Ellul: Serving God and the World

Most of the Christians I went through college with trained as doctors, lawyers, or teachers – all very practical roles where they could contribute to the public good in a tangible, visible way. That’s something they felt compelled by. They were good Christians, and they wanted to help people, so they studied for jobs with that quite straightforward value proposition. Work in healthcare, help people get better. Be a teacher, help the next generation prepare for the future. It was all about improving society by loving and supporting people in need. There’s something quite sweet about that – maybe something naïve, even. They weren’t bitter people at all. They weren’t the sort of people who’d talk about living in a capitalist hellscape. They weren’t horrified by corporate excess or the poverty cycle – they didn’t like the negative effects of poverty, obviously, but it wasn’t something they approached through a structural lens. You’d never catch these doctors or lawyers in training taking stock of their own complicity with a widespread system of inequality and suffering.

And it’s not like it’s hard to find evidence that our social infrastructure is failing the vulnerable. Here in Australia, we had a lot of chatter back in February around the ten-year anniversary of the Gonski report, a major education report proposing a new system of equitable funding. We knew back in 2012 that poor kids weren’t getting a fair go: “It seemed that our schools were merely reproducing inequalities that existed outside the school gate – and sometimes making them even worse,” notes a Guardian article. Ten years later, the recommendations of the Gonski report still haven’t been fully implemented, and the achievement gap in Australian education continues to grow. Is it a good thing to be a teacher in those circumstances? Is it helping? It really rather seems like the religious desire to help clashes with the reality of a social infrastructure that’s set up to hurt people. What do we do with that?

Jacques Ellul was a French theologian and anarchist living in the 20th century. He wrote a stack of books, including most famously The Technological Society, which we’ll get to, and Anarchy and Christianity, which we’ve previously discussed. He also, in 1966, wrote a book called Politique de Dieu, politiques de l’homme, which in 1972 was translated into The Politics of God and the Politics of Man. It’s a text about the intersection between politics and theology, which is really what we’re talking about today. Sometimes it seems like certain believers have set aside political questions, and have committed to this unexamined, uncritical concept of quote-unquote helping people. Ellul starts from the opposite perspective: given what we know about society, given what we know about how fucked everything is, how do we even start to think about what help actually looks like? What does doing good look like in a morally bankrupt world?

So The Politics of God and the Politics of Man is a study of different vignettes in 2 Kings. In the first chapter, which we’re dealing with today, Ellul explores the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-19). There are a few aspects that he touches on, but we’re only really going to pull out a couple of details: Naaman is a commander in the Syrian army, and he’s got leprosy. He comes to see the prophet Elisha, and God miraculously heals him – and then there are two parts we’re specially interested in, in verses 17-19:

17 Then Naaman said, ‘If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18 But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.’ 19 He said to him, ‘Go in peace.’”

First, Naaman says that he wants to take earth from Israel – in Ellul’s telling, because he’s thinking of God as a regional or tribal god. “He is still convinced that God does not want to be worshipped except on the soil of this land which He willed to give His people.” Second, Naaman asks for forgiveness, as he will continue to worship in the house of his Syrian gods – in the house of Rimmon. “He intends to sin and asks for pardon in advance.” From these details, Ellul pulls out a couple of conclusions – which are really the same conclusion. Despite the flaws and shortcomings of Naaman’s decisions, Ellul says, he’s not condemned by God, or by Elisha. Naaman holds to “foolish notions,” but he “bends and subjugates them in the presence of the true God.” That itself doesn’t make the notions acceptable – Ellul says that Naaman’s attitude towards knowingly doing something wrong “could hardly be more suspect”: it “opens the door to all kinds of compromises.” And yet Naaman is not condemned.

While Ellul insists on the insufficiency of Naaman’s perspective, he at least credits Naaman with recognising that insufficiency too. “Naaman expressly recognises that Rimmon is an idol. He recognises that this state service is disobedience to God, that his political action is open to condemnation.” Ellul levels the same challenge back towards us: “are we so sure, when we serve idols, that we can see they are idols? Are we so sure we have the same clarity of vision in relation to the nation, the state, the independence of peoples, socialism, progress, the army, cultures, money, etc.” This is, I think, the resource that Ellul offers us – where we identify the problems of the systems that we’re trying to work with, Ellul is quick to agree. He doesn’t think that serving the nation is a good way of serving God: to him, it’s a form of idolatry. That’s the starting point for Ellul – and the place he offers us. Naaman does not take any path to reassure himself of the morality of his actions. He doesn’t try to argue “that one might make a synthesis between God and Rimmon, that in apparently serving the latter one is really serving the former – we serve science or the state, but in reality we are serving God.” The whole enterprise must be condemned, Ellul says, and us along with it. Naaman “sees no way out of the contradiction. He does not accept a compromise; he accuses himself … Naaman condemns himself.” Things are fucked, and we’re part of the problem. We’re not justified by our fumbling attempts to help or make things better: we remain, unassailably, part of the problem. And yet Naaman is not condemned. He tells Elisha that he will continue to sin, he retains his place in the social and religious structure of his people, praying to idols and potentially even leading wars against the Israelites. “He continues to serve his king in repentance and in the conviction that although it is not finally good and righteous, nevertheless he ought to do it.” And Elisha tells him to go in peace.

“Elisha, then, gives him the blessing of peace … [implying] affirmation of the unity of Naaman’s being. In spite of the tension, in spite of the rift between his faith and his conduct, in spite of the accusation his conscience brings against him, Naaman receives attestation that his being is not double, that he is one, that he exists in a unity that transcends the formal unity of the person. Naaman can now be what he is, not without questions and repentance, but whole and entire, a man who is no longer gnawed away by leprosy physically, a man who, resting in the peace of God, ceases to be gnawed away by the idolatry of the state which divides and corrupts the innermost depths of man.”

One comment

  1. great post1, I read his book “The Technological Society,” Ellul argues that technology has become autonomous, meaning that it has taken on a life of its own and is no longer under human control.

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