Review: The Passion of Political Love
by Cornelius Conwell


The "Christ of bourgeois security" [1]
(1) It is Sunday, 10.30 am. Time for the Family Mass, the weekly jewel in the parish's liturgical crown. A woman emerges from a side entrance and approaches the lectern to welcome the congregation and introduce "our liturgy this morning". Flamboyant power-dressing, de rigueur among the new breed of female parish co-ordinators, is again the order of the day: this morning's ensemble consists of a long, black Matrix-style coat, trendy spectacles, the inevitable paperwork in hand, signalling membership of the administrative elite, and a haughty, proprietorial manner as she stalks confidently around the sanctuary, coat-tails flapping dramatically in her wake.
On the opposite side of the room the maestro bobs up to his music stand, summons the crowd to its feet and begins a strange pantomime of exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The "big band", so named in the parish council's annual report, strikes up, and the performance - what else should we call it? - begins.
(2) In another parish they are having a "mission". Two friars from a new religious order, which moved into the poor part of town some years ago, are giving the talks. The liturgy “core team” have organised the prayer sessions, the reflections, the inevitable audience-participation exercises.
On opening night the team leader sweeps into the church car park in his large Mercedes, carrying the friars. Ten minutes later the wife appears, in her Mercedes, bearing a large bundle of papers, folders, sheet-music.
The friars speak softly, unthreateningly, of the vocation to holiness: material things are not enough, our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee - spiritual musak calculated to soothe rather than unsettle. An hour later Mr and Mrs Mercedes spirit them away for a meal in a restaurant.
At the end of the week a finger buffet in the church hall celebrates the success of the mission (what would constitute failure, after all?). Mr Mercedes, now in the role of Mein Host, beams indulgently as he scuttles around the hall refilling wine glasses. The friars return to the poor side of town with a pat on the head from the team: "thank you so much for co-operating". The gospel has once again been domesticated, the "passion of political love" neutralised.
In 1987, when the Benedictine monk Thomas Cullinan collected nine talks and essays written between 1974-84 and put them together in a short book, these trends were already discernible although they were not so pronounced. But with prophetic sensitivity Cullinan perceived the direction church life was moving in.
In the eighties social concern was a priority among activist Christians. As Thatcher reached the height of her pomp and the CIA marauded through Latin America the Church of England published "Marxist" social reports and liberation theology was translated into English and sold in paperback. With the global triumph of neoliberalism the focus of church activism turned inwards, reflecting the larger-scale defeat. The activists abandoned the marketplace for the sacristy and the parish office, which they found to be in need of radical reorganisation.
The priority of God's grace
The Passion of Political Love emphasises the mystical and political aspects of Christianity, which Cullinan sees as complementary and indispensable. The God of the Bible desires that we cultivate both personal integrity and a social milieu which is humane and life-enhancing. It is wrong, Cullinan says, to present Christian thought as a "dolled-up humanism interspersed with gospel quotations" (p.76). But genuine contact with God also takes us beyond any purely private, self-centred concept of salvation. At a time when "spirituality" is conceived almost wholly in terms of inner well-being, and church membership reduced to notions of inclusive social fraternity, these warnings are far from outdated.
Running through all the chapters of the book is a strong sense of the priority of God's grace. The Kingdom is God's, not ours. It is Jesus' metaphor for the reality of God's life and character, which we are invited to join with and share. Our entrepreneurial, technocratic ways of thinking make it difficult for us to accept God's Kingdom as gift. We naturally assume that it is something we must do or make or build.
Cullinan describes the pattern followed by many well-meaning Christians. They genuinely feel a hunger and thirst for justice, but it is often an ideology, a programme in which they are the real actors and God a mere spectator. "We set out 'to do God's will' and he is indeed lucky to have us to do it" (p.125). When results prove harder to achieve than we imagined our original enthusiasm evaporates and we settle into mediocrity and compromise.
But the solution is not to retreat into "contemplation" and quietism. Cullinan is not justifying indifference to injustice. His point is that Christians who strive to achieve visible, measurable results, either in their personal spiritual life or in terms of social activism, are putting things back to front. We must first experience God's love, enter into communion with him, and then - as Jesus said - "go and do likewise" in our relations with others. (p.104). We are not asked to construct a holy life from our own resources and then offer it to God. Rather we must approach God in humility and emptiness and open ourselves to the transforming force of his holiness.
The obedience of Jesus
Cullinan reflects on the course of Jesus' ministry and suggests that Jesus was motivated by three levels of "obedience".
Christ started out from the standpoint of "the obedience of belonging": he was formed by, and accepted, the norms of his religion and culture.
Later, during his ministry, he spoke and acted out of "the obedience of truth for communion". Rooted in the tradition of the prophets and the psalms Jesus denounced the divisions within the Chosen People; the oppression of the weak; the social, cultural and religious exclusion of sinners, lepers, individuals ignorant of the Law. Jesus' intimate relationship with the Father and his immersion in the tradition brought him to identify with the afflicted and the excluded and forced him into confrontation with the powerful. Many of his actions - forgiving sins, healing illnesses - were aimed at ending exclusion and restoring communion.
As his ministry proceeded the growing conflict and the increasing rejection of his message led Jesus into his final form of obedience: "the obedience of truth in compassion". True to the will of the Father and the nature of his Kingdom Christ refused the language and methods of power, wealth and manipulation. Instead the way forward "was to rely totally on the intrinsic truth of his message, and on the conviction that everybody, in their heart, can recognise truth (that's why it becomes divisive). He went forward into the confrontation that could not but lead to suffering, to compassion, that is to suffer with and for people" (p.7).
Discipleship as obedience
For Cullinan Christian life and discipleship means to follow the pattern of Christ's obedience. What happened in the life of Jesus also tends to happen in the lives of his followers: "one begins with an easy obedience and an easy love, however difficult our family or community relations may be; then through the action of God in us our love is expanded into a political love, a love of people within the social whole, and then this becomes a wounded solitude, a lived passion, a death" (pp. 9-10).
Imitation of Christ, says Cullinan, means sharing Christ's identification with the poor and the afflicted and suffering as a result. Of course this is liable to place one at odds with fellow believers for whom church membership goes no further than the hobbyism described at the start. To profess concern for the poor entails suffering with them and for them:
"[Breaking through to the level of obedience of truth in compassion] will affect every detail of our live - the way we live, the way we embrace poverty, the friends we have and the friends we lose, the form of security we seek to have, or not have, in life, the fundamental options we make about the sort of work we do and don't do. All things in life start to connect and I believe this is one of the signs, and thank God for it, that we are under an obedience and are the work of God's spirit and not simply on some ego trip, because that's our danger is it not?" (p.14).
Cullinan extends his reflection on the mystical-political dimensions of faith into various areas of Christian life in a way which merits several readings and defies straightforward summary. We are invited to consider, for example, the political implications of the Eucharist, the sinful aspects of ideology, i.e. false representations of social reality dictated by the interests of power; the interplay between the aggressive, destructive motives which we experience within ourselves and the violence in the external environment:
"Christian faith is not about personal salvation abstracted from social realities. It is about liberation from both the inner and the outer violence, and these are both locked onto one another, and doomed, until a new consciousness, a new language, can interpret the grandeur and the meanness and the conflict within us and among us" (p.30).
Conclusion: "The Kingdom does not 'fit' anywhere"
The Passion of Political Love is not a work of academic theology. It is a form of liberation theology for the British context, the fruit of prayer, reflection and prophetic insight on the part of an intelligent, committed Christian pained by the selfishness and injustice which blight human life and by the Church's various apostasies and rationalisations. On both fronts matters have not improved since the book was first published: rather the reverse.
In recent years conservative commentators have been quick to proclaim the "death" of liberation theology, the supposed recantations of its main proponents and a widespread turn from politics to "spirituality". Recent interviews with Gustavo Guttierez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, et al. paint a different picture. It may well be that the first wave of enthusiasm and even a certain superficiality which characterised the movement during its first phase has given way to a new sobriety and a new depth. What is also likely is that the hard work has carried on among the southern poor even though the ideas and the jargon have ceased to be fashionable among book-buying Christians in the affluent West.
My own frank view is that in our own part of the world, as much as any other, Christianity has no future apart from the insights of liberation theology; no future apart from critical reflection, prophetic forms of lived faith and - in Cullinan's sense - the passion of a political love.
Alienation, dislocation, material and spiritual impoverishment, violence and breakdown at the personal and social levels are all growing in our society even if these phenomena no longer attract the headlines they used to. The bland, conformist version of religion on offer in the contemporary Church - spare-time activism, shallow uplift masquerading as spirituality, a mentality thoroughly shaped by the ideology of wealth - has nothing of value to offer a culture in deepening crisis. The hosts of parish councillors, co-ordinators and "ministers", clerical and lay, are no doubt lost already: we must leave them to their games. There are others, however, who reject what they see in their society and Church but lack a coherent, over-all critique.
Cullinan finishes with the reflection that "[The Gospel] has never really been an issue between good people and bad people." "In fact," he says, "I'm beginning to suspect that until we experience ourselves as enigmatic to good people, it is probable that real faith has not yet taken hold of us. Until we find ourselves (however reluctantly) at odds with the good sense of normal society, aliens and strangers and misfits - until we find that happening, it is not really the Gospel which has taken us. The Kingdom does not really 'fit' anywhere" (p.133).
His book should be read by all those Christians who have already started to reach a similar conclusion.
(Thomas Cullinan, The Passion of Political Love, Sheed and Ward London, 1987. ISBN 0 7220 6450 0. He has also contributed to recent publications by CAFOD, Turn the Tables: reflections on faith and trade and Presence.)


Notes and References
[1] The phrase is Cullinan's: "For God to be One was a radical social commitment to his people being one, over against the polytheism of contemporary pagans who had a god for the king, a god for the wealthy, a god for the powerless...just as we have a Christ of bourgeois security and a Christ of the socially insecure and dispossessed - or more starkly: a Christ of fascist juntas and a Christ of the church of the poor". (p.104)