Those who criticise Christian nationalism are often accused of dismissing religion and nation alike. Such comments overlook the growing unease among Christian scholars about the association of Christianity with the populist right.
The conference Political Theologies after Christendom‘ reflected on the temptation of power and dominance that is on display in the ideologies of the ‘Russian World’, ‘Christian Europe’, and ‘Make America Great Again’. While it is not true that all Christian churches have been vulnerable to the populist right, it is also not true that many have openly spoken out against it.
The conference was an invitation to imagine political theology outside of the statist frameworks of power and dominance. To speak of a political theology after Christendom is not to say that the Church’s political task is necessarily apart from the state. Rather, it is to acknowledge that Christianity has to examine afresh its relationship with power. Moreover, it is to say that the Christian tradition should reflect on its historical record of siding with the wrong kind of regimes.
Pivotal in this reflection has been the post-war “Theology of Hope”, developed by Jürgen Motlmann, building on the legacy of the Confessing Church. And although the Barmen Declaration has been adopted by some churches in South Africa and the United States of America, it is not the case that Christian theology writ large has truly accounted for its complicity in the fascist varieties of twentieth century nationalism.
Political theologies after Auschwitz have largely concentrated on the guilt and responsibility of German Christians, but perhaps more as Germans than as Christians. Despite the popularity of the likes of Barth and Bonhoeffer, their ideas can amplify both narratives of guilt and of pride: guilt that still focuses on the self and pride in the victory over Nazi-Germany, of being on ‘the right side of history’.
Simplistic distinctions between those who were considered “good” and “bad”, and those who won and lost the war are perpetuated in the contemporary era. For example, Patriarch Kirill and President Putin have invoked the victory over Nazi-Germany as a license to attack the Ukrainian government, which it branded as ‘Nazist’. Such dispositions are not conducive to honest reflection on the complicity of Christianity in abusive regimes, whether in Nazi Germany, or elsewhere.
At the conference, this “elsewhere” was substantiated through several panels that engaged “theologies-after”: theologies after the Gulag, after Apartheid, after Srebrenica, and after Bucha. It was especially poignant that delegates from Russia and Ukraine engaged in dialogue, and their proximity to the suffering in this war imprinted the need for political theologies to sit with the ruins in which Christian traditions had their parts.
The challenge of Christian political thought is not to side with narratives of either victimhood or dominance, which tend to perpetuate stark divisions of “good” and “bad” people. The challenge is to offer a political theology that engages with the many ways in which people can be both victims and perpetrators, even in the same moment.
Churches have often identified with the story of Christ and of ancient biblical Israel, perspectives which allowed Christians to identify with victimhood, sacrifice, and victory. What, though, if political theology imagined the church through the eyes of Zacchaeus who was so small he had to climb up a tree to behold Christ? Or through the eyes of Judas, who betrayed him? Or through the eyes of the authorities that crucified him?
Perhaps Christian political thought could do with a few Good Samaritans: by understanding it cannot solve all its own problems and accepting the help from those it has previously sought to marginalise. The sources for renewal may come from within the Christian tradition, and they may very well come from beyond. Above all much more serious reflection should go into dialogue with Jewish and Muslim scholars, and indeed with traditions of thought that are understood as secular.
The Protestant Political Thought project has produced a series of papers and journal issues that reflect this commitment: on ‘Old Testament Imaginaries of the Nation’, ‘Rethinking the sacred in religion and nationalism’, and on ‘The Struggle for Christian Heritage and Identity’. The project has branched out beyond Protestantism in the conference Political Theologies after Christendom. There is significant scope for collaborative thinking and writing, and it seems such initiatives are necessary to address the transnational significances of neo-Christendoms.
So, how can Christian political theology speak to the experiences of victims, perpetrators, and those at a geographical or generational distance to injustice? Even if not all the answers are apparent, the growing unease with Christian support for the populist right signals an opportunity for a more fundamental reorientation of political theology: away from its preoccupation with the state and towards deeper accounts of the relationship between Christianity, historical injustice, and human experience.
Cover image concept by Dr. Tornike Metreveli, developed with the assistance of OpenAI.