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Love, Power and Justice

by Paul B. Henry

Dr. Henry, an associate professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the author of Politics for Evangelicals. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 23, 1977, p. 1088. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The past five years have seen a resurgent awareness in evangelical Protestantism relative to the Christian community’s political responsibility. But despite this awareness of political responsibility, maturity and consistency are sadly lacking in the pronouncements of evangelicals on this topic. The evangelical community, to paraphrase social critic Michael Novak, seeks to leap from piety to practice with little reflection on guiding principles and practical goals.

There are at least three basic concepts which require clear delineation as to what is meant in the contemporary evangelical dialogue regarding matters political. These three are power, love and justice.

Politics and Power

The very essence of politics is the use of power -- the power to determine who in a given society gets what, how, when and where. We can talk about means and ends for a society without conceding the necessity (or desirability) that the sword of the state be the implementing agent. But we must be clear, then, in acknowledging that such talk is no longer talk about politics.

We can talk about the “power of God to transform lives,” but we are no longer talking about the political power of the state, which by definition refers to instituted social authority which enables the state to force compliance upon its subjects regardless of their volitional relationship to the state’s demands. One can talk about ‘the fallen powers” or Christ’s victory in resurrection over the “principalities and powers” but that, in and of itself, is not talk about the politics of the Soviet Union or the United States. One can speak of the “sovereignty of God,” but one still has not dealt with the sovereignty of the Cook County Democratic Committee.

That is not to say that such talk is useless or unnecessary. Indeed, beliefs relative to the sovereignty of God, Christ’s conquering of the principalities and powers, or the transforming power of God in individual lives have profound- implications for the way in which we must think about politics. But spoken of in and of themselves, such concepts do little to illumine the path from piety to practice. Indeed, they often serve to obfuscate that path and to mask immoral practices in moral pieties.

There can be no politics apart from the use of power. And yet, as Paul Tillich notes, it is not uncommon to find Christian essayists who develop concepts of “The Politics of God” or “The Kingdom of God” in such a way that they seek a political order in which “powerless love” overcomes “loveless power.” The problem to which Tillich refers is clearly evident in the writings of two contemporary individuals who have had a decided impact on the rising social and political consciousness of the evangelical community -- namely, Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, and John Howard Yoder, whose book The Politics of Jesus is probably the most profound restatement of Anabaptist social theory in the past quarter of a century.

Yoder and Wallis juxtapose the power politics of the world (i.e., the “powers” of the world expressed in social, economic and political relationships) with Christian love (i.e., servanthood, the cross, self-denial). In the words of Wallis: “It seems to us impossible to be both what the world’s political realities set forth as ‘responsible’ and to take up the style of the crucified servant which is clearly the manner of the life and death of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament” (Agenda for Biblical People [Harper & Row, 1976], pp. 122-i23). Yoder calls the church to “a social style characterized by the creation of a new community and the rejection of violence of any kind” -- by which he means the economic and political orders held in place by the power of the state. “The cross of Christ is the model of Christian social efficacy, the power of God for those who believe” (The Politics of Jesus [Eerdmans, 1972], p. 250).

An Apolitical Strategy

It must be noted that while Wallis and Yoder reject “the way of the world” in their refusal to acknowledge any legitimate use of power, they do not advocate a withdrawal from the world or an abandonment of the church’s mission to the world. In this sense, they differ profoundly from the separatist tendencies of the older fundamentalism. Indeed, they maintain that the subordination of the cross becomes a “revolutionary subordination” in the name of the Christ who has conquered the powers in his resurrection. The acceptance of political powerlessness, for Wallis and Yoder, creates the basis for the manifestation of the power of God as transforming agent. And thus the Christian community bears witness to the world, not only standing in judgment upon it but also prophetically pointing to the path of the world’s redemption.

But what must be recognized is that such thinking provides political critique and judgment while rejecting political involvement and practice as a corrective strategy. For all of its political relevance and all of its political language, it is in the end an apolitical strategy rejecting power, and thus rejecting politics as well. Theirs is a strategy which advocates social involvement, which would effect political consequences. But it rejects political involvement directed toward social consequences.

If the evangelical community is going to develop a political ethic, it must be one in which power is recognized and accepted as a legitimate means to the ends it seeks. To reject power is to reject politics. Such a rejection may not in and of itself be improper -- but we should at least be clear as to what it is we are doing. The confusion has been great, however, because the very individuals who have done so much to renew the social conscience of the evangelical community have also been those who have rejected politics as a means of fulfilling social obligation. And while the evangelical conscience may indeed have been reawakened, it remains -- at least in terms of understanding the linkages between power and politics -- as apolitical today as it was 20 and 30 years ago.

The Characteristics of Love

While insisting that one cannot speak of politics without also speaking of power, we have nonetheless thus far not answered the question as to whether love and power are compatible. For if they are incompatible, and the Christian is indeed called to live a life of servanthood in love toward one’s neighbor and God, then those who reject politics in the name of Christ are correct. It is imperative, therefore, that we distinguish the characteristics of love so that we can examine its compatibility with the exercise of political power.

First, we must acknowledge that love is something voluntarily given. Love can not be forced against one’s will. Acts of the political order, however, invariably contain by definition elements of compulsion and involuntarism. Thus, insofar as the power of the state is associated with involuntarism and the act of love with voluntarism, we must conclude that the state cannot love any more than love can be forced.

Second, love is something that must be personally mediated. Since the voluntary nature of love necessitates the existence of a will by which it can become activated, love is always personal. The state, like any other instituted social order, has an objective existence and achieves its ends indiscriminately. The citizen’s relationship to the state is an “I-it” rather than an “I-thou” relationship, and incapable of the personal mediation necessary for love to become activated.

Third, love is always sacrificial. That is to say that love is always a voluntary (noncompulsory) act in which one wills to allow something to happen at one’s own expense for the well-being of another. Let me give an example. Suppose you are a clerk at a turn-of-the-century “mom and pop” neighborhood grocery store. Suppose a poorly dressed and obviously destitute widow comes into the store to buy a loaf of bread. Fumbling through her purse, she finds the last quarter she possesses with which to purchase the ten-cent loaf of bread. Upon the completion of the purchase, you as the store clerk return 15 cents change to the widow. There is nothing loving in giving the lady her change. The change is hers just as surely as the loaf of bread is now hers.

Now let us suppose that, moved by the widow’s evident poverty, you decide simply to give her the loaf of bread. You have no obligation to do so, you are not forced to do so, but you will to do so. You sacrifice your right to a fair price for the bread to the widow’s advantage.

Fourth, since love is freely given, it goes beyond ordinary moral obligation. To fulfill moral obligation is to respond to moral necessity, and therefore, it is an act of duty rather than of free moral will. It is important to qualify this statement by noting also that going beyond one’s moral obligation necessarily involves first fulfilling one’s moral obligation.

Let us return, for purpose of example, to the store clerk and the widow to illustrate the point. This time, suppose the widow, due to her failing eyesight, mistakenly gives the clerk nine pennies and one dime for the loaf of bread which costs only ten cents. In returning the nine pennies to the widow, the clerk is not demonstrating some form of extraordinary love but simply fulfilling the moral obligation of not taking advantage of the widow’s weakness of sight.

In summary, I have suggested that love is voluntary and freely given; that since it involves moral volition, it must be personally mediated; that love is sacrificial, and thus limited to the extent to which an individual is capable of personally absorbing the consequences of its acts; and finally, that love extends beyond duty or moral obligation (implying that it must first fulfill moral obligation or duty).

The Use of Coercion

But politics, on the other hand, involves involuntary servitude. Its very nature assumes the sanctioned use of coercion and force to achieve its ends. It is instituted in formal organization and operates impersonally. (Otherwise we should say that it operates arbitrarily and is discriminatory.) And the leaders of the state obviously engage in actions for which others are called on to sacrifice. (Otherwise there would be no need for force or coercion, and there would no longer be a need for the state’s existence.) Most of us would he more than pleased with a political order which at least met the demands of moral obligation. Indeed, we would be tempted to rebel if the state sought to require us to exceed moral obligation. For in so doing, it would act as a totalitarian state which recognizes no limits to the power of the state or to the citizen’s obligations toward the state.

To use the power of the state as a means of effecting love among its citizens is therefore not only contradictory, insofar as love cannot be forced or coerced; it also destroys the distinction of “moral obligation” by which the difference between a limited and a totalitarian government is marked.

Given the duality between power and love and the apparent conflict between “loveless power” and “powerless love,” how shall we choose? So long as the choice is put in these terms, it would be difficult to do other than to choose to be a political eunuch in order to become a servant in the Kingdom of God. Surely, God calls us to the higher and more noble path of love over power.

But critical questions remain. By what is love to be informed other than by its willed motivations? If love is the sacrificial act of going beyond one’s ordinary moral duty, how do we define such moral duty so as to know when it has been surpassed and love has taken its place?

It is the concept of justice which creates other alternatives by which the concepts of “loveless power and “powerless love” can be reconciled. And it is justice which enables us to be servants of both power and love.

The Claims of Justice

The refusal to recognize the claims of justice as universal and eternal -- and thus inviolable even in the context of Christian social ethics -- has demanded a high price both in terms of the political relevance of the church and in terms of the church’s own theological integrity. The theology of Albrecht Ritschl, for example, suffered from this error. Ritschl was reduced to juxtaposing loveless power and powerless love. In so doing, he created an entire theological system which contrasted the Old Testament “God of power” with the New Testament “God of love.” In the process he was forced to abandon the concept of God’s judgment and retribution for sinners, was forced to adopt a universalist concept of salvation, and gave to the church a love ethic of which nothing substantive could be said.

At the practical level, the love ethic then becomes irrelevant to the problems of politics because, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “It persists in presenting the law of love as a simple solution for every communal problem” (Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, edited by Harry R. Davis and Robert C. Good [Scribners, 1960], p. 163). Thus, as we deal with the concept of justice, let us not suppose that it is of lesser relevance or importance for the Christian than the concept of love,

We must begin by acknowledging that the claims of justice are universal, eternal and objective. The claims of justice spring from the personhood of the just God, and they lay claim to all that is contingent upon his creative power.

But given the assertion that justice makes itself manifest in the “creation ordinances” of God, why is it then that humanity has never reached consensus as to the substantive elements and characteristics by which justice can be defined? The most commonly accepted starting point defines justice as the “giving of every person his or her due.” But what is due each and every individual, or each and every group of individuals, is a constant point of contention. It is here, then, that we must make some important distinctions in regard to notions that have clouded evangelical attempts to deal with the problem of justice.

While some thinkers have posited love and power as the only values from which Christian choice must be made in evaluating Christian political responsibility, at the exclusion of the concept of justice, others have included justice -- but in such an ambiguous and ill-defined manner as to make the term as meaningless and without content as discussions relating to the “love ethic.”

The claims of justice, if they are to become operational in a political society, must be defined with some meaningful degree of particularity. “Justice,” in the words of Niebuhr, “requires discriminate judgments between conflicting claims” (Love and Justice, edited by D. B. Robertson [World, 1967], p. 28). Justice as an abstraction is not enough. We must work out an understanding of justice in particulars, lest we fall into the trap of moralizing about politics while having nothing to offer in terms of a moral critique that speaks to particular situations in time and space.

A classic example of this problem is illustrated in the Politics of Aristotle. Aristotle points out that if we define justice as rendering to each man his due, there are nonetheless two logically attractive and yet mutually contradictory principles by which this concept of rendering rights can be interpreted. In the first instance, there are those who argue that since all persons have a fundamental spiritual or moral equality, then that equality ought to extend to all social, economic and political relationships in which they find themselves. In the second instance, there are those who argue that since individuals are unequal in the contributions they make to a society, the inequalities of contribution ought to be recognized in consequent social, economic and political relationships. Both arguments have merit. Indeed, this age-old dilemma is at the heart of much contemporary political debate between democratic socialists and democratic capitalists in modern Western societies.

‘Redemption Ordinances’ in Political Theory

Granting the need for dealing with justice in more than simple abstractions, we face even more clearly the problem that people disagree as to the applications to be drawn from such abstractions (such as that of giving each man his due). Of what good are “creation ordinances” if, through the fall, the human being’s perception of what is just, let alone one’s moral motivation to act on those perceptions, is thoroughly clouded?

Hence, it is not uncommon in Christian political theory -- particularly contemporary Christian political theory -- to reject the concept of a universally known justice via creation ordinances and turn, instead, to the notion of “redemption ordinances.” Given the fall of humanity, these people argue, there can be no sure knowledge of justice aside from the Scriptures and God’s incarnate Word in Jesus Christ. I surely would not wish to argue that the fallen human’s knowledge of or capacity for justice was unimpaired by the fall. But I would like to point out several dangers in the thinking of those who reject the concept of justice based on creation ordinances known to all persons, regardless of their religious persuasion or soteriological and revelational systems.

First, to reject creation ordinances out of hand places our reason as creatures bearing the image of God. (however fallen) into conflict with revelation-ally based knowledge. It is an epistemological problem which extends itself, logically, to asserting that in all areas of knowing, reason has nothing to say aside from revelation. In the realm of culture, it suggests that Athens has nothing to say to Jerusalem.

Second, this position has very serious practical consequences for strategies of political involvement. For if only those within the household of faith and conversant with the revelation of God in his redemptive ordinance can speak with authority on matters of justice, then Christians are unable to communicate or work with non-Christians in political endeavor. There can be no “secular” basis for political involvement by the Christian -- only a religiously informed and motivated involvement which is sectarian by definition. If we deny natural knowledge of the political good, the only alternative for the Christian is to (a) withdraw from politics because it is worldly or fallen, or (b) establish a “Christian” politics which is sectarian in ambition and motivation.

The disjoining of God’s “creation ordinances” and the consequent universal norms of justice attached thereto, from God’s “redemption ordinances,” which establish a unique rationale for a “Christian” politics, has demonstrated itself in various forms in contemporary Christian thinking. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists have sought uncritically to impose revealed norms of religious righteousness on the secular society with little if any justification insofar as how such policies would affect nonbelievers. Hence, crusades to make America a “Christian nation” are not infrequent, and Christian standards of morality and ethics are uncritically (and usually inconsistently) upheld as normative for the secular state.

Many neo-orthodox thinkers, subsuming “redemption ordinances” to “christological ordinances,” have uncritically (and equally inconsistently) sought to apply the “love ethic” of Jesus with little regard for the objectifying norms of justice which must inform the spirit of love. And many Anabaptist and revolutionary thinkers, subsuming “redemption ordinances” to “eschatological ordinances,” have uncritically (and equally inconsistently) sought to apply the ethic of the Christ who makes all things new and has conquered the “fallen powers” into an ethic of revolutionary consequences, disregarding the fact that the powers given to Satan have always been held in check by the Creator God, and that while the conquering power of God has indeed been visibly and dramatically revealed in the resurrection of our Lord, we are told nonetheless that Satan’s powers shall be unleashed in new fury before the final consummation of God’s kingdom.

The Character of Justice

Let me, then, suggest the following criteria in establishing the character of justice. First, justice must be based on universal claims of right. To establish justice on the basis of sectarian authority alone is to do violence to our very confession that all persons bear the image of God, and that all persons carry a knowledge of the good. And consequently it follows that all persons are bound to the demands of justice.

Second, justice must be defined within the context of a given social order, and it must be enumerated in terms of specifics. To base one’s plea on “justice” alone is not enough.

Third. given the universality of the norms of justice and the universality of the consciousness of justice, one can derive procedures and practices which, when honored, increase the likelihood of policies and programs which eventuate in justice. Indeed, this is exactly what our concepts of “civil rights” seek to do in our constitutionally based democracies; it is the recognition that the means employed must not do violence to the ends pursued. (We must point out that nonwesternized societies of a traditionalist character have sought to recognize the same principles of constitutionalism in less articulated ways.)

Fourth, we must recognize that the norms of justice are objective and that they exist independently of human volition. Hence, claims can be made in the name of justice, and claims can be rejected in the name of justice. Whereas love must be volitionally given, justice demands to be recognized independently of human volition.

Fifth, since the “God of love” is also a just God, love and justice cannot stand juxtaposed. Love may go beyond justice -- but it can never seek less than justice. Love may inform and inspire reverence for justice -- but it can never be an excuse for absolving the claims of justice.

Sixth, since justice is an objective quality establishing rights and obligations, calculations can and must be made by individuals and societies as to how their actions serve the claims of justice. Given the fact that not all persons willingly seek justice, power can be used legitimately if and when it serves the cause of justice. While we have suggested that love cannot use power to achieve its ends, justice must use power to achieve its ends.

Such distinctions are necessary -- not only because to call upon the state to love” is self-contradictory, insofar as the state’s actions are rooted in power and not voluntarism, but because the claims of love are rooted in sectarian acknowledgment as opposed to universal norms of justice. As the church proclaims the gospel, it sensitizes the community at large (as well as the Christian community) to the demands of justice. Hence, while justice remains the servant of love, it is love which serves as the enabler of justice.

Further, to seek to use the state as an instrument of love implies not only a sectarian state but a totalitarian state. For it is the discriminating norms of justice which are used to delineate the questions as to what is mine and what is thine. To deny justice in the name of love is to deny the very civilities which are at the root of constitutional government itself.

By adding the concept of justice to those of love and power, new alternatives for evangelical Protestantism’s thinking about politics are created. Politics, rooted in power, nevertheless fulfills a legitimate function when it serves the claims of justice. Love, while rejecting power and going beyond the rights and duties established by justice, establishes a will for justice and a moral motivation which crowns the just act. Love, while personally mediated, complements justice with its objective demands.


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