As 2018 begins with the usual flurry of New Year’s resolutions—eat healthier, read more, spend more time with family—I wonder how many have added ‘love my neighbor’ to their list.
I got to sit down with author and philosopher James K. A. Smith to learn how to make community a central focus in 2018 and learned it has a lot to do with Augustine. And Hope.
-Aimee Stauf, Commune Channel editor
Humane Pursuits: For those who have not had the chance to read your book, what is the main idea of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology?
James K.A. Smith: I would say it’s a two-fold idea. 1. We need to see how liturgical political life is—that public life isn’t just something that we do, it does something to us. That’s the liturgical nature of public life. 2. The flip side is the political nature of the church, the political nature of liturgy. In a way, the repertoire of worship practices are a political vision.
HP: A big part of your book is Augustine’s concept of disordered loves. What does love have to do with transforming culture? And why look to Augustine for the answer?
Smith: In particular, I consider Augustine’s work City of God in which Augustine analyzes the Roman Empire based on what it teaches people to love. His cultural analysis and critique looks at the social dynamics of a nation and asks: What do the rituals of this polis teach us to love?
I think we have to realize that the rituals of a society are teaching us to love something that may be disordered. That’s why the practices of the body of Christ re-order our loves to love God and love what he loves.
HP: You say that of all people, Christians should be the ones who are least defined by political allegiances. If politics are not ultimate, what does this mean for me and my neighbor?
Smith: The central argument in my book is that our primary identity is as citizens of the city of God, not our partisan identity in relation to some nation-state. Any temporal, partisan political identities are secondary at best. Many Christians over the past generation have allowed their political identity to trump their Christian identity.
It’s also vital we don’t equate politics with the circus of what happens in D.C. We have a very narrow definition of politics, and act as if it only includes the nationalized horse race that is Washington, D.C. But politics when defined more broadly is the common life we forge together. In that sense, the most significant politics are much closer to home. I have almost no investment in national, federal political fights. I am extremely invested in my state, city, municipality, neighborhood.
Politics is everything we do together in community in the meantime of our waiting. Politics is how we learn to live together when we disagree about fundamental things. That’s the reality of a broken world. Politics is about learning how to live together even while we disagree.
HP: But Christians have done such a poor job of being involved in politics to date. How do you recommend Christians balance their allegiance to Christ with political involvement?
Smith: When I say the church is political, I don’t mean that it is one more “party” or something like that. I’m saying that the body of Christ is the embodiment of a political vision that spills over and can influence our public life.
I think a lot of Christians who have been very eager to participate in public and political life have become assimilated to the dominant political ideology of our culture. They haven’t recognized the deformative liturgies of political life in contrast with this repertoire of the City of God.
What we need are people who are centered in the kingdom of God and are willing to be involved. We are a sent people. We are sent into the mix and messiness of living alongside our neighbors. We can’t just retreat to holy huddles. To do that we need to be aware, reflective, and intentional. For me, that means leaning out from our formation in the body of Christ. It’s important that our worship ends with sending. We gather in the body of Christ so that we can be scattered and invested in our neighborhoods.
HP: But as just one person, what can I do? What change can I accomplish in my church or community?
Smith: To be honest, I think the question is: How can I as an individual participate in public life that’s renewing and redemptive? We are all stewards of our agency. We are all stewards of whatever dispensation of power that’s been given to us. It comes down to, how do I become intentional about the way I participate in public life?
The first step is to become intentional and aware. Ask yourself why you are involved or not involved. Secondly, be motivated to find ways to invest in your neighborhood, city, and community as an expression of God’s care on these people. Your investment in theses spaces and communities is an embodiment of God’s concern for these people.
HP: As someone who has put public liturgy into practice through your involvement in everything from a coalition on incarceration policy to a community garden, where would you recommend getting started?
Smith: First, a caution and an encouragement—don’t let your vision for political life be shaped by CNN and what you see on cable news. Unfortunately, we have a shrinking imagination for what counts as political life. Look around you, look closer to home, and see the people who are contributing to building bonds of love in our communities. And get invested in that. Get involved in that. And realize that may be an important part of politics. Don’t be scared to hope.
Hope for the good. Hope for justice. Hope that the earthly city could look a bit more like the city of God.
If you would like to learn more, you can order a copy of James K. A. Smith’s book at jameskasmith.com.