If we begin conversation about some public policy issue, we should have some idea of how the discussion can continue in a meaningful way. To engage in political debate is not just about stating a principle to start a conversation, nor is it just talking about justice in some abstract Platonic way. Nurturing Justice is about enabling justice to be done. The true challenge of a Christian political option may need to begin by enunciating principles for public governance, but then we need to keep the conversation going. How are we to do that? We shall have to avoid hit 'n run debate by deepening our understanding of current public policy.
Even to initiate a conversation about starting a Christian school, is to get into the thick of political struggle. But how many Christian schools you know of have been launched with an understanding of the political dimension of parental co-operation to think together about "bringing every thought captive to Christ" (2 Cor 10:5).
Last time I suggested that in making one's Christian political opinions known, a citizen is also acknowledging his or her accountability for giving expression to political views to cultivate civic discourse with one's neighbours. The first step was concrete and commonsensical - have some article, or op-ed piece or book, ready, that puts forward a view similar to your own. But avoid presumption - having such a reference at hand does not preclude the possibility that you have misunderstood it. It neither opens nor shuts the door of our conversation. Moreover, the person with whom you are discussing these issues may indeed take your advice, read the article and come back with the conclusion that both of you are wrong or even may return to your conversation to take sides with the writer you thought supported what you had been saying, and thus reads the article to disagree with your view. Can we handle that circumstance? After all, a fellow citizen still has to come to his or her own judgement. The question then is about how to keep political debate going, particularly when you disagree.
Politics is all about figuring out how citizens can keep on exchanging their opposing views about public governance (discursive democracy) while ascribing due respect to each other as citizens in the same polity, across different polities, as citizens of global community. That's the difficult part. So what can be done to advance debate in the midst of those kinds of (sometimes highly nuanced antithetical) disagreements? Here is a second step that the erstwhile Christian citizen might consider as she (or he) tries to orient herself from the thick of political debate.
The second step involves seeking to deepen political insight. We ask questions that will clarify what justice means in relation to this issue. Take for instance, "Can the State 'Redefine' Social Institutions?", written by Dr. Jonathan Chaplin, of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Tyndale House, Cambridge, UK. This is a good example of a "first step" article I might pass on. But notice its title. Here is a question about state competence. Chaplin exposes a question that remains dormant while blithe presumption prevails in public debate. Consider how the state is understood by those who demand that marriage now be "redefined". Just what does "redefine" mean?
Asking this question exposes the presumption basic to President Obama's recent statement that marriage should be redefined to include homosexual relationships. He might want to say that as far as he and Michelle are concerned that this is just their own "evolving" personal view and that during the tenure of his next Presidential term, should that come about, he would not be disposed to offer resistance to states which legislate such a change to state laws. But clearly he is now committed to the "whig interpretation of civil rights history" that identifies "gay marriage" or "marriage equality" as the latest chapter in rolling back oppression and bringing "freedom" to the fore. This simply avoids a deeper problem about political debate, and it avoids the political questions that citizens need to discuss among themselves concerning the task of the state in "redefining" marriage, or for that matter any social institution. How is this task of "redefinition" to be understood. In what way does the definition of marriage, as one institution, fall within the province of government, whether of a state or a federal legislature? That's the question that needs to be addressed here.
Mr President you've blown it. No matter how many states now get in line with this allegedly "history-making" profession of the US President, the path to genuine political debate is blocked when you fail to initiate the debate that needs to be developed. The preliminary question should not be avoided. It is not, first and foremost, about the definition of marriage at all, but about the character of any public-legal definition of any social institution.
Chaplin quotes from John Milbank to sum it up: What authority does the state legislature have to take unto itself the competence to use the law to change the definition of a natural and cultural reality which, historically, has preceded the existence of the state itself?* Thus Milbank too has cast doubt upon the state's competence to redefine marriage. As Chaplin indicates, when such state competence is simply presumed, the debate assumes an enlargement of the state's institutional function, not just in relation to the institution of marriage, but with respect to the definition of all social institutions. By facing this question we confront a "world-view" assumption, a decisive political presupposition, that leads the proponents of same-sex marriage to assert that it is a citizen's right to equity which gives the state the grounds it requires for redefining marriage to include homosexual relations. One prominent academic and Anglican cleric asserts that marriage has to be an institutional entitlement that arises from a state's recognition of citizenship. Anything else must be an exclusionary and intolerant "discrimination". Really?
Is it in fact citizenship that is primarily enhanced by marriage? Is it citizens who get married? This eminent justification for "gay marriage", all its 39 Articles, with quotes from the New Testament notwithstanding, is actually more an appeal cloaking the dogmas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) so that marriage is presented as a dimension of the freedom which the state ascribes to the citizen. And so, to with-hold the marriage "right" from those who are said to fulfil its evident minimal characteristics (singular love and commitment for life) is to impose an unjustifiable restraint on the free individual. The basic principle of the state is grossly violated by those who do not accept that homosexual friendships can not be marriages. After all, it is assumed that the primary function of government is to protect the sovereignty individuals have over their own lives. And if sovereign individuals decree they are married what is the state doing standing in their way?
So, the question is this: is marriage a bond the state creates for Jacques and Jacqui? Or is it two persons who form "a marital relationship that is premised upon gender complementarity" and in that bond they are each other's wife and husband, which the State then recognizes when it is satisfied that the bond has been entered into freely and lawfully?
Clearly the view that marriage as an institution is predicated upon citizenship is open to serious challenge and, in Chaplin's view, it is simply a diversion and obfuscation to cloak the demand for "gay marriage" in the language of "anti-discrimination". The argument cloaks its demand in the same "whig interpretation of civil rights" that we noted with President Obama's view. To oppose this is effectively to stand against the tide of history; our task is to promote the rolling back of all discriminatory oppression and allow freedom to take its next inevitable step forward! [As I suggested last time, there is intense irony in this demand since it re-applies the same argument used by President George W Bush when he wanted to declare war on terrorism by similar appeal to the prevailing US civil religious view of America's cosmic role.] So the question is about our political perspective, political philosophy, our historical understanding of the disclosure of diverse social responsibilities.
There's no escaping the fact that the State has to correctly administer justice for all of the human responsibilities that are present in civil society. So the question cannot be avoided: How should we understand the State's activity when it "defines" or "re-defines" some or other social institution (including marriage)? But by addressing this question head-on, we meet still other dimensions of what I have called this "blithe presumption". The demand for "gay marriage" assumes that the State has hitherto created an unjust form of marriage by means of a definition which gives exclusionary legal recognition to "heterosexual couples [who] want to enter into lifelong unions". Presumably, this injustice is to be overcome, by a "redefinition" that overturns the previous definition protecting "marriage inequality" by re-creating the marriage institution itself. It is clearly assumed, following a Rousseauesque view of society, that the State's task in defining marriage must create marriage for its citizens, and it must do so equally for all who want this entitlement. It is this equation which continues to generate agitation for "marriage equality".
This agitation has continued to focus upon a State's power to legislate entitlements by construing this legislative power as the means by which social responsibilities are actually brought into existence. It assumes these responsibilities would not exist if the entitlements were not granted. In other words, there is a "statist" view of human society at work in this political demand. It assumes that the human capacity to bear responsibility is created by the State's distributive powers.
So we continue our contribution to political debate. Have we made progress? That's a matter of judgment, I guess. We have identified a crucial problem that has to be addressed concerning the State's role in "defining" or "re-defining" institutions, associations, organisations and relationships. The State must also offer work with correct definitions if what it lawfully regulates is to be just. That is part of its public-legal responsibility. But does the state ever create when it defines social institutions? And why can the state not avoid making definitions for its own public legal purposes?
These questions are for a future time as we examine the state's defining activity. The state's task is to uphold and maintain public justice. It is not about creating social institutions but with doing justice to them. Even to itself.
, a project of Bruce Wearne, aims to encourage a sustained Christian political contribution, heeding the gentle and merciful rule of Jesus Christ, the ruler over all the earth's political regimes, who calls all people everywhere to humbly and patiently seek justice for all their neighbours.
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