The Political Problem of Christian Love

Jared Schumacher

The relationship between Christian love and political problems is complex. It seems natural to address the complexity by first seeking to answer the fundamental question: Is agapè relevant to political life?  

Zak Benjamin     Come Dine

Zak Benjamin

Come Dine

But to do this, I would argue, presupposes two fundamental definitions that are in no way obvious:  namely, what is Christian love (and how might it relate to other "loves"), and what is a polis?  All-too-often, definitions for these essential words are assumed rather than elaborated by those seeking to reconfigure theology and its relation to politics.  The practical outcome of this habitual omission is that the relationship is construed according to an unannounced cache of meaning, incapable of being fully understood and, when necessary, scrutinized. 

Perhaps this is why it is so refreshing to read pre-modern "political" theologians.  Because their primary emphasis was on the communication of what they understood to be the truth,  their concern to be overt about their meanings is ostensible.  For example, in his classic De Civitate Dei, Augustine of Hippo stridently defines both Christian love and the polis.  Interestingly, they are essentially and definitionally related.

De Civitate Dei, Book 14 Chap. 28

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God. 

For Augustine, love is the foundational movement of city life.  This means that there is no such thing as a loveless city.  The theo-political question par excellence is, rather, what/who we love, as this determines the tenor of our political lives.  For Augustine, the truly public thing (res publica) is the City of God, whose rightly ordered love of God and his creation organizes all of life.  The city of man, in contrast, organizes itself according to a perverted notion of glory, securing for itself a temporary order based on merely human achievement.  This city is disordered to the extent that love of self to the exclusion of God is the binding agent of its polity.  

augustine CoG.jpg

From this definition of polis as a public thing 'devoted to glory, united in love', two crucial elements arise for an Augustinian political theology.  The first is that love is essential to all cities, both terrestrial and divine.  Again, there is no loveless city. And second, that there are a duality of irreconcilable cities.  The city of God cannot be collapsed into the city of man, and vice versa, because this would radically reorganize the foundational love at the core of the enterprise of the public thing. For Augustine, Christian love is the center of the City of God. Precisely because the love which organizes the earthly city is finally irreconcilable to this love, it must - as all earthly things must in the end - pass away.  In relation to the earthly city, then, Christian love is a political problem to the extent that it is unable to be fully integrated into a merely terranic life.  Those who set themselves apart from Christian love to expedite political agendas can only view it with suspicion. 


One recent example of this suspicion is Vincent Lloyd's recent book, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology.   As he sees it, the traditional theo-political account (read: Augustine's) is problematic to the extent that it wounds the structural integrity of material reality, denigrating it with pipe-dreams of a better world.  He argues that what is needed is a greater appreciation for "the ordinary", which seems to mean 'the world as it is.'  What he calls "the supersessionist logic" of the traditional account is at the heart of what is wrong with confessionally Christian politics, in the way that it sullies the ordinary.  He therefore offers to "reconfigure" political-theological language of its supersessionism, to make it more faithful to the ordinary.  Unsurprisingly -  given its centrality in Augustine's account and the greater Christian tradition - he begins with love.   It is quite difficult to offer a brief summary of his own account of love, but at its core is the attempt to immanentize love, to make it a matter between consenting individuals, who for ordinary reasons decide to work out the messiness of human life together.  

Certainly Lloyd offers us no systematic account of human love, no doubt because such an account could only be supersessionist. His primary concern is to pull down the traditional theological accounts of love because these he finds politically oppressive; and at the end of the day, this is precisely what makes him a political pragmatist.  Thus, he wants to bend christian love (and the entirety of its theological heritage) through his "ordinary" prism, because it is politically expedient to do so.  

If man is merely a political animal, as Aristotle famously declared, then Lloyd's is a reasonable attempt to undermine the oppressive artifice of transcendental love;  in short, it is a rational attempt to overcome the messianism or indifference which Christian love has been known to inspire.  However, if - as Christians believe - man is a more-than-political animal, a being whose creation in Imago Dei calls him beyond himself to a life which can only be described as eternal, then Lloyd's political anthropology of love doesn't undermine false idols so much as neuter humanity's capacity to reflect the divine.  

What should be cherished in his account is the attempt to rid Christianity of oppressive logics which have all-too-often enslaved Christian devotion, bending it towards merely immanent ends.  But the attempt to severe man's capacity for transcendental reference might be just the thing that prevents the overcoming of human brutality.  Only a transitory love of the ordinary, hallmark of Augustine's depiction of the City of God on pilgrimage through this world, can inspire men and women to do extra-ordinary things, for example, to become a true res publica - the Kingdom of God.

What is shrewd in Augustine’s account - and here might be room for partial raproachment with Lloyd - is his concern to detail the ‘messiness’of life this side of eschatological fullfilment.  Augustine’s ecclesiology, unlike that of Robert Bellarmine, is not perfectionist.  Rather, the church is a corpus mixtum, a mixed body, full of wheat and tares. Moreover, the temporal goods of the earthly city, though transitory, really are good according to Augustine.  This is why he can say of this earthly city, in Book 19.26:

Yet even this people has a peace of its own which is not to be lightly esteemed, though, indeed, it shall not in the end enjoy it, because it makes no good use of it before the end. But it is our interest that it enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon. For from Babylon the people of God is so freed that it meanwhile sojourns in its company.  And therefore the apostle also admonished the Church to pray for kings and those in authority, assigning as the reason, “that we may live a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness and love.” And the prophet Jeremiah, when predicting the captivity that was to befall the ancient people of God, and giving them the divine command to go obediently to Babylonia, and thus serve their God, counselled them also to pray for Babylonia, saying, “In the peace thereof shall you have peace,” Jeremiah 29:7 — the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy.

Ordinary life, life on pilgrimage, is full of wheat and tares.  Both authors agree on this.  The fundamental difference is that Lloyd sees fit to pitch his tent in the ordinary, while Augustine recapitulates the scriptural vision of a love which moves humanity to extra-ordinary heights.  


This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.