Christianity and Power

by Kyle Cupp on April 2, 2012

In his Newsweek cover-essay, Andrew Sullivan expresses his longing for a “simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity” and anticipates that the religion will rise from its current crisis when “when politics and doctrine and pride recede.”  I’m sympathetic to Sullivan’s vision–less so to Jefferson’s, on which he builds–but as much as I think the church would benefit from a renunciation of “the things of the world,” such as power, Sullivan’s ideal Christianity cannot exist.

As I wrote in a post below, starting at the most fundamental level, the transmission of Jesus’s “simple, pure” message necessitates the exercise of power.  According to Sullivan, “if we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.”  No, he doesn’t, not really, because there’s no getting to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be without passing through what we and others say or believe he was.  We may assume that the words ascribed to Jesus were actually his, but we have no way of knowing this. We only know of the “pure message” because a network of self-described religious authorities (i.e., those with power) wrote the words, attributed them to Jesus, and incorporated them into a sacred text–a text that has developed and changed, that has been reinterpreted and re-translated, all works of power.

If I’ve understood him correctly, Sullivan wishes to separate the “unknowable intricacies” that make up Christian theology and doctrine and that were born of power from the radical message of Jesus that calls us to renounce power, but this wish for separation presumes a false dichotomy between political Christianity and sheer, apolitical Christianity.  The latter can never exist.  Christianity needs power, so its renunciation of it cannot be absolute.  Instead, Christians need to learn, especially in our pluralistic and secular age, how to exercise religious power responsibly and virtuously and with respect for others who do not share their faith.  We’ve seen the devastating results of power exerted by Christians for their own selfish ends.

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