The Common Good

Changing the Script on Political Theology

When I picked up a copy of Daniel Schultz's book Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century, I was intrigued by his analysis of how he applied work of Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann into forming a progressive political theology. I thought his insights might provide some interesting food for thought as we head into the 2010 mid-term elections.

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What are the scripts that need to be changed?

Daniel Schultz: Brueggemann names four that he sees as dominant in our culture: the consumerist, the technological, the therapeutic, and the militarist. To give you a sense of what he's talking about, he says of the consumerist script, "We live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor."

What insights did you glean from Walter Brueggemann's theology that you found were helpful in forming a progressive political theology?

Two things, primarily. The first is that these scripts more often than not run in the background, beyond our conscious awareness. They shape our identities and behavior on auto-pilot, essentially. The work of the church, he says, is to bring the scripts to light and "counter-script" the people of God -- reshape them in the image of God. I expand on that to say that progressive believers are called to do the same thing in the political realm. We're called to do that imaginatively, which is the second thing. We are meant to imagine new possibilities, or as I put it in the book, "Ask the questions, not line up behind the answers."

How can progressives maintain a progressive voice without being perceived as playing partisan politics?

One of the things I point out in the book is that the faults of the current situation are not evenly distributed. That is to say, one party is far more responsible for our current mess than the other, and progressives shouldn't be shy about saying so. But I have also always thought that one of the defining characteristics of progressives is a commitment to reform even within their own parties. (That comes from growing up in Wisconsin, where "Fighting Bob LaFollette" saved some of his harshest words for his own Republican party.) And while the responsibility for our current mess may not be shared, the guilt sure is. That is, it took Democrats and Republicans and a whole lot of average citizens to get where we are today.

So while I don't think progressives should be shy about stating the obvious -- i.e., the party of Reagan took the lead in getting us here -- the main thing is to keep asking the questions. Are we safe? Are we happy? Can the scripts that promise to make us safe and happy keep those promises? Answering those questions and imagining alternatives to them will take you outside the boundaries of partisan politics, I swear.

How are the prophetic and progressive tasks the same when it comes to addressing issues of social justice?

I say in the book that those tasks end up being the same: "to declare the death of the old order, the loss of its legitimate hold over the people, and to point the way to a new order." I name a number of ways that can be done: seeing the abortion issue as a medicalized placeholder for arguments over the position of women in our society and how much power they should have, for example. Or instead of relying on corporations to apply virtuous self-interest, actually writing economic standards of transparency, equity, and opportunity into law.

I have to say I'm not much for the framing of social justice as helping "the least of these" because that only maintains the supremacy of the lucky us over the unlucky them. We as citizens and as faithful people owe one another freedom, equality, and possibility. That's the starting point of both prophetic and progressive work.

Explain how people of faith can offer genuine hope in a post 9/11 culture that had yet to recover from this global financial crisis?

Real hope begins when false hope ends. The promises that military might could keep us safe and unfettered capitalistic consumerism could keep us happy died ignominious deaths under President Bush. We -- people of faith -- need to help our fellow citizens understand that militarism and consumerism are deader than doornails. You're not going to get rich speculating in real estate or on stocks, and killing untold thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan isn't going to keep you safe. But life is possible without those things. Real happiness, real joy, comes from being content with our lot and living responsibly in community, broadly drawn. Real safety comes from living a reconciled life with neighbors, down the block and around the world.

The guarantor of those promises is God, and God always delivers on her promises, though often in surprising and disconcerting ways. Bottom line: it ain't over until it's over. God's got more in store for you, so get happy -- and hold on to your hat.

portrait-becky-garrison Follow Becky Garrison's travels on twitter @JesusDied4This.

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