During the Christmas break I had the opportunity to read Charles Marsh’s Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity. When it was published in 2007 it would not have occurred to me that there was any political captivity from which the gospel could be freed and, in any case, I didn’t read books like this.
The book makes for fascinating reading now because–just 10 years later–it has so obviously slipped into history. To read it now is to open a window to another time. Marsh was appalled by the Iraq War and the ways evangelicals in the United States had cheered it on. They had traded in the credibility of the gospel and got in return death and devastation. He insisted this was not a minor event. The damage to Christianity had already been done and there would be no easy recovery from it.
Thinking evangelicalism in the United States had hit rock bottom, Marsh sought a way forward from the wreckage of a faith that had been “ransacked” and “trivialized.” He didn’t know then that there were further depths to plumb.
Because of those additional depths we’re now exploring, the path he described a decade ago still seems compelling and urgent. Marsh urged us to look to the global church, to hear the perspective (and the rebuke) of Christians outside the United States, and to listen to Christians of color within the U.S. He asked us to draw on the long and broad tradition of Christian orthodoxy stretching back 2000 years. He implored us to take theology seriously, to speak carefully, and to learn to be quiet in a “nation of noisy believers.” And then, in the last chapter, is a passage worth quoting at length:
I am struck by the absence of resistance, dissent, and critical judgment in the moral repertoire of contemporary evangelicals. These disciplines–and let us call them disciplines–are rarely intoned in our sermons, publications, and seminaries, and when they are, they are most commonly regarded as manifestations of pride. Evangelicals are quick to admonish unity when there is a whiff of disagreement in the air. Dissent must be quashed for the sake of harmonious ideals, which we consider spiritual virtues. But perhaps the situation only masks our swift retreat from the costs of discipleship…
Part of what I admire about the book is Marsh’s evident conviction that the Christian scholar must not stand on the sidelines, retreating to the comforts of the archive or the academic conference in a moment of trouble. What if dissent is required of us in this moment?
Marsh did not offer a counterpolitics, a cheap inversion of that which he resisted, rage for rage. Instead, he offered theological reflection and a call to return to Christian orthodoxy. In this posture we see Marsh’s conviction that Christianity is not a political program. The Kingdom of God, wholly other, utter righteousness breaking through to unrighteousness, is far too profound and terrifying a thing to be contained in a political program. And yet, its very otherness means that always and everywhere it will have subversive political implications.
So the upshot of all of this is that I’m going to try to take Marsh’s advice. I’ve got some unusual stuff on my shelf, from Basil of Caesarea to Karl Barth. But really, I’m just flying blind. Tell me, friends, to where should we turn for sustenance and dissent in this moment?