A Theologian’s Vision of ‘Peasant’ Politics Is Surprisingly Lordly in Scope

Around 15 years ago, as part of my first or second job out of college, I was sent to serve as the token young person at a lunch hosted by some boutique Washington think tank. The topic of conversation was the “good life” and how best to secure it in a rapidly changing world. Most attendees were in their twilight years, temperamentally and politically conservative, and, to my recollection, mildly appalled when I volunteered that many of my peers might not be convinced of the very premise: that there exists a single good life—oriented around God and virtue—to be sketched and secured.

Ephraim Radner’s Mortal Goods: Reimagining Christian Political Duty has no such doubts about the existence of the good life. But he too breaks from the classical notion my lunch companions had in mind, rejecting the modern Christian West’s association of the good and the life that pursues it with the immaterial, especially the “development of virtue and knowledge of God.”

Radner’s vision is more mundane. The good life of the Christian, he says, consists of receiving from God the mortal goods that are “our bodies, families, work, friendships, sorrows, and delights” and the church, and then surrendering them back to God in life and death. “Tending these goods is our vocation, our ‘service’ or ‘offering’ to God,” Radner contends, and it is also the proper aim of Christian politics, “no more and no less.” The ability to send these basic components of existence back to God in worship and forward to our children in peace should be the “benchmark for Christian political engagement,” Radner advises.

This argument is framed with a letter—discussed in the introduction, written out in the conclusion—to Radner’s adult children. Along the way, it attends to questions of whether we can better our world, whether catastrophe is normal, when we are justified in resorting to “abnormal politics,” and what we should expect and hope for ourselves and our loved ones in this life.

In exploring these questions, Radner offers some powerful corrections to unexamined assumptions of contemporary politics. Yet Mortal Goods is hamstrung by needlessly abstruse language (made all the more obvious by the effective and pleasing simplicity of the closing letter) and an oddly abstract approach in a work interested in savoring the small, concrete realities of our lives.

Survival and subsistence

A major problem of our politics, Radner writes, is that we expect too much of it. “More and more, politics has turned its attention to a social cosmos of unrealistic abstraction and has transformed limited creaturely lives into the aggregate measures of pursued principles,” and this is as true in Christian circles as anywhere else. A “stress on a Christian politics of specifically mortal goods is rare. Instead, Christian politics of ‘the good’ has always had the soul mostly in view, somehow disengaged from the human person’s mortality.”

Radner’s goal is to direct our attention downward, away from great heights and ideological glories and into our own homes. Expect less of politics, he says, for Christian politics has but “a modest if essential goal: to permit the birth and death of human beings in a way that expresses the generative love of parents and children, who together are such birth and death given as a gift. Christian politics is deeply misunderstood on any other basis than this socially ordered permission.” Or, to use Paul’s simpler words to Timothy, the distinctly Christian political project is to be allowed to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2).

Indeed, Radner writes, we do not go too far if we speak in terms of subsistence: The “fundamental good of mortal survival [is] an offering to God,” and survival should have a “central place in how Christians should conceive of their political calling.” We should think of ourselves as “peasants,” he argues, people concerned with the “the limited realm of mortal goods,” meaning things like “children, animals, gardens, feast days, marriages, bedsides, burials.” Jesus spent most of his 30-odd years on earth closely acquainted with just such things.

In Radner’s telling, a peasant politics doesn’t expect progress. It doesn’t fixate on grand schemes. It has no expectation of what Radner calls betterment: “solutions to the evil of the days we are in.” Trying to forestall “the upheavals and catastrophes of existence must seem not only intrinsically frustrating but also morally perverse,” Radner says, and ours should be a “politics not of betterment but of limited and gratefully informed survival.”

Life is brief and often difficult. Catastrophes are part of the normal order of things, not exceptions we can escape. To ward off discontent and ultimately despair, Radner argues, we must content ourselves with the goods of earth. As he puts it (in a line I find hard to square with the Lord’s Prayer), “Making earth and heaven ethically or experientially continuous is something that the Evil One seeks to enact.”

So “ratchet down [your] historical expectations.” Remember that political wins may be illusory and, in any case, are “only a small plank in a larger structure of witness.” Love your family. Worship God. We “cannot ask for anything ‘more.’”

‘Constant attention’

There were a number of points at which Radner’s writing left me unsure of whether he could possibly mean what he appeared to be saying, the bit about the Devil among them.

In another spot, Radner writes that to “be ‘done to’ is … not a condition to be tamed by politics through contracts or laws and punishments” but “itself among the highest goods of mortal life, which politics can at best preserve, though in a fashion that can be rendered beautiful.” I too see the beauty if our working example of being “done to” is, say, the unearned and perhaps even unasked receipt of God’s grace. It is rather less beautiful if what is “done to” you is rape or murder, as the mention of “laws and punishments” may suggest.

Several biblical interactions read strangely too. For instance, Radner contends that John 1:9 (“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”) is not only about the Incarnation but about each human. Or, when Jesus said that the story of the woman who anointed him in Bethany would “also be told” “wherever this gospel is preached” (Matt. 26:13), Radner conflates the acts of anointing and preaching, attributing to Jesus the claim that the woman’s gesture “is expressing in its own way ‘the gospel.’”

But my core critique goes beyond these points to the larger question of what Christian political duty actually looks like for those persuaded to adopt a politics of tending Radner’s mortal goods. I understand—have often felt—the appeal of writing a book concerning things so important and universal that they feel unbound to any one time or place. But Mortal Goods executes that approach to a fault.

Radner’s “narrow range of normal political concern” is, in fact, all of life. He basically concedes this while describing Levitical law as an expression of how we offer our lives in service to God, noting that this law “covers every element of daily life.” So do Radner’s many lists of the political scope of mortal goods:

  • They are the “sustained realities and possibilities of birth, growth, nurture, generation, weakening, caring, and dying.”
  • Disputes “over sexual identity, couples, responsibilities, children, schooling [are] properly reduced to the key mortal goods of our existence.”
  • Domains “in which the Christian’s normal politics will demand a constant attention and at times active engagement” include “laws and policies that make possible and support marriages, families of two parents and children and of multiple generations; that protect the conception and birth of children and the nurture and care of the ill and the dying; and that prevent the imposition of actions that overturn the created bases of this generational extension and arc of life (e.g., interventions in sexual refashionings, assisting in self-murder, the promotion of abortion).” Add to this a responsibility for “promoting or repairing larger contexts of security—from violence and drugs especially.”

What else is there? That’s the whole of politics. I can fit immigration in there. Farm policy, foreign policy, monetary policy, taxes, social security, health care, the entire culture war. It’s not narrow. It can’t ratchet down expectations and arguably doesn’t even eschew interest in the soul. And evidently it all requires “constant attention.”

Radner argues that in most circumstances, Christians can participate—without too much investment or anxiety—in what he calls “normal politics”: One “‘goes along,’ in whatever system one finds oneself, until one feels one can do so no longer.” But in extreme circumstances, when “mortal goods and their flourishing [are] being threatened,” the time for “abnormal politics” has come, and “Christian politics may become indistinguishable from the abnormal politics of the world.” Does that mean we do “wage war as the world does” (2 Cor. 10:3)?

What few constraints Radner places on abnormal politics are about aims (to get back to “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”) more than means. He does exclude “terrorism and civil war” from the category, but most of his skepticism is reserved for organization and strategic thinking (“the Christian’s abnormal politics … is ad hoc and limited”), not tactics up to and explicitly including revolution.

And because the category of mortal goods is so broad and Christians’ political opinions are so varied, it’s difficult to see how the decision to plunge into abnormal politics, maybe even violence, can be anything but personal. One feels one can go along no longer. In theory, Radner wants this choice to be discerned via “Christian teaching in its various forms,” but faithful Christians can and will differ on whether our mortal goods face political threat and, if so, how to face that threat.

Radner says he isn’t writing a “‘how to’ guide on voting, policy advocacy, or activism, let alone political theory in the tradition of much ‘political theology,’” and he acknowledges that his political vision doesn’t offer “much new, with respect to activity.” Thus, he doesn’t address how to pursue an inherently religious peasant politics in a secular age. Or how to scale down political expectations if mortal goods comprise the whole of life. Or how to determine when a shift into abnormal politics is unjustified.

Guidance for today

It’s certainly legitimate to write a book of pure philosophy and theology and leave it to the reader to work out the practical implications. But for all Radner’s protest that he isn’t doing a voting guide, Mortal Goods doesn’t land as that kind of book. It is doggedly concerned with mundanity, with beings made from dirt, with each imperfect day. The subtitle announces a reimagining of our political duty—is that not a promise of guidance for what we should (indeed, must) do? And the conceit of a letter to Radner’s own children only enhances that feel, but the guidance never really comes.

The final letter is tender, direct, and reflective without loss of rigor. A whole book in that mode may have been more likely to answer the concrete questions that those of us still in the high throes of life are wont to ask. It’s evident that Radner writes from a place of deep love and sorrow, and he’s right that this is the year—the minute, the day, the life—of our Lord. But it is, specifically, the year of our Lord 2024, and we (Radner’s children and readers alike) are specifically in the modern, liberal-democratic West. In everyday detail, what is our Christian political duty? For all its attention to the here and now, Mortal Goods is too transcendent to say.

Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.

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