Critical Theology and Prophetic Witness

The democratic vision of justice and equity has its origins in the messianic hope for a society in which the reign of God's shalom will become a reality. Of course, the custodians of this vision, whether Jewish or Christian, have often failed to witness faithfully to its demands. As a result, the vision has been secularized in various ways, some of them revolutionary, as in Marxism. These too have generally failed to fulfill their promise of a new and just world order. But the vision has endured, and it re-emerges through history out of the longing for or the experience of liberation from oppression, the struggle to affirm human equality and achieve social justice. Furthermore, it continually reminds us that the touchstone of a truly democratic society is the way in which it cares for the dis-advantaged, and thus seeks to develop structures in which all share equitably in a nation's or global resources. Utopian as it may appear, this prophetic impulse has been the driving force behind the struggle for democratic transformation in many parts of the world, even if its religious roots are often unacknowledged. The establishment of a new democratic social order in formerly oppressive contexts will not bring in Utopia or the kingdom of God, but without such expectation and hope, the struggle for democratic transformation will not be engaged.

Critical theological reflection on democracy must continually return to this prophetic source of Christian faith. In doing so, we need to remember that the struggle for democracy has often in the past been a struggle against a reactionary church which has done everything in its power to prevent social change. Within the Old Testament canon itself there is tension between the royal trajectory, with its tendency toward absolutism, and the egalitarian trajectory of the eighth-century bce prophets. This tension has continued through Christian history. But the prophetic tradition provides the basis upon which Christianity must reject all absolutist political claims as idolatrous because they invariably oppress and dehumanize. It also keeps the church aware of the danger of giving uncritical theological legitimation to any particular expression of democracy, for that too can easily lead to its corruption.

The prophetic tradition also provides the church with the basis for dealing with issues such as national sovereignty in relationship to global needs, for example, in the development of environmental policies and practices. Many of the problems facing the future of humanity, not least those concerning the world economic order, social development, health, and the environment, are not and cannot be confined within national boundaries. International cooperation and political will are essential if they are to be dealt with satisfactorily. Just as the tension between individual and community interests is dealt with through the democratic process, so there is no other way for the future of just and peaceful world politics than through dealing with the tension between national and international interests in the same way. A democratic world order does not mean imposing the Western model on all nations, but developing a genuinely global democratic order through which matters of global concern can be addressed.

Even as Christians rightly and necessarily seek to engage in nation-building, they must be wary of the dangers of nationalism. The relationship between genuine national aspirations, as in building a nation out of the ruins of apartheid, and a nationalism that leads to xenophobia and even war against neighboring states, is a critical issue facing democracies and the churches. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe resulted not only in the attempt to create democratic societies, but also in the resurgence of historic nationalisms that have threatened the stability of the region and led to ethnic cleansing. The church as an ecumenical community has a key role to play in countering any form of nationalism and patriotism that is uncritical, jingoistic, and unjust. National sovereignty has legitimacy, but not in any absolute sense.

In the church struggle against apartheid, critical theology had the clear task of countering the idolatry of racism; today, within a secular democratic society committed to multicultural and religious tolerance, the challenge is to ensure that both Christian faith and theology remain publicly engaged and prophetic. It is not easy for prophets who have supported the cause of liberation to exercise their critical craft against former comrades who have finally achieved power. In South Africa, for example, there is still the need to speak out against corruption, the abuse of power, racial and gender discrimination, economic injustice, the destruction of the environment, and whatever else may destroy the well-being of society. In this regard, key questions need to be addressed. This critical task is essential for the future well-being of democratic society not just in the new democracies but also in those that are historically well-established. For example, how does the church affirm democratic values and goals without selling out to a secular ideology in which Christian faith inevitably becomes privatized? What contribution can and should Christian theologians make to contemporary democratic theory and praxis?

If the prophetic vision provides the necessary utopian and iconoclastic basis for critical theological reflection and ecclesial praxis, reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity provides us with the insights necessary to overcome the way in which democracy has become a casualty of the contradictions of modernity. Indeed, by bringing the prophetic (critical) and the trinitarian (sociality) dimensions of Christian theological reflection and tradition together we have a theological basis for both contributing to the debate about democracy and enabling the church to discern its role within the democratic process.

The triune God, in whom Christians believe, is not a homogeneous collectivity in which the uniqueness of each person is subsumed within the whole, but a community within which the distinctness of each person is affirmed and therefore within which the other remains a significant other. At the same time, God is one, but not the monolithic, patriarchal sovereign of the universe remote from human history, relationships, struggles, and sufferings. By analogy, a trinitarian theology cannot support an understanding of society that promotes individual self-interest at the expense of the common good, even under the guise of personal freedoms. But equally, a trinitarian theology cannot support an understanding of society in which personal identity and freedom are trampled on by a collective. It is not easy to avoid these two tendencies under certain historical circumstances. But a truly democratic order, from a trinitarian perspective, requires constant effort to discern ways of transcending this split between individualism and collectivism, which has bedeviled the debate between liberalism and socialism, and to develop an understanding of human sociality in which both individual rights and the common good are complementary rather than conflictual.

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