Thesis 2: Social praxis is structurally mediated by the emancipatory solidarity of the community of Christ.
Christians seeking to be relevant to wider society should take note of Jurgen Moltmann’s analysis of the unintended consequences when Christian student activists decided to join the barricades in the student demonstrations in Berlin in 1968. The Christian students eventually abandoned their Christian faith as irrelevant to their present social struggles. Moltmann highlights the dramatic case of Christian students at the Meiji-Gakuin University in Japan who even erected a barricade in the University Chapel. The Japanese students declared,
By making our church a refuse dump we want to proclaim to the university authorities and our fellow students that Christianity and worship can become symbols of the absence of humanity and contempt for it. We want to create true Christianity n the midst of this stormy struggle within the university by common action with our fellow students. . . God does not exist in this church, but rather in the living deeds of a man involved in human relationships” (The Crucified God, p. 15)
Moltmann observes that the students had fallen into a crisis of identity when they destroyed the Christian chapel that epitomized their abandonment of the traditions, institutions and opinions that grounded their faith and identity. Moltmann however warned that,
“Solidarity with others in meaningful actions loses its creative character if one no longer wishes to be anything different from the others. Bonhoeffer’s ‘existence for others’, to which so much appeal has been made, becomes meaningless if one is no longer any different from the others, but merely a hanger on. Only someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately for ‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like him. And this is not much help for them.”
To be fair, most Christian activists do not fall into such dramatic self-defeating solidarity in their social engagement. Their compromises are likely to be subtle, such as when they take cues from dominant social movements of the day rather than look to the teachings of Christ and Gospel to shape their social struggle and to determine priorities and strategies for social praxis. Such Christians then fall into cultural captivity by the dominant ideology of the day.
In this regard, the lessons from Karl Barth’s rejection of the compromise made by theologians of ‘Culture Protestantism’ remain instructive. Naturally, Karl Barth reacted to the cultural captivity of the church by emphasizing on the discontinuity between present social existence and the kingdom of God. The challenge for Barth’s theology is to bridge the gap thus conceived between Christological praxis and present realities. Barth preferred the one rule of Christ – over both the church and state – as the bridge between the eschatological aims of Christological praxis and present realities.
For Barth, the community of Christ exists as the paradigm, the provisional representation of God’s eschatological goals for human society. Two implications may be drawn from the above premise. First, the church itself is an exemplary model of ordered social relationships. In this regard, the church as a model and context for social praxis is superior to abstract ‘middle axioms’ (represented by John C. Bennett in social ethics and R. K. Merton in sociology). Second, the church may apply its analogical imagination to evaluate social praxis. To be favoured are those praxis which promote the humanization of man and bear analogies to the kingdom of God.
Barth apparently viewed the relationship between church and civil society in a unidirectional manner, that is, only with regard to the significance of the church for civil society. Positively, Barth’s proposal of the model of parables and correspondences introduces faith in a liberating way into politically oppressed life, and at the same time preserves it from presumption and self-surrender. But the formulation and application of these models betrays an air or arbitrariness. In reality the church becomes free not prior to and independent of its relations to wider society. Instead, it becomes free with the society in which it exists.
Barth missed the dialectical relationship between the Christian community and civil society. That is to say, the church is always viewed in relationship to wider society. This implies that the relationship between church and civil society be also defined along social structural relationships and social praxis. Such a view would require that the social praxis of the church be informed by the dialogue between theology and social theory. This approach allows for implantation of theological models to the concrete processes of social life while utilizing the insights of social theory.
Perhaps a fruitful model may be found by integrating the covenant model of society with ideological critique represented by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Insofar as the church exists as a social phenomenon, the church is open to social forces operating in society. As such, relevant social analysis must be brought to bear on the historical form assumed by the church to uncover any hidden structures that contradict its professed identity. The ability of the church to adapt its forms to specific social conditions is its strength. But it becomes a source of weakness if the church clings to these social forms when changing social conditions demand a corresponding change for the church. In fact, in accepting existing social structures, whether out of ignorance or self-interest, the church may end up serving the ruling elite.
‘Hermeneutics of suspicion’ (Paul Ricoeur’s description of social analysis exemplified by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) must therefore be a feature in the social-analytical mediation of faith and theology in order to unmask any social ideology used to legitimize oppressive powers and structures both within the church and in wider society. Some of the functions of a hermeneutics of suspicion or ideological critique which should find parallels in a theology of Christian praxis may include the following: (1) describe accurately the ideology that influences theologizing in the present context while eschewing any superficial caricatures; (2) seek a depth interpretation of the ideology which will at once reveal how the ideology reflects and distorts an underlying religious social praxis; (3) seek to discover the material and psychological factors that reinforce and sustain it; (4) seek to isolate the fundamental beliefs and interpretations that are the basis of the ideology, and to criticize them in order to expose their falsity. The intended goal should be to refute the legitimizing power of ideologies and their influence on theology (5) apply ‘hermeneutics of affirmation’ to retrieve liberating resources from the narrative of Christ, and to propose alternative social structural forms that are more consistent with the values of the kingdom of God.
Without reference to the empirical realities, Christian theology and ethics cannot establish common grounds necessary for public discourse. As such, Christian contributions become meaningless to those outside the Christian faith who are also involved in the debate and formation of public policies. In a plural society what is required is not dogmatic assertions but the provision of better reasons. This must not be interpreted as a retreat from our earlier insight that Christian social praxis must issue from a hermeneutical retrieval of specific historical traditions. What is asserted here is the awareness that Christian social praxis, even though it arises and takes shape from within a particular community of faith, brings about consequences towards wider civil society. Accordingly, there is a place for Christians to demonstrate the coherence and viability of their social goals on the basis of commonalities in experiences and perceptions and to specify their proposals in terms related to existing social structures, so that Christian social action is at once realistic and able to mobilize all sectors of society of work towards attainable goals. .
To conclude, the Christian community exists as ‘mediating structures’ which enable people to maintain meaning, fulfillment and personal identity while injecting values into the impersonal ‘mega-structures’ and complex political processes of society. In describing the church as ‘mediating structures’ we are indeed recognizing the modest role the church contributes to social change, namely, that of mediation. But this is not by any means a depreciation of the social praxis of the church since a mediating structure has also the potential for being the most important source of values in society. More importantly, it is a reminder that the historic mission of the Christian community is to mediate the story of Christ, with its liberating consequences and reconciliation to a world increasingly fraught with tensions and conflicts.