Being, having, doing: theological roots of political disaster

But there is a big difference in this world between having and doing.

Heather Cox Richardson

Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, in last night’s entry in her Letters from An American blog, notes that “there is a big difference in th is world between having and doing.” Richardson is talking about American history. She spends several paragraphs highlighting people who were through great exertion and personal sacrifice worked to turn the ideals that constitute the idea of American into realities. This doing stands in contrasts to the static having exemplified by people who prefer to assert, by ignoring history, that the USA has essentially always already been what it aspired to be.

These latter people are subscribers to what another historian, Yale’s Timothy Snyder, calls (in The Road to Unfreedom, and probably elsewhere) the “politics of eternity”—“eternity” here corresponding to the same notion that in Our Nation perfection is something always already securely possessed from the beginning, and possessed securely by ourselves simply by virtue of our claimed identity as heirs of our national heroes of the past. Heroes or gods: when we mythologize our historical heroes and the collective achievements of the nation as a whole, ignoring gross moral failures and blatant hypocrisies that critical historians try to point out, are were not turning our heroes into gods and our nation into the Kingdom of Heaven? Having flows from being and requires no doing.

When we sing the praises of this America-as-divine-eternal-kingdom, we redact “God mend thine every flaw” into “Thou hast no serious flaws—nor has thou ever.” You can very easily say “but of course we have flaws” but you don’t have to believe they really seriously need mending, or that anything essential is missing until they are. The flaws do not diminish or threaten the secure being and having.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day. MLK day puts followers of the American version of the politics of eternity in a particularly difficult position.

No one—not even Trump himself—can explicitly dismiss or denounce King, because in the population as a whole there is a powerful (and correct) conviction that he and the movement that he led were striving mightily to overcome a very serious flaw, a flaw that was there from the start, was still there in the 1960s, and still has not been adequately mended today: the systemic racism—systematic abuse of African Americans—that formed the basis of the Southern economy for three solid centuries and after a fourth century, subsequent to technical emancipation, has still not been fully remediated. Far easier to focus on King’s personal flaws.

And yet it is impossible, and produces intolerable cognitive dissonance, to honor fully a man and a movement whose greatness depends entirely on the horrific magnitude of the flaw against which they toiled while at the same time adhering to a mythology that says there were and are no significant flaws in the flawless Eternal America. The people who worship Eternal America don’t like acknowledging Thomas Jefferson’s African American sex slave or his rejection of orthodox Christian theology, but they are happy to remember King’s plagiarism and sex-addicted philandering.

There is an analogy, and I think a genetic relationship, between the ideology of eternally perfect America and the popular theology of recent white American evangelical theology. In both cases, we claim an always already accomplished perfection and effectively deny the reality of original and persistent flaws. We verbally, all too easily, concede that of course there are flaws, but we do not take them seriously as requiring us to do anything to maintain our eternally secure identity. We use the claim of already having to excuse ourselves from the actually unfinished and vitally necessary work of doing.

In popular evangelical theology, salvation is pure gift, and pure gift means no strings attached, unconditional. And the giftiness of that salvation is expanded in a certain direction: You can’t save yourself, so you mustn’t even try. It’s not just that works of the law (certain cultic-ritual performances) are not necessary for your salvation; any good thing that you might feel obligated to do is potentially an attempt to achieve your salvation through “works,” so popular evangelical discipleship not only does not require works but effectively discourages them.

This was not true in the classic British and American evangelicalism of the nineteenth century that produced the great abolitionists, but I think it has been true in more recent white American evangelicalism. Justification is emphasized over sanctification, and justification is “positional,” righteousness is “imputed.” Your salvation is “eternally secure” apart from any effort of your own. Just as Eternal-American identity politics makes you politically righteous and right by virtue of your claimed descent from the mythic gods of the American founding, so also identity theology, by way of a doctrinally authorized fiction, makes you eternally righteous because of your claimed identification as a recipient of the grace of Jesus Christ. Being in Christ means not needing any doing to maintain your “saved” standing.

This is really tricky territory in Christian biblical interpretation, theology, preaching, and discipleship. The teaching about being in Christ, and thereby having salvation, is bedrock. It is essential, core Christianity. But in the New Testament, and I believe always in authentic Christianity, being/having (in eternity) and doing (in this world) are held in tension. They are in tension within Paul’s letters, within the teaching of Jesus, between Paul and Matthew, between Paul and James. Being entails having and is not dependent on our prior doing, but not doing is a sign of neither having nor being.

That tension is only ever relaxed when a tendon is cut and the sanctification muscles go slack and begin to atrophy. When that happens, you no longer have a healthy body of Christ; you have a dysmorphic monstrosity that calls itself Christian but is revealed by its fruit to be something else. And part of its fruit can be the susceptibility of it adherents to a similar tension-relaxing impulse in other areas, and in particular in politics, where you can find evangelical Christians lining up to honor the false gods of an Eternal America that in their minds is perfect but on the streets and in the world lurches toward fascism.

As Christians and as Americans, we need to get back to letting being and having—and honest recognition that our being and having are not already perfect, not already fully actualized—motivate doing. For evangelical Christians, as for all Christians, there are copious resources in scripture and tradition for illustrating and motivating that recovery.

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