Political Theology in an Antireligious World

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By Martin Accad

Many today are angry at religion, or at least disappointed with it. Rightly so perhaps, since so much violence is carried out in God’s name. In the MENA part of the world, anger and disappointment were manifest in the so-called “Arab Spring” protests that began near the end of 2010, making their way like a storm of new hope through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Though the early demonstrations did not carry obvious antireligious undertones, they were predominantly anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment. As the wave of popular anger raged on, researchers and experts began to uncover a growing and emboldened movement of atheism making its way through the ranks of Arab youths. Authoritarian regimes had coopted religion, and the religious establishment – both Muslim and Christian – had coopted political dictators so flagrantly throughout history that this diabolic marriage was bound to come to a head sooner or later.

As the Arab Spring protests expanded to Syria in 2012, the resulting chaos eventually created a vacuum for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or Daesh in its Arabic acronym equivalent) to expand there in the summer of 2014. The murderous behavior of the group began to cause havoc in traditional Muslim circles. Daesh’s justification of its actions based on the Qur’an and other Islamic texts imposed some unprecedented interpretive challenges on traditional understandings of these texts that religious leadership circles had to address – some for the first time in such a context. The shame and embarrassment felt within the Muslim world is reflected in the abundance of documents of self-justification that emerged within the first eighteen months of the ISIS phenomenon. My assessment is that Daesh administered the final blow to a certain brand of Islamic traditional authoritarianism that dominated Muslim societies for centuries.

In the West, and on the Christian side, I would argue that a similar phenomenon took place as a result of the politics now broadly referred to as “Trumpism,” both at home and abroad. Studies show that the disillusionment of young people with politicized evangelicalism is likely at its highest today.

Anger toward religion is expressed in a variety of ways. Some are angry at God because of all the suffering they see. Classically, this crisis is referred to as theodicy: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This blog is not about theodicy, however. More people today are angry at religion in the form of its various political manifestations and because of them: sectarianism, political clericalism, and religious authoritarianism. If you are not angry with religion, then it is perhaps time you should be!

How, then, do we engage in political theology in such a misotheistic world – a world of God-haters? Or should we perhaps call this phenomenon misoreligionism – a world of religion-haters?

In Lebanon, misoreligionism has clearly dominated the discourse and popular slogans of our own version of the Arab Spring – the October 17 revolution, triggered in 2019 by the weakening and degradation of every national institution under the weight of the corrupt and clientelist policies and behaviors of a kleptocratic political class. People in collective societies – not least in the MENA – remain deeply attached to their belief in the existence of God. What we are witnessing, therefore, is better described as misoreligionism rather than misotheism. What is the fate of political theology in such an environment?

On August 4th, 2020, the disintegration of the Lebanese state was phenomenally manifested in the Beirut port explosion, the most dramatic and tragic crime perpetrated in Lebanon’s history by an entire political class against its own people, the peak of a long history of impunity and intrinsic violence. Since August 4th, my own professional career has taken a bit of a turn. Though interfaith work, in which I have invested 19 years of my life, will continue to play an important role in triggering social change, my experience is that it is less potent in its ability to achieve deep political change. Most religious leaders are primarily loyal to their religious hierarchy, which is too often coopted by the political mainstream. Such leaders will not provide the sort of prophetic political leadership needed in a country like Lebanon. At this juncture of Lebanon’s history, I have therefore decided to reinvest much of my energy in political activism in the short term, and in the cathartic exploration of our long history of violence in the longer term. For me, this represents a natural extension of my journey into political theology as an expression of my public engagement.

This journey has begun inductively; my calling to public engagement motivates me to seek a biblical framework for politics rather than theological convictions leading me to activism. So, what is the meaning of public theology. Or perhaps a better question is this: Can theology be other than public? Should it be? If it is not public, then who is it serving, given that public theology should be part of the church’s mission, and that missiology is always outward looking?

I would argue that public theology is naturally a political theology, where “political” is understood as the comprehensive ordering of every-day life. In this perspective, political theology designates the political outworking of Christianity. In other words, even as we pray to the Father with Jesus, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” our hope for the kingdom of God and our anticipation of justice and peace shapes our political hermeneutics and our message in society and the world.

As we read the New Testament, it is not difficulty to be convinced that the message of Jesus and the impact of his life, as handed down to us by early Christians, were thoroughly political. They so profoundly changed the societies of the time that they became a transitional moment for history itself, a turning point expressed as “before Christ” and “after Christ.” What remains in question is not whether the Christ calling should be viewed as political, but whether we will engage in good political theology or in bad political theology. The sort of practice that causes many today to shy away from the integration of politics and theology, therefore, is a manifestation of bad political theology rather than an argument for separation.

The cross of Christ is at the center of the gospel handed down to us. It is the greatest of political statements against human abuse of power that makes a mockery of justice and peace. Every gospel proclamation that fails to contribute actively to the advent of justice and to the increase of peace is therefore a travesty of Christ’s kerygma. In its perceived weakness, the cross is the most powerful political critique and the foundation of our hope for a politics of freedom. It is the memory of the crucified, tirelessly remembered in the eucharist and passionately represented in the church’s iconography, that inspires our political theology.

How, then, do we engage in political theology in an antireligious world? We do it like Jesus, denouncing prophetically the tyrants who coopt religion under the guise of political sectarianism. In Lebanon, for example, the claim that political sectarianism is the guarantee of Christianity’s survival will itself risk the demise of the historical Christian presence in the region. The self-givingness of the cross annihilates the self-serving abuse of political power. As idealistic men and women initially engage in politics, they often soon fall prey to the trap of political self-perpetuation. The message of the cross restores power in the service of public good, dislodging it from its inclination to self-perpetuation. It is the telos, the end goal of servant leadership.

The critical situation in which the witness of the church in the Middle East finds itself today has not gone unnoticed by theologians and thinkers in the region. Recently (September 2021), a prophetic and thought-provoking document, entitled “We Choose Abundant Life: Christians in the Middle East: Towards Renewed Theological, Social, and Political Choices,” was published by a group of Arab theologians. It is something of a political manifesto that calls on the church in the Middle East to adopt a renewed framework for public theology. It does so in a spirit of humility and confession of past failures, reaffirming the mission of the church as one of service to humanity, of perpetual institutional renewal, of restoration of witness as active presence for the renewal and salvation of our societies. It expresses this call through the poignant and radical image of adopting a “culture of life” and rejecting the “culture of death” that has so often dominated the church’s engagement with society and the religious other.

I believe that our societies today are in desperate need for a proper political theology, whose framework will motivate followers of Christ everywhere to commit to the sort of public engagement that serves the causes of justice, peace, and freedom in all realms of social and environmental politics.

Martin is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and directs the research group Action Research Associates.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    Excellent thoughts Martin! Thank-you. I look forward to following this new chapter in your career. Some of your ideas here regarding public theology and the question of good vs. bad political theology resonate deeply in the West as well as the East. I also appreciated reading the document “We Choose Abundant Life” produced by a variety of Middle Eastern theologians.

  2. Jonathan Andrews says:

    Martin:
    Many thanks for this insightful post.
    The interaction of political and religious leadership seems to be problematic in many ways, as described here. Could a future post explore how church leaders might balance pastoral care for the flock and speaking truth to power in a prophetic way. Both are important; not all are gifted at both. What degree of risk is the church collectively willing to take to challenge the endemic issues that you highlight?
    Blessings
    Jonathan

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