As a deeply appreciative reader of Religious Left Law for some time now, I am delighted to have been asked by Steve Shiffrin to participate on this blog. As an Episcopal chaplain here at Cornell and a doctoral student in theology at Syracuse, I suppose my competence falls more on the ‘religious’ than on the ‘law’ side of the blog, so I will use my posting privileges to ruminate on what a progressive political theology might look like for our time.
In 1933, Reinhold Niebuhr, in an attempt to re-vitalize what he considered a politically and ethically stagnant religious left in America, wrote that what was needed was ‘‘a more radical political orientation and more conservative religious convictions than are comprehended in the culture of our era.’ Unwilling to concede theological integrity to the theo-political right, Niebuhr famously re-introduced such seemingly moribund notions as original sin to account for what post-niebuhrian theologies will sometimes call structural or institutional sin. He then used this creative re-reading of the Augustinian tradition to launch a Marxist influenced attack on corporate power and greed (Henry Ford was a favorite target), religious nationalism, and the complicity of liberal elites in economic inequality.
Niebuhr’s theo-political vision is a rich and complex one. He was not always clear about the theological import of the political language he brilliantly wielded, and his oeuvre has inspired, ironically, the likes of neo-conservative thinkers like Richard Neuhaus. When one of the inheritors of the Niebuhrian tradition, Jim Wallis, questions the very use of the political idiom of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘liberal’ and conservative’, he is perhaps cautiously warning of the potential straightjacket the Niebuhrian position can lead to when it allows its own biblical idiom to be thrust into a notoriously narrow political landscape.
Nevetheless, I remain convinced of the soundness of the Niebuhrian vision of a progressive politics married to a theological vision that refuses to give ground to those who would seek to push progressive voices outside the reach of the life-giving wellsprings of our various spiritual traditions. I am in deep agreement with Steve’s recent post “Spiritual, But Not Religious” suggesting that many young people are seeking a religious voice that is progressive in its political orientation. In my view this desire is combined with a deep longing to be re-connected to the rich and life-giving spiritual traditions and practices that sustain one in fighting social, economic, and political injustice against very long odds.
Niebuhr’s mobilization of original sin for radical political ends is thus one of a number of powerful examples of how progressive religious voices can re-claim spiritual nourishment from reactionary forces. Perhaps it is true that Niebuhr did not always see that such a stance may lead one, not into the hallowed halls of political power and theological neo-orthodoxy, where he often liked to find himself, but into the very precincts of the powerless, what the psalmists knew as sheol, or hell-on-earth.
Yet I suspect that the author of the famous Serenity Prayer would have appreciated this saying from the twelve step rooms for those on the verge of being banished to the outer darkness by reactionary religious forces: ‘Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.” A theology born out of hell? It may be even less obvious than the Niebuhrian recovery of original sin, but it is my own sense that just such a politics of spirituality is needed in our day, when hell on earth is all too real for so many, and thus where people of faith most need to abide- in solidarity and in fighting, hopeful love. And hell born by the merciful heart of love may prove to be far more hospitable a place to wrestle with God than any orthodox or neo-orthodox dream of heaven has ever imagined. Certainly no one has ever been turned away from approaching and even entering through hell's gates! And oddly enough, as the great Algerian writer Hélène Cixous noted after time spent in a Cambodian refugee camp, this 'hospitality of hell' may be the very ground of a new political hope for those on the left and for those left behind.