Home > Uncategorized > Recent uprisings: some theological thoughts

Recent uprisings: some theological thoughts

The theological significance of the recent events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa can hardly be predicted.  Nevertheless, from afar, and with only the knowledge that is available on mainstream U.S. media sources (NPR, the New York Times, etc.), I have found myself beginning to ponder this question.  I offer here only a few hesitant and inchoate thoughts:

1.) Political revolution is not a thing of the past.  It remains, in many regions of the world, a focal point of practical consideration and collective action.  To the extent, therefore, that those of us working in theology employ, from time to time, a sort of revolutionary rhetoric–e.g., by invoking a radical disruption in or transformation of history–the recent events (reverberating from Tunisia) might remind us that these tropes do not only function as intellectually sexy fictions of postmodernity but also pertain to very real, in some respects deeply ambiguous, and yet nevertheless hope-filled events, affecting countless lives, for better or worse.

2.) There is a question of secularization.  On the one hand, this process has been bemoaned by many Christian thinkers in the West, who would like to revive some sort of theo-political synthesis, whether this is best represented by medieval Christendom or by pre-Constantian forms of Christian society.  On the other hand, however, there is a persistent–to some extent orientalist, racialized,  overgeneralized, and to that extent unjust, but not for all that entirely groundless–fear of Islam, which seems no less prevalent among Christians than non-Christians in the North Atlantic world.  For those who would desire a closer alignment of theology and politics, the Middle Eastern and North African context could prove difficult to assess.  There is the possibility of thinking revolution as a profoundly Jewish and Christian idea (stemming from the prophetic, messianic, and apocalyptic themes in scripture).  Nevertheless, at some level, there could be a choice to make between greater fidelity to a religious political culture (largely shaped by Islam) and a secularizing vision of pluralistic democracy.

3.) The poor are still with us.  Jesus’ words (Mt 26:11) should not be consoling.  That they constitute an accurate prediction does nothing to exonerate centuries of greed and indifference.  The question, though, is how best theology can serve the poor, whose misery remains a powerful motivation for political upheaval.  This is the question which gave rise to various movements of liberation theology in the twentieth-century.  To what will it give rise in the present?

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  1. March 6, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Andrew, thanks for expressing some thoughts and concerns about what is going on outside the United States or something other than what is being discussed in the confines of the ivory tower. This struggle in the Middle East and Africa is clearly of great historical import. Your ambiguity over a “choice” between a religious political culture or a secularizing pluralistic democracy is worth considering further, I think.

    Does this paradigm not feed right back into the kind of “Huntingtonian clash” that you’re concerned about? I mean, perhaps the choice is somewhat illusory in that we’ve created it to tell ourselves that “we” modern liberals have fought the good fight and won. Pluralism did not begin in secular politics nor does the latter exclude a politically religious culture–although I do think it does foster an idolatrous and materialistic one that tries to pass off as something orthodox. Another way of considering this is to look at responses to the question of Shari’a law. There is the interesting speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury a few years back arguing for the acceptance of Shari’a law in some cases when it pertains to certain domestic matters that might not have singular jurisdiction under the state. He called for a kind of multi-jurisdictional political culture and this did not upset a few Christians. Then there is the curious case of Malaysia, which is a constitutional monarchy like and unlike the UK. It has an Islamic constitution and yet is pluralistic allowing for the existence of mainline relligious minorities (even government support) that are not expected to follow Shari’a law as Muslims do. While it does leave room for a certain kind of autonomy among relgious minorities, Islamic orthodoxy (Sunni) among cultural Muslims is seriously enforced. My point here in a very small way is just to begin to complicate the prevailing paradigm that so easily reinforces scapegoating and enemy-making.

    In response to your last point. I certainly do think there is a strong movement that has been on the rise in this country over the last few decades understanding itself as fighting on behalf of the poor and most vulnerable: it’s called the Pro-Life movement. The controversy surrounding the giant billboard displayed in NYC (read about it here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1360470/Controversial-anti-abortion-billboard-aimed-African-Americans-taken-down.html) is both a provocation and indication that this is a serious movement with revolutionary (and nonviolent) potential. Of course, no one in the academy wants to believe that. Or do they?

  2. Andrew
    March 6, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    David,

    I really appreciate your point about the problematic dichotomy of secular and religious politics. The reality, everywhere, but in different ways, does seem to be plurality. So perhaps an explicitly multi-jursidictional approach is what is needed. But there will still be questions of priority, on certain contentious issues (such as, for instance, the issue of regulating or protecting the practice of abortion, which you raise). So I think the question remains, at some level, but the challenge that you pose to the way in which these terms can promote a simplistic and self-serving account of political culture has definitely given me more to think about.

    I can’t really say too much about the billboard, except that it draws attention to an important, and often neglected, connection between poverty and abortion, though it at the same time (in my opinion) fails to communicate a clear enough message, given the complexity of the situation. It seems that its effect has been more inflammatory than productive.

    Andrew

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