The appeasement of ‘the public square’

Posted by on February 11, 2007 at 4:13 am.

Well, I hesitate to blog about this, because it touches on some extremely heated discussions over the past few years up until the present, but here goes.

First, exhibit A:

John Edwards creates consensus!, posted by Carl Olson, author and blogger at the Ignatius Press’ blog called “Insight Scoop.” If you’re bored and are not familiar with the debate thus far, there are plenty of links offered by Carl to catch up.

Second, exhibit B:

Donohue and the Jews, a blog post by Dave Neiwert at the blog Orcinus, a blog that tirelessly reports on hate crimes, pseudo-fascism, and eliminationalist rhetoric in America.

Now, let’s see if I can be very careful about this. I love both of these blogs. Concerning Ignatius Insight, Roman Catholicism, etc.: while I am what might be described as a “Eucharist- and Christ-centred Nazarene,” I am not, as a protestant, anti-Catholic. Those who know me know that I have great Roman Catholic friends and have blogged over the past couple years about my involvement with friendships with Catholics and ecumenical talks — especially recently. Also, to get some “stances” out of the way, I am completely pro-life in the “whole fabric of life” sense of the term: for having children (thus, against abortion), and for harmonious, active peace in the world (thus, a non-passive pacifist against war: see Hauerwas, Yoder, et. al. on this). All life is a precious gift from God, and it is not ours to decide what we want to do with it. And, concerning Carl Olson, I believe strongly that his apologetic efforts in his books Will Catholics Be Left Behind? and The Da Vinci Hoax are invaluable services to the church catholic.

Concerning Dave Neiwert and the work he does on his blog and in his books, I think he also offers a wonderful service to those concerned about eliminationalistic rhetoric on the airwaves. He tirelessly documents the continuing sins of things that should “never happen again”: the Japanese internment during WWII and those that continue to want to get rid of the current ‘undesireables’ of today in similar situations (e.g. Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, et. al.); hate crimes continued in parts of the country enacted through the preservation of some arbitrary barrier whether it be race, borders (thus, immigrants), anti-Muslim hate crimes; etc. His series on Newspeak, Pseudo-Fascism, and Eliminationalism are carefully documented historical looks of where America has been, what it’s doing now, and how pervasive elements within society continue to reactively spread hate, lies, and violence. His work is not to be missed because most people just do not report about it or even care.

But, I am disappointed in two of my favourite bloggers tonight.

All this reactive nonsense dealing in ‘the public square’ really clouds people’s vision, I think. Yes, I think the comments the Jonathan Edward’s hired assistants were execrable. Yes, Mel Gibson, his father, and their schismatic form of Catholicism (and I mean this quite seriously that he is a schismatic) have continued to prove that sadly, he and they are vehemently anti-semitic.

But what is this all about? Why are people so up in arms about this stuff? Why do people care? There are a lot more anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic fish in the sea. Everybody is a bigot. Bill Donohue is a bigot. Mel Gibson is a bigot. John Edward’s assistants are bigots. Rush Limbaugh is a bigot. Da Vinci code is bigoted. Pat Robertson is a bigot. This is all true, and seriously so. But that word has lost all meaning at this point, don’t you think?

Aren’t we all sinners?

“Oh but wait a second, Eric, you can’t bring ‘sin talk’ into this! We’re talking about The Passion of the Christ and a Presidential campaign here. These are important issues about a very popular movie and about a potential presidency. That rhetoric of sin misses the point.”

Oh, does it now? (i.e. ORLY?) What point?

“The point is that first, you can’t chaulk this stuff up to ‘sin’ in the public sphere, and second, you sound an awful lot like you’re just trying to gloss over the issue and give everybody a pass! Which side are you on in this? Either you’re a liberal defending Edwards and the likes of Dave Neiwert or your a theo-con defending the Roman Catholic church, Mel Gibson, and Rush Limbaugh!”

Oh, am I? I’m not saying we should keep sinning: by no means! What I’m talking about here is this primacy of ‘the public sphere’ and how it distracts us away from what is really important: loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor (including our enemy) as ourself.

“Oh, you can’t just simplify it down to that!”

Why can’t I? I’m trying to change the question here. My question goes something like this: How can we most faithfully love and worship the Triune God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourself, which includes loving our enemy? I’m not asking “how can we best” do these things, because God does not play favorites, but meets us each where we are in our varying times and contexts. In engaging in the works of mercy by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the shelter-less, being with the sick, and visiting the prisoner, I don’t see what a presidential hopeful and some bigoted assistants have much to do with this being faithful.

“But presidents make decisions on the federal level that affect all of this so you can’t say that he has nothing to do with this.”

Sure I can. Even if, heaven forbid, the president declared that we couldn’t feed the poor, etc., we’d still find a way to be faithful. We only serve one master, and it isn’t Caesar. Even the local ‘Republican’ leadership in San Diego has done much to hinder our efforts to feed the poor and clothe the naked in the downtown area, yet the church I am a member of barely knows how to give out all the food donations we know receive. We do our best to submit to authority, but that is not equal to obedience. A Christians faithfulness is never determined by his or her worldly liberty. I am in no way advocating for mass incarceration, but we easily forget that so much of the New Testament was written from prison! One’s true liberty is always found in their faithfulness to the Father by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Instead, the question that dominates the airwaves and the blogosphere goes something like this: because these public things like the office of the presidency, Hollywood movies* have such an [top-down] ‘impact’ on life in America, how can we do our best to rally around or against these hotly-debated topics so that we can control the conversation? Admittedly, this is only implicitly asked, but I’m convinced it is there — why else would people get up in arms about stupid movies, lite-bright marketing tactics in Boston, or even whether or not we demand that some presidential hopeful aid’s get fired? Get rid of them! Get rid of Mel Gibson! [Dave Neiwert never says this, but I’m not sure what he’d offer to help the Gibsons.] Put those ‘hoax’ device planters who aren’t taking their actions ‘seriously’ in prison and make the Cartoon Network pay! Glad the President of the Cartoon Network resigned — good riddance! Fire those bigotted aids of Edwards’! Don’t try to offer them the transformative love of Christ!

Mix that in with varying degrees of blogger snark, malice, the anonymity that the internet often provides, and everybody just ends up pissed at each other.

“So you just want everybody to hold hands and sing ‘Koom-bai-yah’?!”

Don’t put words in my mouth. And no. Heck no. No, instead, I might begin by offering the analysis of William Cavanaugh up on this. His essay called “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies” offers a great analysis of what happens when people start putting ‘liberty’ before love, or as John Milbank has put it elsewhere, the contract before the gift. The gift does not anull the contract, nor does love anull liberty (as critics seem to repeatedly [mis]argue), but when these things are rightly ordered, the contract and liberty are radically transformed in light of Christ. So, as Cavanaugh puts it, instead of being a Church-facing people, we Christians have instead become a stateward-facing people.

Thus, we don’t resolve things in light of our baptism in Christ or in reconciliation as we partake of the Eucharist, but instead we look to the ‘public sphere’ to hash these things out: sue your neighbor, or get sued and don’t reconcile and end up in prison “until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:23-26Open Link in New Window)**; hash it out on 24-hour cable networks over a movie about Christ, or about celebrities and their anti-Semitism, or about any number of controversies about the state, or the federal government, or whatever is the hot-button issue. No wonder people are pissed that the news networks wouldn’t stop covering the death of Anna Nicole Smith — they wanted to (rightly) switch back to the “things that matter” which are, you know, all the presidential hopefuls announcing their candidacy.

Not that any of these things aren’t important. Of course they are important. But, so many Christians–Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Othodox alike–place so much primacy on this stuff that they forget to be Christian. Is Christianity really something that is enacted through laws, movies, executive fiat, and even dare I say, Christian flags?*** Or, is Christianity something that, regardless of where one finds oneself, a faith in Christ to love the “least of these”, the downtrodden, and the poor? As my friend Charlie just reminded us, and as my friend Dan continues to remind us, we Christians bear witness to a kingdom of God where the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and where we are to journey alongside the exiles of our society in mercy and love, bearing each other’s burdens and forgiving one another along the way.

“But Eric, in making this post, aren’t you, in turn, reacting to the events in the ‘public sphere’ and thus letting it dictate you, albeit negatively?”

Well, yes, to a degree, and that’s why I hardly post about this stuff anymore. But sometimes people think my silence is consent or think I don’t care, or think I’m not “being responsible” or am giving into the “sectarian temptation,” all of which are false. All responsibility is a responsibility toward something or someone, and I’m trying to remind Christians (including myself!) that we need to change the question about responsibility– or better yet, allegiance and faithfulness first to God and to God’s church is the question that should order our lives.

I think a Karl Barth quotation would round out what I am trying to say rather well. Karl Barth once said to

take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Newspapers, he says, are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church–in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by theworld around him–either East or West. He should make it his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?


* How ironic is that it is often that those constantly bashing Hollywood and how ‘secular’ it is get extemely defensive about the supposedly ‘Christian’ stuff that does come out of Hollywood from time to time? Could it be that we are more committed to celebrity worship than we are to Christ worship? See Charlie Pardue’s fantastic post on this here: Celebrity-Christians.

** It is interesting here that Christ assumes that the people he is talking to are not the ones doing the accusing (or suing).

*** Why do Christians even need Christian flags? They’re already inspired by the American flag as it is, and even then, 99 times out of 100 they’re flown lower than the American flag. And even considering all that, why would a Christian need a flag anyway? Seems more of a Constantinian impulse anyway, does it not? Are we not known for our love? (or at least we should be, even though we have continually messed this up)