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Christian Love Demands Something More

My colleague, Dr. Harold Heie, has opened our session of this ten month conversation with a profound meditation on the role the virtue of love plays in shaping human discourse in general, and political discourse in particular. Dr. Heie affirms a norm of respectful, active listening in all places where human beings meet one another, and argues that political conversations, the conversations human beings have about how to order their common life, are no exception. In spite of our differences (which I’ll get to shortly) I find this basic definition of political discourse to be helpful, and to helpfully provincialize the picture of public life that I offered in my own opening reflection. Where I attempted to offer a granular historical account of the public sphere in America and the way that oppressed communities have negotiated, expanded, and created alternatives to it - and defended their position in it and against it from efforts at enclosure and repression by both state and nonstate actors - Dr. Heie’s piece offers a sweeping horizon across time and space, holding up universal moral norms above the conditions under which we have to live them in our present historical and geographic context. In this and many other ways, some of which I will list in the short space I have here, I see our reflections as deeply complimentary. What is most helpful is that Dr. Heie avoids the common trope of equating politics with statecraft, and this means that political discourse is not just something that politicians do - although politicians should be held to the basic norms of political discourse.


In the spirit of “respectful conversation,” let me begin by offering three of the things that I agree with about Dr. Heie’s piece.

First, like me, he stresses the importance of institutions. He writes:

There is room for disagreement as to the causes of political enmity. A primary reason, in my estimation, is that for far too many politicians and their supporters doing politics is about winning rather than about governing well. And this focus on winning has led to pernicious political structures and practices that militate against genuine political discourse. These include closed primaries that attract more ideologically extreme voters who have little interest in dialogue, gerrymandering of voting districts that protect politicians from having to engage opposing views, and the inordinate role of financial support from donors at the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Dr. Heie goes on to say that, as someone not trained in political science, he doesn’t feel confident commenting on the specific institutional formations that to a breakdown of political discourse. This is why he chooses to focus on individual virtues of humility, courage, and love, instead, which, he says, are essential to maintaining a functioning democracy. This is all to the good. I thoroughly agree that even the best set of political institutions will not last long without the virtuous pursuit of common goods by those who live in them. Similarly, as Dr. Heie implies, but does not state outright, in the passage from his essay that I have just quoted, I also hold that structures are created and recreated by concrete, flesh-and-blood human beings (this was, in fact, a major theme of my own reflection, since I noted the creative ways that marginalized people have chosen to interact with a public sphere that was never intended to include them) and, therefore, their virtues and vices can be and are reflected in the structures and institutions that they create. So, we need to attend to creating just institutions and we also need to attend to forming loving people. At base level, my essay focused on the former and Dr. Heie’s focused on the latter, and, in this way, I find them deeply complimentary.

Second, I could not agree more on the importance of love for the practice of politics. The New Testament is clear that this is the sum of all the virtues. As 1 Corinthians 13:13 states, “And now abideth faith, hope, and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” I do not quote the King James Version only because it is still the most eloquent rendering of the text in English (though I believe that it is). I also want to highlight that Christians affirm a specific sort of love - caritas, charity, the kind of self-giving love that moved the Son of God to take the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7) and which powers the two most important dimensions of Christian practice - care for the poor and care for one’s enemies. In the Incarnation, God does both. God comes to Israel, a nation of escaped slaves living under Roman military occupation, and comes to seek and save the last, the least, and the lost (Luke 19:10). God also comes to redeem sinners, and to die for them while they are still enemies (Romans 5:10). God’s action to bring humanity to Godself establishes all people, and all of creation, in a loving communion with the persons of the Trinity, bound together by that inexhaustible love that the Triune God has enjoyed from all eternity, in which there is enough for everyone and difference is the occasion for joy rather than enmity. In assuming human flesh to Himself, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, allows us, as human beings, to do His works, too, and thereby calls us to solidarity with poor and oppressed people everywhere (work that solidarity that starts, but does not end, among the poor and the oppressed themselves) and to the work of active peacemaking for the sake of a common life with and for meaningfully diverse others. In this way, God makes us ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20), and heralds of God’s commonwealth of peace and freedom, in which there is no poverty, no degradation, no war. Politics, then, as the sphere in which basic goods are negotiated and in which friends and enemies are distinguished, is the primarily site in which the virtue of Christian love is to be exercised. Politics is the modality in which charity is lived. This is, in fact, one major reason that it is crucial to distinguish politics from statecraft. Because politics is the essential terrain in which human beings live out the call and vocation they have received in the coming among them of the Incarnate Word, it must be something that anyone and everyone can do. Politics must be an activity shared by all, because the life of the gospel is meant for all. This is the basis for the close connection between Christian theology and democratic politics.

Third, I am in deep accord with Dr. Heie on the importance of difference-in-relation for political life. For Dr. Heie, the main way in which love is lived in politics is by deeply and actively listening to people who are different from oneself. While I will challenge that assessment in the coming paragraphs, I want to lift up what I see as the ethical principle behind the assertion. This is that the goal of political life is not to make everyone else look, think, and act like oneself, but to negotiate the terms of a common life with people who are meaningfully different. Politics happens because people disagree on how to go about achieving basic goods. How are we going to raise our kids? How are we going to take care of our elders? How should we work to avert the coming of a climate catastrophe that is already here for the poorest and the most vulnerable? What should education look like? What should our food system look like? The goal of politics is not to get everyone to give the same, pre-prescribed answers to these questions but to enable people who have radically different answers to those questions to live together in such a way that every person is able to participate in that common life and, in that context, to flourish. I have already stated in my own essay that this is precisely what the bourgeois public sphere fails to do, and that it is what the rebellious counterpublics and the repurposing of the public sphere by exploited and oppressed people and communities does, in my view, significantly better. The goal of radical politics, at its best, is not to eliminate the need for the ongoing negotiation of a common life, but to allow that negotiation to occur on dramatically better terms for the poor and and working classes than it does now.


So much for the places that I agree with Dr. Heie. I would now like to move towards three main areas of disagreement, which I view as deeply related.

First, I see the concept of love that Dr. Heie has offered in his essay to be overly general. I understand that he is trying to offer a version of Christian love that is as broad and ecumenical as possible. But I believe that there is a profound danger in positing and underdefined notion of love, particularly as an individual virtue. It can easily devolve into sentimentalism, respectability, or both. Whether the goal is to have a tender heart and an open disposition or not to speak in such a way that might offend or cut off dialogue, the danger is that this Christian understanding of political discourse might have more to say about how Christians speak in the public sphere than to whom, for whom, and to what end. Dr. Heie’s opening essay is case in point. While he does give some examples of important political work in his own life, like supporting pro-immigrant legislation, the way that active listening and respectful conversation become the principal outworking of Christian love in political discourse leave no clear guidance as to how Christians are actually to come to good judgments about the great social issues of their day. You can be open and respectful when advocating for cuts to social benefits or against police accountability just as much as when struggling for labor rights and immigration reform.

It is absolutely crucial to stress that Christian love is unequivocally partisan. With the God who took the form of a slave, it stands on the side of the exploited and the oppressed and against their exploiters and oppressors. To miss this is, in fact, to miss the whole reason that Christians are commanded to love their enemies in the first place. Christians are commanded to love enemies because their partisanship for the poor and working classes will make them many enemies among the rich and the powerful. The enemies that Jesus Christ commands His disciples to love include the master who strikes his slave on the right cheek (that is, if he is right handed, using the back of his hand, a sign of disrespect and degradation shown towards those of lower social status), the soldier of the occupying, colonial power who conscripts civilians to carry his pack, and the creditor whose debtors are so impoverished that he literally takes the clothes off their backs. Moreover, the love that Christians show their enemies - turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving your shirt as well as your cloak - are creative acts of resistance, what James Scott calls “weapons of the weak,” which seek to actively transform the situation of injustice itself.

This brings me to the second point of tension between myself and Dr. Heie. While Dr. Heie speaks of political opponents coming together to discover a common good, I prefer, together with Luke Bretherton, to speak of diverse communities coming together to make a common life. The difference is crucial. As I have just demonstrated, the picture of enemy love offered in classic Christian texts like the sermon on the mount shows the life of the gospel being lived out in a world riven by basic and fundamental differences between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. The world hasn’t always been this way - it is a feature of the fall - and it won’t always be this way, either. But Christian love does not turn away from the fallen and finite world in which disciples find themselves. It does not retreat into a sectarian community to wait for the eschaton or try to set up utopian communities in which the eschaton can come early. Rather, the victory of Jesus Christ over the powers of death that rule the present age is precisely what makes possible His followers’ mission to the present age, announcing its immanent end and the advent of the age to come. So Christian partisanship for the poor and working classes is not lived out in isolation from the very real conflicts of interest that they experience on a daily basis with the wealthy and the powerful. That is, once again, why Christians have occasion to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.

But that means that, in the political theater that Christians enter, and in which they seek to proclaim God’s glory and announce the coming of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, into the world at the end of the age, there may not actually be a single common good that everyone shares. Employers and workers, for example, may well actually have nothing in common - thanks to the inequalities created by capitalistic modes of production. But even if workers and bosses have nothing in common, they still have to live together, if massive bloodshed is to be avoided. The question is, on what terms will they live together? Who will profit the most from the productive activity of the workplace? Who will control what is made and how it is used? Such basic divisions are not limited to the issue of class. Analogous ones could be identified if we were to examine issues of gender, race, nationality, and ability.

This brings me to my third major difference with Dr. Heie. If the goal of politics is to identify and seek a common good, something that everyone shares regardless of their social location, then politics will be, primarily, about persuasion. If you and I share a single, identifiable common good, then all our differences of opinion can be explained as differences in how to seek that good. My task, then, will be nothing more and nothing less than to try to convince you that my way of seeking our shared good is more effective, and vice versa. In that context, the norms of respectful conversation that Dr. Heie has laid out make perfect sense as universal rules for how Christians should conduct themselves in politics. If the goal is to persuade my adversary, then I should try to do so with love, and that means doing so respectfully and with an open mind, from a posture of active listening. But if we don’t share a common good but nevertheless have to figure out how to live together, how to make a common life, then persuasion, while it will, surely, still be part of the political equation, will not be the sum total of political discourse. To return to the example of class, if workers and employers have basically opposing interests, if, as the preamble to the constitution of my union says, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” then, while the process of making a common life may involve persuasion, it will, surely, involve force as well. Workers will not just attempt to persuade their bosses to pay them a living wage with moral arguments; they will also, often, have recourse to strikes, slowdowns, boycotts, occupations, blockades, sabotage, and all other manner of mass and covert action to force their bosses to comply with their demands. In such a world, in which the common life that people create together is made not only through persuasion, but through conflict as well, Christian love demands that we be militantly partisan for the working class, for colonized people, for racial, religious, and sexual minorities - in short, for the last, the least, and the lost with whom Jesus Christ revealed God’s unwavering solidarity in becoming incarnate in the form of a slave. Christian love in politics will be lived not only at the podium, but on the picket line, not only in televised debates, but through the tear gas and the gall of militant street actions.

In closing, I will return, once again, to the issue of fascism and antifascism in American politics. I absolutely agree with Dr. Heie that it is necessary to engage potential recruits for white supremacist groups and to sway them away from far right politics. Some of the most important work antifascist work leading up to Charlottesville was done by Redneck Revolt, who successfully persuaded the three percenters not to march with the Nazis. As a white working class oriented group trying to detach gun culture from racism, this is one of their major roles. But, when all is said and done, when there are actual Nazis marching in the streets, prepared to attack you and your community, Christian love demands something more. When all attempts at persuasion and respectful dialogue have been exhausted, you put on a gas mask, take up a flag, a shield, or a hard banner, and prepare to stand against them. When people of color, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities are under attack, partisan Christian love demands nothing less than full scale participation in community self-defense efforts. Respectful dialogue is important, but it is not enough to satisfy the demands of a liberative Christian love ethic in the political sphere.

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