Miroslav Volf on the Values that Guide Christian Politics
October 9, 2012 1 Comment
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf lately. Well, not literally, but his books and articles constantly litter my desk as I write a dissertation on the ethics of political reconciliation and transitional justice. His most recent book is A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. I have yet to read the book, but Volf has posted 21 values that should guide Christians in their voting during the upcoming presidential election over the last several months on his Facebook page. They have stirred much conversation there, but over time it has become unwieldy to find them all. So, for the convenience of everyone interested, I have compiled them below.
In this year of presidential elections, I decided to summarize key values that guide me as I make the decision for whom to cast my vote. It takes knowing three basic things to choose a candidate for public office responsibly:
1. values we hope the candidate will stand for and the order of priority among them;
2. ways in which and means by which these values are best implemented in any given situation;
3. capacity—ability and determination—to contribute to the implementation of these values.
Most important are the values. As I identified each value, I thought it important to (1) name the basic content of the value, (2) give a brief rationale for holding it, (3) suggest some parameters of legitimate debate about it, and (4) identify key questions for the candidate.
I write as a Christian theologian, from the perspective of my own understanding of the Christian faith. Whole books have been written on each of these values, explicating them and adjudicating complex debates about them. In giving rationale for a given value, I only take one or two verses from the Bible to back up my position, more to flag the direction in which giving a rationale would need to go than in fact strictly to offer a rationale. I have identified some 20 such values. In coming days I will post one a day.
So the first of the values, first not necessarily in the order of importance
1. Freedom to Chose a Way of Life
Value: All citizens should have the right to take responsibility for their own life and embrace a faith or a way of life they deem meaningful without suffering discrimination.
Rationale: One’s faith touches the core of one’s life and cannot, and should not, be coerced, a view arguably implied in the statement of St. Paul that one believes “in the heart” (“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” [Romans 10:9]). “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’… Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (John 6:60, 66-67), the implication being that one is free to chose another way of life.
Debate: The debatable issue should not be whether people should be free to choose and exercise their religion (or irreligion) without discrimination; that’s a given. Public debate should be about which way of life, including its public dimensions or implications, is more salutary, and whether there are ways of life so inimical to human flourishing and common life that their exclusion doesn’t represent an act of discrimination but is a requirement of humane social life. We should also debate publicly the moral foundation a state that is “neutral” with regard to distinct faiths and secular interpretations of life as well as the precise nature of political arrangements required to keep the state “neutral.”
Questions To Ask: Does the candidate respect the right of all—fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and secularists, conservatives and progressives, to name a few groups at odds with one another—to take personal responsibility for their lives and to lead their lives as they see fit? Does the candidate think of America as a Christian nation (so that, in one way or another, all others have to fit into a Christian mould) or as a pluralistic nation (in which a way of life is not imposed on anyone without their endorsement)?
Value # 2:
Concern for the Poor
Value: The poor—above all those without adequate food or shelter—deserve our special concern.
Rationale: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:22). “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you” (Deuteronomy 15:7).
Debate: There should be no debate whether fighting extreme poverty should be one of the top priorities of the government. That is a given. The debate should be about the following issues: How to generate a sense of solidarity with the poor among all citizens? In poverty alleviation, what is the proper role of governments and what of individuals, religious communities, and civic organizations? What macroeconomic conditions most favor lifting people out of poverty? What should the minimum wage be?
Question: Is overcoming extreme poverty a priority for the candidate? What poverty reducing policies is the candidate prepared to fight for?
Value #3: Excellent and Affordable Education
Value: It is important for citizens to understand the world in which they live, to learn to reflect critically on what makes life worth living, and be qualified for jobs that increasingly require complex skills. We should strive for excellent and affordable education for all citizens.
Rationale: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds in the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:26). “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it…Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 8:4-5, 10-11).
Debate: The debate should be about what families and government must do to improve the educational system, what exactly improvements in education look like, and what proportion of the budget should be allotted for educational purposes (as compared to, for instance, defense). The debate should not be about whether we should have an excellent educational system that is affordable for all.
Questions to Ask: What will the candidate do to ensure that all citizens—the poor no less than the wealthy—are taught to make intelligent judgments about what makes life worth living, acquire skills necessary for functioning in modern societies, and have an adequate understanding of the world?
Value: Economic growth is not a value in it own right because wealth and money are not values in their own right. They are means, indispensible means, but only means. In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we should worry more about how to use properly the wealth we create than how to create more wealth.
Rationale: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:24, 33).
Debate: We can abandon the old debate about whether efficient wealth creation or just wealth distribution is more important; both are important, for we cannot distribute what we don’t have and you should not have what is just for us to distribute. Instead, we should debate about what are morally irresponsible (wall-street gambling!), inhumane (child labor!), and unsustainable (deforestation!) ways of creating wealth; about how to use wealth properly as individuals, communities, and nation; about how to make wealth serve us instead of turning our whole lives into means of wealth acquisition.
Question to Ask: Which candidate is able to remind us that we diminish ourselves when we turn into money-making and pleasure-seeking creatures, and that we flourish when we pursue truth, goodness, and beauty, that we are truly ourselves when we reach to others in solidarity and enjoy one another in love (which, Christians would claim, is possible only “in God”)?
Here is value #5:
Value: Death should never be as punishment for a crime.
Rationale: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Since out of love Christ died for absolutely every human being (“the world”), no one should rob a human being of a chance to be transformed by God’s love and no one should put to death a human being who has been transformed by God’s love.
Debate: There is no debate on this one.
Question to Ask: Will the candidate push to abolish the capital punishment, and if so, how hard?
Value: Those seeking public office should foreswear spin and contempt, and be truthful with the public and civil to one another.
Rationale: We should all “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) and seek to “show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).
Debate: There is no debate about this one. You can “advertize” but not fabricate; you can criticize but not disrespect.
Questions to Ask: Do the facts about the candidate’s own performance as well as that of the opponent match with candidates’ words? Is the candidate attempting to correct rather than seeking to benefit from the spin that others, without his direct endorsement, do on his behalf.
My public office value #7:
Value: Given the world’s resources, no human being should go hungry; as individuals and nation we should be committed to complete eradication of hunger.
Rationale: “[The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed […] gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:7); “Then he [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You tat are accursed, depart from me into the eterna
l fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (Matthew 25:41-42).
Debate: The debate should not be whether the eradication of world hunger ought to be one of our top priorities, but what are most effective ways to achieve that goal.
Question to Ask: Is the candidate committed to the eradication of world hunger, and if so, what means will he use toward that goal? Is the candidate prepared to set aside a percentage of the Gross National Product for the eradication of hunger?
Value #8: (For differences between values, means by which values are best implemented in any given situation, and capacities of candidates to contribute to the implementation of these values, see the first post in the series).
*Value*: As individuals and as a nation we should live within our means and not borrow beyond what we can reasonably expect to return; we should not offload onto others,
whether contemporaries or future generations, the price of our indulgence or risk-taking.
*Rationale*: Self-indulgent and reckless debt is a form of stealing, and we are commanded: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15)
*Debate*: We should debate about what responsible levels of debt are, for households, businesses, or a nation; what constitutes predatory lending practices and how to prevent them; to what degree, if at all, spending on consumer goods should be promoted as a cure for faltering economy and what might be public significance of contentment.
*Question to Ask*: What will a candidate do to bring and keep national debt under control? What will the candidate do to encourage individual saving and living within means?
Value: Every citizen, religious or not, Christian, Jew or Muslim, has the right to bring his or her own perspectives on human flourishing and on the common good to bear upon public life and do so on equal terms as everyone else.
Rationale: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too wil
l prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). “So in *everything,* do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Debate: The debate should not be whether religious voices should be excluded or not. It should be about what kind of political arrangements will ensure equal access of all to participation in the political process on equal terms.
Question: Does the candidate support participation of every person in public life, encouraging them to do so on the basis of their own specific motivations and reasons? Does the candidate seek to protect the voice of ordinary people from being drowned by powerful interest groups (like lobbies and superpacks)?
Value: It is important for every citizen to have meaningful and, if employed for pay, adequately remunerated work. All able citizens should work to take care of their needs and to contribute to the wellbeing of others and of the planet.
Rationale: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The prophet Isaiah envisions a time when all God’s people “will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isaiah 65:21). Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Debate: The debate should be about what are the required economic, cultural, and political conditions for people to have meaningful work, and who is mainly responsible to create and maintain these conditions. How best to fight unemployment and underemployment? Given the present state of economy and future economic developments, how to stimulate creation of jobs that pay adequate wage?
Questions to Ask: What policies does the candidate propose to help encourage meaningful employment for adequate pay for all people? What will the candidate do to encourage people to work not just for personal gain but for the common good?
Value: Those who are frail on account of their advanced age deserve our special help. They need adequate medical assistance, social interaction, and meaningful activities. (Humanity of a society is measured by how well it treats those from whom it can no loner expect much benefit.)
Rationale: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:5). In the contemporary world, “elderly,” arguably, belong to the categories of the “poor” and “widows”.
Debate: The debate here is the extent of the responsibility for the wellbeing of the elderly. How much resources should a society set aside for the care of elderly, and what are the best ways to manage those resources.
Question to Ask: What will you do to help honor the elderly and attend to their specific needs?
Value: War is almost never justifiable, and every adequate justification has to show how a particular war is an instance of loving one’s neighbors and loving one’s enemies.
Rationale: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:43-44).
Debate: There is a legitimate debate on whether acts of war can ever be a form of love of neighbor and of enemy and, if they can, what kind of action of an enemy is a justifiable cause for a war (rule of a tyrant?) and what kind of conduct of war (drones?) is necessary for war to be just.
Questions to Ask: Has the candidate supported or advocated ending of unjust wars in the past? Has the candidate condemned significant forms of unjust conduct of war?
*Value*: No nation represents an exception to the requirements of justice according to which countries should relate to one another. America should exert its international power by doing what is just and persuading rather than exertion of military power, and should pursue its own interests in concert with other nations of the world.
*Rationale*: ““In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
*Debate*: The debate should not be whether America is somehow exceptional (and therefore permitted to do what other nations are no, as, for instance, carrying out raids in search for terrorists in other nations). The debate should rather be about what does it mean for the one remaining superpower to act responsibly in the community of nations.
*Question to Ask*: At the international level, would the candidate renounce double moral standard: one for the U.S. and its allies and another for the rest of the world?
*Value*: We should never torture.
*Rationale*: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27); “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
*Debate*: There is no debate on this one, at least not a debate that, from my reading of Christian moral obligations, is legitimate.
*Questions to Ask*: Has the candidate unequivocally condemned use of torture?
*Value*: Unborn human life, just like fully developed human life, deserves our respect, protection, and nurture.
*Rationale*: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13); “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
*Debate*: There is a legitimate debate about the point at which what can plausibly be deemed human life begins.
*Question to Ask*: Is the candidate firmly committed to reducing the number of abortions performed?
Value #16 (On Healthcare)
*Value*: All people—poor or rich—should have access to affordable basic healthcare, just as all are responsible to live in a way conducive to physical and mental health.
*Rationale*: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35).
*Debate*: There is a legitimate debate as to how best to ensure that all people have access to affordable healthcare, but not weather the destitute should or should not be left to fend for themselves when faced with serious or chronic illness. We roughly know what it takes to lead a healthy lifestyle (exercise, minimal intake of sugar, no substance abuse, etc.), but we can and ought to debate most effective ways to help people lead such a lifestyle (for instance, how heavily should the food industry be regulated).
*Questions to Ask*: Which candidate is more likely to give the destitute effective access to healthcare? Which candidate is more likely to reduce the number of people who need to seek medical help?
Value # 17 (Care for Creation)
*Value*: We are part of God’s creation, and we must seek to preserve the integrity of God’s creation as an interdependent ecosystem and, if possible, to pass it on to the future generations improved. Above all, we should not damage the creation by leading a lifestyle marked by acquisitiveness and wastefulness.
*Rationale*: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).
*Debate*: Debate here is should be about the extent of ecological damage (for instance, whether or not we are barreling toward a climate apocalypse) and about the appropriate means and sacrifices necessary to preserve God’s creation.
*Question to Ask*: Which candidate shows better understanding of the ecological health of the planet and has a better track record in preventing devastation of what God has created and pronounced good?
*Value*: We should honor every human being and respect all faiths (without necessarily affirming them as true).
*Rationale*: “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).
*Debate*: The debate about relation to other religions should not be whether we should have the *right* to mock what others hold to be holy; we do have that right. At the same time, the debate should not be about whether we have a moral obligation not to make use of that right; we ought not mock what other people hold to be holy. Instead, the debate should be about what the authentic teachings and practices of individual religions are, to what extent the claims of their teachings are true (or false), and in what ways each religion fosters (or hinders) human flourishing.
*Question to Ask*: Will the candidate promote respect for all religions, including Islam, while at the same time affirming the need for honest debate about how true and salutary they are?
Value #19 (On Offenders)
*Value*: Mere retributive punishment is an inadequate and mistaken way of dealing with offenders. We need to find creative ways to reconcile offenders to their victims and reintegrate them into the society.
*Rationale*: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
*Debate*: We should debate viable alternatives to incarceration (in the U.S. the highest in the world!) and how best to achieve reintegration of offenders into the society.
*Question to Ask*: What are you proposing to do to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S.?
The final one on my list (though I could go on!)
*Value*: Competence, though essential, matters less than character because knowledge, though crucial, matters less than love.
*Rationale*: “If I … understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
*Debate*: The debate should be about what dimensions of character matter most and what blend of virtues and competencies is most needed at this time.
*Questions to Ask*: Whom does the candidate strive to be like? To whom does he, in fact, most resemble in character? Will the fear of losing power corrupt him?
OK, one more value, foundation of them all:
*Value*: The ultimate allegiance of a Christian is to Jesus Christ, the creative Word (become flesh), which enlightens everyone, and the redeeming Lamb of God, which bears the sin of the whole world. A Christian ought not embrace any practice, no matter how prudent it may seem from the standpoint of national security or national competitive advantage, which conflicts with allegiance to Christ.
*Rationale*: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11)
*Debate*: For Christians, the debate should not be whether the allegiance to Christ trumps the allegiance to the nation. The debate should be what key values national life follow from their allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between universalist claims of Christ and particularist claims of the nation.
*Question to Ask*: To what extent is the candidate merely seeking to serve the “goddess nation” and to what extent is what he stands for compatible with the Christian conviction that Christ is the key to human flourishing?