Dome of State Capitol in Indianapolis.

Politics, Left and Right

Tim Suttle, author of An Evangelical Social Gospel? (which I reviewed here) recently posted an article in the Huffington Post Religion section titled, “What is the Chief Political Concern of the Bible?” Suttle comes from a neither-left-nor-right perspective, though seems to lean left in many areas. Regardless of his leanings, he seems to affirm the inherent toxicity of the “left vs. right” argument in politics.

Tim, here’s an invitation: jump ship entirely and join the Libertarian Christian movement! One of the more beautiful compatibilities between libertarianism and Christians interested in social justice is their respective concern for unjust power structures and institutions.

Now, I’m coming from what could be called the Austro-libertarian perspective, which is not your popular strain of libertarianism. In fact, it’s probably more critical of Big Business and institutionalized injustice than any libertarian perspective that I’ve stumbled upon. If the evils caused by money and greed are your root concern, look no further than the outright damnation of the Federal Reserve creating money for the rich at the expense of the poor! If Big Business “success” raises your blood pressure, the Austrians are there to explain economically and politically why their success is often unjust and deserves our scorn. If it’s the poor you’re concerned about, look no further than the Austrians to explain why sound economics are critical to the well-being of everyone, including the poor.

In his article, Suttle asked several high-profile theologians and thinkers like N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Stanley Hauerwas, and Walter Bruggemann what they believed the chief political concern of the Bible was. Their responses, while in context might represent particular manifestations of “left-leaning” institutions created and protected by the State, aren’t per se anti-libertarian. I’ll comment on a few of them.

“The chief political concern of the Scriptures is for God’s wise and loving ordering of his world to be operative through humans who will share his priorities, especially his concern for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. This concern was embodied by Jesus in his inauguration of ‘God’s kingdom’ through his public career and especially his self-giving death, which together set the pattern for a radically redefined notion of power.”

N.T. Wright

Wright is one of my theological heroes. He has a way of speaking for audiences both scholarly and popularly, and is widely acclaimed for his writings in both areas. His response is classical, with its use of phrases like “loving ordering of his world” and “radically redefined notion of power.” Which makes me wonder, What is more radical a definition of political power than that of the Austrian or Anabaptist tradition?! While Left and Right bicker constantly over their own visions of power over the rest of us, Austrians (and many Anabaptists) will say, “Maybe we should rethink this notion altogether and discover a better way for peaceful order.”

“I believe that the central political question is the management of public power in order that there should be an economically viable life for all members of the community. Thus justice is front and center and some texts, especially in Deuteronomy, are for the distribution of wealth in order that all may be viable. Obviously such justice is marked by mercy, compassion and generosity. The purpose is to create a genuine neighborhood for all the neighbors.”

Walter Bruggemann

Ah, yes, the “management of public power”! Such a wonderful topic among libertarians, Austrians in particular. Perhaps our goals aren’t exactly the same as Bruggemann’s, but justice is certainly front and center when it comes to issues of power. Creating a “genuine neighborhood for all the neighbors”? Austrians approach the issue as though everyone has authority over himself or herself. I have no right to trample yours, nor you mine. It ends there. Let’s cooperate! (A quick aside: while most Austrians are not minarchists, many libertarians believe that if a State must exist, it must do so only to ensure that cooperation takes place rather than coercion and fraud.)

“God’s solidarity with the poor, oppressed, outcast and forgotten.” Brian McLaren

I chucked when I saw McLaren’s brief response here. He’s naturally vague, which is fodder for conservatives to throw back in his face (he rarely returns the favor). Obviously, this statement is not anti-libertarian in the least. A free society certainly has room for this; indeed, this sort of solidarity might even flourish more without the State’s crowding out of true solidarity. Can you think of anything less truly unifying for a community than a transfer of wealth from some to another, most of whom don’t even know each other? I have a hunch that the goals of social justice isn’t fed hungry people or clothed naked people, but that all people experience solidarity and community.

Others answer with words like “health societies,” “revisioning communities,” and others reflect the nature of God’s intent for human well-being and God’s own glory. Suttle is on to something. God is indeed interested in how society is arranged. God sent Jesus to redefine what society ought to be. Jesus died in contrast to the violence of the kingdoms of this world.

Suttle’s theological influences are close to my own, and I believe they have much to teach libertarians who typically shy away from issues of social justice. At the same time, folks like Suttle might benefit from the economic analysis of society and the power structures that exist.

Nobody jumps ship so easily, especially when the sources and critiques are commonly thought to be on “the other side.” Yet because Suttle has made it clear he hasn’t stopped learning and journeying, let me switch metaphors and offer a more modest proposal: Come, taste and see the Austrian critique of power, the elite, and money. Let it whet your appetite for sound economic thinking on issues of justice, morality, and the common good.