Moltmann Monday: On the Covenant of Resistance

Happy Moltmann Monday, friends. Today’s reading comes from God For a Secular Society in his chapter entitled “Covenant or Leviathan?” So let me talk briefly about that word Leviathan for a minute before we dive in.

Leviathan is a word used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe a giant monster. It is also the name of a political book by Thomas Hobbes (17th century English philosopher). Hobbes says government authority is necessary because humans would otherwise all be at war with one another all the time. So what has to happen to create unity and peace is for people to give up some of their rights to a government or a leader (crown, president, prime minister) and they receive protection in return. But the trick is that this sovereign has control over everything- political, judicial, military, spiritual authority are all combined. That is the Leviathan. And since citizens have agreed to cede their freedom in exchange for safety, they are not supposed to resist this authority.

In this chapter, Moltmann asks, How can we achieve pluralism in freedom without chaos, and unity in peace without dictatorship?

Another option is a political theology based on covenant. He explains, God considers human beings to be worthy of a covenant and capable of a covenant. From this trust on God’s part follows the trust of human beings in their mutual capability for covenant…Politics is the art of association. He continues to say that the word covenant was considered as an optional alternative to the word constitution. “That means that the constitution…is the agreement of citizens ‘before God’ which every government has to observe and which puts every citizen under an obligation to resist any exercise of power that is illegal, illegitimate, and that transgresses human rights. Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God, and the ultimate crisis and test of democracy.

Now, here’s the main part I wanted to share:

The opinion among the middle classes that ‘religion is a private affair,’ and has nothing to do with politics, did not by any means rob the Leviathan of its life, erode it, and bring it to collapse. On the contrary, this ‘inward immigration’ allowed the external crimes to be perpetrated, and provided no point of departure for resistance…It is not the person who holds his or her own private views who is enlightened. It is the person who is free enough to make public use of his or her reason…Freedom of belief does not mean being allowed to cultivate one’s own personal faith; it means making public use of that faith, and practicing it. 

Now that’s different than the way we usually talk about freedom of religion in America. We believe, and I think we’re right to hold this belief, that all people should be able to practice their faith and worship in the manner they choose, without consequence from the State. But I wonder if that’s only the external definition, and we’ve forgotten about this more internal definition, which asks: how does your belief affect how you operate in the public square? And I worry that our constant focus on religion as a private (and decidedly not political) affair has made us unable to be truly faithful.

(Side note: None of this is to say that there shouldn’t be strong separation between church and state; in fact, this requires such a separation, which is why new attempts to repeal those boundaries have me very nervous. That boundary is what gives us this freedom. Without it, we would see the religion that has the most money and power begin to oppress people of other faiths very quickly…and then be intertwined with political power of the State. Eek.)

What this does highlight for me is the missing piece to overly personalized religious faith. That piece can be called covenant, or maybe more specifically a social covenant. It’s based on the idea that we are designed for relationship, not only a vertical one with God but a horizontal one with our neighbors. It’s all well and good for us to have a good relationship with God, but that doesn’t mean much when we reject our responsibility to have a good relationship with others. And, if our relationship with God is really thriving, it should naturally turn us in love toward care for others and care for creation. A deep and faithful inner life leads to a deeply faithful outer life. What kills us–what is killing us–is this demand to keep them separate. Moltmann concludes,

Politics is the widest context of every Christian theology…The way must lead from within to without, and from faith to political praxis.

In other words, our politics is where the rubber meets the road in our faith lives.

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