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Does Theology Have Legs, and If So, What Ground Do They Stand On? 

My intellectual hero, Peter Maurin, once wrote about what happened when he went to a university looking for advice on his project to animate the economic order in line with Christian tradition:

A few years ago,
I asked a college professor
to give me
the formulation
of those universal concepts
embodied
in the universal message
of universal universities
that will enable
the common man
to create
a universal economy.
And I was told
by the college professor:
“That is not my subject.” 

So with Peter Maurin and Dr. McMullen both reminding me that an appeal to disciplinary specialization is not an adequate response, I’m happy to be pushed to say more about directions for action. But first I want to respond to Dr. McMullen’s interesting challenge to my focus poverty. He points out that my approach neglects the significance of the growing disparity of wealth between the middle class and the wealthiest. It’s a smart question, and I appreciate the chance to engage it.

Which inequality?

My emphasis on poverty is a function of my concern that no political party in the US is seriously campaigning to address poverty. Fighting for the middle class is a winning cause; fighting to end poverty —  to address food insecurity, lack of funding for educational systems in areas with lower property values, housing and medical care as human rights, a living wage, the rights of low wage workers to organize, and environmental justice — is not. In fact, it seems we have come to a situation where poverty is such a matter of shame that even people of good will prefer to talk about policies that will support the middle class rather than policies that support people living in poverty. Being a member of the middle class who is being driven into poverty is honorable, and trying to assist such a person in keeping and advancing that hard-won place is an appealing struggle. Being poor just doesn’t have the same cache. The Poor People’s Campaign, which is giving voice and public support to people in poverty, is turning the tables on that logic, amplifying the energy and intelligence of people who live in poverty, instead of brushing them under the table.

As I’ve thought about Dr. McMullen’s point, I’ve come to agree that this question— whose inequality we are focusing on— does indeed have to do with what we think a good outcome would look like. Are we still dreaming of a bourgeois respectability for everyone, or are we looking for a society that values its actual members, all of them, in our broken, pieced-together lives? I’ve been reading and re-reading Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a powerful of that “new world” that Roy’s name is so tiresomely associated with. But the new world, as it’s found in that novel, is hatched in the breakdown of a traumatized misfit person who ends up living in a graveyard. Slowly the place where she has fallen off the edge of the world becomes a home she shares not only with the dead but with a host of others who have also fallen off the edge. It’s the island of misfit toys, with a cast of three genders and three religions, characters united by the tragedy and ordinariness of human life in their place. Meaning no disrespect to the author, it’s the most moving literary account of the kingdom of God I’ve seen in years.

So addressing inequality by starting with the humanity of those who have been discarded is precisely a matter of what we are aiming for. Rather than aiming for a society of self-enclosed individuals, I’m operating from a desire for a society of rooted in shared humanity, including sharing the irresolvably flawed, heartbreaking humanity we share.

Having said that, I will also say that I find Dr. McMullen’s reasoning about the civic importance of attention to the growing gap between the middle class and the wealthy quite compelling. I mentioned earlier the variety of studies that have shown a negative correlation between wealth and empathy, and the results of that alienation writ large indicate a profound civic problem. I have to revise my view in light of that. What is hidden by the frequent appeals for support for the middle class is the need not only to support those living in poverty as well as those being driven from the middle class into poverty. It is also the necessity of addressing the moral and social sickness of excessive wealth, particularly the damage it does to the persons who have it, to the society fascinated by it, and to the civic order that suffers from the alienation it produces.

Getting real

What about the importance of engaging particular policy questions?  Dr. McMullen argues that this work is important because it is the principle area of disagreement, because our efforts to craft solutions leads to a better understanding of the problems, and because in the end good intentions simply won’t get it done. He argues that theological thinking matters not only in setting ends for the economy, but in helping to determine right means, which is the really juicy question.

I appreciate the compliment paid to the discipline of theology. Too often the presumption, on all sides of the issue, is that theology, properly speaking, stops with the articulation of values or ideals and really has little to offer beyond that. That presumption is rooted in the belief that theology is about ideas rather than historical action or human communities. Some theologians will argue that that is exactly what theology is. I am not one of them. Christian theology is about God as known by a historical revelation and the community that lives by it and through the gift of the Spirit. So for Christian theology, a focus on God is a focus on events, people, and a social organization, as well as the texts, stories, and principles that animate those people.

So the beginning of my answer to the challenge to be more practical about “what we are to do” is to note the ambiguity in that “we.” Whose action am I going to talk about? I do not mean by this that I am concerned for the poverty and wealth of some people and consider other people simply outside the fold. I mean that it matters a great deal within what social, political, and eschatological framework we are proposing action.

The church has the framework and is the human community that most concerns me. Christian communities form a global communion that is a material and social network, but which for the most part imagines itself somehow as having no material power, no economic influence, no body in the world. Identifying that problem does not automatically produce solutions, but it leads to an entirely different set of questions, policy problems, and possibilities.  So here are a few suggestions I have about how that worldwide communion might recognize itself as participating in God’s incarnation in the world and take up the challenges of economic inequality.

First, in lieu of stewardship programs, churches should have offices of redistribution, their work re-envisioned in line with that title. The error of treating, in theory and in practice, the property of Christians as given to them individually by God and under their sole authority (before God, who is not on hand and therefore needs stewards) has to be confronted. Wealth can and should be identified as an ecclesial question: some members of the Body of Christ have far too much and some have far too little.

Discernments about what to do with that will be complex, so complex that I rather think avoiding them may be the real reason we have for so long accepted the theologically unsatisfying language of stewardship. Who will have the authority to lead this process, and what sorts of pressure would be used to bring about wealth transfer? The state has the power to compel. The church will be wise to follow a quite different approach, through catechetical, homiletic, and sacramental efforts, working structurally and intentionally to create a culture in which mutuality is constitutive of the joy of the gospel. One wise teacher of mine liked to say that when a person joins a Christian community, a step in admission should be disclosing his or her income and wealth. That would not require you to divest yourself of any of it, but it would be a necessary step toward communal discernment of what those who share in the Body of Christ ought to do about disparity of wealth in their midst.

Such local policies would make other kinds of ecclesial action more imaginable and more substantial. They could be associated with congregational-level work to understand the causes of poverty and to commit to collective work to address those causes. Such judgements, no doubt, will not always be easy to reach. They will open up conflict within congregations, requiring practices of conflict resolution. When reached, they may not be wise. The actions they lead to will not always succeed. Nevertheless, failure would be better than our current practice, which is leave all such questions to the preference of the individual believer, to leave our shared life at a superficial level, and to neglect the scriptural witness that calls for mutual love and material sharing among those who are members of the one body.

Likewise, once such local policies are in place and congregations are encountering wealth disparity in their midst (or the lack of it in their own congregation, which is another problem this approach would require us to address) and examining its causes, they will be better situated to be encountering those not in their own congregation who are also struggling to get by. In fact, the pagan emperor Julian complained that in his day that all of the poor were becoming Christian because Christians were more generous in their efforts to address poverty than the pagans were. What if all of the the poor of the US began to turn to Christian communities, wanting to join them because of their generosity? This would be a fantastic problem to have.

Again, in the US Christian congregations should be leading efforts to talk frankly and seriously about reparations for slavery. Christians are supposed to know something about confession, penance, and reconciliation (in that order), and so should be particularly well-situated to begin the work of examining the collective conscience concerning inherited injustice and structural supports for continuing inequality. The scandal that in spite of the role white Christian communities played in supporting poverty, those communities have typically not made racial justice a priority will not simply disappear on its own— nor should it. Part of our larger project of contending with inequality within the Body of Christ will have to be contending with a legacy inherited from Christians who believed the curse of Ham (or natural law, among Catholics) authorized slavery.

A slightly more abstract but enormously important policy change would be for congregations in the US to shift their talk about freedom, especially religious freedom, in a direction more attentive to economic realities. As I indicated in my first post, I see this as a key way in which we have not yet come to understand what the problem is. On the contrary, too often appeals to freedom actually obfuscate the issue. If instead of the churches carrying a banner for freedom as defined in the Bill of Rights, they argued for freedom as the freedom from sin encountered when participate in the life of Christ, we might be able to identify individualism and consumerism as obstacles to freedom. We might be able to talk about defense of the common good (as it affects congregations, neighborhoods, cities, the nation, and the world) as an act of freedom.

I grant that these proposals seem unlikely to succeed, at the moment. I take that to mean my fellow theologians and I, along with pastors and practitioners, have a lot of hard work to do.

But US policies?

The foregoing is not an attempt merely to evade questions about US policy. I am not oblivious to the power of government to affect economic inequality. It is  an undeniable force shaping not only the economic prospects but also the moral imaginations of its citizens, and so of course it cannot simply be ignored.


Engaging US policy questions theologically is a different project altogether than engaging ecclesial policy. The scale of ecclesial policy is both more global and more personal, but the difference is more difficult than that. The US, while always overwhelmingly Christian in number, has never been Christian in principle. Policies in the US are formed by what we like to hope is a fair procedure, a representative democratic process (aka sausage-making) in which consent of the majority is the functional standard. To be clear, that means the standard is not justice, and it is certainly not the gospel.

Advancing theological arguments in that context requires facing certain choices. Will we “translate” the theological argument into something more philosophical or better yet pragmatic? In that case, it is surely more efficient to make the philosophical or pragmatic argument directly, since that is what will actually matter. Will we make the theological argument to those who might be persuaded by it, in hopes that they can become an interest group or a voting block big enough to advance the agenda?  In that case, we have to face the accusation of politicizing the faith, dividing our ecclesial communities for the sake of judgments on which there can be conscientious disagreement. Given how polarized Christian communities already are, it’s probably more accurate to say that we would be making use of the divisions that clearly already exist, for the sake of party politics? Some of my colleagues  have gone this route, doing conscientious, brave, and hard work, hoping to use political struggle to address injustice and awaken Christian conscience.  I cannot bring myself to embrace that approach when I see the damaged Body of Christ, torn ever more by our attempts to fit the gospel into the alternatives currently available.

If I will not take those options, will I accept the designation of lending support to certain vague values and principles, and leave matters of means to other modes of reasoning? As Dr. McMullen has pointed out, that is abdicating the juiciest part of the work, the part that shows what our ideas are really made of.

I do not despair of influencing US policy. I am, however, highly skeptical of theological attempts to circumvent the work of discernment, formation, and organization within Christian communities themselves. Taking theological ideas directly into the practice of US policy-making without attending to the community for whom this is the world of God reinforces the paradigm by which Christian community has no body in the world, in which Christians only act as individuals in public life. I have seen some attempts to turn a creedal conviction (Incarnation, Trinity) into the basis for a particular policy, without a church movement behind it. These did little to help the policy and much to diminish the creedal conviction. The route I favor for influencing US policy is to work on healing the church--by which I mean all Christian communities united by baptism, though their division makes such appeal even more complicated than it already is-- so that it can better play its role, for the life of the world and even for the life of the US. That role would involve economic creativity in practice, energetic work to analyze and address the causes of poverty affecting the church around the world, and a fresh encounter with the good news.


I admire Dr. McMullen’s posts. His initial proposals for tax reform, in particular, seem to me not only smart but also driven by a proper sense of the common good and human dignity. I could write a fine account of why I think that is so, with an eye to Catholic social teaching. I annually attend a conference full of scholars who do that sort of work. Watching them for the past twenty years has led me to think theology needs to take a different route, a route that is more rooted in the reality of how Christian language can meaningfully work in our polity. Once, moral theology and political economy were not distinct disciplines. What are they now? In a secular US economy, the work of sustaining a community of Christians who engage in discernment and organization on their own terms, which is to say in their own kind of politics, is the long-term struggle where I think theology can and should have legs.

Dr. McMullen and I could have fruitfully engaged a number of other questions related to wealth disparity: the logic and effects of war come to mind, as does the operation of debt (student debt looming large on the horizon), the Christian tradition of voluntary poverty (and its relation to peacemaking), and the language of hospitality. We have only touched on questions of power, especially labor organizing, and of state boundaries, as in questions of migration. Nevertheless, I do not regret the turn our exchange took. Dr. McMullen’s challenges to me have helped me to articulate and re-examine fundamental intellectual and vocational convictions. A strong challenge like that is an accomplishment and a treasure. I am grateful to him for this engagement.

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