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Guest Opinion: Pondering ‘Prophetic Politics’

Pondering ‘Prophetic Politics’

A Response To Richard Davis’s “From Patriotism To Peace: Christian Reflections On September 11”
Mark Murphy, October 2001

In a recent article, Richard Davis reflected on September 11 and its aftermath from a Christian political perspective. In the article Richard forwards a critique of patriotism and argues for a moral universalism centered around ideals of equality, peace, forgiveness, non-violent resistance, and one that seeks to speak out for the powerless and politically oppressed. This approach takes the relationship between faith and politics to be a prophetic one (I assume Richard to be within this tradition, though I recognize he does not use this designation explicitly). Following the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians are called, in the words of Jacques Ellul, to “fulfill their prophetic role” and become “the advocates and defenders of the truly poor”. [1]

Glenn Tinder has summarized ‘the prophetic stance’ in the following confession; “I believe that the primary political requirement of Christianity is not a kind of society or particular program of action but rather an attitude, a way of facing society and of undertaking programs of action”. [2] While this may seem orthodox, it is not the predominant political expression of Christianity. More conservative models, that see Christianity as the civil religion of the state and as the glue rather than the ferment of society, have been more historically common. There are revolutionary models, from medieval millennialists to Christian Marxists and contemporary apocalyptic cults, that seek to overthrow the existing social order and replace it with a particular polity. And Christian ‘quietism’, that withdraws from the unredeemable world of politics and patiently awaits an otherworldly deliverance, has been popular in principled and apathetic forms.

The Christian tradition provides for a diverse and contradictory smorgasbord of political possibilities as can be observed in the wake of September 11. I agree that a prophetic Christianity is most urgently needed. But while I would situate myself in the prophetic tradition, I want to take this chance to question aspects of it that I am increasingly uncomfortable with. My reply suggests that ‘prophetic politics’ risks reproducing the hegemonic and egotistic politics it opposes. While the prophetic tradition speaks with a forceful moral vocabulary that emphasizes the urgency of action, I believe it needs to develop a greater humility and appreciation for language, ambiguity, and otherness. These are not borderline issues. Christianity’s hostility towards difference is brought into sharp focus after September 11.

Language and responsibility after September 11

I want to begin by acknowledging the impressive way in which Richard’s article brings together the most salient Christian principles at this time. My questions are not with this selection – I am convinced of the centrality of these principles in the message and life of Jesus. I do not think that it is ‘oppressive of difference’ to emphasize the priority of peace and forgiveness over other available biblical norms such as purity and exclusion. Rather, I am uncomfortable with the universalistic moral grammar in which these principles are embodied and expressed. But before I make some criticisms of the language of prophetic politics, I will briefly outline an approach to language and responsibility, and comment on the use of language in the present terrorist crisis.

Years after social sciences and the humanities officially took ‘the linguistic turn’, the problem of language fails to unsettle conventional political theory and Christian social ethics to the extent that it probably should. [3] In an effort to bring political theory into closer dialogue with postmodernism, Stephen White outlines two dimensions of language and two senses of responsibility. Language can be seen as ‘action-coordinating’ in the form of speech acts that allow us to do certain things in the world. This corresponds with “a sense of responsibility to act in the world in a justifiable way, a moral-prudential obligation to acquire knowledge, and to act to achieve practical ends in some defensible way.” [4] White sees this dimension of language and sense of responsibility as implicit in the dominant Western traditions of ethical and political thought.

As these traditions have become increasingly criticized for their moral and conceptual imperialism, the dimension of language as ‘world-disclosing’ has been emphasized. Crudely put, language does not just passively relate but actively constructs reality in foundational, dualistic, and unstable ways. This realization is linked with a ‘responsibility to otherness’: to those who do not correspond with and cannot be reduced to the self/same. This ‘otherness’ can be understood morally where “ethics revolve around the possibility that I might encounter something that is radically different to myself.” [5] Western philosophy has generally missed this encounter and “has always sought to appropriate the Other…[and] to neutralize the threat it poses to the autonomy and sovereignty of the Same” [6]. ‘Otherness’ can thus be perceived in concrete, historical terms – in those humanly inferior others that narratives of modernity and progress have classified as abnormal, deviant, subordinate, unreasonable, and uncivilized.

The postmodern emphasis asserts that fulfilling the responsibility to act “always requires one, at some point, to fix or close down parameters of thought and to ignore or homogenize at least some dimension of specificity or difference among actors.” [7] Fittingly, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has described ethical responsibility “as insomnia or wakefulness precisely because it is a perpetual duty of vigilance and effort that can never slumber”. [8] Clearly both senses of responsibility and language need to be kept in creative and critical tension, but in the currently dominant paradigms of ethical and political thought it is the responsibility to otherness that has been most frequently neglected.

It is an important observation of post-structuralist criticism that modernist language often represents and constructs reality and identity in terms of unstable, hierarchical dualities. In these binary oppositions, the ‘Other’ is subordinated to, assimilated with, even annihilated by, the ‘Same’. In the wake of September 11, world-disclosing and action-coordinating dualities became constructed and deployed. The war against terrorism is framed by Bush and Blair as a fight between ‘the civilized, free world’ and its barbaric, undemocratic, eastern antithesis. Invoking the simplistic thesis of Samuel Huntington’s geo-politics, opinion-shapers such as The Economist talk of “The Clash of Civilizations” between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. [9] This is a frighteningly familiar refrain. As Umberto Eco has reflected; “All the religious wars that have caused blood to be shed for centuries arise from passionate feelings and facile counter-positions, such as Us and Them, good and bad, white and black.” [10] Further, Slavoj Zizek exhorts the West to meet any “purely evil Outside” with self-examining suspicion. “In this evil Outside”, Zizek counsels, “we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence. For the past centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the ‘civilized’ West was bought by the ruthless violence and destruction to the ‘savage’ Outside. It’s a long story, from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo.” [11] And longer now, reaching to the rubble of Kabul.

The main casualty of the anti-terrorist essentialisms is that which is most needed: understanding, humility, and the recognition of difference. As Edward Said interprets, “The Clash of Civilizations” is “The Clash of Ignorance”. It does not have “much time for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization…or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization.” [12] And, with Bush and Blair, for a whole world and moral universe.

Egotism, patriotism, and Christianity

Of course, Richard Davis’s article is alive to this rhetoric. He argues, via Reinhold Niebuhr, for an intimate connection between egotism and patriotism. Richard puts his finger on the current pulse of American patriotism with a spookily prophetic quote from Niebuhr. “The best means of harmonising the claim to universality with the unique and relative life of the nation, as revealed in moments of crisis, is to claim general and universally valid objectives for the nation. It is alleged to be fighting for civilisation and culture; and the whole enterprise of humanity is supposedly involved in its struggles.” [13]

In the speeches of Bush, Richard highlights how ‘America’ becomes coterminous with ‘world freedom’, ‘civilization’, ‘progress’, and ‘pluralism’. This is a politics which Christianity should automatically condemn. Patriotism is a particularistic political logic that is fundamentally at odds with ‘the Christian ethic’ defined in terms of moral universalism. In Richard’s words;

“Contrary to patriotism and elevation of the nation Christianity offers a worldview where humanity is one under God. It teaches universal values and supremacy of the sovereignty of God over the sovereignty of nations. Christianity is therefore a force for universal brother/sisterhood between all peoples, without regard to arbitrary national boundaries ad ethnicity.”

Predictably, I must part company with Richard here. For in this formulation, egotism is not expunged but merely transferred from a national to a religious ideology.

Patriotism and Christianity in the above form are both universalisms that emphasize the responsibility to act at the expense of the responsibility to otherness. As Costas Douzinas argues, “The discourse of universality is necessarily a white mythology…achieved only through the exclusion, disenfranchisement and subjection without free subjectivity of the other. Communitarianism and cultural relativism, on the other hand, can often become ‘mythologies of colour’: local and usually more aggressive reflections of the exclusions of universalism.” [14] Focussing upon the discourse of Christian universality may help to understand the absolutism of American patriotism, as alluded to by Niebuhr and fleshed out by Richard.

Is Christianity not one of the main vehicles for American national hubris? In times of crisis, does the nation not draw on religious frames of ‘sovereignty’, ‘supremacy’, and ‘universality’ to project the national ego onto the world? And what form of theological ego projection underlies this? Is it entirely irrelevant that America is one of the most heavily Christianized countries in the western world? Is it completely immaterial that those self-appointed leaders of the ‘free world’ spearheading the attacks on Afghanistan, George W. Bush and Tony Blair, have been described as the most overtly Christian statesmen in recent British and American political history? Is there no connection between Western imperialism and Christian universality?

While modeling a contrasting political expression of Christianity, I am still uncomfortable with Richard’s position because it does not provide a radical critique of political egotism. A prophetic Christian universalism is not the antidote to a religiously stoked patriotism. It illuminates patriotism because, recalling Zizek’s observations, “in this evil Outside we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence.” [15] While I would not hesitate in choosing between Richard’s prophetic politics and Bush’s religion of the conqueror, I am uncomfortable making this choice. There is, I believe, a disturbing dissonance between the practice of peace and compassion and the language of Christian sovereignty and supremacy. An alternative theological vision, one that enshrines and inspires a greater respect for otherness, is offered by Emmanuel Levinas: “The God of ethical philosophy is not God the almighty being of creation, but the persecuted God of the prophets who is always in relation to humanity and whose difference from humanity is never indifference.” [16]

Is there a Christian response to September 11?

Does the responsibility to otherness and respect for human difference mean that there are no limits to pluralism? Anything goes, including ‘Operation Infinite Justice/Enduring Freedom’? Or should we re-construct a corrected, updated, more inclusive Christian universalism? I don’t think it means that we should stop debating the use and misuse of the Christian tradition, but this debate can no longer be conducted with the same cultural monotony and moral certainty that it once was. Following Zygmunt Bauman’s outline of a postmodern ethics, Christian ethics should not “expect any more to find the all-embracing, total and ultimate formula of life without ambiguity, risk, danger and error”, and should become more “deeply suspicious of any voice that promises otherwise.” [17]

The discourse of Christian universality is an example of the sort of all-embracing, total, and ultimate formulas of life that we should be deeply suspicious of. In the aftermath of September 11, I cannot therefore agree with Richard when he states that “I believe Christianity can offer humanity a meaningful response to this tragedy” (1). I doubt that there can be such a theodicy that would not entail radical ambiguity and risk serious danger and error. Finally, to speak as if there can be a single ‘Christian response’ is stressing language is its action-coordinating dimension while forgetting its world-disclosing function. It is to emphasize the urgency of collective action on behalf of Christians at the expense of recognizing that not all Christians would or should respond in the same way. Christianity, like ‘Islam’ and ‘America’ (equally essentialist in much leftist rhetoric, including, probably, my response), is pluriform. When Munir Fasheh, a Palestinian Christian, argues that Christianity has helped “plunder five continents, enslave people in many regions, wipe out people and civilizations in North America and Australia, and is now threatening Palestinians with a similar fate”, [18] it is clear that what is a meaningful response for a Palestinian Christian may be different to what is a meaningful response for an American Christian, however both may strive to follow Jesus of Nazareth.


1. Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (London: SCM Press, 1963), 93-94, quoted in Richard Davis, “From Patriotism to Peace: Christian Reflections on 11 September”, 3.
2. Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance (New York: Harper Collins, paperback edition 1991, [orig. pub. 1989]), 8. This prophetic tradition of social criticism has generally been a development within Protestant ‘realist ethics’, as the references in Tinder and Davis to Reinhold Niebuhr makes clear.
3. Systematic theology, in contrast with religious ethics, has been more concerned with the problem of language. In political theory a notable exception to the general indifference with which most Anglo-Americans treat issues of language is William Connolly’s The Terms of Political Discourse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, third edition 1993).
4. Stephen K. White, Political Theory and Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 20, and 19-28 for White’s conception of language and responsibility.
5. Colin Davis, Levinas (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 142.
6. Davis, 142.
7. White, 21
8. Emmanuel Levinas and Richard Kearney, “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas” [1984] in Richard A. Cohen (ed.) Face to Face with Levinas (New York: S.U.N.Y. Press, 1986), 30, emphasis original.
9. See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon Schuster, 1996), and see The Economist, September 22-28, 2001.
10. Umberto Eco, “The roots of conflict”, The Guardian, October 13, 2001, posted at, 1.
11. Slavoj Zizek, “The Desert of the Real: Is this the end of fantasy?”, In These Times, October 29, 2001 posted at, 2.
12. Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance”, The Nation, October 22, 2001, posted at, 1.
13. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (London: SCM Press, 1963), 94, quoted in Davis, 4.
14. Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century (Oxford: Hart, 2000), 347.
15. Zizek, 2.
16. Levinas, 32.
17. Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 245.
18. Quoted in Marc H. Ellis, Unholy Alliance: Religion and Atrocity in Our Time (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 55.

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