Discipleship and political engagement: An interview with Bradley Burroughs

October 18th, 2016

Recently I was able to visit with Dr. Bradley Burroughs. His reflections spring out of deep concern for Christian discipleship as it relates to political engagement, including the ethics of drone warfare, and even to Star Wars. He holds a Masters degree from Duke Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Emory University. Dr. Burroughs currently teaches courses at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Clifton Stringer: What does it mean to you to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? How did you come to be a disciple of Jesus, and how did it result in your eventually earning a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics?

Dr. Brad Burroughs

Bradley Burroughs: In Discipleship, a book that I can never recommend heartily enough (sometimes translated as The Cost of Discipleship), Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that discipleship is a commitment solely to the person of Jesus Christ. That commitment means accepting Christ as our savior, the one who has redeemed us from the wages of sin. But it also means accepting Christ as our exemplar, our model, the one who shows us the way of new life that we are to live here and now in this world. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are to be transformed into Christ’s image “from one degree of glory into another.” So being a disciple is about being committed to Jesus Christ and to the transformation he calls forth.

Because that transformation is so radical and always relies upon grace beyond the human, it seems to me that discipleship is always a language of endeavor. So I’m not sure that I am definitely a disciple of Jesus, but I’m sure trying to be.

I began that process — or began it in a different way — in college. At the time, I had left the Christianity of my youth behind in large part because, based on the way in which the church I grew up in presented it, I concluded that the Christian faith had nothing substantive to say about how we are to live now — in a world scarred by poverty, racism and war. The focus was almost entirely upon being “saved” and then going to heaven when we die. The shape of that message gave a great deal of validity to the criticisms of Christianity that I read in Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx.

But in college I encountered a very different kind of Christianity that tapped into what I would find out was the church’s long history of social activism. I found that concern given voice in the works of Martin Luther King Jr., Gustavo Gutierrez, John Wesley, Walter Rauschenbusch and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others. The fundamental question for me became: What does it mean to live as a faithful disciple in this world serving God and others?

This radically altered the trajectory of my life. Rather than doing a Ph.D. in political science, as I had long planned, I took a position as a local pastor in rural western New York and began making plans to go to seminary. Over time, however, I came to see that if I were to answer this central question and the many others that it raised, I was going to need two things. First, I was going to need to learn more. And second, given the way my brain works, I was going to need to devote more undivided attention to the task than the press of weekly preaching and pastoral responsibilities generally allowed. It was those realizations, plus the fact that I find great joy in teaching, that led me to pursue a doctorate in Christian ethics.

CS: Your description of your focus on the shape of faithful discipleship in this world rings true precisely with the way friends described you in 2003 or 4, when we first became acquainted, as you were studying at Duke Divinity and I was in the process of applying.

To move now to your dissertation, I find the topic and scope of your dissertation unusually exciting. It certainly seems to resonate with the path of discipleship you've described above. You contextualize and engage the political theologies of both Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas in light of our necessary posture of awaiting the arrival of the City of God. Namely, we have to wait for Jesus to bring the Kingdom/City of God. Our efforts, whether we begin with state (like Niebuhr) or church (like Hauerwas) can't bring the kingdom fully into the present. I wonder how you arrived at this topic? What do you want to say to Christians through it? I think I'm particularly intrigued by your topic since, like you I bet, I drank deeply of the Hauerwasian waters at Duke Divinity School during years that were very theologically formative for me. Yet, through my subsequent experience of life in church, family, and state — through suffering and enjoying first the work of ministry and now doctoral study — I've shifted toward a more Augustinian posture and pastoral approach. I still love Hauerwas, but the frame within which I read him has changed a lot. So your dissertation gives eloquence and insight to a shift that has been important for me personally, but which I haven't been able to think through adequately. How would you summarize the heart of your argument, and how did you come to feel the importance of what you're showing us?

BB: Like many dissertations, mine began as a work of intellectual psychoanalysis. What brought me back to Christianity, as I said, was the work of those like Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr that placed an emphasis upon engaging mechanisms of government and changing public policy. But when I went to seminary I was indeed deeply shaped by Stanley Hauerwas, who gives those matters little positive attention and instead focuses upon the church’s call to form people in the virtues. And so I had within me these two ways of thinking about the Christian life that were on many points deeply at odds with one another. The initial task of my dissertation was to help me create a healthy and integrated theological identity.

But I trust that it has something to say to other Christians, as well. To begin with, I believe we must appreciate the precarious and paradoxical situation in which Christians exist, a situation in which the City of God or Kingdom of God is coming and indeed pressing upon us and yet in which the fullness of that reality remains unrealized. As a result, we need to be both oriented towards the City of God and yet also realistic about the ways in which evil corrupts all our achievements in history. How can we strike that balance and live faithfully in such a world? Because God has created and called us to the Kingdom of God, which is a political reality, I believe that the answer to such a question necessarily requires a Christian ethic of politics, which is what the project attempts to articulate.

Nevertheless, I argue that the nature of the Kingdom of God and the dynamics of evil reveal both strengths and shortcomings in the work of Niebuhr and Hauerwas. And I take it that the key insight of the dissertation — hopefully soon to be a book — is that we need aspects of both. Witnessing faithfully to the Kingdom of God in a world menaced by evil requires Christians to engage the mechanisms of government to try to create a more just world, but it also requires us — and indeed first requires us — to attend to the task of creating communities that can form people in the virtues of the Christian life. These are not alternatives; they are necessary complements.

CS: And you point to some exemplary figures who show this way forward you see for Christian political engagement. Can you say something about who they are and share how one of them exemplifies a way forward?

BB: First and foremost, I always point to Martin Luther King Jr., whom I believe articulated and, even more significantly, embodied the kind of ethic that I am talking about. We rightly remember King for the contributions that he made to “statecraft,” to creating more just government policies. But in his view, the Civil Rights Movement was also about what I call “soulcraft,” creating more virtuous people. As King put it, his goal was to create a beloved community, which requires “a qualitative change in our souls.” In an era when those who talk about government are so unlikely to talk about the soul and those who talk about the soul are so unlikely to talk about government, King reminded us that these two are deeply interdependent. Changing our souls without changing government policies is likely to leave our brothers and sisters to languish in oppression, but changing our government policies without changing our souls can never produce true reconciliation or lasting justice.

While King is often rightly regarded as a genius, we must remember that he was not a lone prodigy. Rather, he was joined by thousands of others who were willing to risk their lives in the quest for civil rights. Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, John Lewis, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Medgar Evers and far more than we could name here. Those enormous crowds that King drew in cities across the country were no accident. As Joanne Bland, the former director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, has put it, we must remember that every town that invited King to speak was already organized. And many of these persons are also significant exemplars in my work.

Another of the exemplary figures that I often point to is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the story often told about Bonhoeffer, he was arrested and put to death for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. And in many renditions it can sound as if Bonhoeffer himself was essentially to be detonating the bomb. Recent findings suggest that the first story is by no means certain, and the second is wildly inaccurate. As I see it, however, our fascination with Bonhoeffer’s potential complicity in any assassination attempt in fact often leads us to overlook what makes him so remarkable, which was his willingness to publicly defy Hitler and the Nazi government with the message of the Christian faith. Moreover, I argue that he also rightly perceives the importance of both statecraft and soulcraft. Admittedly, Bonhoeffer had notable shortcomings, including that his defense of the Jews was not always as forthright as it should have been. Still, I think we have much to learn from his thought and example.

The common thread that I see connecting all of these figures is the courage to stand up to injustice and oppression in an attempt to witness to and embody the gospel. Perhaps that is a reflection of my deeper fear that such courage is too often lacking in our own day.

CS: The imperative of courageous witness you're describing is one it seems to me you're trying to embody yourself in another area of your work. You've published an essay in The Christian Century as well as several blog posts for Symposium Ethics on Christian ethics and drone warfare. What convinced you of the importance of publishing on this topic? Obviously one of your areas of expertise is the ethics of war. Yet, why ought drone warfare raise particular concern for Christians?

BB: Part of what persuaded me that drone warfare is an important issue to think about is that it is one that is so easy to ignore. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of lives are snuffed out on the other side of the globe, but it barely registers a blip in the U.S. because the technology of drone warfare is so amazingly cost-effective. Not only are drones relatively inexpensive, but their use exacts no cost in American lives since it requires no “boots on the ground.” And so we can blithely go about our lives with little consideration of the deeds being carried out in our names.

Throughout Christian history, however, the church has insisted that, even in cases where killing would be justified, the killing of other human beings should be a matter of significant moral consideration. A major impetus behind the pieces I have written is to offer such consideration, to examine the dynamics of the drone program and to ask whether they measure up to the standards of justification to which Christians throughout the centuries have subscribed. Asking such questions is a way of countering the kind of consequentialism that continually threatens to corrupt our political and moral judgments by suggesting that anything that purportedly contributes to our safety must necessarily be good.

CS: You write: "Even in Operation Haymaker, which combined signals intelligence with the human intelligence network enabled by the robust presence of American “boots on the ground,” nearly 90% of those killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets." That is stunning. What should Christians make of this? And, where can pastors and Christians in the pews find reliable data on drone strikes?

BB: In order to know what to make of this, one should begin by noting that this does not mean that all those killed were necessarily civilians. Indeed, many were likely “enemy combatants.” At the same time, the numbers from the Pentagon study of Operation Haymaker point to fundamental difficulties with drone warfare. The first is a problem of discrimination, a problem of identifying legitimate targets and being sure to strike only such targets. The fact that 90% of those killed in drone strikes were not the intended target suggests that drone warfare struggles mightily in this respect. A second problem is with a lack of transparency. Even when drones do not strike their intended targets, those killed are nearly always labeled EKIA, enemy killed in action. This is despite the fact that we do not even know these persons’ identities.

At the very least, I think that these realities behoove Christians to call for greater transparency, for a more open and accurate accounting of who has been killed by drone strikes. Only with such information might we be able to judge whether such strikes satisfy the criteria of discrimination, which is a crucial standard for conducting a just war according to most Christian accounts. Unfortunately, there is little transparency in the drone program. Even when the Obama Administration released figures detailing drone strokes “outside areas of active hostilities,” those figures contained nothing to verify their claims or the identities of those killed.

Because of the government’s unwillingness to provide such details, it can be difficult to find reliable data on drone strikes. Nevertheless, there are some good sources for orienting one to the basic dynamics of the program. In October 2015, The Intercept published a collection of classified military studies involving drone strikes that are quite revealing. Also, Jonathan Landay published a number of articles detailing drones’ lack of precision. Finally, there are three major organizations—the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Long War Journal, and New America — that track drone strikes.

CS: On a lighter note, you've written on Star Wars and the mystery of evil. Please tell me: Why do the Storm Troopers do it? And: Should we let our four year old daughter watch the movies? She found some parts of Zootopia very scary, and also emerged asking unsettling questions about why the characters who deceive and do evil do what they do …

BB: Of course knowing what motivates any specific Storm Trooper is difficult to determine precisely because we never know everything about another. As Dickens puts it in A Tale of Two Cities, “every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Still, I think that when considered in the aggregate, one can surmise that a great many of the Storm Troopers likely do evil for the same reason many of us do — because they are simply thoughtless. Rather than explicitly willing to do what is evil, they simply pursue their own limited personal ambitions or just “follow orders” without ever thinking about the larger significance of their actions. Much the same could be said about many of the Storm Troopers of Nazi Germany. Of course, Americans have something of an obsession with Nazis and seem to love seeing them killed in especially grisly ways (the apogee of which is perhaps found in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds). I have my suspicions that this reflects a project of our own deep-seated worry that we too are likely to become complicit in evil because often we are more concerned with limited personal ambitions or simply with following the orders of our superiors than we are with the ultimate ends we are serving.

As for whether you should watch Star Wars with your four year old, now we are truly considering the mysteries of humanity! When I was a kid Darth Vader struck a visceral fear in me. (I used to have a Star Wars trashcan in my bedroom that had the rebels on one side and Darth Vader and his imperial companions on the other. I always made sure that Darth Vader faced away from my bed because otherwise I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep.) But Darth Vader didn’t scare my son at all. And yet, Kylo Ren, the antagonist in the new Star Wars movie and who seems like a harmless emo punk to me, really scares him. Very few things have reinforced how little I know about people as powerfully as parenthood. So, good luck! And let me know what you decide.

CS: What future projects or books do you have in store?

BB: My next book-length project is going to be a Christian examination of contemporary warfare. In addition to the use of drones, there are a number of other aspects of contemporary warfare that call out for deep ethical reflection, including the phenomenon known as “moral injury.” I aim to do my best in examining those realities and in the process to help Christians gain a firmer grasp on how we might think about war faithfully.

In the meantime, I’m working on a shorter piece comparing the ways in which Methodists and Lutherans think and talk about moral (trans)formation, a project that in many ways started when I was a Methodist working at a Lutheran seminary and trying to teach about virtue ethics.

There are about six other books that I have on a list of pieces that I want to write. But that requires time, which is likely to be in even shorter supply after my wife and I welcome a new child this November. So I can only trust in God that some day those pieces might be translated from aspiration to reality.


Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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