. 8
( 12)


1989 and forward, and the increasing practical contradiction of their
social assumptions in the Third World™s turn away from liberationist
˜˜base communities™™ and towards Pentecostal and evangelical
movements, such theologies have largely retreated to the academy.
But it seems that their immanentism forbids their rejuvenation
as such.39
In contrast to the suffocating immanentism of Niebuhrian
accounts, and the hyperventilating immanentism of liberationists,
the in¬‚uential position of John Howard Yoder (1972) seems a calm-
ing breath of fresh air. For Yoder, politics as an immanent project
must be simply renounced, for we have a better vision of politics
modeled for us by Jesus, and this politics is not really about organ-
izing life in this world, but is instead a matter of already living,
albeit adventally, in the kingdom. On this view, justice is reserved
until the last judgment, and attempts to realize actual justice in this
world are impious attempts to usurp God™s power. The kind of
public activity one should engage in is best understood ¬nally as
witness, being salt and light, a leaven in society (but to what end?); a

37. On Niebuhr and the civil rights movement, see Lasch 1991: 386 ff. and Polsgrove
38. A ¬ne example of this is found in Gutierrez 1988: 92“5, even though the work
also evinces a fairly naive apocalyptic progressivism (e.g. his claim that ˜˜the
social praxis of contemporary humankind has begun to reach maturity™™ [30]).
39. I have learned much from Bell 2001.
Hopeful citizenship

witness that does not expect real goods to be realized in the current
dispensation. This proposal has many attractions, but ultimately it
recapitulates the ˜˜church versus world™™ dichotomy that we should
transcend, as captured in its implication of rebellious powers or
demonic structures standing over against God, and the apocalyptic
metaphors of spiritual warfare are inadequate for understanding
our situation during the world.40 Furthermore, the account never
really gets around to offering a vision of existence during the world
as a sacramental and proleptic participation in the coming king-
dom, and so renders obscure the nature of our existence, however
˜˜advental,™™ in the world today. This account differs radically from
liberationist accounts in emphasizing the non-immanent nature of
the kingdom; but also, like the liberationists, it does not confront
the conditions of our lives during the world so much as suggest that
Jesus offers us a way to avoid those conditions.
To do better than these, we must explore what hope is, in order to
see how more fully to inhabit it. Hope serves simultaneously as a
powerful goad and support for public engagement, a radical chas-
tening device for resisting our temptations towards apocalyptic
political expectations, and a powerful and profound icon of the
largely indirect ultimate signi¬cance of political life itself “ as an
icon, indeed, of our whole existence in this world. Hope mobilizes
and empowers by giving us a capacity for vision; but it also trans-
cends politics by chastening our idolatrously immanentist expec-
tations for politics, and by seeing all iconically, as signs of a greater
kingdom to come. We can have hope because, and only because, we
live in a ˜˜hopeful™™ world; hope is more an ontological reality than it
is a psychological one “ an ontological reality that encourages a
certain style of inhabiting time in advental anticipation.
This section ¬rst discusses hope™s disconsoling character, how it
renders us open to the eschatologically new throughout our lives.
Then it explores how a hopeful politics can be civically mobilizing,
while still disconsoling political expectations as regards the dur-
ability and ultimacy of their ˜˜this-worldly™™ success. Finally it sug-
gests how public life can help us practically cultivate this hope.

40. For more, see Chapter 6 below.
242 A Theology of Public Life

The practice of disconsoling hope
We begin by contrasting hope with some seemingly similar
attitudes. Preeminent here is the language of optimism or pessi-
mism. Hope is neither of these; as R. A. Markus puts it, ˜˜optimism
and pessimism are equally alien to [hope™s] eschatological trans-
cendence, and to the historical agnosticism which is its correlative™™
(1970: 166). Hope is not optimism; it is not a matter of forecasting,
divination, or spiritual meteorology “ forms of positive prog-
nostications about the world™s fate. Hope and optimism have dif-
ferent attitudes towards our condition as inevitably anticipatory
creatures. Optimism takes that anticipation and ˜˜leans™™ on it as a
way of organizing its present life; it relies on a determinate picture
of the future in justifying its actions now. It is fundamentally a
willed disposition, projecting a sunny disposition on to the future.
And it is inevitably a re¬‚ection, mirroring back that sunniness on
to our faces in the present. Hence it is really about justifying what
we do now in terms of what will come later. (The willed character
of optimism also illuminates the psychology of illusion and wish-
ful¬llment: illusion is less a matter of seeing something that is not
there than of not seeing what is there. Humans can will themselves
to ignore realities in a way that they cannot simply imagine ex nihilo
things that are not there.) Optimism, that is, never escapes the orbit
of subjectivity. Hope sees optimism as fundamentally praesumptio,
the prejudgment that imposes our sense of what we expect on to the
future. As such, optimism presumes that everything will stay the
same as it presently is; it pictures time as closed, a cycle of episodes
whose contours do not ask of us any radical change. It is a form of
spectatorial sloth, of unwillingness to participate.41
Yet hope is not fatalism either. While hope acknowledges what
happens, it does not approve of everything as it currently appears to
us. It realizes that a hasty acquiescence to appearances is not realism,
but yet one more form of the false consolation of complacency “ the

41. See Havel 1989: 150“1. Havel contrasts this with ˜˜genuine faith,™™ by which I
take him to mean something more like ˜˜trust,™™ and thus at least continuous
with hope. Interestingly, Moltmann offers a similar critique of too optimistic
˜˜presentative eschatologies™™ as exemplifying an ˜˜eschatologia gloriae,™™ not really
eschatological at all; better to have a more fully Pauline ˜˜eschatologia crucis.™™ See
Moltmann 1975: 158“9.
Hopeful citizenship

consolation, again, of knowing that one has a full grip on the pic-
ture, that one knows what is happening. Hope is patient with what
it disapproves of. It does not accept it, it makes no effort to disguise
its non-acceptance and hence does not collaborate with it, but it
does not attempt to force itself on reality. Patience entails a certain
humility and openness to the course of history. As Vaclav Havel puts
it, patience can express itself in waiting, though this waiting is
positive, ˜˜a state of hope, not as an expression of hopelessness . . .
This kind of waiting grew out of the faith that repeating this de¬ant
truth made sense in itself, regardless of whether it was ever
appreciated, or victorious, or repressed for the hundredth time™™
(1997: 104). Hope is patient with unknowing; it does not allow its
wishes to construct a fantasy of what will happen next.
Both optimism and fatalism differ from hope by being attempts to
escape our condition of accepting ˜˜the new™™ that time constantly
delivers to us (or delivers us to). They are modes of avoiding our
existence as recipients of time. But they cannot fully succeed, so
they must try to grapple with the new in ways that allow them to
ignore or avoid their inescapable vulnerability to it. In them, we
attempt to inhabit history in a slothful manner, by convincing
ourselves that we are not inhabiting it at all. They express our desire
to control history, to tell ourselves what history is, so that we no
longer have to worry about what history will do to us. As Moltmann
says, ˜˜Modern philosophy of history has in fact the character of a
philosophic, enlightened millenarianism: the ˜ending of history in
history™ is, as in the old religious millenarianism, its goal™™ (1975:
264). Yet this historiographical urge, so deeply characteristic of
modernity, is not simply modern; it expresses a re¬‚ex deep in
human being, a sinful re¬‚ex that it is part of hope™s vocation, during
the world, to help us resist.
We can supplement this intuition by a brief sketch of the Chris-
tian phenomenology of hope “ the hope that, Christians proclaim,
all inchoately feel, and that Christians come incrementally articu-
lately to inhabit. This ˜˜hope™™ is not a purely subjective attitude,
portable across contexts; hope is always situated, a response to
some context (Marcel 1962: 30).42 To say ˜˜I have hope™™ is not simply

42. See also Havel 1997: 238: ˜˜The primary origin of hope is, to put it simply,
metaphysical . . . hope is more, and goes deeper, than a mere optimistic
244 A Theology of Public Life

to report on one™s inner state, but also to suggest something about
the world one understands oneself to inhabit. It is not most fun-
damentally a matter of voluntary action or self-expression, an
audacious act of reckless courage, of imposing one™s will in the face
of an empty and pitiless universe. Hope calls attention, not to itself,
but to the world “ to how the world can change. These are secondary
to the basic experience of hope, which is in a way the humble
acknowledgment of a revelation, a recognition, as Vaclav Havel put
it, of ˜˜the world as something “ a unity, a set of values “ that is a
source of hope, a reason for my sacri¬ces (as they are so nobly
called), a repository for the true meaning of my actions™™ (1989:
129).43 Another characteristic of hope is its sense of solidarity. To be
hopeful is to not be alone, to realize that we are not abandoned.
Hope itself often feels other to us, an alien and involuntary fact we
do not choose, but acknowledge; it is not argued for, but confessed.
As despair can be an act of betrayal, so hope is a confession of
loyalty. Furthermore, hope need not be merely an individual
acknowledgment; it can also come to us in community, indeed as
community in a certain way. Hope™s solidarity is not just a solidarity
with the source of hope; it also urges us towards solidarity with
others as well.
Hope is thus not a matter of the will or decision; it is assent,
participation, cooperation “ being ˜˜in tune with the world,™™ in
Joseph Pieper™s phrase.44 This is a form of activity based on a fun-
damental passivity or receptivity; we accept the sheer givenness of
hope, and work from it.45 We can call it ˜˜responsive receptivity,™™ a
matter of ¬nding oneself in the rhythms of history, of recognizing
that those rhythms give one one™s being, and that one cannot ˜˜step
outside™™ of them. To hope is not simply or ¬nally an interior state
of mind or psychological disposition; it is a mode of assenting to

inclination or disposition of the human mind™™; it is anchored in ˜˜humanity™s
experience with its own Being and with the Being of the world.™™
43. His larger argument concerns the importance of an ˜˜absolute horizon™™ of
value; see Havel 1989: 152: such hope, while not necessarily elicited
phenomenologically by any object or set of objects in the world, yet still speaks
to a basic sense of ˜˜at-home-ness™™ in the world, and so remains ontological in
my sense.
44. See Pieper 1999.
45. For Marcel, hope is cooperation, not initiatory action; yet we do ˜˜act™™ in some
way, this is what makes hope a virtue we can exercise.
Hopeful citizenship

participation in the rhythms of history. Our hope is secondary, our
response to that, or whom, by which we are called.
Still, this hope has an intelligible core, however vague it may be.
We know that the promise of the ˜˜new creation™™ that St. Paul
speaks of is a resurrection, not a fundamental rupturing or dis-
junction; our present condition and our eschatological consumma-
tion are crucially continuous. Hence there are trajectories and
vectors of the promise that are apprehensible even now. There are
reasons for hope, though they may be too general and under-
determined to turn into predictions.46 Because both continuity and
rupture mark the consummation of Christian hope, complacency is
impossible, and there is no steady way to move forward in stable
progression; but while there may be no fair and easy road to heaven,
yet we are on the way towards it, however divagating that track may
be, and we may participate proleptically in the consummation even
now. We cannot tease out of our partial participation in hope a
determinate metaphysic; but our hope does participate in such a
metaphysic, even though we cannot, in medias res, fully comprehend
it. Hope is still on the way, in no way yet ˜˜accomplished.™™ Perhaps,
as Karl Rahner has suggested, it will never be concluded “ perhaps
we will still have hope, indeed perhaps we will only truly have hope,
in the kingdom on the eschatological morning. Perhaps hope is part
of the epekstasis, the in¬nite ingoing into God, that Gregory of Nyssa
spoke of in his Life of Moses. Hope commits us to certain ontological
af¬rmations; from within the perspective of hope, we can see that
we have hope because we live in a hopeful world.47
What would it mean to inhabit such hope, to ˜˜live in hope™™? How
does it shape our knowledge, our behavior, our very mode of being?
This hope is and must be for us a whole way of life, one that is
fundamentally ascetic. Hope is an ascetic practice because it
involves resisting the temptation to judge, to sum up, in order
better to prepare ourselves to inhabit what our desire for judging
shows us we want, prematurely, to possess even now.48 Hope is not
knowledge, but the recognition that all ˜˜knowledge™™ we have now
stands under a radical eschatological judgment.

46. See also Polkinghorne 2002: 30“4, on the intuitions underlying hope.
47. See K. Rahner 1966, and Gregory of Nyssa 1978 on epektasis.
48. See von Balthasar 1988b.
246 A Theology of Public Life

To acknowledge this hope is not simply to accept a changed
perception of the external world; it changes our self-understanding.
We are, in a way, different people to ourselves when we hope. Hope
engages us in the world; in contrast to a fundamentally spectatorial
optimism, hope is always involvement, participation in a process or
ongoing reality.49 Indeed, it is a communion with openness, with a
˜˜living God.™™ Hope is a mode of inhabiting time “ indeed, it is the
mode of inhabiting time, of genuinely accepting time as time “ as
new, as the advent of unprecedented events that come to us
unbidden and unanticipated, for it acknowledges that time is open,
that it is given to us and thus not ours to control. To live in hope is
genuinely to live in history; and, as Jurgen Moltmann has said, to
live in history is to live in an event still open to reality: ˜˜Only as long
as the world is not yet sound and whole, only as long as it is open
towards its truth and does not yet possess it, can we speak of ˜his-
tory™™™ (1975: 265). Hope is always newly discovered; it knows it
cannot expect, and so it does not try, to ˜˜know already™™ how
everything will turn out all right. Hope must ¬nally transcend our
desires, must allow that it is not a hope, ¬nally, for what we want “
even though we may want what we hope for, our hope does not
grasp its object under the form of our desire.50 Hope is liberatory
because it recognizes that time is liberatory.
Hope™s patience, its openness to the new, enables realistic vision.
This may be surprising; many suspect that hope, and especially
religiously rooted hope, blinds us, that it distracts our attention away
from reality, because it ˜˜always already knows™™ what will happen,
and so never attends to the realities before it. But some of those
most profoundly sensitive to the concrete sufferings and injustices
faced by others, as well as by them themselves, often confessed that
their sensitivity to suffering, their inability to ignore it as ˜˜just the
way the world is,™™ comes from the hope that the world is not meant
to be this way.51 In fact, whereas optimism and pessimism impose
one™s expectations on to the future and thereby on to the present,

49. On the distinction between spectatorial optimism and participatory hope, see
Marcel 1962: 33“5, and von Balthasar™s critique of ˜˜epic™™ theologies in 1988a:
50. This is the deep truth behind the Orthodox attempt to appropriate the Stoic
language of apatheia; see Marcel 1962: 53, 66, and R. Williams 1989a.
51. This is how Ignacio Ellacur´a, a Jesuit martyred in El Salvador in 1989, used his
hope; see Hollenbach 1996: 15“16.
Hopeful citizenship

hope renounces such impositions, and is shriven of those illusions.
Hope is visionary, more interested in the end than in the means to
the end; it is the virtue of the inventor, not of the technician (Marcel
1962: 51“2). Because it is visionary, it recognizes that it does not see
the way to salvation; hence it does not delude itself that it may not
know the goal, but at least it knows how we will get there. Hope has
no need to obscure the cracks and ¬‚aws in our lives or in the world;
it has no need to delude itself that everything is currently all right,
that everything is the way it should be. It is liberated from the lie of
normality, and sees with an eye unimpressed by the desperate
pleading of the present to be accepted as acceptable. It sees things
˜˜with all their ¬‚aws and ready for redemption™™ (Moltmann 1975:
269). To have hope, as Havel says, ˜˜doesn™t mean closing one™s eyes
to the horrors of the world “ quite the contrary, in fact: only those
who have not lost faith and hope can see the horrors of the world
with genuine clarity™™ (1989: 141). Because it is shriven of the illusion
that the world is complete and closed, because it is liberated from
the refusal to await the truly new thing, hope can see. Indeed, one
can say that, in one way at least, hope just is that liberation, a
capitulation to vulnerability towards the new.
Hope is not only provisional but pro-vocative, in two senses. First
of all, hope provokes action. It is not simply an inner state. No one
who is hopeful can resist participating in the hopeful world that has
been disclosed to them. Second, the action hope so provokes is
fundamentally vocative, linguistic and even evangelical, expressing
thanks to the hopeful world and seeking to lead others to appre-
hend that hope as well. Hope not only seeks to participate in the
new world, it seeks partners in such engagement; and before all
else, the hopeful soul wants to help them see as it does. So it
expresses itself, bringing to articulation its view “ and hoping to
connect, to articulate, with the listener thereby.
Yet despite this engagement, hope is never manically proactive;
even in its most dynamic and rapid action, it always feels itself as
patiently responding to the prior and absolutely active call of God.
Hope™s activity, that is, is fundamentally characterized by patience,
deliberateness, and watchfulness. But this does not make it timid,
for such patience is as relentless as the call to which it responds. To
be hopeful is most fundamentally to wait “ to wait on the Word
from beyond oneself, the Word that many words have taught you is
248 A Theology of Public Life

coming, to wait to be surprised by it, to be delighted and overjoyed
at the new thing.
Yet this waiting is not rigor mortis, but the tensed vigor of waiting
for life abundant. Hope teaches us to inhabit the condition of
natality, of birth. ˜˜The believer is not set at the high noon of life, but
at the dawn of a new day, at the point where night and day, things
passing and things to come, grapple with each other™™ (Moltmann
1975: 31).52 Hope helps us to see ourselves as beginning, as partici-
pating in the new thing that God is doing; thus hope encourages us
to act with the piety of the new.
In all these ways, hope is not just a mode of inhabiting time; it is a
form of suffering, of ascesis, disciplined vulnerability to change,
change that shapes the hopeful soul in ways that render it ever
more appropriately vulnerable to reality, and thus to God, in
anticipation of the in¬nite ˜˜changing™™ of the epekstasis that is our
eschatological destiny. Hope is thus a practice, a disciplined and
complex structure of socially established and cooperative human
activity, organized purposively.53 To us in our sinfulness it is also an
acknowledgment of necessary suffering “ to suffer the inevitable
shocks that time constantly gives to our presumptuousness. Yet it is
not a simple activity, for it begins with passive receptiveness, and is
a way of existence that precedes our super¬cial, hyperactive,
choosing selves.
But we should not deceive ourselves that we altogether want this
life; for to be alive is to not know what will happen to you, to not be
in control. And there is a consolation to being a corpse: nothing
worse can happen to you. In resurrecting us, hope tells us that we
are not our own, and so tells us that our acts bear signi¬cances we
cannot yet perceive. Hope ¬lls us with the chilling disconsolation
that we know not what we do, and we know not what we are, or will
be. Thus there is in peculiarly Christian hope an element of terror.
The presence of this terror is a clue that shows how hope can enrich
public life, and how engagement in public life enriches our inha-
bitation of hope as well.

52. See also E. Bloch 1986.
53. I borrow, with slight modi¬cations, this de¬nition of ˜˜practice™™ from Kelsey
1992: 118.
Hopeful citizenship

Eschatologically hopeful citizenship
Hope™s civic contributions begin with its power to mobilize
people™s energy for civic change, and its power to enable people to
resist change. Hope is politically mobilizing both because of what it
negates and because of what it af¬rms. It af¬rms the legitimacy of
the inchoate assent to the world that is part of every human™s
existence. But it also opposes the various stultifying deceptions we
collectively tell ourselves in order to dull or numb that af¬rmation.
Hope™s power, that is, lies as much in its resistance as in its recog-
nitions. In both ways it resists our ˜˜worldly™™ temptations towards a
wholly mundane understanding of our world and especially of our
civic order.
Hope is both realistic and fantastic, true vision and powerful
imagination. Hope is vision because it sees clearly the true situation
and resists illusion™s attempts to anesthetize the intellect. The
obscurities we face come from imposing our will on our vision,
interposing our wishes and our needs. When these drop away, we
see clearly.54 Its vision is a matter of ¬delity, of refusing the
seduction of living unthinkingly ˜˜in the lie,™™ of not giving in to a
certain kind of political-psychological sloth, or living in death. (Yet
note how this resistance, once accomplished, seems astonishingly
easy and simple.)
Yet this resistance to the lie is not simply a matter of clear-
sightedness, it is also a powerful act of imagination: for we know
that we are not meant to be this way. Hope empowers in part
because of the vividness of the dreams it gives us; their very vivid-
ness, the ease with which they arise and the force with which they
present themselves to us, give us a sense of their palpable plausi-
bility for our world. Hope helps us imagine a ˜˜counter-polis,™™ an
anti-politics of the mind, and by imagining it we work to transform
reality closer to the image of our imagined world.55 This is not to say
that eschatological change is possible, but something like the
opposite: that it is through hope that we know that no political
order in this life is apocalyptically ¬nal.

54. On the power of waiting as creative and rooted in purposefulness, see Vanstone
1983: 104“5 and Milosz 1981.
55. See Kenney 2002.
250 A Theology of Public Life

Furthermore, hope offers us not consequentialist but immanent
goods. The energy of hope is not a utopian loan, a promissory note
from some realized paradise in the future. It is not that our hopes
can be con¬rmed and hence validated by the millennium, much less
that our hopes are devices for hastening the end™s arrival; the
eschaton is present proleptically in our current hope. In hope we do
not act for the future, but for the present, for the present good that
hope delivers. Hope is oriented towards the future, but more by
reaction against the dead hand of the past than by any sense of some
easy future resolution of our problems. Our hope is due not to our
prediction of some future con¬guration of history but to the nature
of being itself, both stretched out temporally and gathered in etern-
ity. As Havel says,

Only the in¬nite and the eternal, recognized or surmised, can
explain the no less mysterious phenomenon of hope . . .
humankind™s sense of something that transcends earthly
grati¬cation “ a belief that such a fate, or such an apparently
hopeless act of courage, whose signi¬cance is not easily understood,
is recorded in some way and adds to the memory of Being. (1997: 239)

Finally, we should purge a last error from our understanding of
hope “ the assumption that hope is exceptional, unusual, only an
occasional state or mood in contrast to our routine acquiescence,
our everyday condition of insensibility and indifference to hope. So
it may be, for us; we may be so habituated to the status quo that we
feel only the most occasional moments of hope for something else
to punctuate our routines, as a needle of ¬‚ashing silver stitches a
brilliant yellow stretch through a dull gray cloak. But this reveals
not the truth of hope, but our captivity to sin. Hope is not the
exception but the rule, the basic regulus on which our existence is
built; it is resigned acquiescence in the status quo that we should
properly see as odd, abnormal. The true, hopeful way of life is, as
Glenn Tinder puts it,

a way of waiting for, and so far as possible furthering by means of
attentiveness and speech, the coming of a community so complete
that the alienation and ignorance which are the primal
considerations of history would be dissolved. For Christians, the
prophetic stance is not willful or subjective or fainthearted. It is an
attitude of settled receptivity to the Word which will not return to
Hopeful citizenship

God void but will accomplish the thing for which it was sent.
(2000: 240).56
Here we see what makes hope so ambiguous a presence in public
life for non-Christians. For, mobilized politically, hope can fall into
the trap of believing its own press clippings, so to speak “ it may
encourage us to become arrogant and complacent, encouraging the
worst sort of political zealotry and megalomania. This charge cer-
tainly has force. Many of the greatest revolutionaries become ter-
rible oppressors once in power; and honest and wide-minded
reformers, once elected, often become in¬‚exible tyrants. What can
hope do to resist this tendency? Can hope, that is, be politically
chastening? Can it make us doubt our predictions, can it trouble our
agendas, and in general work as a leaven not to weaken our will-
power for action, but rather to weaken our con¬dence that we can
foretell the outcome of our action?
Properly Christian hope confounds our worldly expectations in
two distinct ways. First, it is deeply chastening. Hope does not
promise that our hopes will be realized but rather that the will of
God will be accomplished, so there is always a slight gap between
our concrete expectations and its promised end, a gap which
encourages us always to be open to the new, without de¬‚ating our
energies for action. But secondly, this hope encourages us always to
see beyond the immediate worldly political goals that we pursue,
and appreciate the iconic character of our political engagement “ its
insistence that political ends are not in themselves adequate, or
¬nally complete, but that they always tell of deeper aims beyond
themselves in the eschaton.
This ˜˜hope™™ may sound to us escapist and otherworldly. But this
suspicion re¬‚ects the despair we feel at being (we assume) wholly on
our own “ unsponsored by the universe, with our hopes and long-
ings simply expressions of what we would like to be true. We do not
believe we have any right to hope. The audacity of Christian hope
lies in its semi-immanence, how it tempts us with its tantalizing
possibility. And if we “ when we “ ˜˜surrender™™ to its temptation,
we will not have willed this surrender but simply ceased to attempt
to seize control for ourselves. We do not achieve hope, we

56. See Vanstone 1983, 103: ˜˜The experience of waiting is the experience of the
world as in some sense mattering.™™ See also Heschel 1962 and Walzer 1985.
252 A Theology of Public Life

acknowledge it, because it is inextricably part of a complex
theological project: the ongoing, always only just-begun practice of
expressing gratitude for the gratuitous gifts of a loving God.
Nonetheless, while this Christologically grounded and formed
hope is distinctively Christian, analogues to it are available outside
the Christian tradition. It can be a kind of humanistic af¬rmation “
not a subjectivism that glori¬es humanity, but a recognition that
the dignity of human agency entails that we live within a moral
order, even as we can revolt (and have revolted, and thus are
revolting) against that order. Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt held
something like this, as did Joseph Brodsky and Zbigniew Herbert;
and Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel do so today as well.57 Hence
this could be a genuinely ˜˜catholic™™ hope, creating a rhetorical or
strategic opening to all ˜˜persons of good will;™™ yet for those who
inhabit it, it remains irremediably and inexpungeably theological.
Because its concrete hopefulness cannot be detached from theolo-
gical warrants, it is intentionally dif¬cult for its adherents to
diminish, forget, or ignore disagreements with their allies even as
they work together.
Such hope offers a kind of critique, with real socio-political
power, because it ¬‚ows from the larger communal practices of the
ecclesial community. If we have hope at all, it springs from prayer,
prayerful action, and prayerful re¬‚ection upon such action.
A historical example of this may help. In the fourth and ¬fth
centuries, various Christian bishops created a new social category,
the category of ˜˜the poor.™™ These bishops used scriptural inter-
pretation “ largely in their sermons, the most overtly ˜˜public
speech™™ of bishops at that time “ to bring into view the reality in
their cities of an enormous underclass of people who were the poor.
But the bishops were not freestanding intellectuals; they had
become aware of these people, and realized their plight, because of
the church™s practices of caring for all who need help. Of course,
their development of this language was also connected to their own
awareness of their growing moral, social, and political authority,
and their realization that they were coming to be seen as the
˜˜protectors™™ of their cities, or as the stewards of their cities™ saintly
protectors. Nonetheless, before the bishops did this there was no

57. For more academic exemplars, see Novak 1989 and J. Stout 2004.
Hopeful citizenship

sociological category of the poor in late antique cities, but only ˜˜the
crowd™™; whereas once they created this vocabulary, ˜˜the poor™™
emerged as a real cause of social concern and interest. Furthermore,
the ascription of ˜˜the poor™™ became more fundamental than that of
˜˜citizen™™ at this time “ a human being™s impoverishment is a more
important fact about her or him than whether she or he is a
member of the same political community as you yourself are. The
bishops had noticed that the received political languages of their
day obscured realities that church practices made palpable for
them; and they changed that language in order to render that reality
more fully visible.58
What sort of concrete practices do we have, then, that might serve
as the anchor from which a systematic hopeful critique can emerge?
Quite a few, actually. Within national boundaries, the churches are
deeply concerned with just-wage campaigns, education concerns,
family issues, peace marches, environmental activism, helping
the homeless, and addressing the diverse concrete problems our
societies face. Internationally, they have been committed to mission
work of various sorts; concerns about Third World debt relief,
transnational and interreligious dialogue and understanding; and
˜˜domestic-international™™ concerns such as migrant labor, the
sanctuary movement in the 1980s, and questions of international
justice as they arise in concerns about church investments. This is
quite a various list of concerns, to be sure, but they all have at their
heart a basic conviction “ namely, that people are more than their
place in the systems they inhabit, more than their functions in
various social, economic, and political networks. Insofar as such
networks attempt to offer exhaustively immanent languages for
describing the world, and for valuing all things within it, they are
false and deceptive, and must be critiqued. And such criticism is
what the church is called to be and do.59
In all such patterns of practical and expressed ecclesial dis-
comfort, several tactical insights are repeatedly emphasized. We
should acknowledge the need, value, and legitimacy of social
structures, but we must not grant them their apocalyptic preten-
sions. We must recognize the limits to the systems we inhabit “ to

58. See P. Brown 1992 and 1997, Davis 1996, Daley 1999, and Holman 2001.
59. See Jenkins 2002 and Hertzke 2004.
254 A Theology of Public Life

the political form of the modern nation-state, to the economic form
of liberal market capitalism, and to the socio-cultural form of liberal
individualism, among others. But we best recognize these limits, not
simply by proclamation, but by witnessing to what gets lost when
these systems ignore their own limits. This applies to language as
well. The absolute hegemony, in some churches™ campaigns for social
justice, of the language of rights and of individuals as fundamentally
bearers of rights, may be problematic; such language ought to be
enframed explicitly and intelligibly within a language of children of
God, which gives them positive moral force. (We should care about
children of God, but people with rights we can just leave alone.) Both
conservatives and liberals suggest that ˜˜rights talk™™ may be socially
valuable when embedded in a rich moral vocabulary; but it may be
socially destructive when we rely on it alone.60 It should not become
an idol.
Certainly these may be nice strategies for political engagement, a
critic might say; but how, precisely, do they manifest the virtue of
hope? How does this laundry list of practices re¬‚ect the churches™
hopefulness? Most directly, behind all of them is a recognition that
our world is more than these systems allow it to be “ though that
˜˜more™™ cannot be exhaustively articulated in the present dis-
pensation. Human beings and their actions transcend their bare
literality, and the eschatological hopefulness of the churches
emerges in part through their refusal to take the nation-state system
with ultimate seriousness. What the state lays claim to is not its
proper possession; it is on loan, as it were, from the heavenly
kingdom, and, sooner than the state thinks, that loan will be called
This eschatological hopefulness has several implications. As
regards our political concepts, this hopeful attitude towards public
life persistently presses beyond the contractual language of the state
towards a deeper, covenantal language. We do not know fully what
our obligations are, we are not fully in control of them. Citizenship
is not a simple contract, drawn up between fundamentally auton-
omous interlocutors; it bespeaks a larger relationship, a commit-
ment that begins in the here and now but inevitably extends back in

60. For progressive worries, see Ignatieff 2001 and Saletan 2003; for conservative
worries, see Glendon 1991 and Shapiro 1999.
Hopeful citizenship

time, as we take responsibility for our polity™s past, and across
political boundaries, as we see political divisions as ultimately not
¬nal divisions. While civic membership in some polity here is
essential, it is ultimately, for believers, derivative; our primary
citizenship, and the primary meaning of citizenship tout court, is
theocentric: our citizenship is in heaven. The churches recognize
the limits of political citizenship, by critiquing nationalism, and by
demanding care beyond worldly citizenship “ through the sanctuary
movement, care for migrants, transnational understanding, etc. And
political states will be held eschatologically accountable to these
standards, and found wanting; a fundamentally negative judgment
of God upon the pretensions of Caesar stands beneath all the
churches™ other proclamations, a basso profundo counterpoint to the
higher notes. To recognize the value and necessity of such civic
commitment alongside its non-ultimacy: that is what Christian
hope demands. Inevitably, this understanding of citizenship ironi-
cally invests more in the concept than any worldly polity will want
to allow “ in large part because the investment is beyond that
worldly polity™s control.
This insistence on the covenantal character of citizenship high-
lights the dispositional transformation that eschatological hope-
fulness encourages in us as well. Through it, we become better
˜˜readers™™ of the language of politics. Many offer apocalyptic read-
ings of ˜˜the signs of the times,™™ but such readings are implausible to
the extent that they are con¬dently determinate, for they refuse to
leave space for the surprises that the future inevitably holds. Hence
there are very, very few Cassandras, and even their batting averages
are always disappointingly low. The claim that ˜˜we should have
foreseen it™™ is often not an attempt at browbeating self-abnegation
so much as another attempt at consoling ourselves and convincing
ourselves that ˜˜the new™™ never really happens, that history bears
its own meaning immanently within itself, that there is no supra-
historical Lord steering its course, that all we will ¬nd there is more
of the same. But whatever the future will be, it is unlikely to be that.
We are not called on to be prognosticators; we are called on to be
hopeful. Hope has a hesitancy about it “ a hesitancy regarding its
expectation, not of the new, but of our capacity to comprehend the
new, at least before the eschaton. The new is the secret center of
history, its hidden heart, and it is a heart we can never, in this
256 A Theology of Public Life

dispensation, comprehend and penetrate. A proper Christian hope
cultivates the capacity that the shepherds should have had “ the
capacity to be joyfully surprised.
It is in this capacity that we see the core disposition of hope
displayed. For hope is, most simply, the conviction and affective
anticipation that there is always yet more coming, and the more
will not be more of the same, but will be genuinely new, genuinely
unpredictable from what has come before. And this hope can never
stop at being merely local, merely a minor hope: it is all or it is
nothing. As David Novak says, the hope the world ˜˜needs for its very
survival can only be the hope for its ¬nal redemption™™ (1989: 156).
This is an insight both terrifying and exhilarating. And it is in this
exhilarating terror that we see not only hope™s ultimate civic mes-
sage, but also its deepest ascesis. We turn to that next.

The ascesis of hopeful engagement
So hope is about not being in charge. It does not promote
political zealotry, fanaticism, or any of the other apocalypticisms
which constantly tempt us. It resists our longing for closure, which
is itself induced in us by our despair, our lack of con¬dence in God.
Hope is about learning to endure, to live in a world where we are
not in charge, where not even how our words are heard is under our
control. Yet this hope makes us joyful because it liberates us: to
think of the judgment of hope, its chastening, as in any way fun-
damentally condemnatory or damning misunderstands both hope
and the God who gives us hope.
A proper hope seeks a middle ground between the too complacent
apocalyptic immanentism of the resigned or self-righteous, and the
too complacent apocalyptic escapism of the embittered or smug. It
anchors this view on its theology of history and creation, on its
claim that history is not ¬nally literally legible, but only sac-
ramentally so. Neither immanentists nor escapists can capture the
true longings of humans, which inevitably transcend the mere
immanent satisfactions or anesthetics they advertise. God has made
us for Godself, and our heart is restless until it rests in God, so no
worldly dispensation is adequate. Yet this dispensation matters;
the violations and injustices here are not simply accidental or
Hopeful citizenship

immaterial, and its joys and sorrows will ¬nally be taken up into
God and transformed into their full reality.
During the world, hope is our mode of recognizing our distensio,
our experience of tantalizing incompleteness that we confess we
exist in at present, yet proclaim will be healed in the eschaton “ and
we must recognize both our own incompleteness, and the way that
it tantalizes us. We recognize the profundity of what John Cleese™s
character in the movie Clockwise says: ˜˜It™s not the despair I mind,
it™s the hope I can™t stand.™™ The hope we can barely stand is indeed
what we must endure; and it is God™s hope, not primarily ours at all.
In hope, we refuse to cease suffering, and look instead to ¬nd ways
to deepen our attentiveness, both to hope™s tantalizing visage and
the reasons we need it so desperately.61
How can this hope be deepened by public engagement? The
answer is straightforward: by being vexed. In public life, history™s
recalcitrance to our expectations is most visibly, even glaringly,
displayed; our actions never have quite the effect we command
them to have, and so our engagement with ˜˜worldly matters™™
inevitably involves our losing control of our fate more than gaining
control of it. Hope is deepened by being repeatedly recalled to the
tension between that fact and our continuing con¬dence that his-
tory™s ultimate destiny is what we partially and provisionally
glimpse today in joy. Engagement in public life can work as a
graceful brush ¬re, clearing away the choking undergrowth of our
indulgent delusions so that we can know the consequences of our
This is not a little ironic. We think of hope as deeply comforting,
encouraging, and empowering. But it is not simply sweetness and
light “ not to us, not as we are presently (de)formed. It is also equally
deeply a judgment on our anxiety and the consequence of that
anxiety, namely our desire to delude ourselves into believing that
we know what will happen. It is shrivening and chastening, because
it reminds us constantly of the impurity of our intentions “ the
leaven of hypocrisy, excessive self-interest and self-righteousness
that accompanies our every word and deed. Hope forbids and
implicitly condemns any too determinate expectations of the com-
ing order. For all the talk about ˜˜empowering™™ people to engage in

61. Again, see Bell 2001.
258 A Theology of Public Life

public life, what actors in public life repeatedly report is a deepened
sense of their own smallness, of the complexities of the issues
involved and the power of unforeseen and unforeseeable accidents
and consequences “ their power to warp one™s actions. This is not
only a fact about modern public life either; as Sophocles and Thu-
cydides teach, even 2,500 years ago, it was in public affairs that
nemesis was most palpably present.
Yet hope™s chastening does not demoralize or de-energize,
because it is governed by af¬rmation. Indeed, hope is liberating
precisely as judgment, for it frees us from the fantasy that we are in
control, and lets us use the enormous psychic energies dedicated to
sustaining that fantasy for other, more fruitful tasks. It is the angel
announcing the good tidings, announcing the birth of the new; and
we are made new in and by that annunciation.
Still, hope™s liberation almost always wears the face of a judge for
us, at least at ¬rst. For, like beauty, hope is the beginning of terror,
and we should appreciate its terror. By ˜˜terror™™ I mean that, even
though we do not know what hope promises us “ even though in
hope we stand in a way beyond knowledge, resisting its claims to
complacency “ we know that hope will change us, in ways that we
do not fully understand, and indeed in ways that we do not, at
present, fully wish to understand, much less undergo. Hope is
ultimately an action upon us, and the recognition that further such
action is forthcoming. Now, in our sin, we fear change, and see it as
a threat. But we will not be allowed to gird ourselves and go where
we will; another will gird us and take us where we do not want to
go. Mercy it may be, in the end; grace it may be, in retrospect; but
today, to creatures such as we are, grace and mercy can easily evoke
terror. This does not deny that there is some part of us “ we may
af¬rm it as the better part, though even that af¬rmation is only
partial “ that does feel the silent thrill of hope, that grasps the
unimaginable joy that would come from this hope being true; this
part helps us not to drown in terror, and gracefully offers us a path
besides repression or capitulation, towards acknowledgment. To
those who have seen a glimmer of hope, the whole world hums with
the coming transformations; and all our will to deafen ourselves to
it cannot ¬nally fully hold out the noise. This struggle between our
fears and God™s hopeful grace is the deepest ascesis of hope.
Hopeful citizenship

In public life, this struggle with terror is most clearly manifest
through hope™s prophetic dimension. Politics is constantly tempted
towards the sinful prescription of self-suf¬ciency, towards the pre-
sumption that politics™ goals are legitimately immanent and self-
enclosed ends in themselves “ that somehow the sphere of the
political or the ˜˜social™™ has an integrity and coherence of its own.
Hope works against this complacency by insisting, obtrusively, that
our politics falls short of our hopes, in two distinct ways. First of all,
it falls short on its own terms: the poor are not clothed, the hungry
not fed, the homeless not housed, the righteous not rewarded, the
wicked not punished. It is an essential part of the prophetic im-
agination, itself grounded in hope, to remind us, as did Amos, of the
covenant we continually fail to keep, of the need for justice to ¬‚ow
like a river, and righteousness as a mighty stream. But this call for
justice is only one prophetic task. God has demands on us beyond
justice; God wants more of us than simply to play fair. Prophetic
hope challenges the pretension that humans are fundamentally
aiming at ends achievable by politics at all “ that humans™ ends are
fundamentally this-worldly. Hope calls politics beyond itself, and
reveals politics™ ultimate inadequacy.62 Hope calls us beyond the
mundane, and reminds us that our lives are not simply about the
outcome of our actions, but that they ¬‚ourish most profoundly in
conversation and communion with a God whose ways are not our
own. But that public life is insuf¬cient does not imply that it is
irrelevant. Politics is one way God speaks to us; beyond its mundane
literality, worldly action has an iconic character. We see all semiot-
ically, and we act as semeia, signs of God. This is how Abraham
Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, ˜˜read™™ the Civil War as
God™s judgment on the people of the United States, ˜˜North and
South,™™ as punishment for their collective complicity in the sin of
slavery. Along with justice, then, the prophets insist that public life
has a destiny beyond justice; but it is a destiny that will trans¬gure
our mundane life, not renounce it.
Public life for Christians, then, when properly undertaken,
inevitably leads to contemplation of the mysteries of providence,
the sovereignty of God, and the cultivation of the holy terror that is

62. This is yet another place where the ˜˜natural™™ versus ˜˜supernatural™™ contrast
has no role in this Augustinian account.
260 A Theology of Public Life

integral to true piety. By hopeful engagement in public life, that is,
the public sphere itself becomes the forum for an ascetical inquiry
that it cannot itself, in this dispensation, comprehend. By so
gracefully enduring hope, we are better shaped more fully to receive
God™s grace.
There is one more dimension of the ascesis of public life to
investigate: love. We turn to that next.

Charitable citizenship

But the state of grace this natural act requires,
Have we the natural strength for it?
Molly Peacock, ˜˜There Must Be™™

We have now seen how the theological virtues of faith and hope
can inform a general picture of civic engagement, a ˜˜liturgy of
citizenship.™™ But what about love? Augustinian theology sees love as
the fundamental theological, ontological, and psychological truth
about reality. Is love also politically and civically fundamental? How
can it operate in the public realm?
Many thinkers seem to think that what politics does not need is
love. They reverse Clausewitz™s dictum: politics is the continuation of
war by other means, and as such it must be carefully managed and
controlled. Politics is precisely the realm where we manage to
accommodate each other without asking for passionate investment
in one another. To invite private passions back in is to court disaster.
That we appreciate these concerns is the signal achievement of
the tradition of liberal political thought, from Hobbes and Locke
forward. Out of an often salutary fear that a more ambitious poli-
tical scope will lead to endless fratricidal con¬‚ict, this tradition
urges us to quarantine existential questions, and to limit the poli-
tical to those matters that (more or less) directly concern the public
good.1 There is much wisdom in this aversion. But it begs the
question of whether or not such ambitions can be fully purged from
public affairs, whether fear and other negative motivations are

1. See Hirschman 1977.

262 A Theology of Public Life

suf¬cient to secure political order. Many argue that alongside such
negative motivations, political thought must acknowledge equally
primordial positive desires, for fame, honor, and glory, and most
preeminently the desire for communion, the power of love.2
When such arguments are made, liberalism™s salutary skepticism
about love gives way to a deeper, more properly metaphysical,
suspicion about love as part of our world “ a skepticism that love
can only be an accidental and episodic reality. This skepticism is
something any human feels, from time to time. But this book does
not share this doubt. At its heart “ as part of the core of the
Augustinian construal of the Christian vision itself “ lies a deep and
abiding emphasis not just on love but on joy and delight; eye has
not seen, nor ear heard, the joys awaiting us in God™s kingdom.
Hence this theology gives pride of place to joy, to the idea that we
are made to delight. Humans are created for the purpose of pur-
poselessness “ for God™s delight, and our own.3 This book™s focus on
joy provokes this most profound re¬‚exive skepticism about and
resistance to Christian claims about love. And it is primordial: it is
not contingent upon ˜˜liberalism™™ or ˜˜modernity™™ or ˜˜secularism,™™
but such doubts are simply part of the human makeup, after the
Fall, during the world. Here we must directly confront our innate
skepticism of the idea that humans are made for joy.
To confront it, however, we must work through the political
challenge, the immediate political problem with love. Public life is
typically understood to corrupt love, because it curdles the ideals we
bring to public life, and makes us cynical by embroiling us in end-
less con¬‚ict, which is antithetical to true love. After all, inevitably in
politics, one makes enemies. Political life is extremely complex,
with many realities tangled up with one another, and humans are

2. This is a larger tradition than that ˜˜liberal political theory™™ that I discussed in the
Introduction to this Part II. My complaints about contemporary theorists do not
directly apply to this larger tradition of liberal political thought, though (as will
be clear) I think there are concerns about this latter, larger, tradition. See
Mendus 1999 and Kahn 2004 for discussions of how love appears in the most
unlikely of places in liberal political theory.
3. See O™Donovan 1996: 181“4 and Barth 1961: 375: it is ˜˜astonishing . . . how many
references there are in the Old and New Testaments to delight, bliss, exultation,
merry-making and rejoicing, and how emphatically these are demanded from
the Book of Psalms to the Epistle to the Philippians.™™ C. S. Lewis has much to say
here as well; I discuss it in the Conclusion to the book. I thank William
Werpehowski for bringing this passage to my attention.
Charitable citizenship

potently habitual, tending to favor those interests they have favored
before; hence, regular patterns of support and opposition inevitably
appear among members of every polity. One ¬nds oneself regularly
opposed to someone else on issue after issue “ sometimes on issues
that seem quite disconnected to one another, sometimes even on
issues where your previously professed positions might have led you
to expect alliance. It can even come to seem that the opposition
between you and the other is the reason for the position you take:
sometimes you may ¬nd yourself taking a position simply because it
is the position opposed by your opponent (or at least not the posi-
tion she or he has taken). Sometimes enmity can seem a conven-
tional political shorthand. Sometimes it can actually be that
In some situations, such opposition can mellow into a rivalry,
with respect communicated across the aisle of political difference.
But such regular opposition more often results, not in an appre-
ciation of one™s opponents, but in a deepening animus towards
them: you shift from ¬nding yourself opposing them on various
issues to ¬nding yourself opposing them. What began as a set of
discrete policy disputes is transformed into a cosmological dualism;
the person who once was offering a different though legitimate
view on some issue or other now becomes invested with an almost
diabolically perverse desire to thwart not just your favored legisla-
tion but you, especially ˜˜you™™ in the form of the ideals you espouse,
the hopes and dreams you have for your polity. They become your
enemy. At its most sophisticated, the process can ¬‚oat entirely free
from concrete historical people and become attached to metaphy-
sical abstractions that may manifest themselves in people but that
are not ultimately captured in them. (Think of the demonization of
˜˜liberals™™ or ˜˜neocons™™ in contemporary American politics.) Here
the energies of your psychic economy have made such ˜˜opponents™™
into such. You have, indeed, made your enemy.
Typically responses to this fact have been twofold. One response
demonizes the reality of con¬‚ict, and hence of real engagement in
public life. This response makes ˜˜the best™™ the enemy of ˜˜the
good,™™ and so effectively urges us, even if it would never admit this
to itself, to ¬‚ee politics. There is something ironic about this, for
it is precisely such anti-political thinkers who most vociferously
protest that ˜˜everything is political.™™ As was argued earlier, this is
264 A Theology of Public Life

essentially a second-order ideological or mythological claim: it is not
really speaking about reality but about how we should orient our-
selves towards reality, and for them we should orient ourselves
towards reality by shunning it.
The other response fantasizes that a con¬‚ict-less politics is pos-
sible, that there could be a ˜˜politics of sincerity™™ or a ˜˜politics of
meaning.™™ We may call such thinkers ˜˜cosmopolitans™™; such think-
ers urge political commitment to a political community fully
inclusive of all humanity. This view insists that the presence of
con¬‚ict is not essential to the world, and posits, either as practically
achievable or as regulative, an ideal cosmopolitanism as political
Critics of cosmopolitanism argue that such views reveal that their
adherents have no idea of what politics really is. First of all, the
critics say, real politics is about tension and con¬‚ict between ¬rmly
held positions, and it can play a fruitful constitutional role by
separating powers and setting them in potential tension. Con¬‚ict
may be good for the polity even as it is bad for its members; public
virtue may breed private viciousness. Furthermore, the critics con-
tinue, insofar as cosmopolitans imagine that they can deliberate
about political issues while genuinely and effectively considering
the interests of all humanity, they have succumbed to the mega-
lomania of universal sincerity “ imagining others in a way that
seeks a universal ˜˜we™™ and so effaces signi¬cant differences among
people. To imagine that such a program could be practically viable
can stymie our current political action, and vitiate our political
character, because it tends towards demonizing enemies and
instrumentalizing friends. The cosmopolitan is an intoxicating,
¬‚ashy, and ¬zzy drink, not a productive political program.
Christian realists agree with the above critique of treacly cosmo-
politanisms. But they then ¬nd similar charges directed their way
too. Sometimes these criticisms are framed formally as one, about
the confusion of ˜˜religio-moral™™ and ˜˜political™™ categories. But
basically it is a material critique: the critics suspect that Christians™
faith in a politics of love simply reveals Christianity™s equally
intoxicating cocktail of na‚¬ ´ , ressentiment, bad faith, and slave
Yet Christianity™s love commandment can be interpreted in
another way. Jesus did not deny that enemies exist; he called upon
Charitable citizenship

us to love our enemies. And he followed that call up with the
demonstration of what he meant in the pattern of his own life and
death.4 It is easy to read that command as proposing a strategy to
undo all enmity, but perhaps that is more wishful thinking on our
part than what is really being proposed; perhaps instead the pro-
posal is that we accept that we will have enemies, but that we refuse
to grant that the enmity we share is all we share with one another.
Augustinian Christians see themselves as developing this suggestion
by allowing that politics is continuous with war (after all, Augustine
himself said something like that) while still insisting that that
whole phenomenon is still governed by the divine will and, yes,
divine love, and so can remain within the realm of communion.
(Here is where arguments that war can be waged in love are inter-
estingly illuminated.5) Even some deep-thinking secular thinkers
suggest that politics has a communal trajectory that cannot and
should not be expunged.6 Nonetheless, if politics is a potential site
for communion, even Christians should allow that it is quite a
curious form of communion “ a cruciform communion, as it were.
What sort of communion is this, and how far, in this life, can it be
realized as such?
This chapter attempts to answer that question. Its argument is
straightforward. We must acknowledge the ineradicable presence of
con¬‚ict in public life, despite the general avoidance of this fact in
political theory. So the chapter turns to the best secular account of
such con¬‚ict, namely, ˜˜agonist™™ political thought. But simply
acknowledging con¬‚ict is not enough; such acknowledgment must
explain why con¬‚ict appears to us as con¬‚ict “ as a tension that
seems problematic to us “ and that requires us to think about
communion, and the meaning of love. Hence the chapter argues
that agonism ultimately succumbs to a naturalizing despair
regarding the inescapability of con¬‚ict, thereby losing its grip on
the contingent character of political reality. An Augustinian pro-
posal offers a richer account of con¬‚ict, because it shows us how a
psychology built on love understands con¬‚ict as a struggle over
loves. So the chapter concludes by arguing that this account offers a
more thoroughly agonistic, engaged, and genuinely charitable

4. See Vanstone 1983. 5. See O™Donovan 2003.
6. See J. Stout 2004, Allen 2004, and (in a slightly critical way) Markell 2003.
266 A Theology of Public Life

vision of citizenship, a vision with civic bene¬ts for the public and
ascetic bene¬ts for believers. Civic engagement motivated and
informed by such a divinely charged love is open to the full range of
civic possibilities in ways that more self-proclaimedly ˜˜worldly™™
accounts are not, because through it we can acknowledge that our
deepest political ambitions, during the world, will only ever be
realized proleptically. By doing this, Christian citizens become
equipped to accommodate the full range of challenges public life
sets its participants, in a way that trains them more fully to show
forth in their lives the love that they profess with their lips.

The agonist proposal
The most promising thinking about these matters is the work
of recent political theorists who offer what they call an ˜˜agonistic™™
alternative to liberal political theory. Inspired by thinkers like
Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt, agonists argue that the ¬rst truth of
politics is that it is founded not on some set of just principles, but
rather on endless struggle and power. This is not a license for mere
brutality towards one another, but an acknowledgment that real
engagement, undertaken with the best intentions, will inevitably
take the form of a struggle. Someone will always lose, and the right
never rests wholly with the side that wins. Agonists see the fun-
damental political project as the fostering of disagreement, debate,
and con¬‚ict among groups and within them. They do this not out
of some perverse or demonic desire for con¬‚ict, but rather because
they believe that fostering such disagreement encourages the full
participation of all members of society in the ongoing construction
of their society. Agonists think this offers two bene¬ts. First, such
agonistic engagement brings con¬‚ict within the licit sphere of ˜˜the
political™™ and thereby reduces its propensity to whirl out of con-
trol. Second, it brings to the surface the tensions and con¬‚icts
latent in any and every social identity, and hence resists the
necessarily oppressive trap of ¬xed and stale identities. Agonistic
engagement is an end in itself, not just a means to other ends; the
point of politics is not simply to settle on policies, but at least
equally signi¬cantly to unsettle both the status quo of the social
consensus and the individual participants in that consensus, as far
as that is possible.
Charitable citizenship

The agonists are worthwhile interlocutors because of their central
thematic concern “ the role of con¬‚ict in politics “ and because that
concern leads them to engage positions usually ignored by political
theorists, most notably religious positions.7 But that engagement
reveals a larger, and more problematic, psychology and ontology.
They are ideologically committed to an ˜˜ontology of con¬‚ict™™ that
pictures reality as an archipelago of alterities, and that does not
allow them the freedom to step back from con¬‚ict™s immanent self-
presentation to see its true character. Still, to see this we must
appreciate their insights.

Agonism™s attractions
Unsurprisingly, agonists de¬ne themselves against an oppo-
nent “ liberalism. They argue that received liberal theory is so
concerned about the possibility of con¬‚ict that it sacri¬ces the
possibility of legitimate contestation in order to pursue the chimera
of perfect social peace. For Chantal Mouffe, John Rawls™s political
liberalism ˜˜tends to . . . [expel] any legitimate opposition from the
democratic public sphere™™; for Rawls, ˜˜a well-ordered society is a
society from which politics has been eliminated™™ (Mouffe 2000: 14,
29, 31).8 Agonists see liberals as profoundly conservative; their
opposition to con¬‚ict effectively protects the social and individual
structures of the status quo against destabilizing radical critique.
In contrast, agonists see pluralism as a happy part of our condi-
tion, one worth fostering. This pluralism begins at the bottom.
Individual persons are not the solid autonomous Westphalian states
in miniature that liberals assume them to be. Identity and difference
are cathected inside the self, so that a too secure identity is ¬rst of
all realized only through an enormous amount of psychic violence,
and kept in place only by a larger intersubjective political economy
that radically restrains our capacities to explore and/or inhabit
the mutifarious psychic energies we actually are.9 What looks like
innocuous ordinary socio-politics is, for agonists, an enormous

7. For examples of such sustained engagement, see Connolly 1999, S. K. White
2000, and Coles 1997.
8. Mouffe makes the same complaint against so-called ˜˜deliberative democrats,™™
who she thinks destroy real pluralism; see 2000: 46“9, 55, 81“2, 91“2.
9. See Connolly 2002b.
268 A Theology of Public Life

self-imposed attempt to repress our actual polymorphousness in
order to impose clear and stable individual identities on ourselves.
The central question for agonists is not how to design structures for
resolving political con¬‚ict, but rather how to induce enough people
to start disagreeing with one another, and with themselves, in order
to cultivate thick and contentious dispute.
Agonists begin with the axiom that society is non-natural, a
human artifact whose reality is signi¬cantly a product of human
decisions, not of inevitable natural structures. There is no ˜˜natural™™
or even necessarily eternally best way to organize society; its nature
is always ultimately up to the people who inhabit it.10 Complete
consensus is both impossible and undesirable. Modern states™
actions are so complex and comprehensive, their citizens so diverse,
that every decision cannot but exclude some dissidents. This
dynamic of inclusion and exclusion is essential to political life:
˜˜every discourse, even one ¬lled with words like ˜fair™ and ˜impar-
tial,™ is an engine of exclusion and therefore a means of coercion™™
(Fish 1999: 223). Because of this, political life should be carried on in
full acknowledgment of the essentially fabricated and inevitably
con¬‚ictual nature of political order. As Mouffe puts it, we must
resist ˜˜the sacralization of consensus,™™ and ˜˜the closing of the gap
between justice and law that is a constitutive space of modern
democracy™™; we must ˜˜constantly challeng[e] the relations of
inclusion-exclusion,™™ in order both to resist the rigor mortis of some
particular political con¬guration and to ensure that political life
remains able to welcome the genuine novelty of other new voices
and the inevitable changes that come from living into an ever new
future (2000: 10, 32, 113).
Some might worry that such an agonism is just a recipe for vio-
lent anarchy, but such worries assume that argument is the same as
combat. Not so; agonistic disagreement is not a reversion to some
sort of state of nature, but a political achievement, requiring skills
and dispositions that must be learned. Acknowledging the inevit-
ability of con¬‚ict and exclusion does not entail any celebration of
violence; instead, such acknowledgment helps resist con¬‚ict™s tend-
encies to turn bloody. In contrast, political theories for which
radical challenge to its fundamental political framework is

10. See Mouffe 2000: 103. For a similar analytic approach, see D™Agostino 1996.
Charitable citizenship

unthinkable (sometimes, as in Jurgen Habermas™s proposal, quite
literally) are more prone to a much greater danger of violence.
Agonists believe we can begin to imagine a non-violent political
struggle by thinking not in terms of enemies, but in terms of
adversaries; in imagining the ˜˜us™™ versus ˜˜them™™ dynamics inher-
ent in political life, as Mouffe puts it, we should ˜˜construct the
˜them™ in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be
destroyed, but as an ˜adversary,™ that is, somebody whose ideas we
combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into
question™™ (2000: 101“2). By so imagining our opponents as engaged
with us, not in an ethical dispute about what is morally good, but
rather in a political dispute about what is politically the best thing
to do, we resist the temptation to subsume politics into the ethical
project of ˜˜the recognition of the Other,™™ and instead imagine the
political as a realm of debate and dissent relatively free of the
anxieties and aggressions we invariably bring to our moral projects
Obviously agonism is an intensely interesting and potentially
fruitful way of looking at politics. It offers a vital and exciting way of
thinking about political life outside the forced teleology and illusory
idealism of much political thought. Engagement in the agonists™
project could help revivify Christians™ civic participation, as it
would engage them in the project of explaining themselves to their
fellow citizens (and to each other “ for, after all, not all ˜˜Christians™™
will align on the same side of any position).
But agonism is not ¬nally satisfactory. It has its own internal
problems, and even if it did not, it would stymie Christian attempts
to appropriate it. Indeed, it is more interesting and useful as a
provocation to Christian political thought than as a template. I say
why next.

Agonism™s problems
In the end, agonism does not so much transcend the dominant
liberal political approach as repeat its profound dif¬culties. For all
its trumpeting of the inescapability of con¬‚ict, agonism ¬nally aims
via such acknowledgments to contain con¬‚ict, to be as magisterially
(and managerially) non-partisan as liberal political theorists purport
to be. Ultimately agonism™s ambitions are incoherent: like theorists
270 A Theology of Public Life

such as Rawls, it still wants to be the referee, offering a theory of
politics capable of accommodating and organizing the con¬‚icts
among the very divergent political positions present in any society.
But this very focus on accommodating con¬‚ict, and including all
possible viewpoints, is premised on a prior exclusion of any posi-
tions that would imagine politics in radically different terms.
Agonism is what happens when academic elites recognize the con-
testability of their positions but still hold on to the hope that there
can be an essentially neutral and descriptive political philosophy
within which such contestations can occur. In so hoping, they fall,
as Stanley Fish says, into ˜˜the theorist™s most rare¬ed temptation,
the temptation of thinking that recognizing the unavoidability of
politics is a way of avoiding it™™ (1999: 233).11
Return to Chantal Mouffe™s distinction between adversaries and
enemies. The hope is that this distinction will contain con¬‚ict
within acceptable levels. But in itself this is just an assertion, with
all the violence that entails. Mouffe attempts to manage con¬‚ict “ to
secure the stability of the basic framework within which con¬‚ict
can occur, before entering into con¬‚ict. Again, Fish puts this well:
while agonists believe in ˜˜openness to revision,™™ and argue ˜˜that
some forms of organization are more open to revision than others,™™
they fail to recognize
that openness to revision as a principle is itself a form of closure,
not at all open to ways of thinking or acting that would bring
revision to an end. ˜˜Openness to revision™™ is an internal, not an
absolute, measure; it is relative to whatever understood exclusions “
and there will always be some “ give the politically organized space
its shape. (1999: 235)
Where agonists claim to offer ˜˜a political philosophy that makes
room for contingency,™™ Fish argues, ˜˜contingency is precisely what
you can™t make room for; contingency is what befalls the best laid
plans of mice and men “ and that includes plans to take it into
account or guard against its eruption™™ (237). Agonism remains
crippled, like the liberal theories its advocates want to supplant,
by being essentially a strategy based around a root ¬xation on
the problem of con¬‚ict, and how best to accommodate it: ˜˜The

11. Agonism™s fundamental similarities with liberalism in this regard are nicely
brought out in the exchange between Flathman 1998 and Macedo 1998.
Charitable citizenship

assertion that forms of order and stability are always provisional is
equivalent to the assertion that values are plural and nonadjudic-
able. Both are offered as reasons for withdrawing from con-
¬‚ict™™ (239).
This failure is connected to another: agonists assume a moral
psychology that is interestingly self-contradictory, as is revealed in
their treatment of the relevance of individuals™ commitments, their
concerns and interests, to politics. Agonists cannot take our com-
mitments seriously enough. On their picture, there is a certain
phenomenological ˜˜lightness™™ to our grip on our commitments, as
if they could be easily jettisoned; but, as Fish puts it,
if the clash of values is irremediable and if the forms of order (and
thus the con¬gurations of ˜us™ against ˜them™) are continually
shifting, it is best not to insist too strongly on the values you
happen to favor or the forms of order you prefer. If everything is up
for grabs, why grab anything with the intent of hanging on to it?
(Fish 1999: 239)12
In fact this ˜˜lightness™™ is just what our real commitments do
not have. Paradoxically and ironically, such theorists ˜˜back into™™
af¬rming this too thin understanding of our ˜˜commitments™™
because of their presumption of our commitments™ very intransi-
gence and intractability; for them, it is madness to expect that our
commitments can be changed or commensurated, and so we must
be resigned to that. (There is, in this way, a deep Stoical resignation,
even despair, at the heart of the agonists™ political ontology; recall,
from Chapter 3 above, William Connolly™s despair of actually
changing anyone™s mind.) They depict our commitments as per-
manent interests, ˜˜objectively™™ given in our constitution and fun-
damentally unquestionable. Hence agonists also take our
commitments too seriously, accepting them as absolute and
in¬‚exible, ¬xed for ever in ways we must accommodate, and cannot
hope to change.13
Furthermore, the agonists exhibit a persistent resistance to ren-
dering explicit any commitment to justice, to giving a reason why

12. Fish 1999: 239. Note the similarities with Sandel™s critique of Rawls™s
anthropology (1982: 154“65).
13. See Lieberman 1998 and Frankfurt 1988. See also Hirschman 1977; this is where
the Enlightenment™s turn to in¬‚exible ˜˜interests™™ as opposed to more plastic
˜˜passions™™ may have deleterious consequences.
272 A Theology of Public Life

the inclusion of all, or the encounter with the other, is worthwhile,
beyond the simply pragmatic (and metaphorical) one of relieving
psychological (and social) tension. This manifests a moral-theore-
tical aphasia “ Charles Taylor™s ˜˜ethics of inarticulacy™™ once again “
and suggests that their vocabulary for understanding human beha-
vior, the vocabulary of con¬‚ict, cannot capture their own motiva-
tions for seeking to engage others.14
Ultimately, the vision of politics they offer entails certain dubious
ontological assumptions. Like the liberal theorists they disparage,
the agonists never actually theorize con¬‚ict, never actually ana-
lytically investigate and unpack the appearance of con¬‚ict to see
how deep down it goes; instead, they simply assume it as the bed-
rock fact from which all political thought must begin, and, like the
liberal theorists, they offer what is essentially a protectionist
response to con¬‚ict, one aimed at ensuring that it does not become
too dangerous. But agonism can only ensure this containment of
con¬‚ict “ or, rather, convince itself that it can ensure it “ if, like the
liberal theory it attempts to supplant, it makes us not too tied to our
aims, willing to renounce them for the sake of the agon. And that is
manifestly false to human psychology. By ¬xating on con¬‚ict,
agonists back into asking humans to be the kind of creatures we
cannot be, and so attempt (again) to ˜˜solve™™ politics before anyone
actually begins to engage in it.15
In being resigned to the fact of con¬‚ict, ironically they also
naturalize and domesticate it, with deleterious effects for the
anthropology and ontology of con¬‚ict. Anthropologically, the nat-
uralization of con¬‚ict demands that we anesthetize ourselves to it.
If con¬‚ict is natural, our re¬‚exive resistance to it “ our incompre-
hension and stuttering inarticulateness before it “ is itself un-
natural, a hysterical, super¬‚uous, and ultimately melodramatic
overreaction. We should renounce all hope or imaginative possibi-
lity of some sort of ideal absolute harmony, and some sort of ¬nal
reconciliation of all with all; we should mistrust our basic dis-
comfort with con¬‚ict. But such a practice of mistrusting our intui-
tions encourages us ultimately to doubt our ability to tell right from

14. See Coles 1997: 194 and Taylor 1989.
15. Here criticisms of postmodern thinkers™ ˜˜ontology of violence™™ (such as
Milbank 1990b) are on to something.
Charitable citizenship

wrong. Furthermore, our conviction of the accidental character of
con¬‚ict can at times make us work hard to overcome it. Not only
does such a naturalization encourage human temptations towards
an enervating pessimism and despair; it also stands in manifest
tension with the agonists™ own insistence that patterns of human
interaction are radically contingent, always open to contestation
and reimagination.
Speaking ontologically, by trying so to naturalize and absolutize
con¬‚ict, such accounts homogenize and domesticate it, and ignore
the extremes to which it can go. As con¬‚ict is basic to the world, on
their view, it cannot really be fundamentally opposed to the struc-
tures of the world itself. All con¬‚ict is ultimately the same sort of
thing; there is not, on this view, the rich spectrum of different sorts
of con¬‚icts, some ˜˜manageable™™ by us, others not. This constrains
our understanding of con¬‚ict, and hinders our response to it.
Sometimes politics does lead to war, and some of those wars “ not
many, but some “ are just. The agonists™ ˜˜construction of the cat-
egory of adversary™™ avoids the fact that sometimes we face enemies,
and we must not allow the concept of adversary wholly to eclipse
that of enemy. Occasionally good and evil do appear in the political
sphere, and some forms of political argument are simply right or
simply wrong. It is just a fact that some political programs may not
be the objects of legitimate contestation, or understandable sup-
port, and it is unrealistic to imagine that people should not operate
with ethical motivations in the political realm. The agonists™ parti-
cular vision of politics as a sphere of ˜˜con¬‚ict™™ wholly distinct from
the realm of the ethical may be a salutary warning for most of our
political engagements, but it cannot be allowed the privileged place
of metaphysical dogma that agonists seem to want to grant it, for it
forecloses the possibility that politics may be more important, both
positively and negatively, than we normally experience it as being.16
Agonism has considerable insights, but profound limitations; and
both come from its unremitting focus on surfaces and appearance. It
recognizes the ineradicability of con¬‚ict in this life, and acknowl-
edges that con¬‚ict goes ˜˜all the way down,™™ into our inmost selves.
It realizes that public engagement can help move us towards a
deeper and more capacious authenticity. But essentially it fails

16. This parallels Milbank™s critique of the ˜˜policing of the sublime™™ in 1990b.
274 A Theology of Public Life

because it cannot see beyond the surface of public life: agonism is
too trusting of public life™s self-expression. Agonism™s very attempt
to capture the essence of politics, by focusing on politics™ ˜˜surface
expression™™ of con¬‚ict, domesticates that con¬‚ict, and cannot
acknowledge the real psychological complexity of the self, and in
particular the possibility that some parts of the self are more ˜˜real,™™
less transcendable than others. It thus fails to see beneath that
surface, and refuses to acknowledge both the desire for engagement
and the fact that desire can be vexed “ the twin realities that col-
lectively constitute the reality that the agonists™ emphasis on
˜˜con¬‚ict™™ too crudely attempts to encompass. For good and ill,
agonism is ¬nally a super¬cial account.

The priority of charity
Agonism™s insights are better transplanted into an Augusti-
nian account, which sees love, and not struggle “ and thus com-
munion, and not alterity “ at the heart of the universe. Such an
account offers a love-centered ontology that can make more sense of
our interest in and commitment to one another. Love better
understands the morality of public life because it can illuminate,
better than agonist accounts, the phenomenological imperative to
recognize the other person as an other person, an ˜˜other me.™™ It
thereby can make intelligible the fundamental political acts of
respecting the other and recognizing that his or her voice is irre-
ducible to one™s own. Love, in brief, makes sense of the conversation
that constitutes public life.
But agonism™s internal dif¬culties are not the only reason our
proposal cannot simply swallow it whole; it also directly challenges
the idea of an Augustinian political engagement because agonism
challenges the idea of a loving politics. In addressing it, we must
fully confront the challenges facing an emphasis on love in public
Some agonists argue that Christians, like all moralizers, are likely
to expect too much from political action because they expect
properly moral outcomes therefrom. For such critics, Christians are
dangerous because they fantasize an ideal world without violence,
and so necessarily disdain this world, and the actions necessary for
its sustenance, in ways which corrode our attachment to it. Despite
Charitable citizenship

(or even within) Christians™ acknowledgment of the inescapability
of violence in this-worldly politics, especially through the doctrine
of sin, they typically retain a theoretical idealism, believing that
there is some sort of ˜˜pure community™™ whose existence, now or
eschatologically, bears, in some ambiguous way, on the sordid and
sloppy realities of life in this world. This idealism presses Christians
towards demonizing their opponents in dangerous ways, for to
disagree with their plan is to place oneself ¬rmly in the camp of
evil. Agonists argue that this moralism invariably arises from and in
turn reinforces an otherworldly, nay-saying ressentiment that poisons
Christian participation in worldly affairs “ and poisons Christians
against other participants in the public sphere. Moralism, that is, is
just another version of escapism.
Others develop the accusation of ˜˜idealism™™ differently, arguing
that Christians treat politics with too little seriousness. They do not
believe that Christians will sincerely participate in such an agonistic
and pluralistic conversation at all, given that their aim inevitably is
(or should be) the conversion of other participants; under the guise
of politics Christians are secretly playing another game, seeking
converts, not conversation partners. Christianity seems essentially
just the sort of ˜˜¬nal™™ discourse that agonists cannot countenance;
its dogmas are incontestable, and thus would only resist the delib-
erations agonists would cultivate. This ultimate unseriousness is
¬nally the weakness of slaves, who know they cannot win and


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