This year, Lent coincided with one of the most heated presidential primary seasons the US has experienced in quite some time. Pondering my own sinfulness and the sinfulness of humanity in general really was quite easy as I read, watched, and listened to candidates contort the truth in attempts to justify past, current, and future actions. Our politics not only manifests itself in sinfulness, it all too often appears designed from and for sinfulness. But, of course, Lent comes to a close with Holy Week, when our sinfulness reaches a crescendo, then is decimated by the power of God made perfect in the weakness of the Cross and the mystery and glory of the Resurrection.
For centuries, Christian visions of politics have been defined by readings of the Old Testament, the location of the most explicit picture of God’s desires for human beings embodied in governing institutions. Israel is the model of God’s holy rule over His people, and should animate our contemporary politics, if not altogether dominate it. It has a leadership structure, a civic code, a moral vision that includes religious instruction, and outlines relationships with other nations. What more could Christians ask for from a biblical politics?1
But this year I was left wondering if Christians have failed to consider how the Gospel narratives, especially the Passion, should inform our politics.2 Certainly the church cultivates disciples who possess moral and spiritual virtues that can translate into the political arena in some positive form. But what do those virtues look like? And might the crucifixion go beyond issues of personal character into the very purpose of politics itself? From Plato’s Republic to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, politics have been assigned the end/good/purpose of justice. Moral and political philosophers have debated the precise nature of justice at least since Socrates was given the death penalty, yet the correct policy choices that should well up from a conception of justice often remain elusive. Despite our inability to agree on the specifics of justice, even an American society rife with the language of moral relativism still views justice as the heart of our political existence. The last several years have seen an explosion of political energy dedicated to correcting the poverty of justice in race relations. Environmental issues are now couched in the language of justice, as if the earth itself has a moral stake. And revelations in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008–09 (The Panama Papers being only the most recent) have placed poverty and extreme wealth in the moral calculus of justice.
What can the crucifixion say about all of this? Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart pointed the way forward in a 1998 essay about St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. Hart refurbished Anselm’s reputation as a defender, and perhaps the originator, of the theory commonly referred to as penal substitutionary atonement, contending that Anselm has been misread and does not espouse penal substitutionary atonement as it is commonly articulated. In Hart’s reading, the justice of the crucifixion, for Anselm, is not an economic transaction between God and Jesus (on our behalf), in which Jesus takes on the punishment that humanity is owed and God’s wrath is satisfied by the violence of the cross. Rather, God’s divine justice is perfectly manifested in the cross because God’s nature as both perfectly just and perfectly merciful are embodied in the crucifixion. Jesus satisfies God’s demands not by what is done to him (violence and death), but rather by what Jesus does, which is to remain absolutely obedient until the very end, a path that humanity is unable to trod. Hart puts it this way:
It must not be overlooked that for Anselm it is not Christ’s suffering as such that is redemptive (the suffering merely repeats sin’s endlessly repeated and essential gesture), but rather his innocence; he recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings for those to whom death is condign. Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties. (348)
In this interpretation, Christ had to die to satisfy God’s wrath because death was the extent to which sin had a hold on humanity. And “[God’s] mercy is imparted in the acceptance of Christ’s voluntary death... Christ’s sacrifice is ultimately not an economic gesture... but belongs instead to the infinite motion of God’s love, in which justice and mercy are one and can never be divided one from the other” (347). Once our understanding of the crucifixion moves beyond a model where punishment and violence take center stage, the crucifixion may indeed offer a divine understanding of the nature of politics in pursuit of justice. Hart repeatedly emphasizes (following Anselm) that God’s justice and mercy are the same thing:
[Justice and mercy] do not constitute a dialectical opposition sublated in the atonement. Nor do they possess only a mysterious and transcendent unity in God’s unsearchable depths, leaving to the human vantage merely a sense of one relenting before the pressure of the other. In the God-man, within human history, God’s justice and mercy are shown to be one thing, one action, life, and being. (344)
If God’s mercy and justice are one, a Christian conception of justice should follow, even as it applies to the political realm. The retractable sinfulness of our politics today lies precisely in that it embodies a notion of justice that is not the same as mercy. Mercy may exist in conjunction with justice here and there in our system, but never are they seen as the same “thing.” Are human institutions incapable of conceptualizing and operationalizing divine justice, insofar as justice and mercy are one? Leaving aside the obvious conclusion that we are sinful and cannot attain perfect justice (much less a justice that is also perfect mercy), Hart suggests that it is precisely because God’s justice is God’s mercy that it is perfect. If our political justice were even to move in the direction of God’s justice, must it not also become mercy, though an imperfect manifestation? Our justice is on an inferior level, or is an altogether different “thing” because it is not also mercy.
My own understanding of the relationship between the Church and the political realm rests on the two having different, though not necessarily unrelated, ends. The Church’s end is the highest end: a sustained vision of God where all are in perfect obedience through perfect worship. The political realm has been “ordained” by God (Romans 13) and has a limited role to play within the larger ordering of ends. Whether or not governments play that limited role has forever been the source of all manner of conflict between governments and between governments and the Church. Just as Christians must continually assess their own moral state, they must also scrutinize the activities of the governments that rule over them. A Christian political theology that is biblical cannot abandon politics altogether. It must at the very least be engaged in the role of protester in the face of unjust public policy and may even praise or assist policy that coheres with the justice of God’s final end.
But how can Christians pursue the justice of the cross, a justice that is mercy, in the political arena? The first task is to be firmly rooted in Christian worship, formed by the ancient liturgy of the church, so that our desires are truly focused on the proper end. Tending to our own desires helps ensure that we are prepared to resist the temptations of the world to love things that we ought not, or to love them more than we should. Being rooted in worship also empowers Christians to discern the truth about the “principalities and powers” and to speak that truth openly. Justice requires truth about moral wrongdoing. Only when the truth is out in the open is mercy possible. There are countless issues that America grapples with in the public sphere that are begging for justice soaked in truth that leads to mercy: the death penalty, abortion, racism, police brutality, and economic inequality. If we continue to elevate “choice” as the most authentic and proper moral expression in dealing with unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, American society will never move toward a justice that is mercy. A politics of the crucifixion must expose sin for what it is. Only then can a justice that is also mercy move the larger American society away from a politics that worships its own end as the highest of them all.
President Obama will travel to Hiroshima, Japan at the end of May “to highlight his continued commitment to pursuing peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons.” (BBC, “Barack Obama to visit Hiroshima on Japan and Vietnam trip,” May 10, 2016).3 When asked if the President would apologize for the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in August of 1945, the White House said no. The strategic logic coming from the White House is familiar: Japan is now an ally, and the United States seeks to shore up that alliance. But to apologize for the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, when Japan was clearly not an ally, would undermine the moral case for the future use of nuclear weapons not only as deterrent, but as legitimate strike option. To apologize for using a nuclear weapon would be to admit that there might be an end higher than national security, and that our use of nuclear weapons on noncombatants was sinful precisely because it belies the proper ordering of moral goods. It would threaten our national idolatry. If we were to apologize, we open ourselves up to the justice of the crucifixion, speaking the truth of our own sinfulness, and allowing mercy to well up from within justice. Christians can pursue the justice of the crucifixion by speaking the truth about the proper ordering of ends, innocent human life before national security and the convenience of “choice,” thereby calling forth the mercy of the crucifixion. The crucifixion is the singular event in human history in which God’s justice and mercy are completely manifest. While our political institutions are not designed to embody this (their role should be much less ambitious), Christian discipleship should shape a desire for the justice of God’s kingdom, embodied most perfectly in the cross.
Geoffrey Bowden is Coordinator of the Program of Political Science at Savannah State University.
Hart, D. Bentley. “A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.” Pro Ecclesia, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer 1998): 333–49.
Pecknold, C. C. Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010.
Rutledge, Fleming. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.
1. For a concise history of Christian thinking about politics, see C. C. Pecknold, Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History (2010). Pecknold’s account is from within the Catholic tradition, so the great diversity of the Protestant tradition is naturally left out.
2. During Lent, I read Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).