Davey has helpfully pointed us to a rather bizarre occurrence at the Democratic National Convention, namely the closing prayer by fellow Portlander and author, Donald Miller. Miller many of us know from the wildly successful book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligous Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. This book has, in many ways, come to be cast as the quintessence of the sensibility of so-called emerging church. Miller’s actual writing is really not bad. It is funny, whimsical, and sometimes insightful. It is the bane of all memoirs to appear self-consumed (how could they not?) and as such, I certainly don’t fault Miller on that score. However, one must pause to think about the oddity of a fellow like Miller being asked to offer a closing prayer at the DNC. Since when did major political parties start seeking out those perceived as emerging Christian bohemeian hipster types to chaplain their events? What is going on here?
Miller, like Jim Wallis and others among the “evangelical left” (a term I use with trepidation — clearly it could be taken pejoratively, but we need some sort of workable descriptor) are central among those whose vote the Democratic party is courting. Obama’s current surge of seemingly indestructible popularity is largely grounded in his appeal to young social justice-oriented people, many of whom are inclined towards the spirituality and thinkers associated with the emerging church.
Miller claims, on his website that his prayer at the DNC is part of “sending a message to Washington that no single party has the Christian community in their pocket.” This echoes Jim Wallis’s tired rhetoric about how both the left and the right are misguided, but pretty much everything about the left is actually pure gospel and the right is irredeemably diabolical. However that is not the point I am interested in.
I suppose it is not a horrible thing to let Washington know that Christians cannot be absorbed by one political party, but how is that message really all that good? The implicate of Miller’s message seems to be that Christians as a whole are not the political capital of the Republicans, rather, depending on what kind of Christian you are, you can be the political capital of either the Democrats or the Republicans. (I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not Wallis and Miller really want to send that message at all. I suspect they’d far rather have all Christians be voting Democrat than have Christians voting against one another.)
The real question that is going unasked here is how is it a good thing if Christianity is so plastic as to be easily circumscribed within the architecture of either the Democratic or Republican parties? Why would the fact that Christians are no longer of the same mind about which political party to get in bed with be a good thing? Its as though Wallis and Miller are reveling in the fact that finally some of us Christians are different than the religious right and are able to express that difference by opposing them through the apparatus of the Democratic party. What is ultimately the point of rejoicing for Miller and Wallis is that Christians are finally dividing from one another over the causes they find important.
My point in this is not to suggest that things were better when evangelicals were almost universal expected to vote Republican. Surely they were not. However, the kind of political imagination that delights in the fact that finally new lines are being drawn along political lines and Christians are falling on both sides of them is surely not a very Christian way of thinking. It is agonistic and divisive all the way down. Certainly there are issues that must be divisive for the sake of truthfulness (cf. 1 Cor. 11:19), but I don’t think this is at all what is going on here. This has far more to do with the sort of identity politicking and social self-branding that has become fetishized in late-capitalist culture. What is ultimately important to Miller and Wallis, or at least the sort of spiritual-political sensibility that they have come to represent, is that they be differentiated from the Religious Right, this barbarous Other which they despise. What is crucial for them is all the trappings that come along with their differentiation from this Other. Their politics are reactive from begining to end. Thus, if praying at the DNC stands in opposition to praying at the RNC then that is clearly the move to be made. By making it Miller brands himself the certain sort of religous-political persona with whom the current culture of disaffected evangelicals have come to identify. The notion that it might be just as problematic for two political parties to have sectors of Christianity in the pocket as one is not really a consideration.
All of this points to a fundamental problem with the evangelical ethos in the United States from which the emerging church movement springs. Evangelical identity, at least in the U.S. is so utterly determined by the American political imagination and the capitalist economy which grounds it, that it is unable to express or realize itself except through the political-economic architecture of America, regardless of what political subdivision it finds itself in. It is part of the fabric of evangelical identity to be beholden to a certain notion of what meaningful political existence means, namely good citizenship, responsible participation in the “public sphere” for the sake of ordering society towards the relative good. As such, any and all forms of evangelical religious practice must by definition take their bearings and derive their intelligibility from their participation in the American political apparatus which is constituted by late-capitalism.
Thus, the whole capitalist superstructure — upon which Democrats and Republicans feed like pilot fish upon an whale — constantly absorbs any and all evangelical political action into itself. It doesn’t matter to the capitalist structure whether or not evangelicals are in the pocket of one party or two in the least. As long as evangelicals remain within the orbit of their historic ethos they will always be seamlessly enfolded in the capitalist tapestry. Donald Miller praying at the DNC says absolutely nothing whatsoever to allay or contrast the captivation of evangelicals to the rhetoric of the religious right. It makes absolutely no difference to it whatsoever because it simply occupies an opposing nodal point within the binary antagonisms which make up the fabricated antinomies that run the capitalist order. Insofar as evangelicals, emergent or not continue to simply take their place on either side of the given polarities of micropolitics, they will continue to remain satiated subjects of capitalist discipline.
The only truely theopolitical form of Christian witness in the world will be one that is not caught up in the binary oppositions that obtain in contemporary political discourse. By remaining within the polarity of action and reaction, Christian politics is endlessly determined by the political logic of the civitas Cain rather than the civitate dei. Christian politics can only truly be Christian when it is not determined by the cycle of action and reaction that establishes the agonistic order of the earthly city. For Christian politics to be truly Christian they must be, at their very core, nonreactive. The peace of the city of God is in no way determined, constituted, or defined by the agonism of the earthly city. In the same way the translation of human bodies out of the body of Adamic death into the body of Christic life in baptism is in no sense determined by the powers of domination. Baptism is the translation of bodies into the realm of gift-giving and receiving, a realm which is not determined by the logic of violence that underwrites the reactive nature of all earthly politics.
Of course, there are many objections that could be lodged against the positing of this nonreactive theopolitical alternative that I have just hinted at. Surely all churches and all Christians are always-already circumscribed within the violent agonistic logic of the earthly city. Simply to pretend that we inhabit a pristine paradise of gift is nothing more than the construction of fictions, is it not? To this I can only say no. And I can say this on no basis other than the promisory reality that lies at the heart of the gospel. To be sure the line between the earthly city and the city of God runs through each one of us, but that by no means entails that we should settle down and break off our pilgrimage toward Jerusalem simply because we are not there yet. To inhabit the city of God is not to inhabit a stable defined space which we could counterpose with the earthly city. The city of God is the company of pilgrims who journey eschatologically through the present age, bearing within themselves the firstfruits of the age to come. We live not by the stability of something given, but in the instability of promise and gift. The nonreactive politics of the pilgrim people of God is not a total system which could supplant the earthly city or which is free from the violence of the earthly city. It is rather the proclamation, expectation, and experience of the apocalypse of God’s gift which breaks into the totality of the earthly city opening up spaces of infinite peace in which real human life can and does take place in the midst of this present world. What we are called to believe is that this sort of thing really happens. And such a belief cannot be inferred from the logic of prior sequences of events. What we are called to, as Craig Hovey has helpfully pointed out is not the stability of prediction, but the insecurity of promise.
To live in that promise would be to inhabit a space in which we are willing to do that hard work of problematizing our attempts to easily participate in the political binaries of this present age. To live in light of the Trinitarian future of promise and gift is to live in the realm of inutiliy, in which our political practices are likely to look like utter foolishness. But what else would we expect when the criterion of political intelligibility in our world is based on the very structure of reaction that the Christian order of peace calls into question?
It may be that I have finally drifted too far afield from my initial questions about the political and theological logic of Miller’s participation in the DNC. Ultimately the question revolves around political content of the gospel. Insofar as we allow the promisory imagination of the gospel of Christ to be circumscribed by the political logic of the earthly city we are failing to truly embody our theopolitical calling as the ekklesia of of the triune God. And in so failing we become simply another branded commodity to be bought, sold, and fetishized in the ubiquitous market of global captitalism. I fear that Donald Miller, by casting in his lot where he has may have done just that. It is my hope that ultimately the call of the pilgrim people of God will be sweeter and more alluring than the apparent utility false polis and the cool trappings of insidious agora of this age. And I think that hope is not ill-founded.