Tuesday, March 25, 2008

God and Politics 3: Sin

No attempt at a Christian engagement with the political sphere can ignore the effects of the fall on human society and the world more generally. The third central statement that I think we need to think about is this:

3. Human beings are fallen and sinful.

I mention "fallen" and "sinful", because I see these as expressions of two sides of the human condition post-fall. On the one hand, human beings are all actively sinful; on the other hand, they all suffer the effects of fallen-ness, and living in a fallen world. Neither fact can be ignored by a responsible government. To explore further:

a) Each human being is sinful, and therefore fundamentally self-interested.

Though no doubt this will seem a harsh analysis to anyone who is not a Christian, it is a conclusion forced upon us by Scripture. If the two fundamental commands are to love God and to love our neighbour, the two fundamental sins are pride (which displaces God) and selfishness (which displaces love of, or even regard for, our neighbour). Pride and selfishness characterise humanity, and each individual human being, in the world post-Eden. That is not to say that each person demonstrates these characteristics to the full, nor to deny that many people pursue lifestyles that are more or less generous and humble. It is, however, to assert that at heart the human being is selfish, and therefore his or her thoughts and actions will always have a strong bias toward self interest.

The most immediate application of this truth within the sphere of democratic politics is this: we ought not to be too trusting of our leaders. It is a well known maxim that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely). However, we must say that in fact everyone is already corrupt, and power merely removes the factors inhibiting the expression of that corruption. We will therefore, if we are sensible, limit the power of any one individual or group as far as is practical within the operation of government. We will furthermore wish to have intense scrutiny of those in power, and rigid accountability for their actions.

A further application will be that government will need to direct a lot of its energy into restraining the effects of human sin and selfishness in society. It should be clear that, left entirely unchecked by law and custom, the selfishness of human beings would destroy society. Christians should therefore support law-enforcement agencies, and should, the above paragraph notwithstanding, be prepared to give government the power to counteract human sin.

The balance between these two applications will be complex. I would propose the rule that as many people as possible be involved in decision making - whilst recognising that "as many as possible" will be very few in cases where important decisions must be made quickly or with secrecy.

b) Human society is fallen, and therefore suffers

We must also recognise that each person, whilst being a sinner, is also to a greater or lesser extent sinned against. Whether this occurs directly, through the malice of one person or group, or indirectly, through the plutocratic economic arrangement of a society or the self interest of a ruling class, is largely by the by. There will be those in society for whom the fall means suffering, exclusion, poverty, illness and the like. I would suggest that Christians can hardly ignore this fact, or fail to respond with compassion, and that this compassion must flow over into their political considerations.

There will be cause at a later date to consider exactly how far this falls within the remit of the state, but for now suffice to say that the plight of the suffering must be a factor in our thinking about politics.

c) Human society cannot be 'fixed' while human beings remain broken

Our ambitions for politics and government must be limited as Christians. We cannot go along with utopian solutions to all humanity's ills, whether those proposed by the left or the right. No amount of economic tinkering (whether in the direction of socialism or the free market), no amount of social rethinking (whether liberalising or authoritarian in tendency), and no amount of political effort can make any fundamental change in human society. This is not to advocate defeat and withdrawal: there is much that can be done. But it is to recognise that human beings cannot fix human beings, and therefore cannot fix human society. Of course, we know someone who can do both, but that is for another day...

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