The politics of purity and compromise

The rhetoric of western leaders, as we once again prepare to wage war against Islamic peoples, has reminded me of the ways that I think the politics of purity (a politics that wants to neatly define who is in, who is out and, most importantly, where it is that “we” stand) has captivated our political imaginations. This may be surprising to hear, given that it is the rhetoric of compromise that is most evidently present in the calls for and declarations of “total war.” What I detect, however, is that the kind of compromise being articulated functions within the larger framework of a puristic politics, creating one of its most insidious offspring: puristic compromise.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, most political compromises are undertaken within a logic of expediency that separates means from end; because “what we accomplish” is what primarily matters, expedient compromise is a means to achieving our principles as opposed to a departure from them. “We are convinced that the most effective way to disarm ISIS is to kill them (and others) in war.” Second, compromise is frequently presented as “the only option.” In these cases, because the compromising party had no choice in the matter, their (ideological) purity remains intact. “ISIS presents us with no other options; they must be stopped (by us).”

Going in a different direction, I think it is important to consider some of the implications this has for free church ecclesiology. In theology, the political moves outlined above are most easily associated with the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. If we accept my argument, it is possible to see that in important ways Niebuhr’s Christian realism is more an evasion of a compromised world than an embrace of it. Thus, when Free Church theologians continue to say things like “[i]f one is to speak meaningfully about ecclesiality, one must know not only what the church is, but also how a concrete church can be identified externally as a church; one must be able to say where a church is” (Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, 129) we remain stuck within the same problematic politics of purity that ironically justifies all sorts of violence. On the other hand, letting go of some clarity and being willing to receive some impurities (learning from the Samaritan) may open the door to a more peaceful options than we are able to see within an insufficiently and overly constrained pure vision.

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