Interview: Fundamentalist Theology – A Protestant Reflects
Bill Wylie-Kellerman is interviewed by the Catholic Worker, Los Angeles. A long-time friend of the LACW community, Bill is a teacher for the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago, the author of Seasons of Faith and Conscience (Orbis), the editor of Keeper of the Word (writings of William Stringfellow), and on the steering committee of the Word and World underground seminary. (See www.wordandworld.com)
CW: I am thinking of the gospel of Mark where Jesus asks the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ I believe that you and George Bush would answer that question quite differently, even though I understand you are an evangelical Christian. Is that correct?
Bill: My roots are evangelical and I do identify myself that way. As a Methodist, I love the movement’s founder, John Wesley, and his theology. Wesley had an evangelical passion for Jesus among the poor and really built a movement of social holiness predicated on justice to the poor. He summoned the whole of the Wesleyan movement to an anti-slavery commitment. He sought renewal of the church. Wesley never intended to found a new church or start an institution. This was a movement on the edges of the Anglican church.
CW: Are the roots of the evangelical movement found in John Wesley?
Bill: Partly. I was identifying myself. And we have a president who is self-identified as a Methodist. I guess I would characterise George Bush’s theology, and particularly where it’s gone in the course of his administration, as one embracing personal salvation in a way that reduces the gospel to a kind of individualism. That is precisely what makes evangelical theology vulnerable to being a kind of handmaiden to empire. He has also certainly articulated and embraced a theology of America as the good and holy nation, and even one which embraces America as empire. I would say further, and this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about his theology, that he has a sense of himself as chosen by divine election and heading a holy administration.
CW: It sometimes seems as though the Jesus of the gospel who rejects wealth and power and embraces the cross has nothing to do with his theology.
Bill: Yes, that’s pretty clear. In Michael Moore’s film [Fahrenheit 9/11] at the beginning of a fancy fundraising dinner, Bush says, ‘This is an impressive crowd – the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.’ I presume his Jesus would have been comfortable at the head table and was probably invokes. The Jesus of the gospels disrupts the dinners of the rich. The Jesus who makes for the margins, who lives with the poor, and who locates the good news there is far from the location where Bush would place himself and far from the place where he reads the gospel. In fact, you may recall that when he landed on the aircraft carrier and announced the completion of the Iraq mission, his explicit text was really Isaiah 62 – good news to the poor and release to the captives. From his perspective, that messianic vocation is fulfilled in war, not in non-violence and grace of the poor.
CW: Why doesn’t he see a problem with that and why doesn’t his constituency see a problem with that? Is there a consistent theological perspective that is not open to the understanding of the gospels that you and I share?
Bill: I think part of it is the reduction of the gospel to personal salvation alone. Again, this is a vulnerability of evangelical theology, where the personal transformation that the gospel brings is really only about ‘me.’ At that moment, the social solidarity of sin and salvation, not to mention the critique of the principalities and powers, is simply eviscerated from the gospels.
CW: What is wrong with personal salvation?
Bill: Nothing. Personal salvation can drive a movement, Wesley being a great example. But when personal salvation is separated from social transformation, it becomes vulnerable to imperialism. They must be held together, as for example in the Catholic Worker movement, where personalism and the renewal of personal responsibility are linked to social transformation.
CW: When we are the Catholic Worker look at the gospels, we often start with the temptations in the wilderness. In the gospel of Luke, all the kingdoms of the world are owned by the devil and it seems that the biggest kingdom of the world today is the United States. Why wouldn’t an evangelical theologian see that?
Bill: They wouldn’t if they regarded these as only Jesus’ personal, albeit divine, temptations. It is, however, quite clear. The spirit of empire asserts itself in the desert right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is implicit throughout the gospels, playing a very prominent role, for example, in the birth narrative as well. The Mel Gibson film Passion of the Christ is in many ways emblematic of the theology of the Bush regime. The sequel in the gospel to the temptations in the wilderness is the temptation in the garden of Gethsemane, and that is where the Gibson film begins. From my perspective, what goes on in Gethsemane is not just a personal two-way conversation between Jesus and God, but the powers are a definite part of the picture – they had a spy at the table who fled into the night; their troops are on their way. Doing the will of God has to do with refusing to be driven off, with facing the consequences of his public confrontation, the march into town and the temple action. In the Gibson film that is all stripped away. The devil is made present, but not as in the desert in a form that represents the powers as nation/state of the other seductions to power. The devil becomes this kind of triangulated individualist, which depoliticises the dimension Jesus was actually struggling with.
The next thing that happens in the film is that the troops arrive, and they are ‘temple cops’ rather than the Roman troops which appear in John’s gospel (Gibson’s otherwise preference). In a way he exonerates Rome—the Roman torturers are there to splatter the blood, but Pilate is off the hook in the film. He is portrayed as a thoughtful aristocrat who crucifies Jesus against his own better judgment. The powerful are certainly content with it. The evangelical community, broadly speaking, can see their own personal salvation testified to by a film, where empire is made invisible and is exonerated. That is the way the theology comes into the culture.
CW: It seems to me that Romans 13 plays a large part in that perspective in that we must obey the powers and principalities in the midst of this fallen world.
Bill: Well, there’s a translation question there. It doesn’t say ‘obey.’ It says ‘be subject,’ which is a substantial distinction, I would say.
CW: What is that distinction?
Bill: When we do an act of civil disobedience and are willing to face the consequence—stand in court and go on record and suffer the consequences of that action—that is being subject to the powers. That is quite different to being obedient.
CW: So we are not supposed to obey the powers? Didn’t God create these powers and they are there for the good and to punish evil people like Saddam Hussein.
Bill: You can’t separate Romans 13 from the temptations, as you suggest, or the Roman execution of Jesus, for that matter. But I would also refuse to separate it from Romans 12. The previous chapter is stunning and the whole book pivots on its call to ‘be not conformed to the world.’ It ends with the extended quotations from the Sermon on the Mount about not returning evil for evil.
George Bush has a dualistic, oversimplified view of the world. He understands the vocation of America to be to rid the world of evil and evildoers. But he does not choose to overcome evil with good or overcome hatred with love or overcome violence with non-violence. He in fact turns hate against hate; violence against violence. This is not what Romans 12 commands us to. Only when you’ve embraced the radical non-violence and nonconformity of Chapter 12 can you begin to consider the place of the State.
CW: I am thinking of your reflections on the Confessing Church and Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer and those people who opposed Hitler. Do you think we are at that point in our history now?
Bill: Yes. Let me backtrack: I don’t think history just replicates itself – it’s way too dynamic – but having said that, the parallels to the ’30s are stunning, from a leader of questionable legitimacy linking government and business at the highest levels, to the Reichstag fire, which (like the 9/11 attack) was used to justify all kinds of national security laws and the superceding of what would otherwise be constitutional restraints, to pre-emptive invasions, and the shredding of international law – all justified religiously and equated with the nation and patriotism itself. I think this is a period where resistance is going to be demanded more and more from us.
CW: Somebody once read George Bush the story of the Good Samaritan and he said that it was a really good story, but why don’t we just go get the robbers that did this guy in so there won’t have to be any more victims that have to suffer. Has he got the point of the story?
Bill: Of course he missed it. To get the point he’d have to imagine himself not military saviour but victim, and then see himself ministered to and aided by his enemy, by someone he hates. Moreover, to be the neighbour in that story… there are laws to transgress. The priest and the Levite are bound by the purity laws not to reach out. The Samaritan too is at risk. Is this a setup? Placing ourselves in a place of vulnerability is what neighbourliness mean in that situation. The temptation of that story (to go back to your Temptations narrative) is to seize violence.
CW: William Stringfellow spoke of the need to understand America biblically, rather than understanding the Bible ‘americanly’. Could you explain that and how it might apply to what is going on today.
Bill: A great question and right on the money for our conversation. I think Stringfellow instructs us that empire interprets scripture, seizes on and usurps the Bible for its own interests. Christians must not be naïve but be realistic about the aggressive hermeneutics of the principalities. To read them biblically is to recognize America exposed as empire through the Babylon parable, for example, in the book of Revelations. That is right where we are.
CW: How would George Bush understand the principalities and powers? How would the typical evangelical understand the principalities and powers?
Bill: Since the 4th century and Constantine, the Bible has been read ‘americanly’ (or in that case, ‘romanly’). References to rulers and authorities and thrones and dominions—all these incredibly explicit political terms—were essentially read off the map, pushed into outer space. The Church in effect said to Constantine and his minions, ‘These don’t really apply to you, my lord,’ and ceased to understand those passages as containing a social critique.
This is the case today with the more fundamentalist evangelical community, which would see the powers, if at all, as airy supernatural beings in outer space that certainly are not embodied in our own structures. They would read the powers in a personal way, as waiting to swoop down and possess individuals.
CW: So when evangelicals talk of the Fall, are they merely talking about a personal Fall or do they understand that the powers and principalities are embodied in institutions, particularly empires, that are also fallen?
Bill: I think they don’t. And again, we are talking about a variety of evangelicalism—fundamentalism—that reduces it strictly to the personal. Yes, they are without the benefit of seeing the state or the empire as fallen.
CW: There has never been an American president who has been a flat-out atheist that I know of, but George Bush is religious at another level. Do you have any reflections on how he might be different?
Bill: This is my own reading. I would say he is sincere and theologically naïve. I seem him deeply anxious about his legitimacy as president. Ironically, that anxiety puts him in the grip of a theology that imagines his own divine election. If he wasn’t elected by the people, he was nevertheless elected by God.
Reprinted from the Catholic Agitator, August 2004.