I read an interesting essay today about the origin of western liberal politics, the type that is now followed almost universally. It’s called “Politics and Reconciliation” by William E. Cavanaugh, in the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (S. Hauerwas and S. Wells, eds., Blackwell Publishing, 2004). It started with the schisms of the Church that led to so many religious wars post-Reformation. The concept of the state being for the common good was altered, as it was clear that people could not even agree on the end of life, or the definition of good. Arguing about these issues led to wars, with people killing one another based on their allegiances to one view of the “good” or another – and even civil wars, as people had different views within their own nations about exactly what constituted the “common good” that their government was designed to forward.
Thomas Hobbes proposed a different worldview. No longer could it be said that the state existed for the common good, because there was no consensus about what “good” was, and thus there was no “common”. The view of humanity as being whole and unified, community oriented, passed away. Instead, what was proposed was the “state of nature” – that is, a human being as an individual prior to any allegiance. The age of Individualism dawned. According to Hobbes, an individual in the “natural state” is free, and that freedom is equally shared by all people. Of course, our freedom will inevitably clash with the freedom of each other: “from this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only, endeavour to destroy, or subdue one another.” So the new view of humanity as individuals rather than members of opposing groups did little to stop conflict, as our freedom to persue our own ends naturally puts us in conflict with one another as we all strive toward our own “good”. According to Hobbes, though people are unable to agree on what “good” is, they can certainly agree on “evil” – the fear of death is the only thing human individuals truly have in common. Therefore we all should give our freedom to an absolute sovereign, who can set up laws to protect us from each other. The very surrenderring of our freedoms to the sovereign would protect our freedom from each other – giving us rights. We still do this, to a degree – sacrificing small freedoms for the sake of greater exercise of more important freedoms.
John Locke took it a step further. He said that we have rights not just based on our conflict with one another, but based on the natural state itself. He said that our natural state has no real relationships involved in it at all: it is primarily a relationship between the individual an nature. Our primary concern is not struggle with one another, but to find sustenance. To get and keep sustenance, we formed the concept of personal property, i.e. “this food is mine, and so is the spear I killed it with”. To Locke, we can claim these things as our property because God gave all of creation to all of humanity; thus, our rights are not generated by the state as a response to an innate violence in humanity, but are instead intrinsic to our individual nature. This means we are even more individualistic than Hobbes thought, because we do not depend on the state for our rights – they are instrinsic. Of course, even Locke had to admit that sooner or later someone was going to try to claim someone else’s property, and we’d all be fighting to protect our property – and thus we’re forced from the “state of nature” into politics anyways. Locke said “the commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of the body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” I’ve taken part in some gun control debates recently, and this point hit home repeatedly: people are so concerned about protecting their possessions that they would not hesitate to kill an intruder or thief, claiming a right to do so. Even Locke, who wanted to limit the power of the government, would have said that this is the role of government, not private citizens.
The trouble with these systems of thought is that they have no hope. They start from a view that there is violence and hostility innate in human nature, and that reconciliation is impossible. The best these views of human government can do is limit or subdue violence between humans, based on a threat. Hobbes thought the threat should be the sovereign, who had the power of the death penalty for those who transgressed the law. We’ve settled for less than the death penalty to limit crime, but fear remains as the primary motivation to do good. After all, the modern state cannot promote a view of the “common good” – we’re far too diverse in opinion for that! No, instead we must always focus on the negative, on the punishment, as motivation to do good (at least in the state’s perspective); and the results are also negative, only limiting violence, seeing reconciliation as impossible. In fact, the best the state can offer to reconcile and unite their people is to focus them on an outside threat, a common threat – usually another nation. The best way to stop violence among your people is to direct their violence outward – and really, when was the last time there wasn’t a war uniting us? We can’t get by without it. In wartime, the government can do whatever they want, because finally there is a “common good” – fighting our common enemy.
The Church begins from an opposite worldview: the view that violence and conflict are a result of the Fall – that is, that they’re not the norm, they are a departure from the way things are supposed to be. Also, we claim and proclaim that reconciliation is not only possible, but that it has been and is being accomplished by Jesus Christ! The Church proclaims this as we meet together, a congregation that does not exist to protect people but seeks to protect people, that does not exist for the common good but seeks the common good and proclaims and glorifies the One who makes all things good. A congregation that crosses all boundaries of alligiance for the sake of the ultimate allegiance. A congregation that proclaims the unity of the Church (and thus, of all humanity) every time we partake of Communion, symbolically becoming one with He who reconciles and restores unity to all things! Our concept of the role of government, then, is (or should be) much different – and our interaction with government does not fit the normal boundaries we’ve placed on it.
Traditionally, people have either said that the Church should stay out of politics altogether, or keep our belief out of our politics. Neither is a very plausible answer to the Christian citizen, as it compromises either our faith and understanding of reality, or our place in society, or quite likely both. Cavanaugh describes it in performance terms: either we play a very minor part on the main stage, or we relegate ourselves to the small side-stage that has little to no audience. Why? Instead, why not recognize that we are free to live in light of our politic, in light of the gospel and the demands that it places on us, both within and outside the boundaries of the state – i.e. we’re not dependent on laws that demand us to do good; we can do good on our own, for our own reasons! It doesn’t matter if the state demands that we do right, because we’re going to do it anyways. Cavanaugh gives examples of Christians doing right in spite of the state, taking supplies, medicine and toys to Iraq as private citizens, an act that is against the law but is most certainly the right thing to do. The other example he gave was of his church: upon discussing the oppressive and exploitative conditions of the third world agricultural centre, of which we all (mostly) blindly support, one person suggested writing to Congress about it. Eventually they decided instead to buy their produce from a local agricultural co-op, through which they knew the conditions of the farms and farmers, and even got to know their farmers a little bit. While the state was a valid option to help them do the right thing, they are still able to do the right thing on their own, independent of the state.
Another example I’d like to point out is the organization Invisible Children. I saw their presentation the other night, and it impacted me. Their goal is to raise 250,000 signatures by the end of next month to petition Obama on the issue of child soldiers in Africa, specifically the child soldiers of Joseph Kony, a rebel in northern Uganda. It began as three Americans travelling to southern Sudan, seeing children hiding at night so that they wouldn’t be kidnapped, and raising money to help those in the region. They did this independent of the government, but they also enlisted the aid and support of the government. Now they realize that their efforts to bring peace to this area cannot continue as long as Joseph Kony remains a fugitive from justice, and so they petition their government to do the right thing. This is a model of Christian politics (though I’m unsure if the three men who started Invisible Children are Christian) – to do the right thing, with or without the state, in concert with or independent of the state.