During Holy Week of 2004 I was in Baghdad, where I worked as coordinator of the Iraq program for the Mennonite Central Committee. That was the week that the stupidity of the Iraq war became unavoidably obvious, at least outside the Beltway. On Palm Sunday, the day the people of Jerusalem took to the streets to welcome a messiah they did not comprehend any more than we do, thousands of Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers shut down central Baghdad’s streets, protesting the arrest of a top aide and the closing of al-Sadr’s newspaper.
Later that week—the week when we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, and forgiveness over vengeance—the American military unleashed an assault on Fallujah in which 518 Iraqis were killed, including 237 women and children. In an Easter Sunday letter to the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship I wrote: “Jesus has indeed risen even if it was a hell of a long time ago and even if there is no evidence of it in Baghdad.” At a church the night before, I had listened to a priest preach on a story from St. Ephraim, then announce the times for the next day’s Mass, adding an ominous caution: “Please go directly home. Do not linger and do not walk home in large groups.”
What is theology? What is it for? What does it do? I have been trying to teach the kids in my ethics class at Eastern Mennonite University that worship is political—in other words, that going to Mass in Baghdad in Holy Week was a political act. The idea—familiar from such theologians as the late John H. Yoder and his student (and my old adviser), Stanley Hauerwas—is that the church doesn’t have to go outside itself for a political ethic. It doesn’t have to pack up some theological insights or implications and then carry them over to another, alien realm called the political to “apply” them. Worship simply is a politics—an alternative politics, to be sure, but a politics.
To help students understand this, I remind them that in many countries it is illegal to gather on a Sunday morning. I also tell them how the great Cappadocian father, Basil of Caesarea, used to deny Communion to soldiers for a year after they returned from battle; I suggest that perhaps we should do that in our churches. I ask them what they think would happen if some gutsy Methodist bishop threatened to excommunicate a president who declares war, the way New York Cardinal John O’Connor threatened Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Or I evoke for them Archbishop Oscar Romero, walking into the church the army had turned into a barracks, kneeling before the cross, collecting the hosts while bullets shattered the cross above him.
When I got their first papers back, they weren’t very good, so much so that it was pretty obvious it was my fault—a pedagogical failure, not a student failure. And that could be for several reasons. It could be that I just was not clear enough about worship being political. That in turn could be because it isn’t true, or is only trivially true. Or it could be that on some level—the level I was at on Easter Sunday 2004, when I wrote to my church telling them there was no evidence of the Resurrection in Baghdad—I don’t really believe it, and the kids picked that up.
Later in the summer of 2004, Stanley Hauerwas sent me a lecture he had written in which he took the worship-is-politics argument and ratcheted it up a notch by arguing that worship is the church’s alternative to war. In effect, the sacrifice of the Son of God replaces and overcomes the sacrifices George W. Bush invokes when he urges that the United States “stay the course” in Iraq so that thousands of American soldiers will not have died in vain. The Eucharist, Hauerwas went on, is “the witness necessary for the world to know there is an alternative to the sacrifices of war.”
It is an argument Hauerwas has honed for decades, one he has taught several generations of students at Notre Dame and Duke to follow. But I had been living in Baghdad for six or seven months at that time and I wrote him back a nasty letter. I called the argument “anemic” and wrote, “you seriously want me to tell these people, ‘Yes, but have you tried worship?’” As I saw it then, his argument went something like this: For every problem we face—global capital, war, occupation, poverty, racism, etc.—church is the answer. That wasn’t exactly wrong, I said. But it came too quickly and read like a form letter. For at least a few of the problems we face, I argued, there is only silence and tears.
A few weeks after I received the paper, the U.S. Army engaged Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in a major battle in Najaf, one of the two holiest cities in Shiite Islam. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was away from his Najaf home for heart surgery in London. He returned three weeks into the battle—and within days brought an end to it. He called on the Shiite faithful to come to Najaf, to the Shrine of Imam Ali, murdered son-in-law of the Prophet. Tens of thousands came, many of them on foot, for the first Friday prayers in weeks. The BBC, which for weeks had been running some of the best footage of the war from just outside the shrine, now broadcast pictures of the tear-streaked faces of weaponless Iraqi soldiers from both sides of the conflict kissing the bullet-ridden walls of the mosque. I sent a sheepish and apologetic e-mail to Hauerwas: “Ah, so this is what you meant.”
What is theology? What difference is there between saying that humans are by nature political animals and saying they are worshiping animals? When Aristotle said that humans are political beings, he meant, according to the philosopher Jonathan Lear, not “that a given nature forces them to huddle together, like sheep in a storm, but that human nature is realized in the political debate and enactment of what constitutes a good life.” Aristotle thought politics such an important branch of philosophy because he understood it to be the work of creating the conditions in which humans could fulfill their nature. Politics was the organization of the polis to direct us toward our highest end, eudaemonia. Augustine and Aquinas considered theology the queen of the sciences for that very reason. It was in the polis called church that we could find the conditions to fulfill our nature—that is, to become Christ-like; to become friends with God by becoming friends with all.
In that light, it is possible to wonder if the politics of nation-states and global economies are really politics at all. Insofar as they are not interested in the good, they are not just postdemocratic, but postpolitical. It is no longer the politics of Jesus versus the politics of humans, or Christian politics versus pagan politics. We live in conditions better described as the political and the antipolitical.
A year after Hauerwas sent me his paper, I found myself in a city in northern Iraq, one of the last places that still possess the remarkable diversity of the old Middle East. Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, and Mandeans all live there. I went to spend three days in mid-August at a convent with a dozen Catholic nuns who had become friends. They ran a women’s shelter that I had wanted to visit and they asked me to come that week to celebrate with them their most important feast—the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the day that Mary, Mother of God, was taken bodily into heaven. They venerate Mary because they know that, in Balthasar’s words, she “draws no line of demarcation between her uniqueness and the numberless generations. By not doing so she enters into communion with all these generations within the encompassing mercy of God, enters into an inward communion of destiny. It is a calamitous destiny.”
What is theology? Surely if it is anything, it is this: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Mariology may be a strange topic for a Mennonite theologian, but I am taking you where the sisters took me. If we don’t know what to do with Mary, it may be because we don’t know what to do with the creed. At best we accept it grudgingly and then move on to the important stuff, like discipleship. I know some would argue that it is a failure of discipleship not to realize that Mary represents discipleship here. That is, our failure to understand Mary as disciple is due to the sexism that haunts theology. Mary, Rowan Williams points out, should not be read alone. She should be read alongside the only other person mentioned in the creed aside from Jesus, Pilate—“the one who said yes, and the one who said no.” The creed offers this teenage girl from Nazareth as the alternative to empire.
The feast day, that August 15, was also the day of the referendum on the new Iraqi constitution. Such days were often the occasion of violence, good days to stay out of regions like the one where the nuns lived. But as a theology student, I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a literal enactment of worship as politics. I wanted to watch the nuns choose to celebrate the assumption of the Blessed Virgin instead of voting. These were women whose explicitly stated mission is to the poor—women who take the poor into their home, feed them, tend them when sick, and invite them into their chapel three times a day to pray together. In the van on the ride to the church, we passed dozens of posters promoting the political referendum. I asked three of the nuns what they thought would happen with the new constitution. “The what?” Sr. Basma asked. When she realized what I was referring to, she just laughed. “We are nuns. We stay in our convent. It is not our concern.” Sr. Noor said, “Politics. Lies. Ya haraam.”
After Mass, the sisters scattered to the homes of relatives or friends in the village. I went with Sr. Maria, Sr. Hanaa, and Sr. Maysan to Maria’s sister’s home for an enormous breakfast of bread, meat, and kube. Kube is a traditional Iraqi dish of balls of meat breaded in rice flour and boiled in tomato sauce. For the Feast of the Assumption every home makes hundreds of them. Each house has a ten-gallon steel pot set over a fire, making enough kube to feed dozens. They keep some at the house for the many guests who will come in the course of the day. And they carry some to the church in tin buckets. All day the poor of the village, Christian and Muslim, come to the church to eat.
I could call this Eucharist, though they might consider that a willful Protestant misreading. But how about this? On the afternoon of another Sunday during the summer of 2004, I’d been in my hotel room writing a letter to a friend when I heard an explosion, then another, and another (see Commonweal, “The War in Iraq,” December 3, 2004). I felt the building shake and quiver. Outside the sky turned charcoal gray. The next morning I discovered that several churches had been hit, including Peter and Paul Chaldean, the church in front of Babel College, where I was teaching. I had an appointment with the dean that morning at 11, and went over early. This was by far the saddest thing I had ever seen—in Iraq or anywhere else. Ten people had died, victims of two car bombs, one of which had exploded in the churchyard, just outside the church door. It had gone off as people were leaving the Mass. Now parts of cars were strewn across the lawn, burned completely black. I encountered one of my students. He was looking for his aunt, who’d been at the church the day before. No one had heard from her, and no one heard from her again.
Shall we call that Eucharist—a grotesque Eucharist from some Chaldean Cormac McCarthy? These are our bodies, broken for nothing. This is our blood, shed for God-knows-what. On that trip in northern Iraq a year later, Sr. Maria started talking about that day. She had been at a nearby church and hurried over to offer any aid she could. She told me that all her life she had fainted at the sight of blood, but on that day she diligently picked through the remains of ash and car parts to match up scattered human limbs for proper burial. I found myself remembering the big table facing the congregation at the old Blossom Hill Mennonite Church, engraved with the words “Do this in remembrance of me.” Years later I learned to understand Eucharist as a re-membering, as stitching together the various parts of the body of Christ into one.
Why is it a theological failure, if it is, to say that “Jesus is risen even though it was a long time ago and there is no evidence of it in Baghdad”? What is theology? Say that theology calls us to remember the eschaton, to remember that the end times are not on their way but began at Golgotha two thousand years ago. Say that theology means negotiating the edges between celebrating the already and mourning the not-yet, and confessing that we rarely know which is which—and still less whether to mourn or to celebrate that ignorance. Say that theology means wondering if the church is a two-thousand-year-old dance before the empty tomb or a two-thousand-year-old funeral at the foot of the Cross. Say that doing theology means recovering a sense of the world as shot through with grace and beauty—and hoping that world looks like a garden in bloom, but fearing it looks like the lawn outside Peter and Paul Chaldean Catholic Church. Say, finally, that discipleship means inhabiting such contradictions; that theology itself dwells in them, as evoked in Hebrews 2:7–9:
You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, you placed all things in subjection under his feet. At present we do not yet see all things subjected to him; but we do see Jesus, who was for a little while made lower than the angels, is crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.
We do see Jesus—the broken and bloody body of Christ—scattered across the margins of the American empire. If that is helpful, it may be because we know who Jesus is and what his death meant and can therefore get a handle on what senseless death means. But I doubt it. I also doubt we know what senseless death means and can therefore get a handle on what the Cross meant. If theology is helpful it is not because it allows us to say anything, but because it pushes us toward silence; it unveils our ignorance and makes it hurt.
An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Cynicism and Hope conference of the Reba Place Fellowship in November 2007.