t name and address the real conflicts and injustice at work. So we can’t jump too quickly to conciliation.

However, if we only have conflict and there’s an absolute division between us and them, there can be no movement toward conciliation, and a common life becomes inconceivable, let alone possible.

When we demand that everyone we disagree with leave the room before the conversation begins, that’s not politics. That’s a sect, and that’s partly what we have. We have political sects.

It’s this tensional dance of conflict and conciliation that needs recovering. Polarization isn’t always wrong; sometimes we need it if a person isn’t paying living wages or won’t acknowledge the injustice an action generates. It just can’t be the only thing. And conciliation and compromise are not always wrong.

F&L: Getting to the title of the book, why is politics central to a good life or a common life?

LB: Any understanding of human and creational flourishing has to address political questions.

It is not good for humans to live alone. As Scripture teaches, we’re not created to be alone.

There’s a sense in which humans can’t be truly human without relating to another human and also to nonhuman life. Any account of human flourishing has to take account of our already entangled life with others and other species and the rest of creation.

None of us lives alone, and none of us can survive, let alone thrive, alone.

If human flourishing entails entangled life with others, then it must involve some account of politics, because you’ve got to navigate some kind of ongoing common life with others and how that impacts and shapes your life with other-than-human life.

We have various modern accounts that tend to frame politics and morality in terms of individual decisions, as if we were just a bunch of individual atoms bouncing off each other.

That’s a false description of reality, where actually we’re interdependent, mutually vulnerable creatures always already entangled with others. Therefore, we have to have some account of what it means to be the kind of animal -- a political animal -- who needs others to survive, let alone thrive.

The flourishing life can never be divorced from some account of a common life, and common life inevitability involves politics. So moral theology always involves political theology, because the moral life necessitates some account of a shared life, which necessitates an account of politics.

F&L: And you emphasize democratic politics in particular for Christians. Why?

LB: Yes. I make the case that in a Christian understanding of politics, the key way of understanding political relations is through the category of neighbor love.

Neighbor love should be the primary way of framing political relations for Christians.

Now, how does neighbor love connect to democratic politics? Again, if we unhook the notion of democracy from just meaning elections, the rule of law, this kind of stuff, democratic politics is at its root a commitment to listen to and learn from other people.

Democratic politics says that no one has a monopoly on wisdom, so I need others to discern rightly how to act with and for others if we are to thrive. It recognizes that I’m often not the best judge of what’s the right thing to do. We are all finite and frail, so we need to listen to other voices not like us to get a good read on reality and describe what’s really going on.

This obviously relates not just to the problem of finitude but also to the impact of fallenness on politics.

Sin is a political reality. How do you address questions of sin with democracy? Lots of people want to claim a monopoly on wisdom. Democracy says no one has a monopoly on wisdom. We should consult all about what affects all. That’s one key aspect.

The other aspect is the question of love. In terms of neighbor love, democracy says each person matters. By building in the need to listen to each other through a democratic process, democracy says each person has dignity.

To listen is to say to another, “You matter; you are worth listening to; you have value.” To listen is to participate in God’s hearing of the world and so be rightly oriented to God and neighbor. Democratic politics is a means through which we listen and thereby discover a common life.

The emphasis on the intrinsic dignity of each and the need to listen to all seems to connect to a deep claim of neighbor love that each person is a creature called by God to be in relationship to Christ, and neighbor love mediated through democratic politics is a way in which we can actually live that in practice.

I don’t think Christians need democracy to be Christian, but I think democracy does articulate central Christian claims about what it means to treat others as neighbors.

F&L: How does the book help us engage with what we’re currently seeing in our political climate?

LB: A lot of people are either disenchanted with democracy and actually siding with anti-democratic movements, like right-wing populist movements, or just don’t think democracy is fit for addressing key issues like climate change.

Part of the case I make in the book is to not lose faith in democracy. It’s still a crucial way in which we can and should pursue human and creational flourishing, and things go very wrong when we don’t seek democratic means to solve collective or shared problems.

Even though most Christian traditions have some commitment to democracy as a way in which they navigate contemporary life, it’s often not clear why, or what the theological framework for that is. The book lays out those frameworks and hopefully helps people be more explicit about why that’s important and why politics matters.

Politics isn’t just an arena of sin. It’s not just a necessary evil. It’s not something we just tolerate until Christ returns.

Politics is a crucial arena in which we work out what it means to love God and neighbor, and politics itself can be a form of neighbor love if practiced in the ways I suggest in the book.

Remembering that is crucial for our moment, because I think people are disenchanted with democracy for very understandable reasons and are tempted to give up on it. I’m trying to give a positive account that allows a constructive vision of how Christians, through politics, can act faithfully and lovingly with and for others.