You’ve been singing Hallelujah with the fear in your heart.
—The Arcade Fire
Stirring up fear in the U.S. electorate is about as American as baseball in October. And in the heat of these frenetic presidential and pennant races it is important to consider how holistic faith practices can flourish without being reduced to another favorite American pastime. In this interview with The Other Journal, theologian and ethicist Scott Bader-Saye discusses how Christian practice might help us navigate these uncertain times. Bader-Saye provides insight into the providence of God, suggests contrasts between apocalypse and emergency, and offers guidance for unearthing the common good in procedural democracy.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Central to this political season’s rhetoric has been the nomenclature of change, and alongside that, unity. With the stakes getting higher and the election fast approaching, it seems like a politics of fear (and our culture of fear) is more clearly emerging as the political pattern. Indeed, that the culture wars that have defined U.S. politics in the last twenty-five years seem to be bracketing our debates now is crystallized with the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. That said, could you talk a little bit about resisting the fear tactics on the left and right during this political season?
Scott Bader-Saye (SBS): I would say, first, that we cannot rightly resist fear tactics by seeking to be fearless. Although fearlessness might seem an attractive option, Thomas Aquinas rightly observed that fearlessness is a vice, not a virtue. Fear is born of love, because it is only when we love something that we fear its loss. So one way to be fearless is to refuse love, to refuse the attachments (even the attachment to life itself) that make us vulnerable. For Christians, such a response proves to be vicious because it turns us away from the great command to love God and to love the neighbor as ourselves. The other way to be fearless would be to make all of our loves invulnerable to threat. But the quest for invulnerability not only proves impossible (since we are by nature vulnerable creatures in an unpredictable world), but it can lead us down dark paths of violence and injustice in the name of security. There comes a point at which the goods we want to protect are destroyed by the tactics we use to defend them.
So if fearlessness is not the answer, then the question is how to fear rightly—to fear the right things in the right way and to the right extent. To discern this we need a thicker conversation about fear that can’t take place in sound bites or in two-minute answers to debate questions. Aquinas said that we rightly fear that which threatens a legitimate love, which is of great magnitude, and which is imminent. This definition might function as a test for us of whether or not a particular object ought to be feared. On these terms, preemptive war is grounded in false fear because even if the magnitude of the threat were high (for instance, a potential WMD terrorist attack), preemption would presume that we should attack before the threat is in fact imminent (and thus before we knew if we were truly threatened).
Fear can be disordered not only by fearing the wrong thing but by fearing the right thing to the wrong extent. If we fear death, for instance, so much that it keeps us from following the ways of Christ, then our fear is disordered. This is why Christians must be courageous, because following Christ means renouncing the idolatry of security. We cannot let security become our highest good such that all other goods could be sacrificed for the sake of our safety. Rather, once we acknowledge that our highest good is the reign of God or friendship with God or glorifying God and enjoying God forever (however exactly one’s tradition might name it), then we cannot pursue our security at the expense of someone else’s vulnerability.
TOJ: Christian churches and communities are supporting both candidates, yet there is little primacy for Christian unity over and above political debate and unity. Should we be more actively considering Christian unity? And what are a few first considerations or things to consider in regard to fidelity to our Christian faith when assessing how to engage the politics defined by liberal procedural democracy?
SBS: Certainly in fearful times we need the support of strong communities. Indeed, I believe one of the causes of our fearfulness is our sense of moral, cultural, and familial fragmentation, our sense of being on our own as we face potential threats. Our fears about declining pensions and a failing social security system, for instance, tie directly into the cultural presumption that when you are old, you should not rely on others. The fear of “becoming a burden for my children” resonates strongly with many older people, but it seems to me that this fear is a result of our failure to create communities that joyfully “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). It may well be that children alone cannot meet all of the needs of aging parents; this is too great a weight to place on family when family no longer means an extended network of relatives who share a common life. This is why we need the church to take some of that pressure off of family by being extended family for each other in quite concrete ways. It’s easy for a parish to say, “We’re a family here,” but this lapses into sentimentality if it does not include practical assistance and mutual responsibility, such as opening our wallets to make sure one of our members has the medical care he or she needs.
So we need stronger communities of mutual support, and it seems to me that our liberal democratic polity does not itself help us do this. As a polity committed to procedural goods instead of substantive goods, liberal democracy simply doesn’t have the resources to sustain thick communities of mutual dependence. This is where the church and other civil subcommunities need to draw on their internal, teleologically ordered narratives and practices to form networks of common care.
The question at the national level becomes what kind of unity we can and should hope for. If we mean by unity a state of shared goods, common telos, and freedom from conflict, this seems to be an unrealistic, and perhaps even undesirable, goal for the state. The question is how to create a situation of constrained disagreement in which conditional goods can be named and sought through practices of generous listening and accountability. If we build on Romand Coles’s discussion of the political in terms of balancing the teleological and the ateleological, we might say that in a descriptively (though not ideologically) pluralistic political conversation the ateleological takes primacy, not to the exclusion of the teleological, but in an asymmetrical relation in which the common goods and goals remain contingent and constantly under negotiation. In the church, on the other hand, understood as an eschatological political community (the pilgrim city of God), the asymmetry is reversed—that is, the teleological takes primacy but not to the utter exclusion of ateleological questions or challenges.
Church and state, then, name differing conditions of possibility for unity, (and for that matter justice and peace). But this is not to say that the two are totally unrelated or that they necessarily stand in a parodic relationship of ontological antagonism. The church may, in fact, bear faithful witness to the God who sends rain on the just and the unjust, who calls us to be a blessing to the nations, by giving itself as participant in the search for shared relative goods among the varieties of community and noncommunity with which we share social space. In return, the state would need to open itself to the good of teleologically formed subcommunities by making room for our tradition-dependent claims, our comprehensive doctrines, as part of public discourse.
The last thing to say about unity, and I realize that this has become quite a long answer, is that the desire for unity, for comm-unity, in fearful and anxious times can function as a justification for the production of homogenous enclaves that set up thick walls against the intrusion of the stranger. Given that hospitality is one of the practices most threatened in a culture of fear—think, for instance, of the current immigration debate—the church needs to understand the unity of the body of Christ in such a way that this body retains its holes, its porous flesh, its space for the unwonted other.
TOJ: Economics is an important topic as well this election season, especially with the market looking ever more vulnerable to dipping into a more catastrophic state. How do you see fear as limiting our imagination when it comes to economics and financial stewardship? How does fear discipline us in our current economic structure?
SBS: Clearly what is happening in Congress and on Wall Street opens for us, especially those of us in the church, a profound opportunity for reflection and self-examination.
I earlier noted that Aquinas believed we should only fear those things that threaten legitimate loves. For Aquinas a legitimate love has as its object something that furthers us on our path toward friendship with God. So the question has to be asked whether that which we fear to lose is something we should legitimately be loving in the first place. If we love our 401(k), for instance, and fear its loss, we might have to ask ourselves whether this is a legitimate love or if it is a disordered love that reflects our inability to trust God with our future. Wealth and goods can create a cycle of ever increasing fear—the more we have, the more we have to lose, and the more we have to lose, the more we have to fear. It should not surprise us that increased wealth so often is followed by guards, security systems, and gated communities.
Yet one might respond that losing one’s house through foreclosure is in fact a legitimate fear that can have tragic consequences for a family. The question then becomes how do we fear this loss in such a way that we can respond wisely and courageously without handing ourselves over to the logic of emergency, which leaves no room for patience and stifles the imaginative response. The state of emergency allows us to take refuge in the myth that we have no choice. In this way our economic decisions take on the character of amoral judgments and our self-protective reflexes are placed beyond question. What we need is the breathing space to recognize that we do have choices and that financial decisions (like a $700-billion bailout) are in fact moral decisions.
When confronted, as we have been in the last weeks, with bipartisan agreement that there is no other way to shore up the financial system, do we dare ask whether or not the system should be shored up, whether this system is in fact sustainable or just or good? This is not to say that I necessarily have an answer to those questions (certainly not the answer), but the logic of emergency and self-protection keeps us from asking the questions at all.
We might think here about the difference between emergency and apocalyptic. While emergency invokes a situation in which the ordinary rules must be set aside for the sake of responding to a pressing threat, apocalyptic suggests a divinely purposed “uncreating” in which systems of violence, injustice, and unfaithfulness are dissolved in order to create space for something new to emerge (as in the biblical stories of the flood and the exile). We might speak (apocalyptically) of a generative chaos that should not be too quickly sutured. In the present case, this might mean imagining the Wall Street collapse as a deconstruction of the financial markets, a judgment upon our greed (at all levels of the process of lending and borrowing, buying and selling), resulting in a fertile void from which new models and structures might emerge. This is not, of course, to suggest that God caused the financial crisis, only that such a crisis can rightly be seen as a symptom or a clue that provokes a search for deeper fissures, instabilities, and injustices in the system.
Slavoj Žižek, following Walter Benjamin, has written of the ways in which the “state of emergency” functions to stifle change by taking extraordinary measures to reinstate the normal order of things. Perhaps this is the function of the $700-billion bailout: to restore “order” in such a way that the system itself does not have to feel this collapse as an undermining crisis. Žižek argues that the “state of emergency” is invoked in order to avoid and repress the “true emergency,” the truly apocalyptic judgment, which like a forest fire engulfs the present in such a way that the soil is made rich for new growth.
There are also important questions to be asked about power in relation to fear and emergency. Specifically, whose fears matter and who gets to declare the emergency? This connects to the question of why the poor are almost never discussed in the current political campaign. The middle class seems to be the only class that matters (the upper class can presumably take care of itself). Why is it that the fears of the middle class about our houses and our pensions drive the government to take emergency measures, when the fears of the poor about the far more fundamental matters of finding food for the day, a place to sleep at night, and basic medical care do not constitute an emergency?
I was recently having my car serviced and making small talk with the manager of the garage about our current economic woes. He said to me, “You know, it’s the middle class who is really taking the hit here. The rich will be fine and the poor are already poor, but the middle class are the ones who are gonna’ be hurting.” The quickness with which he could pass over the ongoing fears and troubles of the poor in order to focus on the middle class struck me as both remarkable and entirely predictable given our current political discourse.
Bono put it well recently when he said, “It is extraordinary to me that you can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion to save 25,000 children who die every day of preventable treatable disease and hunger.” The question is whose fear, whose loss, constitutes an emergency. In a political world where the poor have little power, their fears and losses are easily dismissed. Perhaps “the least of these” would be best served by the refusal to shore up the system too quickly and to ask ourselves whether this crisis constitutes a “true emergency,” a generative chaos that needs not to be sutured but to be lived through in all its pain and messiness in order that we might, on the other side, be freed to imagine a more sustainable and just economy.
TOJ: In your book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, you talk about the necessity of telling the narrative of God’s providence, not to explain formulaically the world’s evils in some sort of crass theodicy, but to recognize the patterns of God’s story in our situation as we seek to navigate in faith God’s call. Political animosity, financial turmoil, multiple military conflicts—American Christians need “pattern recognition” of God’s providence at this time of dissolving cultural narratives. What are some themes that can serve to anchor us in the drama of God’s story and bind us to such a narrative?
SBS: I have argued that part of how we can maintain hope and courage in the midst of fear is to trust that God is indeed leading the world’s story, and our individual stories, to their good and proper end. This does not take place, however, in straight lines or obvious interventions. God is always working in, with, and around our human actions, never simply taking control of history or making our participation nugatory. Our attempts to discern patterns of divine activity, therefore, must always remain under negotiation and are best seen in retrospect. We must avoid simplistic readings of events that turn every disaster into divine judgment and every success into divine reward. Both Job and Jesus challenge such interpretations and force us to take account of the complexities and contingencies of life as well as the mystery of divine action.
As I say in the book, a Christian who was inclined toward bumper-sticker theology might rightly place a “shit happens” decal alongside a “God is my co-pilot” sticker. Here the language of “overaccepting” seems helpful to me. Sam Wells, in his wonderful book Improvisation, discusses the Christian life using the metaphor of improvisational drama. In an improv, the actor can accept, block, or overaccept the “offer”—the words or gestures—of another actor. In blocking, one refuses to carry along the story as the other actor has suggested, in accepting one embraces the direction offered, and in overaccepting one takes what is offered but situates it in another narrative with a wider scope or different trajectory. Overaccepting redefines the course of the drama without having to block or cut off the contribution of the other actor.
I imagine divine providence as God’s responses to our human offers—our thoughts, words, and deeds—so as to accept, block, or overaccept what we have contributed to the story. As I look at the biblical narrative, God seems rarely to block our actions (perhaps the flood is a singular example of this) but more often to overaccept our imperfect contributions to the drama. God promises to provide for us in times of trouble and to redeem what is lost but not (most often) to prevent evil from happening. In this way freedom and contingency are given their proper place in the movement of history without thereby giving up on the idea that God is at work to redeem and consummate the creation.
Discerning providence is less like applying a formula than like seeing a gestalt, perceiving a pattern in events that bears witness to the paradigmatic ways of God narrated in scripture. Such patterns can notoriously shift over time (is it a duck or a rabbit, a candlestick or two faces?), but this does not mean that we resign ourselves to seeing only chaos. Our vision is trained by the repetition of the biblical stories over time and the liturgical reenactment of that drama. As we are formed by these practices, we come to see the world in a certain way, and we become part of a community that can negotiate these descriptions without fear of the conflicting accounts that will inevitably arise.
So given all these caveats, how might we find patterns in today’s events? We might figure the economic crisis in relation to Jesus’s driving out the money-changers from the temple. We might see our waning international influence in terms of the waning of Israel’s questionable experiment with monarchy. We might image our failed wars and moral disrepute in terms of the fall of Babylon in the book of Revelation. Of course, whether we take these as signs of divine judgment (bad news) or divine provision (good news) depends on where we stand in relation to wealth and power. What is bad news for some may be good news for others. What is clear in these biblical stories is that God’s provision, at times, takes the form of stripping away our idols—challenging our unsustainable modes of living and consuming in relation to the rest of the world—and thereby pointing us to the reciprocity necessary to participate in the right ordering of creation.
TOJ: Finally, God’s providence, as you mention to us in your book, does not promise national security in the ways modern discourse means it. We’re not promised that as Christians we will steer clear from suffering, and as you note, we’re called to be hospitable in a world that is not safe, called to peacemaking in a world that we are guaranteed follows the logic of violence. How do we do politics other than the kind of discourses being peddled by the Democrats and Republicans this election cycle? How does one make peace when the national psychology is one of warring against terror, besting violence and trauma against “us” with a more just violence and trauma against “them”?
SBS: I think the real question—one that is not being asked by either party—is not “How can we be more secure?” but rather “What kinds of vulnerability must we accept in order to pursue those goods that are greater than our security?” In other words, is self-preservation an end in itself or are there goods that are more important than mere survival and for which we are willing to take risks?
Certainly the Christian tradition understands human life as participating in a calling that involves risk—we live not for the sake of living but in order to reflect the self-giving love of the Trinity in our own relations of receptive generosity. Such love requires a vulnerability to the other that is thwarted if our highest goal is self-protection. Jesus makes quite clear that finding our lives will require losing them, and if we are too intent on saving our lives, we will never find them.
Courage, then, is an important virtue, not simply because it helps us face our fears, but because courage helps us fend off the temptation to make security our highest good. Courage helps us keep fear at bay long enough to pursue the goods that constitute human flourishing. Courage, whether it is understood paradigmatically in the life of the soldier, as Aristotle said, or in the life of the martyr, as Aquinas would have it, remains intimately connected to vulnerability, because courage is the willingness to make oneself vulnerable to threat in order to pursue a good, such as honor or faithfulness, that represents a higher call. The desire to be invulnerable is not courage, but an attempt to make courage unnecessary.
Now the question of how we name and rank those higher goods in a liberal democracy is a difficult one, given that liberalism as political theory prescinds from judgments about the good. What this leaves us with, unfortunately, is the tendency to embrace a liberalism of fear in which we allow fear to become the glue that binds us together in the absence of agreement on substantive goods. And it is just this liberalism of fear that feeds a politics of security-at-all-cost.
But a pluralistic democracy need not be silent about substantive goods. As Jeff Stout has pointed out, democracy at its best houses a multiplicity of subcommunities that carry forward thick descriptions of what human flourishing looks like. Far from excluding these varied accounts of the good from the public conversation, democracy functions best when it nurtures practices of listening and tending to the varied goods, thus discovering goods that we share in common. This conversation about the common good can serve as an antidote to the liberalism of fear and help us make judgments about what ends we wish to pursue and the vulnerabilities necessary to pursue them. Again, though, our political discourse today tends to work against the patient give-and-take that is necessary to shape agreement on goods we can hold in common.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while at Union Seminary in New York in 1939, wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr, “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. . . . Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose: but I cannot make this choice in security.” What is interesting here is not simply that Bonhoeffer was willing to embrace danger in the name of a higher good, but that he was willing to work to make his nation more vulnerable, because the survival of the nation was not as important as the survival of a more determinative “Christian” way of life that was in principle separable from the security of any particular state.
In the end the most important question is how we can keep our desire for security from threatening the goods that exceed mere survival? Important political questions follow from this—can torture or the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction or preemptive war or the denial of rights to enemy combatants be consistent with human flourishing (theirs or ours), or do such practices, undertaken in the name of security, actually diminish our humanity and that of others to the extent that we may stay alive but we’ll hardly stay human?