How to Get Your Hands Dirty

In his review of Anxious About Empire (Perspectives, May 2005), William Katerberg charitably represents the stance of Jean Bethke Elshtain who scolds those Christians not willing to get their hands “dirty” by compromising, for instance, a Christian commitment to peace and nonviolence. On her account, Christians who criticize the Iraq war, or war in general, are not willing to deal with the “reality” of being citizens engaged in “this world.” Anxious About Empire But I’ve heard the virtue of “dirty hands” extolled by “progressive” Christians on the Left as well, particularly against those with (apparently “clean-handed”) Anabaptist tendencies who center their account of politics in the worship and discipleship of the church.

This is a common refrain, especially from Reformed folk who have been hooked by the Niebuhrian thrill of “transforming culture.” But I continue to be nonplussed, and find it assumes an either/or dichotomy which is a tad simplistic.

Is there only one way to get your hands dirty? Supposedly so, to listen to the conventional Right and Left on the American Christian scene. On the one hand, our brothers and sisters on the Religious Right try to convince us that in the name of “liberty”–which is a “gift from God”–we need to be willing to get our hands dirty and undertake military action. On the other hand, “progressive,” Sojourners-type activists disparage the ecclesial- centric politics of Stanley Hauerwas and others as “purist” and “quietist”–as if committing to the church as polis is a way of staying “clean.” On the matter of “dirty hands,” then, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and National Association of Evangelicals President Ted Haggard are on the same continuum: both think that getting one’s hands dirty means getting into bed with the state. (I promise not to run with the metaphor.)

But is pulling a trigger the only way to get your hands dirty? Is playing by the rules of party (and partisan) politics, even of liberal democracy, the only way to really care about justice? Is that the only way to “do” something about oppression and injustice? Dirty Hands Aren’t pacifists who minister to the wounded and open up their sanctuaries to care for victims also getting their hands dirty? Could we not say that those who celebrate the Eucharist as politics also have blood on their hands?

One can see this powerfully pictured in Roland Joffé’s film The Mission (1986). According to “dirty hands” logic, the converted slave-trader and now missionary Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) must appear as the hero because, fighting for justice, he is willing to take up arms and “get his hands dirty.” Satisfying activist urgency, at least Rodrigo does something.

By contrast, the missionary who has founded a model Christian community, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), responds with what, from the “dirty hands” perspective, must be judged an escapist, quietist strategy: he embraces women and children, celebrates the Eucharist, and dies in a hail of gunfire while carrying the Host. On second thought, do not the blood and mud also dirty Father Gabriel’s hands? Isn’t the celebration of the Eucharist a doing which testifies to a kingdom that is coming? Is not this doing a witness that invites the world to imagine itself otherwise?

What I find telling is the concluding sequence of the film. When combing through the remains of the village, the surviving children do not pick up the weapons lying next to Rodrigo and other rebels. Instead, they retrieve the violin–the music brought to them by Father Gabriel. If the Gospel is a song of peace, it seems that Father Gabriel’s dirty hands not only did something, but did something more powerful than Rodrigo’s sword.

James K. A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.