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When Church Throws Political Shapes

I danced, the other day ... on the roof of a multi-storey carpark, in the rain, at bedtime. With relative abandon. It feels like a world away and an epoch ago but it really happened.

I didn't go there to dance. I went there to watch – Of Riders and Running Horses, part of Bristol's marvellous Mayfest. Ooh, it were good. All exuberance and intensity and graceful, skillful, womanly inelegance for want of a better description. All set to all this live, pounding, alt-J-esque electronic indie music. I don't know what they meant for it to be about but what I saw was a profound reclamation of the human body ... from shame, objectification and violence ... for personhood and personal connection.

Normally, I would consider a finale which evolved into an invite to the audience as the perfect opportunity for an unhindered escape. "Aha!" some flat, lifeless part of me indeed piped up – "I can get me a clear run on the narrow stairwell before it jams with crowds intent on keeping me from my night's sleep!" But a smarter, quicker part knew real freedom when it saw it beckoning, and wanted in ... and so I danced. As did, in fact, very nearly everyone there; for all my incompetent flailing I might not even have been the least skilled – and was certainly not the most unlikely – participant. Not that any one of us would dared have judged by then: to do so would've been to dishonour the display we'd all just witnessed.

Next morning in church it was difficult not to indulge in a wistful 'compare and contrast' ... Because that's what church is supposed to be I think (figuratively, rather than literally – although I'm sure there's room for some literal dance): the incarnation of an invitation to freedom, contagious enough to transform individuals and impact whole societies. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas emphasises the important political role of the church – not in telling society how it ought to be organised, but in embodying an alternative. In our case, an alternative to the fear- and commodification-based (neo)liberal values of Western democracy. The church, he urges, should be a school for virtue, and a community based on trust:
Put starkly, the way the church must always respond to the challenge of our polity is to be herself. This does not involve a rejection of the world, or a withdrawal from the world; rather, it is a reminder that the church must serve the world on her own terms. We must be faithful in our own way, even if the world understands such faithfulness as disloyalty. But the first task of the church is not to supply theories of governmental legitimacy or even to suggest strategies for social betterment. The first task of the church is to exhibit in our common life the kind of community possible when trust, and not fear, rules our lives. (Stanley Hauerwas, "The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity", from A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, 1981, p85).
People content themselves with transactional, fear-based exchanges because they seem the only basis on which anyone else will do business. Neoliberalism presupposes that we each negotiate for our own individual interests – respectfully of others' like pursuits, but aggressively. Drop the ball, and no-one's gonna pick it up for you. You will get what you deserve. Corollary: what you have is what you have deserved. Perfect justice. Of sorts. And freedom. Of sorts...
...we are increasingly forced to view one another as strangers rather than friends, and as a result we become all the more lonely. We have learned to call our loneliness "autonomy" and/or freedom, but the freer we become the more desperate our search for "community" or "interpersonal relationship" that offer some contact with our fellows. Even the family is not immune from this development, since we now assume that children should have "rights" against the parents, as if the family itself were but a contractual society. (Stanley Hauerwas, as above, p81)
The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows. Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty. (George Monbiot, writing for the Guardian, April 2016)
But it doesn't have to be like that. Believe it or not. Which many people don't – because, as George Monbiot observes in the same article, "we seldom even recognise [neoliberalism] as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power."

Once we start to twig that it is "just" an ideology, and not the "natural" way of things, we recognise our freedom to reject it, or critique it. To me, it seems exactly the sort of value system that the church can and should be joyfully, stubbornly disloyal to. We can flout individualism by modelling community. We can flout commodification by modelling servanthood and giving. We can flout fear by modelling trust. We don't need to enforce a comprehensive political agenda or a strategy; we don't need to enforce anything. We just need, as church together, to 'be ourself' (as Hauerwas suggests), and let the non-coercive power of such an act impact as it will, trusting God with the upshot.

This isn't, often, how it is – nor, I recognise, would all Christians agree that this is how it should be. Ever since Constantine made Christianity an Imperial Religion the church, in many times and places, has had considerable influence. Historically, we've been known to throw our political weight, and now, whenever and wherever we deem our power on the wane, we have a tendency to try to recoup it by human means. Many would hold that it is right and necessary to do so, in order to maximise our impact on the world for good. But I'm with Hauerwas in his desire for a community "the hallmark [of which], unlike the power of nation-states, is its refusal to resort to violence to secure its own existence or to insure internal obedience. For as a community convinced of the truth, we refuse to trust any other power to compel than the truth itself." (Stanley Hauerwas, as above, p85)

Sometimes seeing is all it takes. Five women in a carpark modelled fearlessness and connection before my inexpectant eyes; they were vulnerably themselves and alive for fifty minutes and it gave me and a crowd of others courage and a yearning to be ourselves, and alive, too. Likewise, instead of throwing our political weight, I want church to be throwing shapes ... moves that show 'em how it's done; that break down inhibitions, catch, and fill the dancefloor.

To switch analogies – because if there is an explicit dance <–> church metaphor in the Bible then I'm not familiar with it (though I could cite you a classic Graham Kendrick song):
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16, ESV)

[Thumbnail image cc by Omar Prestwich on].


Paul@Romford said…
I think you have put your finger on some very big ideas here; things we should be stubbornly disloyal to; we can thwart the wrong by being and behaving right... (I wonder if its thwart rather than flout; showing the alternative way of being community. And surely seeing isn't all it takes; it takes seeing and understanding and responding and risking... dancing to and with the Lord of the Dance
Hehe, I'm pretty sure the ideas (at least, the good ones!) are all Hauerwas's. I’m enjoying discovering his writing — definitely keen to read more. Y'know, I think I *do* mean flout: only God (I’d suggest) can actually *thwart* the world’s broken value systems. To flout them (which risks losing what the world counts gain) is an act of faith. We trust Him to act for justice and healing, and hope that the character of our communal life might, by His grace, play some part in that. But we don’t *know* that other people are gonna follow suit; we might find ourselves strutting our stuff in the middle of a deserted dancefloor while onlookers scoff and polish off the best the buffet table has to offer…

Meanwhile, this rather lovely story from the world of TV comedy was a pleasing reminder that the church can hardly expect to claim a monopoly on polity-challenging goodness: