Responding to Tim Suttle

Author Tim Suttle responded to my review of his book, An Evangelical Social Gospel?, by engaging in the one major critique I addressed in his book. In my review I expressed concern over Suttle’s broad use of the word “individualism” and suggested that perhaps he needed to address atomistic individualism instead. Apparently Suttle agreed my advice is worthy of consideration, and he crafted a response engaging my thoughts.

One thing Suttle and I completely agree on is the moral capacity and worth of the individual. Suttle admits this was neglected in the book, though my guess is that no honest reader would assume Suttle believes otherwise. Any Christian who engages issues of justice in a book obviously attributes moral worth to every individual.

The pushback comes, however, from the voluntaristic element inherent in what I quoted from Norman Horn’s review of Opitz. Suttle writes, “I don’t think our inclination is a factor in terms of what it means to be an individual/person. Our inclination toward being a hermit or social creature is secondary to the fact that we are born vulnerable and dependent creatures.” Further, he writes, “Our essential connected-ness is in our nature… But our involvement in humanity is not voluntaristic.”

There are two concepts here that are at play: “humanity” and “community.” It’s quite possible brevity prevented clarity in my critique. Let’s try it this way: because God created us for community, rejecting it is to deny ourselves participation in the fullness of the human experience. Yet what makes that human experience meaningful depends on the extent to which individuals are free to make commitments to the communities they find valuable. Jesus’ call to follow him implies openness and the possibility of rejection. The hermit is free to be left alone, damned as he might be. But there is no real community by forcing hermits to “belong.”

I find it rewarding that Suttle feels he can find common ground with many types of people from all over the political spectrum. I’ve been hard pressed to find a single social justice advocate who will even entertain the thought that libertarianism and social justice are possible bedfellows. Yet Suttle seems open: “Libertarianism and social justice are not fundamentally opposed to one another.” I hope this conversation can continue!

As a pastor, Suttle asks some really good reflective questions, and in doing so makes some subtle praises for our site, The outstanding pragmatic question is this one: “Does our society possess the kind of virtues necessary to make self-governing under a more libertarian view work? Is our society too selfish for that?” The short answer is, “No, our society does not. Yes, it is too selfish.” But here’s the follow-up: “If this is indeed the reality, what does this say about the makeup of social justice in our society today?”

Is it truly social and is it truly just when the nature of society itself is governed from the top down by a concentrated set of powers? I’m fairly certain that God is pleased when poor people are merely fed, but my strong hunch is that the command to love the poor has a broader goals: the harmonic relationships of those living in community. It is tremendously difficult to choose to love and serve those who have nothing. It isn’t something we ought to outsource to a single entity forcing us to do it anyway. “Your hearts are far from me” comes to mind as a relevant verse from the Old Testament.

But what lies behind this question is a basic fear, one that I’m likewise a bit nervous to admit. We’re not dealing with software that runs like it’s been programmed. We’re not dealing with sheep who simply follow the one in front of it. We’re dealing with people who have ends with means different from each other which causes conflict. For most people—especially those who raise an eyebrow at the market—it takes a major amount of faith to just “let the market do it’s work.” (Thomas Sowell says he doesn’t have faith in the market, he has evidence. But that’s another article!) The market is full of sinful human beings, some who won’t blink at harming others to achieve those ends. It’s natural to be nervous, but the mechanisms libertarians favor are not “anything goes,” but a method to channel our energy to “get what we want at others’ expense” by requiring us to serve one another. The oft-chided “invisible hand” isn’t just some voodoo result of any and every market, but a shorthand way of saying, “Look at the progress that happens when people are required to trade rather than plunder!”

Suttle includes liberty, justice, and equality as some of the virtues of the Kingdom of God that are compatible with libertarianism. His concern, it seems, are the other virtues that seem to “run counter to the libertarian stream”: mutuality, self-sacrifice, self-emptying, vulnerability, enemy love, refusal of violence, peace, economic justice, social justice.

Perhaps the brand(s) of libertarianism Suttle has been exposed to have been too bold in purpose so as to obscure the breadth of the philosophy of liberty. An applied philosophy of liberty is not one which directly espouses the virtues of self-sacrifice, self-emptying, vulnerability, or enemy love; but neither would it exclude their existence. The presence of liberty is alone insufficient to provide these qualities in individuals. But we would be mistaken to believe that a philosophy of liberty runs counter to them. Those who can truly be sacrificial, self-emptying, and enemy-loving have found true freedom in the will to be more than those who simply refrain from aggression (the bare minimum of liberty).

The refusal of violence (oustide of self-defense) is a common theme for libertarians, with peace being the benchmark of a libertarian social framework. I’m confused that Suttle would include these as candidates of counter-libertarian virtues. If by “peace” we mean the shalom of God, then liberty is the starting point by which people can begin to grasp real social peace. To have inherently divisive social conflict through the political mechanism is no way to begin to establish a true peace in society.

That leaves us with mutuality, economic justice, and social justice. I’ll have to ask Suttle to explain what he means by mutuality and economic justice. As for social justice, I’ll respond simply: without liberty, social justice is but a shadow of genuine social harmony, for it cloaks itself in the language of outcomes without care for the morality of the means. How can justice be considered “social” when conformity is mandatory?

The questions Suttle raises are important for libertarian Christians to consider. Suttle himself seems open enough to making friends with libertarians, especially those who claim the name of Christ. I hope a dialogue will continue between us as we seek mutual understanding of our beliefs and goals.

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