Written By: Patrick Lineberry
How many times have you heard that the divisiveness in our politics is a shock to recent memory? That friendships and family relationships have started dissolving over support for a party, elected official, or candidate? That politics is a game of next-best or second-to-worst choices?
Church, it seems that the state of our politics couldn’t be worse. But, because Christ is risen, the state of the gospel is strong. And Luke Bretherton wants to tell you that as Christians, we can find and bring the hope of the gospel to all circles of life – even to politics.
Bretherton, a professor of political ethics at Duke University’s Divinity School, is thoroughly British, having grown up in England and taught at King’s College London before arriving at Duke in 2011. And he has a surprisingly odd taste for emo rock music and skinny jeans for someone who is quickly establishing himself as one of the world’s foremost political ethicists. He is the author of several salient books on how Christians have historically viewed their relationships to worldly institutions of power and how we, in our day, might engage with ours. These include such titles as Hospitality As Holiness, Bretherton’s doctoral dissertation, which is a brief but heady take on the philosopher’s diagnosis of our discursive crisis, with a response that is both philosophically robust and rooted simply in the self-giving, vulnerable love of Jesus Christ through exemplifying Christian hospitality. For his subsequent Christianity and Contemporary Politics, an ambitious braiding of threads of Augustinian political theology, Bretherton’s own developed thinking on hospitality, and community organizing among faith-based nonprofit organizations, Bretherton was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing. One reviewer described it as “[a] deeply hospitable book, which is rooted in evangelical orthodoxy, but is clearly open to public dialogues and unafraid to speak within them with its own accent.” Bretherton has written several other books and articles about modern politics and Christianity, but his latest, Christ and the Common Life, confronts the challenges – and explores the possibilities – of a meaningful Christian witness of hospitality in a pluralistic society. In Christianity Today, Bryan McGraw summarized Christ and the Common Life as “an interesting and provocative effort to encourage us . . . to embrace our democratic messiness, ordering our lives together in a way that, hopefully, reflects the best of ourselves and – as much as we can this side of heaven – Christ’s revelation.” Yet for as prolific as a writer in the theological world as Bretherton is, he is quick to point out that his wife, Caroline, has had far more success selling cookbooks.
One little trick that underpins Bretherton’s work – and makes it refreshing – is the revelation that parties on each side of the political divide today share a narrative that shapes how modern political discourse approaches common moral issues. This narrative is a new story that we have been telling ourselves: at its core it says that we are not designed creatures created for a higher purpose, but rather we have the right to self-determination when it comes to issues of ultimate good. This narrative is diametrically opposed to the Christian narrative, in which our ultimate hope is in Christ’s ongoing work to redeem us and in his promise to make all things new. Viewed like this, and when we are reminded that God’s truth has dominion over every last square inch of our lives, it is impossible to suggest that the gospel is non-political, as many Christians have come to believe. It’s just that the gospel approaches the use of power differently than we’re accustomed to think in our modern framework.
If you’re looking for answers to specific hot-topic political issues, though, you won’t necessarily find them with Bretherton. What you will find, however, is a way to think about and discuss current issues in much the same way Christians have done for centuries. You’ll also find a shift in focus from the teeth-grinding political discourse at a federal level where it seems that the gospel narrative is and will be given nothing more than lip service, to the local level where not only does the gospel have the most opportunity to shape our communities, political decisions also have the greatest overall impact on the daily lives of people. You’ll also be reminded that you can do so without having to dehumanize a person because of his position or delegitimize a position because of the person espousing it. In short, you will be reminded of the call to love others as Christ has loved us, even to love our enemies, and to be filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit in how we discuss and debate common moral issues. This, I believe, will help the witness of the Church and, in turn, the healing of our politics.
We will be hosting Luke Bretherton on Friday, September 13th at New Garden Park. He will share with us, and then, along with Patrick Lineberry and Nathan Hedman, help lead us in group discussions concerning our duty to care for others in this political culture. Be sure to SIGN UP!