Metz: Political theology in the church must take the form of social criticism, not political ideology.

Johann Baptist Metz

I’ve been sharing a series of posts on Theology of the World by Johann Baptist Metz, which I read over the weekend. Again, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is just 150 pages and very approachable.

Below is one last selection from this book, on what the political role of the church is in a pluralistic society. Metz’s answer to this question is that the church’s goal should never be to set up and enforce societal norms or endorse a political ideology or to establish itself as a political force; but rather the church should be about the liberating business of social critique. With the American culture war so dominated by Left-vs-Right ideology (and far too many Christians getting caught up in it), this is a timely – and radical –  message for us today. He also calls for cooperation between Christians and people of other faiths (or no faith) based on our common experience in this world of the felt “lack of freedom, justice, and peace.”

In the pluralistic society it cannot be the socio-critical attitude of the Church to proclaim one positive societal order as an absolute norm. It can only consist in the effecting within this society a critical, liberating freedom. The Church’s task here is not the elaboration of a system of social doctrine, but of social criticism. The Church is a particular institution in society, yet presents a universal claim; if this claim is not to be an ideology, it can only be formulated and urged as criticism. Two important aspects may be pointed out on this basis. In the first place, it is clear now why the Church, being a socio-critical institution, will not, in the end come out with a political ideology. No political party can establish itself merely as such a criticism; no political party can take as its object of political action that which is the scope of ecclesiastical criticism of society, namely, the whole of history standing under God’s eschatological proviso. And in the second place, one can see now, again on the basis of the Church’s critical function with regard to society, how cooperation with other non-Christian institutions and groups is possible in principle. The basis of cooperation between Christians and non-Christians, between men and groups of even the widest ideological differences, cannot primarily be a positive determination of the societal progress or a definitive objective opinion of what the future free society of men will be. In the realm of these positive ideas there will always be differences and pluralism.
This pluralism in the positive design of society cannot be abolished within the conditions of our history if complete manipulation is not to replace its free realization. In view, therefore, of the afore-mentioned cooperation, there is a negative, critical attitude and experience to which we should pay our chief attention: the experience of the threat to humanity, that is, the experience of freedom, justice, and peace being threatened. We should not underestimate this negative experience. There is to it an elementary positive power of mediation. Even if we cannot directly and immediately agree as to the positive content of freedom, peace, and justice, yet we have a long and common experience with their contraries, the lack of freedom, justice, and peace.  This negative experience offers us a chance for consensus, less in regard to the positive aspect of the freedom and justice we are seeking, than in regard to our critical resistance against the dread and terror of no freedom and no justice. The solidarity which grows out of this experience offers the possibility of a common front of protest. This must be grasped; this must be exploited. The danger of new wars is too close. The irrationalities of our actions in the social and political field are too manifest. There is still with us the possibility that “collective darkness” will descend upon us. The danger of losing freedom, justice, and peace is, indeed, so great, that indifference in these matters would be a crime. (122-124)

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