A Platonic Thought: The Number of Abortions Is not the Main Concern

In this strange season when the world waits for the Republican primary field to solidify, one can say that certain things are hard to predict and others not hard at all.  Whether Romney or Daniels or Palin or Gingrich will ultimately oppose Obama in 2012 I couldn’t say; likewise, whether there will be a strong right-wing third-party candidate or another significant appearance by Ralph Nader or, as in 2008, whether both will be there but most people will ignore them, I wouldn’t even guess.  But I can almost guarantee that evangelicals will be talking about abortion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I really don’t think that abortion is a genuine concern when one decides between a Democrat and a Republican; during the thirty or so years when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, the White House, the Supreme Court, or some combination of the above, they have passed and defended many pieces of public policy, some of them far more revolutionary than what a party that calls itself “conservative” should pass, defend, or otherwise consider.  But at a federal level, in spite of thirty years of partial and complete control over the levers of state, there  has been little if any movement on abortion policy.  As long as the DNC and the GOP are running the show, abortion is here to stay, and only a genuine abolitionist movement is going to stop it.  That much I wrote before, and I stand by it.

Now, though, the so-called Evangelical Left (I prefer to call them the Democratic Party at Prayer, since their political aims seem far more in tune with civil libertarianism than with anything resembling a socialist platform) seems to tired of apologizing for voting Democrat.  Apparently inspired by a certain accountant-flavored sense of utilitarianism, online chatter of late (often on Facebook, which is hard to cite or link to) seems to be turning more often than before to claims that this or that bit of political reality (ranging from Democrats’ being in office to Planned Parenthood’s presence in a community) has a tendency to “reduce the number of abortions.”

On its face, it’s hard to argue against–one keeps the benefits of rights-language for the women who choose to abort, but the actual phenomenon, which in this formulation is framed as unfortunate at best and a necessary evil at worst, happens less frequently.  It would seem that nobody should leave that exchange unhappy.  My fear, though, is that framing the discussion in these terms misses the point of the law.

I should pause here and note that I write about legal and constitutional matters as a non-specialist, someone whose training in theology and philosophy and literature has, I hope, rendered me literate and perhaps even thoughtful but which has not made a lawyer of me.  I do hope that those actually trained in law will help me think through this question.

Laws in Callipolis

When I teach the Republic to college freshmen (and I’ve done so now for four years), one of the most interesting discussions we have has to do with the purpose of laws.  Like Plato’s discussion of the division of labor within the city and the origins of armed conflict, Plato begins not with a Hobbesian war of all against all but with the idea that people are different and that some people’s strengths, in a good city, help other people who lack those strengths.  For Plato, the contingent, material, historical city is never merely an organic outgrowth of chance processes or “natural” desires but exists at some distance from dikaiosyne, which translators render alternately justice or righteousness or morality.  As Socrates in Republic lays out, dikaiosyne happens when everyone in a city is bringing one’s strengths to bear, whether those strengths are money-making or fighting in wars or governing, for the sake of the city.  Plato is not naive about human nature, but at the same time he does hold the strong conviction that, in a properly ordered city, every human being will have something to do that benefits the other citizens.  The best sorts of cities, according to Plato, are those ruled by the agathoi, those suited to govern other people because of their philosophic intellects and their desire for truth and goodness.  In the absence of such leadership, a city by necessity comes to be ruled either by those dedicated to the military life; by the wealthy; by the mob; or ultimately by the tyrant, the picture of bad government and the unhealthy soul.

The question arises, though, what a city is to do with those people who are not naturally gifted as philosophers, a segment of the population that will likely constitute the numerical majority of a city’s population.  After all, no matter how many times some people receive instruction in geometry, they’re still going to think that the bottom of a beer can is just as good a circle as any other, and all of this talk about form and transcendence is going to sound like so much hogwash.  In response to that, Plato turns to the law.

Laws, in Plato’s imagination (and in Socrates’s direct teaching later in the dialogue) have a moral function which stands prior to their role as protectors of people.  Such a conception makes sense especially in the ancient world but to some extent in our own: a law against certain types of killing (called murder in English-language law) is not going to prevent unlawful killing–when someone has motive and a weapon, even the most intrusive surveillance state and the most clearly stated laws will not be able to prevent every murder.  But making distinctions in the law between killing the enemies of the polis on the battlefield because a stratego has ordered a charge (a kind of killing that every nation sanctions) and killing a fellow-citizen in the street because he has insulted one’s nose (a kind of killing that no nation ever sanctions) puts the raw act of ending another being’s existence under closer scrutiny, and if a person does not have the time, resources of mind, education, and other blessings that result in a naturally reflective mind, the codified content of other people’s deliberations serve to structure the messy range of possible human action.  In other words, the law functions, at a remove, as the philosophical mind for those whose philosophical minds are not yet developed.

Such are things in Republic, and that articulation of law’s function seems to hold, for better or worse, when one considers modern constitutions as well as ancient ones.  As a perfectly obvious example, property laws lead to people’s thinking that certain physical objects in the world (this car, this house, this dollar bill) are proper to one person and thus not proper to other people, and thus, even if a person has not given the time over to thinking about the propriety of physical objects to this or that human being, property laws in effect shape the soul so that we actually see the world as divided up between my property, my neighbor’s property, the state’s property, and so on.  Such a division is not by any means the only way one could imagine the world, but it’s so pervasive in human law (I’m inclined not to call it instinctive, though I’ve read people who do) that trying to imagine the world otherwise is a stretch.  When I look out my own office window, although there’s no line painted in the grass, I can “see” where the college’s property stops and the Pinnacle Bank’s begins.  I don’t have to do the reflective work that set up this system of what’s proper to college and what to bank branch; the law has already done the work before I arrived on the scene.

Many of my students are surprised, after Socrates attempts to legislate everything from the city’s family structures to the reading material that will be available to guardians in training, that when it comes to markets and religion, the Republic leaves the making of sacrifices to the priests and the making of money to the merchants.  Plato’s argument for leaving those spheres to the specialists is that, since they’ve been educated by the laws of the city regarding the good human life, there’s no good reason to extend those laws into every sphere of human activity–those shaped by the laws in important areas will, by extension, be able to self-regulate in regards to less-important areas.  What’s clear throughout the Republic, though, is that not everything is subject to consumers’ choice: some things are just too important.

Outlawing it Is not the Same as Ending it

Certainly, all else being equal, I would not argue with historical contingencies that lead to a bad thing’s happening less frequently than otherwise it would happen.  But the presence and absence of laws will not let things stand as equal.  For all of Plato’s flaws and blind spots, his central insight on this point is solid: the laws that govern people do in fact shape their souls.  Although I can imagine a situation in which there is no invisible “property line,” I can only do so with concerted effort, and when I let my guard down, the invisible line is right back where it was before.

I know that some liberal supporters of abortion have criticized comparisons of abortion with race-slavery on the grounds that a white person like me couldn’t possibly know anything about slavery, so although I think that argument lacks some rigor, I’ll honor his request that I “shut the f…” well, I’ll not write about slaves’ experiences.  Instead, I’ll write about the experience of a Midwestern white person.  (I hope I can be trusted to articulate that experience.)  I came to my teenage years somewhat of a historical optimist, a progressive in the truest sense.  I figured that those stories we read about white Southern slave-owners and white Midwestern racists were the properties of “the past” and that, since my own grandparents were the youngest people in my own family to call people “colored,” the world (or at least America) must be on its way to a society that didn’t care one way or another whether one’s ancestors hailed from Kenya or from the Caucuses–all that would matter in this soon-coming world would be humanity considered generally.

Then I got to Algebra II.

In general I’m a big advocate of mathematical education, but in my algebra class, as a high school sophomore, I sat next to Jim, who was a Klan member.  By this I do not mean that his grandparents or even his parents were hooded ones; I mean Jim went to rallies and protested the encroachment of black people into various parts of central Indiana, and he had a particular fluency with racial slurs.  He never stated directly that he had been part of intimidation-by-vandalism, but he never gave any indication that he never would burn a cross on someone’s yard.  In that math class I lost my faith: here was someone born not a year and a half before me who was entirely dedicated to racism as an ideology.  And please spare me the Indiana jokes: honest people know that such ideologies are not going anywhere any time soon, no matter where one lives.  If the decline of racism depended on people’s souls becoming gradually more enlightened, that wasn’t coming any time soon, at least not in the mid-nineties.  The worst thing, for me, was that I suddenly realized that going to school in the same system where I went to school wasn’t going to change minds: Jim’s education, I discovered, had come from somewhere other than official channels, and when I tried to imagine a system airtight enough to prevent that in future generations, already at that age I realized I was imagining totalitarianism.

On the other hand, I knew that, as soon as the Klan’s activity devolved into arson or other legally-defined kinds of intimidation, they became illegal, and that was something.  Making such acts of intimidation illegal obviously hadn’t stopped Jim from associating with the organization, but it had put him in a particular relationship to his slightly younger, disillusioned classmate: although he was perfectly capable of going out and burning crosses (we do not yet live in a totalitarian state), when he did so the Republic did not grant those actions legitimacy.  For all of his talk of protecting “law-abiding citizens” from differently-colored people, I knew that in fact the folks Jim thought inferior were precisely “law-abiding citizens” in ways that he and his crew would not be the moment they vandalized someone’s property.  I still did not like the human species very much, but at least I could say that we were capable of naming, through our laws, a certain class of actions that would not be part of the self-claimed American identity.

Imposing an Imagination of Choice

I could easily imagine an alternative history, one in which racial intimidation were not outlawed for fear of “limiting free speech” but in which various government initiatives attempted to reduce the number of cross-burnings through education or subsidies for suburban relocation.  Some might say (and perhaps they would be right) that just such a market-based constellation of solutions would do more than laws against racial intimidation never actually to reduce the number of incidents.  But for those who imagined themselves as American citizens and as Hoosiers, to burn a cross would still remain within the range of acceptable options, and to refrain from burning crosses would remain just one more “personal choice” among others.  One who burned crosses might be odious to me, but my disapproval would be merely a species of my own “personal choice” and incidental to being American rather than being part of the core of that identity. In other words, one could respond to my objections that, if I didn’t support burning crosses, I shouldn’t burn one.

I hope that, at this point, readers are already making arguments against this parallel.  My point here is not to suggest an absolute moral identity between burning a cross and aborting the unborn.  I’m not suggesting that every teenage girl who has an abortion is just like Jim.  And I’m certainly not denying that cross-burning as a form of intimidation should be illegal.  I am noting that the American court system has handed down a certain array of decisions that in historical fact give the two actions very different “feels” when we discuss them, that nobody would even have an impulse to object to the parallels unless that legal tradition were in place.  Even a white Midwesterner like myself, one who is encouraged to “shut the f…” when tempted to make historical parallels, knows that when a given act stands within the range of legally-approved “choices,” even if it does not happen often, then when someone performs said act, that person is just exercising “personal” peculiarity, whereas when someone performs an act outside of those bounds, I for one cannot deem such things merely “personal opinion” but must choose between regarding the perpetrators as criminals, as protesters in the mold of civil resistance, or as otherwise disruptive.

Such disruptions are often good things–I always say that anti-war protesters asked to remain within “free speech zones” should transgress those “zones” and make the system declare political speech illegal.  But I believe that not because political speech is one more legitimate “choice” that stands among others as parts of a well-oiled political machine but because such speech, when it ventures outside of the space set aside for public spectacles and enters into the places where people actually live, brings to public attention that a given moment has become something other than a politician’s opportunity to be a “decider” without regard for larger consequences.  My fear is that, as abortion has taken its place as one “political issue” among others, one of those things that comes up every four years and then gets forgotten, the imagination of Western nations (America has actually maintained the tension better than many European nations) has already stopped seeing the fates of the unborn as a public concern the way that the fates of five-year-olds or twenty-five-year-olds (or sometimes even dogs or horses) are.  Since the private individual gets to “choose” whether a given unborn entity is a human being or not, the same way that a private individual gets to choose whether to spend a five-dollar bill on fast food or on pens and pencils, the structure of our laws has had enough time to ingrain in the imaginations of all but the most philosophical that one stage of human life does not have any nature of its own but only that imposed upon it by the will of the more-powerful.

Resisting the Regime

To state this one more time, this is not a plea for more votes for the GOP.  To vote for a national Republican in hopes that abortion law will change is something akin to sending an exiled Nigerian aristocrat one’s bank information via email in hopes that one can make money on it.  I do not think that voting GOP will stop abortion any more than voting DNC will usher in an age of serious Just War discipline in foreign policy.  Both parties talk big about public morality every four years and then reign as the bought-and-paid-for employees of the arms manufacturers and other big corporations in between, and as long as the system persists in its current form, more and more of life will likely come to be governed by the categories of Consumerist choice.  As someone interested in the imagination of the Church, though, I would encourage Christian teachers to think long and hard about dismissing abortion as one “political issue” among many, something that stands as valid public law simply because it’s been decided by the courts and supported (actively or passively) by both big parties.

I won’t say that showing up in the voting booth is the same as actively supporting the system, but to pretend that there is not a profound contradiction at the heart of Western culture, spawned in the impulse of Capitalism to make all reality either productive or elective, is to ignore the truth of the matter, and to suspend suspicion because one side of the coin has a bit less dirt on it strikes me as dishonest.  The hypocritical combination of vocal opposition and passive negligence in one faction is neither better nor worse than the open preference to extend the murderous logic of Capitalism into choices of human life for the other faction.   Because “working within the system” seems to me more than mere complicity, I’m inclined to counsel the Church to imagine other ways of being political, of proclaiming the Kingdom and living as Church and thus setting up a critical distance that will allow for genuinely prophetic speech.

To speak prophetically against the particular practice of abortion rather than merely parroting the panders who run one side of the electoral machine in America, one must see clearly the context that makes it intelligible, an individualism that forces “choice” on anyone whose independent wealth and social capital of other sorts can’t support certain forms of family life and a residual refusal to offer hospitality to those wronged (and anyone abandoned by one’s mate as a child waits to be born has been wronged) in matters of sex and human connection.  And to speak prophetically against misogyny, to take seriously the real humanity of the mothers involved, one must realize that a “choice” to kill the unborn offered in a moment of desperation diminishes rather than enhances the genuine freedom of women.

Such a statement, if someone has read this far, might seem the most offensive thing I’ve just written, but to return to Jim, he knew that, even if he became extremely angry or became entirely convinced that a neighborhood was going to suffer from desegregation, he did not have the legal choice to burn a cross in somebody’s yard.  In order to perform the acts of vandalism that historically have happened when the Klan is in town, he had to alienate himself from the law, to make a disruptive public statement about biological origins and skin color that, in the system of laws that officially governed our political realm, would place his actions outside of the bounds of the legitimate actions of a citizen.  If Jim wanted to claim a morality higher than civic authority, he had to perform that defense rhetorically, appealing to a vision of the future in which white people chose without consequence which of their neighbors had the right to a peaceable civic existence.  And if he opted for the rhetoric of the burning cross as a device to make his case, he spoke from outside the bounds of the city, as an outlaw.  If, on the other hand, he wanted to maintain an existence as an American, as a “law-abiding citizen,” he was forced away from such acts.  I’ll admit that in the years after I left Indiana, I made no attempts at all to contact Jim, but I can say factually that, if he continued to harbor those sorts of thoughts, the laws of the land have kept any acts of legally-defined intimidation out of the realm of legal “choice” and thus inaccessible to someone who wanted to be a legitimate citizen. To deny a certain range of “choice” is the way that the law asserts that a range of options does exist but does not stand all-inclusive. To outlaw is not to prevent an act but to define it as outside of what this or that community can accept as good or even indifferent action.

I’ve noted before, in text and on the podcast, that I have a certain penchant for Anabaptist political theology, and I’ll admit outright that the American political system’s insidious perpetuation of abortion, the way that one party holds it up to outrage the population and gain votes and then ignores it and the way that the other party pretends that it’s merely an extension of consumerist ethics, has driven me this direction.  My own inclination is to show up every couple years to cast a vote (and so perform a largely meaningless gesture rather than to offend my friends who work the polling stations) but otherwise to do politics not as partisans of one or the other party or even as people whose primary polity is America.  The Church, I’ve found, is a polity with the resources to dedicate itself more to hospitality than to consumerism, a possibility I see less and less as a possible horizon for America considered as a polity.

Contrary to the accusations that folks of my persuasion are more concerned with “personal purity” more than “real world” concerns, I’ll suggest that mine is the political theology that takes the “real world” most seriously, that throwing one’s time and energy behind one of the factions that perpetuates this central and fatal contradiction is not “realism” but blindness.  Speaking truth to power means speaking truth to all of ’em, and while such a position leaves open a wide range of means by which one can work towards the shalom of the city, it doesn’t necessarily mean that signing up as a dedicated cheerleader for one side of the coin is going to be a morally uncomplicated life.  And in the end, no matter how statistics fluctuate, to leave the definition of human life to consumer choice is to set up a system that outright denies the Christian virtue of hospitality.

Just in case anybody missed it, I’ll admit once more (so that the first comment that notes that I’m not a lawyer will be doubly redundant) that my views of the law here are a citizen’s generally and not a lawyer’s.  I also don’t speak for the other two Christian Humanist bloggers, who are free, as are the rest of our readers, to point out my blind spots.  I’m looking for feedback here, not necessarily trying to close this debate once and for all.

8 thoughts on “A Platonic Thought: The Number of Abortions Is not the Main Concern

  1. I hope that I get the overall point of your essay, however, I have a question concerning this part of your essay:

    My own inclination is to show up every couple years to cast a vote (and so perform a largely meaningless gesture rather than to offend my friends who work the polling stations) but otherwise to do politics not as partisans of one or the other party or even as people whose primary polity is America. The Church, I’ve found, is a polity with the resources to dedicate itself more to hospitality than to consumerism, a possibility I see less and less as a possible horizon for America considered as a polity.

    Do you see this as a retreat from politics, as a move to doing politics in a different venue, as a redefinition of politics, or something else?

    I ask because I have to say I get nervous when Christians give hints that they are removing themselves from politics. Anabaptist style isolationism generally doesn’t produce good results (at least for the Anabaptists themselves), sometimes it results in polities that are even more unjust than the surrounding polities they escaped from. Not quite so radical was the retreat of the fundamentalists in the 20th century to their own enclaves with little engagement with outside politics. That also was a disaster, a disaster that Christians in America are still trying to recover from. While you do not declare that you are moving away from conventional politics in no uncertain terms, I do see hints of that, which makes me nervous.

    One book that has really helped me think through why political discourse is so empty in America is the book “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse” by Steven D. Smith (who is a lawyer). It addresses the problems and sources of “consumer choice” style politics and policies, which seems to be one of your major complaints. While not exactly an optimistic book, it does show one silver lining to the current situation in U.S. politics. The forces which conspire to make politics unappealing for a Christian also does the same for secularists, though the complaints and perceived causes will be different for the secularist than it is for the Christian.

    It is time to speak up prophetically, but I hope you don’t see the Church as the only venue for this action. It is time to stop reducing morality to consumer choice and statistics. But, I think this must be done both in the Church and in society as a whole. Unless I am misunderstanding you.

  2. You’re asking a very good question, David, and the reason my essay broke down there at the end is that I’m still trying to answer it myself. As David alluded to in our asceticism episode, I think that the monastic/anabaptist way of communitarianism is not “apolitical” so much as counter-political.

    In other words, I think that the Christian tendency, at least in my lifetime, to pick the large political faction that seems most “Christian” and to put our souls behind it means a couple things that we don’t think long enough about. For one, it assumes that we can, in good faith, simply hold our noses at the things that run counter to the Gospel (or, even worse, baptize them and call good that which is evil). For another, it means that whatever “the other party does” becomes at best hypocritical by definition and at worst a case in which we call a good thing an evil.

    The call I’m trying to articulate (and this is why I framed it as an exploration rather than a manifesto) is to stay “in the sights” of those who wield power (Democrats and Republicans both) by means of troublesome speech but that, when Christians have identified too closely with one faction or the other, the prophetic speech entirely cuts off when “our guys” are in the driver’s seat.

    And when I advocate speaking AS Church, I certainly don’t mean speaking only TO people sitting in a basilica. What I do mean is imagining ourselves, counter-politically, as our own polis (we are, after all, ekklesia) and making known that we speak as resident aliens in a land not our own, not primarily as those whose souls are functions of the State. In other words, when I write to my district’s Congressman, I’m speaking not primarily as one of “the people of Georgia” but primarily as a member of the body of Christ.

  3. In other words, I think that the Christian tendency, at least in my lifetime, to pick the large political faction that seems most “Christian” and to put our souls behind it means a couple things that we don’t think long enough about.

    I understand the sentiment behind this statement, but I don’t think it’s a concern that a Protestant Christian can embrace for at least three reasons.

    First, if you take the quote I excerpted and replace “political faction” with “congregation” or “denomination,” you have a fair summary of how most Protestants go about choosing their church. If Protestants can be satisfied with attending a church because that church seems to best represent what it means to be a Christian, then it seems only natural to allow it for the same type of decision making for what all agree should be a lesser concern.

    Second, because Protestant Christianity is so fragmented, it seems like sharing some common ground in politics might be one of the few ways Protestants can actually come together to support common values and policies. Yes, one has to hold one’s nose at a great many things to support what one best thinks of as “Christian,” but I think it can teach Protestants a little about unity. Something our Catholic brethren have much more practice at than we do.

    Third, I think Protestants have to come to a recognition that the modern, secular, pluralistic, and “consumer-choice” driven politics is historically caused, at least partially, by Protestants. While we can carp about the things about our political system we don’t like, I think one has to recognize that one has to take the good with the bad. I’m not advocating quietism or maintaining the status quo because we had a hand in making it, but I do think that a careful analysis of how this system both harms and benefits Protestants might point one in the right direction.

    I don’t seen any alternative to working in the system. But, I think a Christian can be more honest in political arguments. Take the abortion example. We can simply refuse to play the current abortion language game where one talks about statistics, numbers, freedom, viable tissue masses, equality, choice, etc. To frame the debate in those terms is to frame it with a bland, almost meaningless, secularism (again I can’t recommend Steven D. Smith’s book highly enough as to why this is the case). And to do that guarantees that the debate will never be prophetically Christian, because the very language itself prevents that. Christians have to unabashedly speak in terms of virtue, commandments, God, etc.. The problem of course, and why no one really wants to do this, is because the rules of current political discourse pretty much guarantee that this is a really good way to get ignored. And, being ignored is a quick way to be both irrelevant and impotent. The choice seems to come down to being prophetic or being irrelevant and ignored. But, I think this is always the case, I don’t recall Amos getting too much traction in his prophetic cries for social justice.

    1. David, sorry for my slow reply.

      I can entirely agree with you that certain forms of Protestantism are at their roots entangled with the birth of the nation-state. That’s why they’re called the Magesterial Reformers. And I can also agree with you that Protestants are entirely too ready to cast aside Christian unity for good and for bad reasons. Where I’d depart is where you say that American citizenship is a sort of ecumenical remedy for such fragmentation. I’d prefer to strive towards unity on the Church side and pull for some more fragmentation on the State side.

      That people who talk about hospitality rather than choice, grace rather than contracts (social or legal), and peace rather than “threat elimination” (listen to Tuesday’s episode for a rather droll discussion of that metaphor) will seem almost unintelligible to many Americans, especially those most dedicated to Realpolitik, I won’t deny. But the monastic/Anabaptist appeal is not for “influence” defined as grabbing hold of the current power structure’s steering wheel. (To extend that bad metaphor, we tend to be suspicious of the regime of driver education.) Ours is an ethics of hospitality, of always inviting those who desire something more to become part of something more. If that turns out to be unpalatable to some, our theology doesn’t have a problem with that: after all, we read the New Testament’s language about magistrates and slave-masters and emperors not as lists of potential careers for Christians but as conversation partners for Christians and furthermore those people whom Christians invite to the way of the Cross.

  4. Nate, its not clear to me how you relate your deontological approach to the liberal state in which you find yourself. The innovation of fundamental individual rights as the foundation of the legal order requires that that order must necessarily grapple with abstract extensions of that constructed individuality, reified as aspects of that individuality such as privacy, liberty etc. Abortion illustrates the ironic circularity of such legal orders in its evasion of questions of justice and mercy through the device of presuming some humans not to be rights bearing individuals. Within the liberal, rights based order one reification must, in a contest between them, be found to trump another.Its not clear to me which reification you propose should trump a woman’s sexual autonomy.

    As for those or that person who tried to silence you on slavery it seems to me a curious objection. Surely this person does not claim that he himself was a slave? Slavery has been illegal for a long time in the United States, and although there are people kept as slaves in the world I understand that slavery is illegal in international law, and at least theoretically illegal in every jurisdiction in the world. So no-one alive can claim to speak with that kind of authority on the issue of slavery.

    I agree with David that the liberal order is at least partially the result of some strands of Protestant thought, and more recently that an emphasis on personal choice owes as much to the Evangelical concept of “personal holiness” as it does to consumer capitalism. Consider what a bizarre amalgam that term is, the way in which it sequesters holiness, ultimately rendering it as no more than abstaining from looking at pornography. As I read the Old Testament especially the prophets it seems that oppressing the stranger in the land, showing no mercy to the weak operate through the same social malaise as idolatry and sexual immorality, indeed the seem to be structurally linked. Even a cursory examination of contemporary society would show that this is indeed so.

    You’ve read the following suggestions from me before so I repeat them David Clark’s benefit. I don’t believe that Christians can engage in building a just social order without first confessing both our own, and our corporate sins. The failure by Christian leaders to engage in representational repentance for the historical failure to provide leadership on caring for creation and the treatment of women precludes Christians and the Church speaking with authority on these issues. I believe that this is not primarily because the Church lacks legitimacy in the eyes of others because of its failures in this regard, although indeed it does, but because in my post-materialist view the Church can regain its spiritual authority to speak prophetically on these issues only through first repenting.

  5. Andrew, my point was not to propose a new locus of rights-reification but to note that such reification in the first place, if its source is in one’s primary polity, renders unintelligible classical and especially Christian notions of hospitality, an expectation that necessarily encroaches on all sorts of autonomy but nonetheless defines human existence (or ought to) prior to the assertion of “individual” rights.

    The reference to the “shut the f… up” piece was more of a sideswipe than anything rigorously philosophical. I happen to think that the cultural logic of slavery is a fairly precise analogue to the all-encompassing ideology of commercial autonomy (if one can buy or sell it, it must be good to buy or sell) that seems to animate most of Western liberal politics, but I wanted to grant that some have ruled such comparisons out of court and make a move to the imagination and soulcraft that Capital imposes even on white citizens.

    My point in calling for Church to reimagine ourselves as polis is not to deny the prior call for repentance, though I do thank you for emphasizing there what I left underdeveloped in the essay. My point is that, as a polity that has resources called “repentance,” the Church does have the potential, though unrealized potential, to step beyond the various flavors of woman-abandonment that Capital offers and to proclaim a genuinely just/merciful/loving way of being human. I hope I’d be the last one to say that the Church should consider ourselves beyond repentance; my very point is that our call to repent might represent our best political hope.

  6. Nate, I’ve been thinking a bit about your response, and I’d like to know whether a renewed Christians politics along the lines you suggest has a place for Christian jurisprudence and if so what that would look like. If I understood the re-imagined Christian politics you’ve been advocating it seems it would primarily involve the Church as polity demonstrating and incarnating hospitality. Such a polity would presumably be constituted not by positive law but by commitment to the polity. Thus while natural law might be said to order the polity there does not seem to be space for development of a Christian jurisprudence of positive law beyond, perhaps an audit of the inadequacies of the contemporary legal order.

  7. Andrew,

    I’ve not been ducking your question, but I have been trying to think carefully about it. I would say that, in the spirit of working towards the shalom of the city, and in the spirit of doing good for one’s neighbors, a Christian law-practice could emerge that holds on loosely to the place of the Church as “among the nations” and “in the world” without imagining itself as owing primary allegiance to the systems of positive law that you name.

    Certainly one prophetic role of Church is to name inadequacies in those systems, as you note, but I think that positive law, considered as a means to ends defined in terms of natural law, could happen and perhaps even flourish. I’m inclined to imagine the interaction as somewhat analogous to Daniel’s (and Shardrach’s and Meshach’s and Abednego’s) service to the Babylonian court–they work directly for the crown yet seem reluctant at best to any ideology that would equate divine activity with the goings-on of the court. In other words, they remain aware of the contradiction inherent in their moment (legitimate monarchical authority that calls on false gods for legitimation) and thus hold on loosely to that polity called Babylon.

    Another text that helps me to imagine the relationship is the last run of Ephesians: while there might be very good reasons to live peaceably with one’s pagan spouse or parent or even slave-master, yet the war against the powers of the air continues. There’s no call to abandon the Roman household structure, much less to rebel violently, but neither is there a call to bolster the Roman household structure with the sort of effort with which one bolsters the life of the Body.

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