I’ve had this quote from Oliver O’Donovan saved in my phone for months now.
Every once in awhile I look at it to keep from saying things I will later regret.
“Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities.
The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”
But wait, “wait!” you say…, doesn’t that posture mean a kind of silent complicity in the face of corruption, childishness, and criminal injustice?
I mean, wasn’t Bonhoeffer right to say that
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.”
First, because Bonhoeffer never said that.
I mean… , so there’s that.
No matter how many times the quote appears on “Goodreads.com” (usually next to a picture of Bonhoeffer with his arm behind his head, courtesy of Prussian Glamour Shots), it doesn’t change the fact that the German pastor never uttered, wrote, or Tweeted the line—at least so far as anyone knows.
It seems to be a fake quote.
Thus it boasts the same historical support as “I invented the internet,” remarked Abraham Lincoln.
Second, talking about something else is not the same as silence–and it doesn’t always mean complicity.
There are certainly times when Christians must speak up in the face of political and social injustice.
I’ve even done my fair share of writing on issues like abortion, racism, and sexual assault. I come from a Wesleyan tradition, after all, that (despite her many faults) was birthed in abolitionism and raised on women’s suffrage.
Still, I think O’Donovan is right to note the dangers of a church that gets too caught up in the “feverish excitement” regarding the raging dumpster fire of American politics.
At points, I’ve agreed with Brian Zahnd when he notes that
Part of why many Christians bring so much energy into their politics is due to a low or non-existent ecclesiology. They can in no serious way regard the church as an agent of change, so all their energy goes into politics. There is no alternative way of the church, only R vs. D.
This can happen on either side of the aisle.
To follow O’Donovan’s advice in avoiding some forms of “feverish [political] excitement” is not to commend silence or withdrawal—it is rather to acknowledge with humility that the thing holding us all back from the abyss at this moment is probably not my personal Twitter account. (Especially since I don’t have one.)
The road back to civil discourse is more likely to lead through your backyard than your Facebook Newsfeed.
(Oooh! I like that line, I will now post it unironically to Facebook, heal our national wounds, and generate new ads for lawn care products.)
In the end, it requires discernment to know which “wave” of societal and political outrage deserves comment, and which “wave” should be allowed to pass in the knowledge that there will be another one in approximately five seconds.
I haven’t mastered that art.
Still, I am working hard this season to refuse the “principalities and powers” (the Greek word there is “algorithms”–or it should be…) the posture they desire in some moments of political upheaval—the posture of feverish excitement.
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- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
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