Moltmann Monday: Critique of Barth's Political Theory

Hello all! This morning I thought I’d grab a different book off my shelf: The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics. It’s a series of lectures given by Moltmann in conversation with Mennonite scholars, and includes response/critique essays in the back. It’s a good read. I’m going to pick up in his second essay, “Barth’s Doctrine of the Lordship of Christ.”

Barth’s doctrine of the already present lordship of Christ over all lords, rulers and powers, leads to the following ambiguity: either all powers and states serve the Pantokrator Christ already, whether they know it or not, or the Pantokrator rules over the Christians and only through them can he rule in all civil areas of this world.

There are certainly directions given for the discipleship of Christians in political life which arise from Jesus’ lordship, but there is no metaphysic of the state which is equally valid for Christians and non-Christians. Christocentric ethics can only be discipleship ethics. It is an ethic for Christians in a state, but not a Christian ethic for the state. It is political ethics for the Christian community but not Christian politics for the civil community.

Ok, be sure to read that first part a few times through. Notice how both of those options are problematic?! If the first, then Christ is the secret ruler of the universe already, and by the looks of it he’s doing a pretty terrible job. If the second, then the Church is the hope of the world (or at least the primary vehicle through which Christ is ruling the world), and by the looks of our track record we are doing a very terrible job.

I get very uneasy when we slide into triumphalism, which is to say, when we over-exaggerate the degree to which Christ is now “victorious.” As you know, I am ALL FOR hope, and hope in itself must be provisional. Hope requires a space of unknowing, a realm of something not yet fulfilled and still open to many possibilities. The problem with Barth is that he doesn’t leave the space. He declares that Christ has won, and that’s that, and this creates all kinds of problems in how it gets worked out in real life. A simple way to explain the difference is this: it’s not “Christ is victorious” that we can proclaim right now, but only “Christ will be victorious” that we must live into in faith.

But more to the point in our current political climate, Moltmann rightly says that Barth’s view creates a sort of “metaphysic of the state” that just isn’t true, either. What he means by that is that we cannot justifiably say that everyone agrees on the fundamental nature or being of the state, or its role. And even if we could, it would not be synonymous with a gospel which requires us to upend and subvert all forms of worldly power. If we take our ethical cues from Christ, we do not naturally align with what the state “wants” or “tends toward.” I feel this is an obvious point, but if you listen to many Christian voices in civil political conversations, it often sounds as if they are absolutely working from the assumption that Christian ethics are the metaphysic of the state.

I know part of this argument is by definition dualistic, and I always feel uneasy about that, too. But I think in this case we HAVE to be, at least through the words we use in conversation and the posture we take in the public realm, if only to prevent Christians/the Church from the very kind of worldly power that we seek to subvert. To put this colloquially (and far too simply), Christian ethics can lead a horse to water but cannot justifiably force it to drink.

We are a (broken) people with political ethics rooted in the person of Christ. We are not the victorious moral leaders of the universe that people just aren’t giving proper credit.

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