The resurrection by Andrea Mantegna (Photo by DeAgostini)

The victorious sign

What relationship should Christianity have with politics?

Artillery Row

As Laudable Practice noted in his article on Good Friday, we are all witnessing the perversion of Christian theology by Russia: “love, of neighbour and of God, is perverted, justifying fascistic blood-letting as a means of gaining a hellish utopia”.

And as Pope Francis suggests, many Christians worship “hidden idols” and embrace triumphalism “without the Cross”. It’s a good time, surely, for us to heed those who attack Christian triumphalism and plead for a more modest Church, safely detached from politics.

Theo Hobson, liberal theologian and journalist, certainly thinks so. He has launched ferocious attacks on Dostoevsky for his alleged religious nationalism, and on contemporary Christian theologians (including, full disclosure, my father) for denouncing rather than defending secular liberalism. He argues that the “dream of theopolitical harmony must be renounced, until God brings his kingdom”.

What are Christians celebrating if not triumphalism?

But just what are Christians celebrating this Easter if not a form of triumphalism, and indeed “theopolitical harmony”? Not, certainly, a blasphemous worship of the state and its ambitions, but rather the eternal victory of the Risen Christ over sin, death and hell.

The Resurrection represents the triumph of a cosmic revolt against evil and the tyranny of those who govern the world through force and falsehood. Satan has been toppled from his throne. Even if oppressors hold visible power, they have already been metaphysically vanquished.

The Passion and Resurrection of Christ raise up the Cross as an inverted symbol, representing the triumph of the victim over the victimiser, the slave over his master, the weak over the strong. The instrument of execution and torture has become a sign of eternal victory, bringing hope to every suffering soul.

But this victory, belonging as it does to an invisible, eternal realm, surely has nothing to do with the imperial claims of what Hobson calls “Christian theocrats” who wish to bring together politics and theology? Shouldn’t Christians embrace the humane compromise of secular liberalism and leave the Kingdom of Heaven to the next life?

Consider what sort of a faith that would be, and what those like Hobson are asking of us. Christ’s victory may only be fully realised in the eschaton — in the new heaven and the new earth — but the resurrected Christ was not an abstraction. He was a man of flesh and blood, born of a woman to walk amongst us again.

If Christianity’s promise was apolitical and fully otherworldly, it would be a quietistic religion offering no visible hope or aid to those groaning under the oppression of worldly masters. Perhaps this line of theological argument is beginning to sound familiar? It should — antebellum slaveowners used to make such arguments to justify owning, torturing and killing other human beings. They too were good secular liberals.

The hope that Christianity offers to the subjugated is not just otherworldly, but rather offers an immediate and direct remedy to the woes of this world. Its offer is precisely political in the classical sense of the world. Christians are given membership of a political community — the local parish and the universal Church — which treats them as worthy of full human dignity, as future and present citizens of the Kingdom of Christ.

Christians are required to look for the coming Kingdom

The first Christian Roman emperor Constantine, and the Church which embraced him after his victory over his pagan rivals, are seen by many liberal Christians as perverting a pure, otherworldly Christianity with political power. But when Eusebius praised the “victorious Constantine” and the cross as a “victorious sign”, he was not reducing Christianity to a pagan ode to victory — but rather articulating an already existing Christian theopolitics.

As he notes when speaking of the churches Constantine has built, they are “trophies of his [Christ’s] victory over death”. For Eusebius, physical churches, the empire, the emperor and the Cross itself are all outward signs of a hidden victory over death embodied by the resurrected form of Christ:

He soon recalled his body from the grasp of death, presented it to his Father as the first-fruit of our common salvation, and raised this trophy, a proof at once of his victory over death and Satan, and of the abolition of human sacrifices, for the blessing of all mankind.

Though Christians must reject utopianism, the Church is a political community. We are not merely permitted but required to look for visible signs of the coming Kingdom, and strive towards it in our lives. Without the living, theopolitical hopes of Christianity, the ethical miracle ending terrible practices like human sacrifice and infanticide would never have come about.

What those like Hobson are really calling for is not the end of theopolitics, but rather the subordination of Christian theology to the state, no less surely than it is enslaved in Russia. As Hobson writes: “This is not a sell-out to a secular ideology, for the liberal state has Christian roots. It echoes the kenosis of Christ.” He wants Christian theologians to baptise liberalism, lending what influence they have to the triumphant progress of the liberal project.

The issue with this perspective is not that Hobson is wrong to say that liberalism has Christian roots, or even that in some sense Christians ought to defend liberalism. There is much that is good in liberalism, and much owed to Christianity. Christians should defend these goods.

The issue is that he thinks we should abandon Christianity as a theopolitical project altogether and hand the moral authority of the Church over to the dubious hands of liberal ideologues. Although Christians don’t hold state power at all times and in all places, we are always called to speak truth to power, and to govern our communities and ourselves in accordance with the teachings of Christ.

It is precisely as a consciously theopolitical project that the Church (unlike changeable and corruptible secular ideologies) can offer perpetual hope to the victim and the oppressed, and challenge tyrants like Putin. And it should be seen exactly as a form of secularisation (and even liberal statism) that Patriach Kiril gives his unquestioning support to a project of mechanised murder against a fellow Christian people in Ukraine.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover