There Is No Abstention from Politics

Yesterday the folks over at The Guardian‘s Belief section asked me to weigh in on their question of the week, and for better or worse I sacrificed most of the day’s opportunity for book-writing on the altar of Welcome Distraction.

The question is: “Can religion be apolitical?” What they have in mind, being British and all, is the recent revelation of Catholic priest Fr. James Chesney’s involvement in IRA car bombings in the 1970s. Being the chauvinistic American that I am (and a pretty sporadic news-reader lately), I didn’t mention Chesney. But the question presented simply too good an opportunity to summon the rarely-summoned memory of my favorite theologian. Here goes my answer:

Religion is politics. It just is. The great French sociologist Émile Durkheim was right almost a century ago when he wrote of religion as “an eminently social thing”. We learn it (or don’t) at our mothers’ breasts and cling to it (or not) as we set out into the world. We speak the word of God with human lips and hear it with human ears. The ways we do so are our first inkling of what a good society should look like. And that inkling forms habits of how we bother to treat one another. How we treat one another is politics.

Few have known this quite as well as the Episcopalian lawyer-theologian William Stringfellow, a man who followed Karl Barth’s advice to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. “There is no option in this world of abstention from politics”, he wrote. “Everyone everywhere is involved, whether intentionally and intelligently or by default or some moral equivalent of it.” So, no: religion cannot be apolitical. But people can think it is, and that’s when it becomes truly dangerous, or at best vapid and naive.

Keep reading to watch me rather recklessly equate spirituality with terrorism.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.