Christian Political Ethics

Christian Political Ethics

by John A. Coleman (Editor)


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Christian Political Ethics brings together leading Christian scholars of diverse theological and ethical perspectives--Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist--to address fundamental questions of state and civil society, international law and relations, the role of the nation, and issues of violence and its containment. Representing a unique fusion of faith-centered ethics and social science, the contributors bring into dialogue their own varying Christian understandings with a range of both secular ethical thought and other religious viewpoints from Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism. They explore divergent Christian views of state and society--and the limits of each. They grapple with the tensions that can arise within Christianity over questions of patriotism, civic duty, and loyalty to one's nation, and they examine Christian responses to pluralism and relativism, globalization, and war and peace. Revealing the striking pluralism inherent to Christianity itself, this pioneering volume recasts the meanings of Christian citizenship and civic responsibility, and raises compelling new questions about civil disobedience, global justice, and Christian justifications for waging war as well as spreading world peace. It brings Christian political ethics out of the churches and seminaries to engage with today's most vexing and complex social issues.

The contributors are Michael Banner, Nigel Biggar, Joseph Boyle, Michael G. Cartwright, John A. Coleman, S.J., John Finnis, Theodore J. Koontz, David Little, Richard B. Miller, James W. Skillen, and Max L. Stackhouse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691134819
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/04/2007
Series: Ethikon Series in Comparative Ethics
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

John A. Coleman, S.J., is the Charles Casassa Professor of Social Values at Loyola Marymount University. His many books include Globalization and Catholic Social Thought: Present Crisis, Future Hope.

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Christian Political Ethics

Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13140-5

Chapter One Christianity and Civil Society


In its contemporary usage the term civil society typically refers to the totality of structured associations, relationships, and forms of cooperation between persons that exist in the realm between the family and the state. Where such patterns of association, cooperation, and structured relationships are thought to be weak or inconsequential, as in the corporatist East of yesteryear (where individuals are said to have related chiefly to the State) or as in the capitalist and individualistic West (where personal relationships may arguably occur only within the family, and perhaps not even there), it has become commonplace to lament the nonexistence of civil society. Christianity, it is usually supposed, will be prominent among the mourners on whichever side of the globe the wake is observed.

I shall suggest in this chapter, however, that the relationship of Christian thought to the question of civil society is a matter of some complexity. This complexity is not a matter of the simple muddle that occurs where the ambiguities of the term civil society are not recognized and addressed, but has to do with the history and variety of Christian social thought. Obviously enough, the tradition of Christian thought about society and community predates questions concerning the existence, character, andqualities of civil society, without thereby having nothing to say in answer to them. Thus, though one might, in delineating a Christian conception of civil society, chart only the reactions of Christian thought to the rise of civil society under the patronage of modern liberalism, the intellectual roots of any such reactions would not necessarily emerge clearly into view, and thus the reactions might seem somewhat thinner than they really is. Such an approach might also conceal the stimulus that Christianity itself gave to the emergence of civil society in its modern form. The tradition of Christian social thought is, however, not just lengthy but also varied. Even if its different strands possess, naturally, a certain family resemblance, it is not monolithic. There is, then, nothing that can be identified as the Christian answer to the question of civil society. Rather, there is a tradition of social thought that, in its different versions, is relevant to the questions posed by the modern debate about the existence, character, and qualities of civil society.

In the light of these considerations, this chapter approaches the task of answering some of these questions by attempting to outline particular and important moments in this tradition, taking as a point of departure Augustine's understanding of the two cities, which, as I shall point out, is questioned in different ways by Thomas and Calvin, and reconceived by Luther. In turn, the Lutheran reconception of the Augustinian approach is, it will be noted, criticized in the work of such figures as Bonhoeffer and Barth, while the Thomist tradition is developed in the social teaching of the Roman Magisterium. Attention will be drawn to the implications of these different approaches for contemporary questions regarding civil society, though the survey can, at best, be illustrative and not exhaustive.


The question "Who or what does civil society include?" has been posed from within the Christian tradition as a question, in effect, about where and in what form society is instantiated. And one influential answer from within the Christian tradition to that question is, in brief, "the church," since outside that community, social relations, public or private in modern terms, lack characteristics or qualities essential to them. Though this Augustinian answer was highly influential, it was in turn, however, as we must presently indicate, contested or reconceived, giving rise to different answers, or at least different emphases, in Christian thinking about the nature of human community.

Crucial to the thought of the New Testament in general, and the thought of Paul in particular, is the contrast underlying Paul's exhortation to the Romans: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." The character and significance of this contrast must, however, be properly understood. Wolin gets it right when, having cited this verse, he comments:

This attitude must not be understood as mere alienation or the expression of an unfulfilled need to belong. Nor is it to be accounted for in terms of the stark contrasts that Christians drew between eternal and temporal goods, between the life of the spirit held out by the Gospel and the life of the flesh symbolized by political and social relationships. What is fundamental to an understanding of the entire range of [early] Christian political attitudes was that they issued from a group that regarded itself as already in a society, one of far greater purity and higher purpose: "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people."

Wolin is also right to observe of a much-used and misused text that "the critical significance of the Pauline teaching [in Rom. 13] was that it brought the political order within the divine economy and thereby compelled its confrontation by Christians."

Given such roots, it is hardly surprising that a dominant strand in the Christian tradition has thought about society by means of a contrast between two kingdoms, realms, or-as in the locus classicus of Christian social thought, Augustine's City of God-between two cities. According to Augustine,

although there are many great peoples throughout the world, living under different customs in religion and morality and distinguished by a complex variety of languages, arms and dress, it is still true that there have come into being only two main divisions, as we may call them, in human society: and we are justified in following the lead of our Scriptures and calling them two cities.

What is here characterized as a division within society is for Augustine in another sense, however, a division between societies, only one of which properly deserves the name. That this is a division between societies is the force of the use of the word city to mark the two divisions, since, employed where in Greek one might read polis, the word serves to indicate all-encompassing communities. The two cities, that is to say-the city of God (sometimes the heavenly city) and the earthly city-are to be understood as two polities, "two political entities coexistent in one space and time," "distinct social entities, each with its principle ... and each with its political expression, Roman empire and church." But these distinct "social entities," in virtue of their different origins, histories, and ends, are to be contrasted more starkly still; for if we quibbled with the notion that the division between the two cities was one within society, and noted that it is actually a division between societies, we must also reckon with the fact that one of these is for Augustine the form, here on earth, of the one true society, whereas the other is a society only in a superficial sense. How so?

"The two cities," says Augustine, "were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self." Now the difference in ends or objects of love creates two quite different cities: "The citizens of each of these [two cities] desire their own kind of peace, and when they achieve their aim, this is the peace in which they live." The heavenly city, united in love of God, enjoys a peace that "is a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God and mutual fellowship in God." The earthly city also desires peace, but its peace is of a different kind.

The citizens of the earthly city, in a prideful love of self over love of God, have each rejected the rule of God and chosen in preference a self-rule as intolerant of any other rule as it is of God's; for "pride is a perverted imitation of God ... [that] hates a fellowship of equality under God, and seeks to impose its own dominion on fellow men, in place of God's rule. This means that it hates the just peace of God, and loves its own peace of injustice." The love of self becomes, then, that libido dominandi, or lust for domination, that has driven the Roman Empire. Peace is achieved through the imposition of one's own will by the exercise of force, and is at once costly in its creation, unjust in its character, and unstable in its existence. This is not to say that there is no difference between the Roman Empire and a band of brigands, to refer to Augustine's infamous jibe, but it is to say that the peace of all other societies is different in kind from the just and certain peace of the true society found in the city of God, represented here on earth in the church, which is the city of God "on pilgrimage."

The implications of Augustine's thought for the question of where, and in what form, society is instantiated are brought out in Joan Lockwood O'Donovan's summary of his argument:

Augustine's polarising of the two cities ... radically questioned the sense in which the social relations belonging to the sacculum, the passing order of the world, could be thought to comprise a society, a unity in plurality or harmonised totality. For on his view the secular res publica is not a true community knit together by charity and consensus in right-that is present only where faith in Christ and obedience to His law of love bind persons together-but a fragile and shifting convergence of human wills with respect to limited categories of earthly goods in a sea of moral disorder, of personal and group hostilities.

Society, properly so called, exists in the city of God, and not in the earthly city. And so too civil society-for if the grounds for a stable structure of association and cooperation are certainly lacking for the whole, they are finally lacking for simple human associations as such.

The claim that society, properly understood, exists in the church is lost, however, if the theme of the "two cities" as Augustine develops it is transposed by an interpretation of the two cities as two spheres, a move associated with Lutheranism (if not quite so certainly with Luther). Such a move dissolves the tension between the differently characterized cities by construing their relationship in terms of a functional division concerning, say, the worldly and the spiritual, or outer and inner. With the imagery thus construed, it becomes possible for the church to understand itself as an instance of civil society, rather than as its locus. But this is just what is prohibited in Augustine's thought, in which the two cities are not related spatially, to use Bonhoeffer's term, but temporally or eschatologically; that is to say, the cities do not rule over different spheres, but rather, ruling over the same spheres, rule in different, albeit overlapping, times. Just because of this overlap, the city of God must seek its distinctive peace amid the earthly peace and will make use of it as it makes use of earthly things in general (and thus has grounds for distinguishing between the different forms of the earthly city insofar as they do or do not prove useful to its purpose). But this overlap does not license the granting of autonomy, if one may put it so, to the earthly city. Coming at the point from the other side, one can agree with Markus when he observes that according to the Augustinian picture, "there was no need for Christians to be set apart sociologically, as a community separated from the 'world,' ... uncontaminated by it and visibly 'over against the world.' On the contrary: the Christian community was, quite simply, the world redeemed and reconciled." Monasticism (at least in its distinctly Augustinian theory in the Rule of St. Benedict, if not in its later, less-Augustinian practice) maintains this insight, presupposing not an autonomy of spheres (and thus, in our terms, that there are versions of society), but rather that the monastery, which was first of all a lay movement, displays the secular (i.e., temporal) form of society, of which the earthly city is but a sorry caricature.

If Luther subtly reconceives the Augustinian picture, Thomas and Calvin offer more straightforward challenges to it, while Orthodoxy developed independent of it, though struggling with essentially the same issues and problems. Although Augustine was writing at a time when Christianity had become the official and favored religion of the Empire, it was chiefly in Byzantium that the "conversion of the state" led to a radical questioning of the contrast between civil church and uncivil society, to put it in modern terms, that belongs to early Christian thought. This conversion did not unsettle Augustine's picture: the earthly city had not become the city of God "merely because the kings serve it [i.e., the church], wherein lies greater and more perilous temptations." In the East this sense of danger or tension was not always maintained, even if the charge of "caesaropapism" (i.e., the subordination of the church to political rule) risks ignoring some of the subtleties involved, or at least the predominantly pragmatic character of the handling of these issues. It does, however, indicate the danger to which Orthodoxy has seemed especially prone, at least to Western eyes; that is, of having a "charismatic understanding of the state" that "lacked political realism," and that thus too readily assumed the possibility of Christian society outside the immediate life of the church. Arguably Eastern monasticism, like its Western counterpart, preserved a rather different perspective.

In the West, "the alternative theological answers ... to the Augustinian problematic of secular society are," to cite Joan Lockwood O'Donovan again, "the Thomistic-Aristotelian rejection of it and the Calvinist-Puritan conversion of it." She continues:

Under Aristotelian influence St. Thomas exchanged the Augustinian conception of a conflictual and disjunctive social order for a more organically harmonious one. His minimising of the spiritual distance between the traditionally "pre-lapsarian" institutions such as marriage and family and the post-lapsarian institutions such as private property and political rule enabled him to weave social life into a unified moral texture. He viewed sinful society as retaining the inherent harmony of a hierarchy of natural ends and functions, each part having its appointed place within the teleological whole. With no disjunctive division between different communities, especially between political and non-political communities, all together constituted a real social totality, a common will directed toward a common good.

For Calvin the handling of Augustine was different:

Unlike St. Thomas, Calvin's response to the Augustinian problematic of secular society was a reorientation rather than a displacement of it. For Calvin the disorder of sinful social relations could not be mitigated by an appeal to a natural social teleology, but required a different conception of order: a more exclusively political/juridical one based immediately on God's providential rule over sinful humanity and elaborated in the (largely Old Testament) ideas of divine-human covenant, divine commandment and divinely established offices. The unity of civil as well as of ecclesiastical society depended on their institutional structuring by God's commandments that defined the rights and duties of every social "office" as a vehicle of His revealed law in the creation and redemption of the world.


According to the tradition that flows from Augustine, then, civil society as genuine society-that is, even minimally, as a stable structure of association and cooperation between persons-exists in the city of God, or in the church that is, here and now, its imperfect token. In contrast with this society, all other associations are radically defective. But what makes the church, or the city of God, itself a society and not a simple aggregate?


Excerpted from Christian Political Ethics
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Table of Contents

Preface by John A. Coleman, S.J. ix


Chapter One: Christianity and Civil Society by Michael Banner 3

Chapter Two: A Limited State and a Vibrant Society: Christianity and Civil Society by John A. Coleman, S.J. 22

Chapter Three: Christianity, Civil Society, and the State: A Protestant Response by Max L. Stackhouse 54


Chapter Four: Christian Attitudes toward Boundaries: Metaphysical and Geographical by Richard B. Miller 67

Chapter Five: The Value of Limited Loyalty: Christianity, the Nation, and Territorial Boundaries by Nigel Biggar 92


Chapter Six: Conscientious Individualism: A Christian Perspective on Ethical Pluralism by David Little 113

Chapter Seven: Pluralism as a Matter of Principle by James W. Skillen 141


Chapter Eight: Christianity and the Prospects for a New Global Order by Max L. Stackhouse 155

Chapter Nine: Globalization and Catholic Social Thought: Mutual Challenges by John A. Coleman, S.J. 170


Chapter Ten: The Ethics of War and Peace in the Catholic Natural Law Tradition by John Finnis 191

Chapter Eleven: Just War Thinking in Catholic Natural Law by Joseph Boyle 217

Chapter Twelve: Christian Nonviolence: An Interpretation by Theodore J. Koontz 232

Chapter Thirteen: Conflicting Interpretations of Christian Pacifism by Michael G. Cartwright 261

Contributors 279

Index 281

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