Marc De Kesel

The Kingdom of Heaven as mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer: the earliest Christians claimed it to be realized in their agape-based communities. Love as the paradigm for society and politics, they had a precise idea of what that means: radical equality, no private property, sharing everything with others. Not without reason, the earliest Christian way of social life had been interpreted as a kind of proto-communist society. 

Similar to Plato’s political idea of The Republic. Except that in that dialogue, love is not mentioned as the thing holding people together. There, it is truth – and the human insight in it – that give society its foundation and unity; which, at a fundamental level, amounts to the same thing as what the Christians had in mind. Their love/agape is nothing but the realization of truth – truth in its monotheistic version. The one and only true God, donator of the Law that his people were not able to fulfill, remediated their failure by abolishing sin and death in the sacrifice of his Son, thus restarting Creation and establishing it in Eternal Truth. The Christian love communities understood themselves as forerunners of the true society to come. 

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So were the monasteries in medieval society: dispersed realizations of the Civitas Dei within the wide realm of the civitas terrenna. But such were as well the anarchistic tendencies that never were absent in Christianity’s political history. What binds the Christian to society is a love that is oriented towards an entirely other, finally true society which has nothing in common with the existing one that is full of lies, corruption, sin and death. Love for Christ made Christians rise in revolt against society’s powers, including Christian powers.  

The love community as forerunner for the ‘City of God’ is one paradigmatic metaphor in the tradition of Christian political discourse. The other paradigm is the metaphor of the love community as a body guided by its head, Christ. Paul describes it in his Letter to the Colossians (1:18). The former rules Christianity’s politics with regard to other communities, the latter rules its inner politics. The Christian loves his own community as being a member of its body and, thus, obeying the head of it, which is Christ or his locum tenens, the pope and/or the emperor (and/or their substitutes).  

The second paradigm dominates Christian political discourses in the Middle Ages, if only because it fitted perfectly well with the feudal organization of the society of its time. And it was supported by the monastic system, however paradoxical that might be. For, seen from a politic perspective, the monastic system was basically anarchistic, representative as it was for the only true society, radically different from the ruling one. Yet, the Christian politics of that time had ‘tamed’ that anarchism and successfully incorporated it within the existing social ‘corpus’. 

  Giotto di Bondone, Saint Francis Renouncing Worldly Goods, 1297-1299

 Giotto di Bondone, Saint Francis Renouncing Worldly Goods, 1297-1299

When Francis of Assisi tried to live the monastic idea, not in a monastery, but in the middle of the ‘earthly city’, he introduced the old anarchistic political love paradigm within the newly emerging bourgeois society. Yet, the ecclesiastical power of his time fully succeeded in incorporating that anarchistic political love principle. Love remained what bound the citizen to its city in the same double sense as before: both love in the sense of loyalty to the existing head of the social corpus and love in the sense of orientation towards the only true society, the Civitas Dei, situated beyond the actual one of untruth and corruption.      

Is the concept of love absent in the post-Christian political discourses? It is at least more present than many presume. Modern politics considers society to be free and based in itself. But how is that ‘self’, that autonomous identity, possible without the support of each of its citizens? In order to be the autonomous, freedom based society it pretends to be, modern society needs the free commitment of its citizens. In a sense, it needs their love. Even in the sacrificial sense of the word. In fact, during modernity, the number of people giving their life for the love of their country has only increased. 

To support the free society that supports his own personal freedom, the citizen has to love that society, not only in loyalty to its ruling powers, but also with a willingness that reaches beyond his personal self-preservation – with a love that anchors in the radical ‘beyond’ of a society to come.