What are the implications of Christianity for politics? When Christians are citizens of polities, how should they behave? Should Christians ever be rulers, and if they are, how should they govern? Should Christians try to abolish polities, or reform them, or create new ones where they are absent or bad, and if so, what kinds of polities should Christians seek to create, reform and/or abolish? Should Christians be monarchists, or democrats, or even anarchists? Should Christians be pacifist, or might there be a case for making “just war,” perhaps even a lot of it? Should Christians be political quietists, or, on the other hand, civic-minded activists and agitators, constantly voting, campaigning, or even fighting? Should they seek to abolish slavery, or communism; to prohibit abortion; to liberate oppressed peoples from totalitarian rule; to increase foreign aid; or to open borders to immigration? Is there such a thing as a Christian state? If so, is it desirable? And what would it look like?
There are some Gospel texts relevant to these questions. Although the political context of 1st-century Judea is important, I think it also to useful to contemplate the texts separately from their context, focusing on the meaning of the words themselves, before considering how the context affects their meaning. The Gospels actually do not have much to say about politics directly. For some passages it is hard to say whether they are relevant or not. For example, if we think of the scene where Pilate asks Jesus if He is the king of the Jews and He answers “It is you who say it,” this seems to be relevant: Jesus is claiming to be a king. Not so fast. Jesus also says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and His whole life and behavior makes it clear that, probably to the disappointment of many who were looking for a Messiah to re-establish the Jewish kingdom militarily, Jesus was not seeking to be a king in an earthly sense, so the passage does not have direct political implications.
The passage most cited from the Gospels with respect to politics is Luke 20:25 (with parallel verses in Matthew and Mark), “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” I have often heard this read as if it were a prescient endorsement of the kind of church-state relations that prevail in late 20th-century American jurisprudence, meaning something like, “there is a state [Caesar] and a church [God] which have separate claims on us, which must be distinguished, and the Christian citizen must fulfill the legitimate demands of each, obeying the church in matters of spirituality and personal morality, but not attempting to impose the church’s will on infidels or wayward believers through the power of the state, nor, on the other hand, using allegiance to the church as a pretext for disobeying the authority of the state, except in the special case that laws of men violate the Christian’s conscience.” Such a philosophy of church-state relations is anachronistic as a reading of Luke 20:25. It uses conceptions of church and state that would not have been available to Jesus’s 1st-century hearers and hardly before modern times. Indeed, if Luke 20:25 is read by itself, it is question-begging. One wants to answer: “Yes, but what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?” We will return to this passage, but for the moment we will start our inquiry elsewhere.
No, if any political message emerges clearly from the Gospels, it is not the attitude of obedience to rulers that authority figures like to read into “give unto Caesar,” but a principled Christian nonviolence. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counsels his disciples “do not resist the wicked man” and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5: 39). Now, if violence is ever justified, surely it is justified as a means of resisting the wicked man. If one is ever justified in slapping, surely it is justified when one is being slapped. Self-defense is the least controversial form of violence. Some people find other forms of violence acceptable. To believe in a welfare state is to believe that men who are not specially wicked, who are minding their own business and harming no one, should be made, that is, coerced, under an implicit or explicit threat of violence, to give of their substance to the government for redistribution to the less fortunate. This form of violence is more controversial. If few would reject non-self-defensive violence absolutely and universally and consistently—it seems doubtful that violence solely as self-defense can provide the basis for any state at all—then almost everyone is at least wary about extending such justifications for violence too far. So if Jesus rejects violence even in self-defense, as He does explicitly in “turn the other cheek,” it is hard to escape the conclusion that He is exhorting his disciples to refrain from all violence whatsoever. But Max Weber is probably right in defining government as an entity that claims a monopoly of legitimate violence. A nonviolent state is a contradiction in terms. So “do not resist the wicked man” and “turn the other cheek” imply a rejection of government as such.
Such is the case that Jesus was an anarchist, or, to coin an unwieldy term which is unfortunately necessary to distinguish the attitude from two other attitudes which are less coherent but have large followings, a pacifist-anarchist. A pacifist-anarchist is quite distinct, on the one hand, from the kind of anarchist that engages in random violence—bombing buildings, assassinating policemen and presidents—in hopes of bringing about anarchy by overthrowing governments, and on the other hand, from the kind of pacifist that opposes war in the foreign policy arena but takes it for granted that policemen should keep (violently if necessary) catching and locking up criminals. A pacifist-anarchist rejects resistance to the wicked man—except of course by persuasion; this is presumably implicit in the Sermon on the Mount teaching and is advocated explicitly by Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels—both by private individuals and by “governments,” and without regard to the place where violence occurs or whether those who commit and suffer violence are fellow-citizens of any polity or not.
Now, although I do not think Christian nonviolence is the whole answer to the question of what attitude Christians should have to politics, I am always surprised that it is not a more influential idea. I have heard rumors of Christians who dismiss out of hand, as if it were absurd, the idea that Jesus was a pacifist. If there really are such Christians, I don’t know how to regard their opinion as anything but a function of ignorance, prejudice, and/or unseriousness. A simple and direct reading of the Sermon on the Mount points to Christian nonviolence or pacifist-anarchism so clearly that someone unfamiliar with this idea must, it seems to me, either never have read the Sermon on the Mount or not paid attention to it. Yet through most of the history of Christianity, Christians have lived in states and been loyal to rulers and fought in wars and enforced laws and not felt this to be inconsistent with their Christianity. Why?
As a way to underline the point it might be worthwhile to mention another argument that is superficially parallel to the one I am making, but much stupider. I seem to remember seeing an anti-war bumper sticker that says “What part of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ don’t you understand?” and have heard arguments to this effect in a few other places. Now, “Thou shalt not kill,” if taken literally and universally, would imply something like pacifist-anarchism. All governments claim the prerogative of killing under certain circumstances, e.g. in the event of foreign invasion, and probably no government could do without it. But it is clear that the Jewish law, of which the Ten Commandments are a part, is not a pacifist-anarchist program. It prescribed the death penalty for some crimes, to be carried out, it seems, by judges or kings of some sort—different political arrangements occurred in different phases of Jewish history, as recorded in the Bible—and a distinctive class with special legal—we might say, “sovereign”—authority that suspended the ordinary prohibition on killing for these people while they were acting as enforcers of the law was clearly implicit. Jewish history was also full of wars, not only just wars, but also wars which hardly seem to meet any standard of “just war” that could be articulated and defended today—we would call the conquest of the Promised Land “ethnic cleansing”—and yet which the Bible seems to condone. Clearly, taken in context, “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply to soldiers or judges, but means “Thou shalt not murder,” that is, thou shalt not kill without provocation and in the capacity of a mere private citizen.
But “do not resist the wicked man” and “turn the other cheek” are different. It does not involve any tendentious interpretation of the text to read these as a general or universal exhortation to nonviolence. On the contrary. Consider the verses in context:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
So Jesus introduces “do not resist the wicked man” by explicitly invoking the old law and signaling that His teaching is superseding it. To read this as an exhortation to private citizens only with no political ramifications is deliberately to ignore this parallelism and seems exegetically indefensible. The old law with which it is contrasted was not merely an exhortation to private citizens. It was meant to be enforced by a judge or some other third party. It would not have made sense as an exhortation to private citizens. If A gouges out B’s eye, presumably he is able to do so because A is stronger than B. If so, B cannot gouge out A’s eye in return. Certainly there is unlikely to be any credible threat from B’s side that would deter A from violence in the first place. The old law would have to be applied by someone who is neutral between A and B and stronger than either of them, who can recognize that A has done wrong to B and must be punished, and who can carry out the punishment, either overcoming any resistance A might make, or else deterring such resistance by its known superiority in strength. In other words, the old law must be applied by some kind of state. The old law implies and depends on politics.
Jesus’s new teaching, by contrast, neither requires a state gives any opening for the state to have a role. A private individual can turn the other cheek without the help of a government. And if everyone practices nonviolence, there can be no governments. There can be no entities claiming a monopoly of violence if everyone has renounced violence. Jesus’s teaching, then, points to the disappearance of the state if it is universally practiced. If only some practice Christian nonviolence, then since calling on the state for help is a way to resist the wicked man, those must, it would seem, turn their backs on the state or renounce it to a certain extent, and certainly must decline to participate in it, as rulers, magistrates, soldiers, or even plaintiffs (or for that matter defendants, as “if someone sue thee at the law…” states).
An adherent of Christian nonviolence will pay taxes to the state, but not on “give unto Caesar” grounds as that verse is usually understood, rather on “turn the other cheek” grounds. They will submit to the demands of the state as they would submit to the demands of a robber. This is not to say that adherents of Christian nonviolence would regard the state as a robber. If we are not to resist wicked men, we are presumably also not to resist good men, that is, men who live by a lesser good than that which we aspire to live by, such as just and beneficent government in a secular sense. We need not morally equate the tax collector with the bandit in order to submit to both for the same reason and in the same way. The state is, first and foremost, a collective means to resist the wicked man. To accept the Sermon on the Mount in this way is to reject the state’s not only particular means that the state uses but the end of the state. It leaves the state without a raison d’etre.
The Roman Catholics have a way out of the radical implications of this reading of the Sermon on the Mount. They argue that the Sermon on the Mount was advice but to a select inner circle, to the apostles, perhaps also to clergy or monastics and others who feel called to follow it, but not on Christians generally. In support of this, they point out that the Gospel of Matthew says Jesus took His disciples up onto a mountaintop—thus the phrase “the Sermon on the Mount”—away from the crowds. The physical setting of the sermon is taken as indicative of its narrower intended audience. Possibly. But in other cases where Jesus speaks to His disciples separately from the crowds, e.g., the parable of the sower, He does not say He is doing so because the teaching applies only to them. On the contrary, the parable of the sower clearly carries a universal message. And the reason Jesus gives on that occasion for speaking to them separately is that “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them,” that is, to the crowds. Of course, the message is ultimately intended for all mankind, but there seems to be an initiation process, and there are some truths for which the mass of the people are not ready. So this Argument from Audience for treating the Sermon on the Mount as a special calling for a select few is not compelling. And the style of the argument, introducing an allusion to the old law with “you have heard that it was said,” then contrasting the new teaching that is to supersede it by the words “but I say unto you,” suggests the opposite. The old law, of course, was intended for everyone, or at least for all Jews, for all those God had brought under His special direct rule, as all mankind is invited to be in the new dispension that came with Christ. This at least suggests that the new law should be similarly universal in its scope.
Having said all that, the position I will ultimately arrive at may strike some as a variation, elucidation, or reiteration of this Roman Catholic view. Still, for now we may register dissatisfaction with it and put it on one side.
A difference response to the direct reading of the Sermon on the Mount is to embrace it, to accept Christian nonviolence as an ethos or political philosophy, a rule of life. I am aware of one historical example of a people that has done this, the Amish—I think there are other examples—and of three important intellectuals who, though none of them are orthodox Christians, have embraced this position, surely in each case under the influence of Jesus’s teachings: Henry David Thoreau; Leo Tolstoy; and Mahatma Gandhi. The Amish have adopted nonviolence as a way of life for centuries. Leo Tolstoy developed a political philosophy of nonviolence in The Kingdom of God is Within You, Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience.” Gandhi adopted nonviolence as a tactic and ideology for his movement for Indian independence. All these examples shed light on the virtue and the limitations of the pacifist-anarchist ideal.
Amish nonviolence is widely admired, other parts of Amish culture not so much. Their practice of shunning, of strict and specific rules against interaction with those deemed persona non grata by the community, which involves alienating even family members, seems downright cruel and immoral. Their rejection of so many modern technologies, a more salient feature of Amish society even than nonviolence, as well as of education above the 8th-grade level, strike most as gratuitous and unappealing. Why can’t the Amish be nonviolent without being so harsh and weird?
But stop a moment. How, after all, does Amish nonviolence set them apart from mainstream society (e.g., in America)? If the Amish never kill, neither does most of the rest of the population. In American society, as in all advanced societies today, and probably to a lesser extent in most civilized societies of the past for thousands of years, violence is a specialized function of professional policemen and soldiers. Most people never engage in violence, just as they don’t repair computers, renovate bathrooms, cut hair, or teach sociology. The Amish are against violence in principle, rather than merely refraining from it as a matter of professional specialization, but how much does that matter? Does it have any effect on what one does, how one lives, given that most citizens perhaps not once in their lives encounter a situation in which they would be willing to commit violence?
Suppose that Mr. Bourgeois Tolstoyan is persuaded by the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount of Tolstoy and the Amish, and makes an inward personal commitment to Christian nonviolence. Having done so, he lives exactly as he did before, since he had never previously found it to his advantage or taste to use violence anyway. It would seem odd to argue that this inward commitment that has no practical effect is really very important. Is the principled nonviolence of the Amish more important than that of Mr. Tolstoyan? There are two reasons why it might be. First, as the Amish are known to be nonviolent, and as Amish dress and lifestyle makes them conspicuous and identifiable, their commitment to nonviolence subjects them to special risks. If I am a thuggish sort of person who does not scruple to take what I want by force, and I see Mr. Bourgeois Tolstoyan walking down an isolated street with something I want, say a shirt or a bit of food or wine. I do not know who Mr. Tolstoyan is or what he believes in. I consider robbing him, but I notice that he’s a fairly strong man and reflect that he may, after all, be armed, and decide it isn’t worth the risk. Mr. Tolstoyan is morally committed “not to resist the wicked man,” and would, in fact, let me take everything from him. Nonetheless, he benefits by the presumption that he would resist, based on the fact that he looks like others—like normal people—who would do so. By contrast, if I see an Amish walking down the street, with his beard and his odd clothes, and he has something I want, I know that he is forbidden to resist me, so I will rob him without hesitation.
The second reason that Amish nonviolence is more serious than that of Mr. Bourgeois Tolstoyan is that the whole Amish way of life cuts them off from many of the benefits of division of labor that the broader society enjoys with the help of its use of violence, especially in enforcing property rights. If Mr. Tolstoyan doesn’t practice violence himself, it is done on his behalf by armies and police forces that are paid with his tax dollars and that regard his safety and that of his fellow citizens as their mission. But that is not so true of the Amish. Their technological primitivism and social exclusiveness make them less intensively dependent than others are on the society and economy they live in the midst of. If society were to break down around them, they would probably suffer less than others, and it would be an exaggeration but not an absurdity to regard their community as more or less self-sufficient. And just as they stand to lose less by a breakdown of society, so they stand to gain less by its continuation, since their various scruples make their lives poor and simple.
Still, if the Amish takes extra risks by advertising his nonviolence in the way he lives and dresses, he is still much safer because the state locks up so many of the criminal types who would be willing to rob him. And though he may be less dependent than others are on the kind of advanced capitalism that is underpinned by violent enforcement of property rights and national frontiers, the American armed forces are, at the end of the day, protecting him too. He could not practice his distinctive way of life if the Soviets had won the Cold War. And this is a general problem for all these pacifist-anarchists: they depend on those who practices they disavow. Tolstoy was a wealthy man. His wealth was protected by the laws of the Russian state whose dissolution he willed. Gandhi’s nonviolent methods worked only because the British Raj was too liberal and constitutionalist to resort to the repressive methods that might have stopped him. Indeed, he didn’t survive long in the communal violence that ensued when that Raj ended, and he could have had no impact in Soviet Russia or French Indochina. Thoreau spent only a single night in jail because someone else paid for him the tax (in support of the war with Mexico) that Thoreau refused on principle to pay, and this benignity of the society against he was protesting gives “Civil Disobedience” a slightly comic flavor.
Are these principled practitioners of nonviolence ungrateful to the nonpractitioners of nonviolence who protect their lives and prosperity? I do not think a charge of ingratitude is warranted, as long as the pacifist-anarchist acknowledges the benefits he receives from the soldier and policemen, even if he doesn’t exactly thank them. In effect, the Christian pacifist-anarchist says to the soldier: “I accept that you believe that what you are doing is right. I agree, moreover, that I benefit from your efforts to protect me. I also acknowledge that you risk your own life to do so, and respect your sacrifice. Nonetheless I desire a world in which you cease to do so, fully recognizing the costs to myself if this world were brought about. I am willing to face the risks of being plundered or murdered so that none may practice or threaten violence on my behalf. Of course, I cannot stop you from exercising violence in ways that benefit me. You will continue doing so for your own reasons, which may include a desire for my welfare. I merely make it known to you that I do not consent to the arrangement, and will continue to try to end it through moral suasion.”
All this is perfectly logical but I think it contains some moral dangers. To put it bluntly, this might all be humbug. As long as the policemen and soldiers do their work well, my claim to moral distinctiveness rests on a claim about how I would behave in a situation that never occurs. But how do I know how I would behave? Perhaps, faced with a real robber, I would resist after all. Perhaps, faced with a weaker but murderous enemy, I would lack the courage to accept death rather than to kill. Also, the argument is a too subtle. Only an intellectual could understand it. The ethic will inevitably remain abstract and utopian. The believer in nonviolence will in practice live by the ethic of ordinary bourgeoisie who outsource the violent functions to others. The pacifist-anarchist ethos will make little by way of demands, and be a temptation to pedantry and pride. (The Amish avoid this problem by making many other demands on their members, which, unlike nonviolence, involve real and heavy sacrifice, but we are treating nonviolence as a separate ideal of its own.)
This is a good place in the argument to take note of another group of practitioners of nonviolence, namely, priests, monks, the apostles, the early Church and its martyrs. It is characteristic of all these “not to resist the wicked man” and to “turn the other cheek.” This is not to say that monks and priests never engage in self-defense, sometimes they do. But they hardly ever fight with weapons or kill. Apostles such as Peter and Paul, and according to tradition most of the rest of them as well, accepted martyrdom without resistance, perfectly following the Sermon on the Mount in this respect. Monasteries are unique examples of durable miniature societies based on voluntary and noncoercive socialistic central planning. The Rule of St. Benedict is a constitutional document, a set of rules to govern a society, but with this difference, that under no circumstances does it envision killing, or even severe coercion—beating is prescribed at one point but a penitent monk might consent to this form of discipline, and could presumably leave if not (this is forbidden by the Rule but no physical prevention of it is prescribed). As with the Amish, complicated systems of shunning are used as a method of discipline, reflecting the fact that this method is effective yet avoids violence. The forerunner of monastic voluntary socialism was the early Christian commune described in the Book of Acts. There is a harrowing story in Acts about how a husband and wife who lied to the apostles about the price for which they sold some property in order to join the commune were miraculously killed, but importantly, though Peter foretold their deaths, it is clearly God and not Peter who does the killing. And of course, Jesus himself practices His own teaching of “do not resist the wicked man” and “turn the other cheek” when, having ordered Peter to put away his sword, He goes unresistingly to His own death on the cross.
And so the Church, or if not quite the Church as a whole then certain agencies within it, gives an example of a society organized on the principles laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. (I would argue that the Church, properly understood, has always practiced “do not resist the wicked man” and “turn the other cheek,” but that the organization of the Church as it can be perceived from a secular point of view has often been infiltrated by hostile elements and instrumentalized by external powers, while the essence of the Church, the community of love among the believers, has remained mystically pure throughout, but this is a bit of a mystery and it would be beyond the scope of the present argument to defend the claim here.) Unlike the Amish or the Tolstoyan, however, the monks and priests and apostles and martyrs have not, in general, felt the need to disapprove, either of the soldier and the policeman who uphold the secular polities in which they live. Many, and perhaps those who best embody the ideal member of these classes of persons, seem hardly to have had any opinions one way or the other on whether there ought to be a state with a monopoly of violence. Others definitely supported the state, and some actively campaigned for even greater violence. Pope Urban II and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, preached the crusades. So we’re left with our original question, “What are the implications of Christianity for politics?”, as well as a new one, “Why don’t most Christians seem to regard the Sermon on the Mount as the universal political program which it seems to purport to be?”
There is something else that we should note about the apostles, martyrs, monks, and priests: many of them were celibate. Not all: Peter had a wife, plenty of martyrs were married (though many weren’t), and in the Orthodox east priests can marry and for those who wish to serve in parish this is even preferred or semi-required. But it is a common pattern. And I think it’s clear enough why living the Sermon on the Mount is connected with celibacy. For it is very hard for a householder to take the Sermon on the Mount literally. A householder, after all, has a reason to practice violence which is even more compelling than self-defense: the defense of his wife and children. To turn the other cheek when one is slapped on the cheek may be regarded as brave; to stand idly by as one’s wife is raped or one’s child killed seems monstrous. Again, consider the question of property. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches:
25"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[b]?
28"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
This ideal of apostolic poverty is actually connected to the ideal of Christian nonviolence, because if one disavows violence, one disavows the defense of property. As St. Francis said, “If we had any possessions, we would need weapons and laws to defend them.” For a solitary individual to practice this ethos involves not only physical but moral risk, for it threatens to reduce him to a parasite, begging others for the bread which he refuses to hoard for himself. Yet I think readers will have the intuition that a person who disavows worldly possessions for the love of God may—it is hard to foresee exactly how, but that is because the story of life is too full of the unexpected for us to predict it—not be a burden but be of great service to his fellow man. Still, this hardly seems appropriate advice to give to a householder, or at least, to householders generally (Peter might have been a special case). To consent not to know where one’s next meal is coming from may be gloriously humble and brave; but to consent not to know where one’s child’s next meal is coming from seems monstrous.
So unless we are going to take the view that Jesus wanted to impose universal celibacy—and this is hardly tenable since he made remarks on marriage that seem to uphold the institution—we seem to be compelled in the direction of thinking that Jesus saw two classes of people, “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12) who would give up marriage and family to serve God alone, and those who married and raised families. The ideal laid down in the Sermon on the Mount can only be taken as strict and literal prescription for the first category. God might, indeed, grant to some married couples to live in circumstances in which they can turn the other cheek and the rest of it without jeopardizing their children and family, but in general they may, for a time, have to remain in the world, with its polities that claim a monopoly of violence. And these, for the householders, for those not yet ready for the higher path of apostolic poverty and Christian nonviolence, must still think about politics, must be prepared to wield and/or to support violence, must live by those ideals which the Sermon on the Mount supersedes but which are still ideals of a sort, which in the Old Testament seem to enjoy God’s blessing even if the Christian’s intuition is too strong to be gainsaid that some Old Testament writers did not understand God’s real nature and purposes as well as the early Christians did.
Unfortunately, if we are going to “resist the wicked man” after all, we can’t stop there. John Locke is, I think, the most benign of the great political thinkers of modern times. Most of the others—Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Sorel, Sartre, Spengler, Nietzsche, you name it—had a baneful influence, giving rise to one or another form of tyranny or totalitarianism. Locke, by contrast, was the chief ideologist of the Glorious Revolution in England and the forerunner of the American Revolution, and is thus associated with the birth of the two great, free, humane polities that have been the model, bastion, and champion of liberty for three centuries. This is not only because of Locke’s unique genius but, even more, because he was in large part the spokesman of a tradition. Locke’s theory begins with the idea that people have rights, and he goes on to suggest that the origin of government is a social contract by which people agree to defend these rights. Subsequent history suggests that states behave much better when this is their founding myth. But the logic of Locke’s theory is flawed. People don’t really sign a social contract, and it would surely be impossible to get them to do so. Aside from the practical difficulties and the differences of opinion that would arise in any such attempt, there’s a temptation to free-ride. If A and B agree to pay their taxes to support an army to defend the frontier, C’s best bet may be to have them count him out, and trust that the soldiers paid by other people’s money will also keep the wolf from his door. With no justification, Locke gives the majority the right of deciding: A and B will take C’s money for national defense, whether he likes it or not. But already we have stepped beyond using violence to resist the wicked man, to using it to confiscate the property of the good man.
A certain degree of violence, not against the wicked, but against those who have done us no harm, is an inevitable side-effect of bringing into existence any kind of state. Even the most wisely and justly designed state in the world will be guilty of it. And real states never limit their use of unjust (i.e., unprovoked) violence to the minimum amount needed to sustain government. Most states historically have supported kings and nobles in parasitic luxury. Few states are innocent of squandering and killing in campaigns of territorial aggrandizement. Most states have compelled men to lie, or at least to conceal the truth: subjects are made to speak praise of rulers they hate, or to remain silent when justice demands denunciations of the wrongdoings of the mighty. All states prior to the emergence of Christianity and most states since, including many whose rulers and populations were baptized Christians, have practiced slavery, subordinating some individuals to the wills and whims of others for their whole lives. Today, the world’s advanced democratic states have organized vast systems of social engineering by which individuals not born within the borders of these states are compelled by men with guns to remain outside these states, depriving them thereby of the chance to fulfill just and natural desires to migrate, in many cases making these states complicit in religious and political oppression, and always exacerbating world poverty and inequality.
What I suggest, then, for a Christian politics, is that Christians should strive to build up and strengthen the kingdom of heaven, the nonviolent kingdom based on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. Those who are householders will have to live in the world and make various compromises, but they must not give their hearts to it, and even those who are in the world should try to emulate the ideal laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, the ideals of nonviolence and apostolic poverty, as much as they can. A husband may have to live in a worldly manner for a wife’s sake, or a wife for a husband’s sake, or both for their children’s sake, if their loved ones have not yet consented to try to live by the Gospel ideal, but a married couple or even a whole family might all live in apostolic poverty and Christian nonviolence by mutual consent. Meanwhile there should also be some who forsake marriage and family so as to follow the Gospel ideal in as literal a manner as their faith and strength enable them to do. All Christians should remember to “trust not in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” And Christians should be very careful about all the subtle ways in which they can become enmeshed in worldly injustices through the complex division of labor that occurs in modern society. It will often be their duty to look for ways to “flee the world,” not only in the extreme sense of retreating into the desert or emigrating to America to practice their faith, but in more limited senses, e.g., leaving a law firm or a vacuum-cleaner-selling job that requires them to be dishonest; giving up a corporate or government sinecure which they recognize as an abuse of taxpayer or shareholder money; refusing to engage in payday lending or in a trade associated with gambling; refusing to fight in an unjust war, etc. If they live in a slaveowning society, they should at least treat their slaves with exceptional kindness and should probably manumit them and refuse to own slaves altogether. Of any property they may own, they should regard themselves not as owners but as stewards, and in spending it they should seek not their own good but the good of all their fellow men.
There are two particular current or recent issues where I want to bring to bear a Christian perspective. The first is immigration. Of the immigration restrictions of today’s rich countries, both the ends—the exacerbation of global inequality to protect the privileges of the American-, or British-, or French-born, etc.—and the means—the separation of families, the expulsion of children from the countries where they weren’t born but have spent nearly all their lives, the use of violence against peaceful workers—should be intolerable to each and every Christian. Every Christian ought to regard it as his duty never to collaborate with such laws by reporting an illegal immigrant to the police. Those whose personal or family position allows them to make relatively fewer compromises with the world may be called on to defy the law by employing or giving accommodations to those whom the laws of men reject but whom God loves, risking fines or prison thereby. Christians should stand with their illegal immigrant brethren when these protest to demand decent treatment.
The second is the Iraq war. Here I am a bit less sure of myself. It would be odd to say that Christians who don’t choose the higher way of nonviolence and apostolic poverty are therefore bound to practice violence not only in their own defense but also to save others from totalitarianism. Though on the other hand, I think that if one is not called to the apostolic way, to fight for distant just causes is just as appropriate as to fight for nearby ones. Why not? If I am being robbed, I can defend myself. If I see my neighbor being robbed, I can equally well go and defend him, no? More than that, though, world trade, global political organizations like the UN, and the nature of modern weapons have created a sort of integration of all the world’s political systems, which, even if limited and/or shallow in extent, gives us a certain stake and a certain complicity in what goes on far away. We were complicit in Saddam’s regime. We helped bring him to power. We supported him against Iran. The oil-for-food program strengthened him. The weapons inspections served our interests but worsened the plight of the Iraqi people, even making us, in a way, their co-oppressors. That’s why I think we had a duty to extricate ourselves from that. The monk, busy fleeing the world, trusting not in princes and the sons of men, would have no such duty. But worldly people, who benefit from the geopolitical system which in turn collaborated in various ways with the Baathist regime, did, I think, have that duty. Liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam may or may not have been the only way to discharge that duty, but it was one way. As for the objection that it’s a violation of “Iraq’s sovereignty,” I don’t think it should have the slightest weight for the Christian. I simply don’t think there is any basis for the concept of sovereignty in a Christian approach to politics.