Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy
Reviewed by Micah J. Watson, Political Science, Calvin College
Timothy P. Jackson is an intellectual revolutionary disguised as a distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Emory University. Political Agape is the third in a trilogy of books aimed at changing the way we think about a host of first-order subjects.1 Jackson’s primary goal in this book is persuading others to follow him in embracing political agape, a new way of thinking about human relations that marks as significant a change as Copernicus’s heliocentric theory achieved in eclipsing the geocentric model of the universe (2). It is not a timid book.
It is also not an easy book to characterize. Jackson is a prolific, insightful, and erudite scholar whose interests and expertise defy neat categorization, and the 14 chapters spanning over 400 pages include various works of his from over the last 25 years. In some ways we have two books in one. One book we have in Political Agape is an accomplished but fairly standard project from a gifted scholar interpreting texts and political moments, critiquing other scholars, and doing the difficult practical ethics of engaging thorny and controversial issues. Accordingly, the book includes passages addressing Christian complicity in the Holocaust, ethical approaches to adoption, abortion, and same-sex marriage, and interpretive claims about how best to understand Reinhold Niebuhr and Søren Kierkegaard.
The other book we have in Political Agape is the more ambitious project, the one in which Jackson describes political agape, or prophetic liberalism. The heart of this project is the proposal that the major approaches to politics have mistakenly prioritized justice as the foundational virtue or goal. Justice, while important, is limited insofar as it can be applied to those human beings with dignity. Yet not all human beings have dignity, as Jackson associates human dignity with rationality and agrees with ethicist Peter Singer that without a critical minimum of rationality, some human beings are pre-persons, non-persons, and post-persons (97). While agreeing on some level with Singer’s terminology, Jackson strongly, and rightly, rejects Singer’s conclusions. For Jackson holds that justice and dignity must be subservient to agapic love, which denotes sanctity, and all human beings, “persons” or not, have sanctity even if they do not have an achieved human dignity. Love is the lens through which we must view and order our dealings with one another. It does not eclipse justice, but properly orders it.
This claim is the thread that runs through what I have described as Jackson’s more audacious project. Arguably all of the other treatments, arguments, and interpretations are meant to augment and explain how this understanding would manifest itself in actual ethical controversies and political practices. Because Jackson did not harmonize the older publications that appear in the book with his more recent work, it is sometimes up to the reader to make those connections, and that is more easily done in some chapters than in others.
Three argumentative themes do surface and resurface throughout the book. The first is the aforementioned priority of love and sanctity over justice and dignity. The second is Jackson’s characterization of liberal democracy as a prodigal son of Christianity, not an “enlightenment interloper.” Indeed, the institutional church has a great deal to learn from liberal democracy. The third theme is Jackson’s abhorrence of any theological or political conception that would divide human beings, whether it is the elect and the damned, the wicked and the righteous (306), or the city of man and the city of God (no mention, however, of sheep and goats, or wheat and tares).
It comes as no surprise then that Jackson’s primary nemesis through much of the book is Augustine of Hippo, who has “caused more error and suffering” than any other theologian because of how his divisive categories have taken hold among Christians (25).2 Nor does such either/or thinking among Christians arise from good faith, but rather is “self-righteous,” “congratulatory,” “arrogant,” “invidious,” and full of hubris. To think that some are “in” and others are “out” is reminiscent not of genuine biblical theology but of Nazi ideology (306). One might be forgiven for wondering how Jackson can so starkly divide Christians between those who are divisive and those prophetic liberals who are not.
Evaluating Jackson’s book and the arguments therein is challenging because of the scope of his attempt to overturn entrenched views about Christian faith and political justice. One knows how to interact with the typical scholarly book that offers readings of various figures and proposes answers to vexing ethical dilemmas. Is the interpretation of Lincoln or of Martin Luther King sound? Does the author fairly represent the various sides of, say, the euthanasia debate and persuasively point the way toward a just approach to the issue? Such claims and counterclaims comprise much of what passes for academic work in disciplines like Christian ethics and political theory.
But Jackson is making much bigger claims, and it is difficult to know what standards should count in gauging the project as a success and whether one should embrace it. He is asking his readers to completely reorient their approach to the polis and to what Christian faith means in relation to it. Political agape is to politics what heliocentrism was to cosmology, agapic love is a workable alternative to justice in an increasingly pluralistic society, and putative heroes of the faith like Augustine and Calvin have actually done egregious harm and caused immeasurable suffering.
What is the yardstick by which we can measure these claims? Often Christian authors will ground their case for this or that by arguing that their approach best accords with an understanding of scripture, or with the tradition of the church, however those understandings and traditions are defined. When the argumentative claims are groundbreaking or radical, such attempts to connect with scripture or the teachings of the church reflect a sense that our arguments should somehow be congruent with an authority beyond our own take on things.
Jackson displays a refreshing candor in acknowledging that he does not think either scripture or the teachings of the church have any special claim of authority. Scripture is not particularly trustworthy, as evidenced by the Gospel writers awkwardly trying to hide the fact that Jesus was first a disciple of John the Baptist (298). Sometimes scripture is morally repugnant, as we see in the “violent revenge fantasies in the book of Revelation” (xii). Jackson agrees with Duke University New Testament scholar Richard Hays that the Apostle Paul believed and taught that same-sex actions were immoral, but does not agree that scripture and tradition should “order the life of the church” on this and other moral questions (325). Scripture, then, is not the “norming norm” but rather one source of insight among many others.
The same is true of the church, whether as an institution or as a tradition of teachings. In fact, Jackson thinks the church as an institution has been given far too much credit. In his discussion of Stanley Hauerwas, Jackson contests the notion that we should think of the church as comprised of Christians and as an entity that is both temporal and eternal. The church as we experience it is not the Bride of Christ, imperfect and stained in the now-but-not-yet of the kingdom of God, but awaiting her Lord and her ultimate sanctification in the eschaton to come. The church instead, for Jackson’s purposes, is only temporal, and thus just as worldly as the political state, each guilty of horrendous crimes and sins. We ought not appeal to the church as having any more authority than the state, as “When both church and state are properly subordinate to God, they participate equally in his kingdom” (22, emphasis original).
Far from providing authoritative teachings or norms by which readers can assess Jackson’s bold claims about love and justice, or Christian ethics and euthanasia, the church’s teachings and the scriptures themselves are subject to evaluation by a different set of norms and values. Which raises the obvious question: what is that set of norms?
The answer to that question reveals the most daring claim in a daring book. For the answer appears to be political agape, understood as an eclectic method of drawing from the wisdom of a wide range of admirable figures like Lincoln, King, and Kierkegaard, and appropriating the lessons of liberal democracy and momentous historical events like the Holocaust. Political agapists will still draw from scripture and Christian thought and practice, but will work through them with the help of more modern and authoritative sources like feminist theory (248-251), Freudian psychoanalysis (302),3 and sociology, law, and medicine (349).
Jackson’s book is indeed revolutionary, even prophetic. It cannot help but be of interest given the author’s deep learning and lively intellect, and the crucial topics he applies them to. He is overturning tables and upending traditional teachings. Whether one finds his political agape ultimately persuasive may depend on how he would answer an old question in this new context, “By whose authority do you do these things?”
- The other two books are Love Disconsoled and The Priority of Love, and while one’s grasp of Jackson’s project would be enriched by reading the first two books, Political Agape can be read profitably on its own.
- John Calvin comes in for a close second to Augustine, though the references are more subtle. See Jackson’s criticism of limited atonement on page 25, and the not-so-subtle criticism coupling Calvin with Hitler as exemplars of those who attempt to merge church and state.
- Jackson likens the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity to an Oedipal attempt to “marry the mother.”