Writing almost 50 years ago, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk in Kentucky, wrote about what he called political principles spiritualized by the Gospel. In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton’s reflections on society at large, he starts his discussion of politics by talking about the false distinction between “the natural and the supernatural.” The divide between the two is not as wide as many think. In fact, the two can often merge. “Christian social action,” he writes, “ conceives a man’s work itself as a spiritual reality.” He puts a finer point on that by saying our work can “recover a certain spiritual and holy quality, so that it become a source of spiritual renewal, as well as of material livelihood.”
He then outlines three things that make for political action that becomes spiritual action as well.
First, spiritual politics has to be human. It has to be about people, not processes. Anyone who has ever been caught up in a dehumanizing bureaucracy knows how important the human factor is. Jesus said that people were not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made for people. The same is true of politics. While humans are political animals, according to Aristotle, our politics must serve our humanity, not repress it. And they must serve our common humanity. Politics that serve one group at the expense of another cannot have any claim to be spiritual, much less Christian.
Spiritual politics cannot serve the interests of corporations first. Contrary to the words of a former candidate for president, corporations are not people. They are driven by a profit motive, which is fine, but that can never trump the needs of real people. I am not being anti-business here. There are ways the business do serve people, and those should be supported, but to give a blank check to corporations on the chance that what is good for them is good for the people is naive at best, and more likely craven materialism.
Second, not only must it be human, it must be personal. Humanity is not one-size-fits-all being. It is not enough to just treat people like human beings. Even with our various ethnic and tribal qualities, we differ incredibly from person to person. When we view groups of people as groups, we miss the individuality of the human race, and fall into repressive stereotypes. Some of these can be harmless, like when my German friend brought ketchup to our first breakfast together because, “all American eat ketchup at every meal.” He was trying to be polite, but missed the mark. That was a social faux pas. But when it comes to politics, the stereotypes can be more dangerous. Muslims are terrorists. Immigrants are rapists and thieves. (”Some of them are good people,” does not count as a real qualifier.) Jews love money. Young Black men are hoodlums. Old White men are racists.
Grouping people into stereotypes is anti-human, and anti-spiritual. Dividing the world into “good people” and “bad people” is simplistic. The reality is that we are all have a much deeper moral texture, one that cannot be easily summed up by dividing us into good and bad people.
Etienne Gilson writes in The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, “The work of creation is shattered, but the fragments remain good, and with the grace of God they must be reconstituted and restored.” Dividing the world into the righteous and reprobate just serves to divide us. Nothing is restored, nothing is reconstituted. A spiritual politic will see beyond the stereotypes, and move toward restoration, because it sees individuals, who all have both good and bad in them in. (Or to paraphrase Aquinas, who are created by God, and still retain the image of their creator, but who have had that image marred in them over time.)
Stereotypes depersonalize people, and render it impossible to truly serve people. When we cater to stereotypes we are diminishing our essential person hood.
Third, it emphasizes wisdom and love. There is knowledge enough in politics, but little wisdom. (Actually, in our current situation, we have jettisoned knowledge, and substituted feral instinct.) Politics is the art of calculated gains and losses, or as Harold Lasswell defined it, “who gets what, when and how.” It encourages self-interest, short-term gain, and a quid pro quo morality.
By emphasizing wisdom and love, politicians can move beyond this. Without wisdom and love, our political system will only serve those who have the ability to pay for what they want. Big interests, corporate and otherwise, well-heeled PACs, large donors, and politicians entrenched in all the above will continually subvert the public, often in the name of the public good.
A politics of wisdom and love will easily see beyond the short-term, beyond “what is in it for me?” beyond the tit for tat style of governance which marginalizes those who have no tits they can trade for tats. A politics of wisdom sees beyond the short term, and into the future. A politics of love sees beyond self-interest, and takes us in the realm of the common good. But a politics of wisdom and love is rarer in our political systems than a snowball in the Sahara.
But if we can pull the human, the personal, and wisdom and love into our political system, we will have a system that truly serves all the people, not just the favored few. Can we have that? Can we have a Christian politics? The odds are slim, and I’ll go into that in my next column.