Governments are People Too: Augustinian Thoughts on the Shutdown

Jason Micheli —  October 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

ted_cruz2During the last- and apparently ongoing- campaign Mitt Romney infamously returned a heckler’s’ provocation in a ham-fisted way for which Romney became notorious:

“Corporations are people too, my friend.”

Liberals took to criticizing that gaffe in the predictable way you would expect while conservatives reliably defended the truth and humanism of Romney’s statement.

Corporations are not cold, impersonal Leviathans; corporations are comprised of and depend upon people. Ordinary, everyday people who are pursuing their vocational dreams, contributing to something bigger than themselves, or simply putting in their time to support their families.

As any honest, non-ideologue knows already corporations are people. Romney’s clumsy rhetoric was evidence not of any sinister truth about corporations but of his propensity for clumsy rhetoric.

Setting aside their motives, conservatives were correct to defend the substance of Romney’s retort. What’s curious, though, is why conservatives (and by conservative I have in mind the most radical of the Tea Party contingent) would not apply the very same principle to the largest corporation of all: the federal government.

Governments are people too, my friend.

I realize that sounds anathema to most conservatives, but, as is the case with much ideology, just because it strikes one as undesirable does not mean it’s untrue.

The government is people.

Need proof?

How about every third person in my congregation.

From scientists who work at the FDA to Secret Service agents to analysts at the CIA to musicians in the military bands to folks who work on the Hill, to government lawyers to to all the many others who work indirectly for the government.

Not only do I know they’re actual, living, breathing, human-style people, I also know that 3/4 of them are were conservative.

I also happen to know they’re Sunday School teachers and communion servers, trustees and prayer group members. They cook for the homeless in and around DC and they serve the poor overseas.

And now, for no other reason but arbitrary political theater, they’re ‘furloughed.’

Which is innocuous-sounding HR speak for wondering how they’re going to pay their bills and feed their kids while the show continues.

Oh yeah, most of these people make/made good but modest salaries whilst living in one of the most expensive communities in the nation. So there’s that injury to insult.

Given that ours is a time when activists on both sides are inclined to reference pedigreed thinkers, and politicians are inclined to be nauseatingly self-referential, I thought a helpful corrective might be to reference not an economist or political philosopher nor even Jesus but a theologian:

St Augustine. Saint_Augustine_Portrait

Living through the unthinkable collapse of Rome, Augustine responded by writing his opus, The City of God, a theological text which is thoroughly political in character.

Augustine saw firsthand how outsized national aspirations and political hubris could quickly unravel the the civitas into chaos; consequently, Augustine writes in the City of God that the danger in politics is that it tempts us into thinking of ourselves primarily along political and national lines. So, in our day, we’re Republicans or Democrats or Tea Partiers or Progressives or Americans. First.

But this is theological problem for Christians, Augustine points out, for we confess that in Christ- because of Christ- ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek…’ No labels or categories or parties or patriotisms transcend our ‘in-Christness.’

Politics, Augustine says, because it asks us to think of ourselves and others in terms of political categories, goes against the grain of what is accomplished in Christ’s redemption (the ‘in-ness’ of each other) and recapitulates in our lives the very divisions Christ came to overcome.

This isn’t to say that politics is evil or even useless for Augustine. To be a citizen, Augustine writes, is primarily to be ‘under judgment.’ That is, our civic life is a consequence of the fall. Our politics is necessarily partial and imperfect because humanity is sinful.

The Christian recognition that we’re imperfect (sinners) should impart to our politics the one thing so absent today: humility.

Humility.

Because we’re all sinners.

Therefore none of us is entirely right.

Or righteous.

A proper awareness of our sinfulness, Augustine argues, points out how our politics can never be what politicians so often want us to think it can be: a means to building the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Of course, politicians (most at least) don’t talk that way anymore but Kingdom language of antiquity isn’t very different than the speech politicians use today for ‘American Exceptionalism.’

Because our politics can never build the City of God on Earth, Augustine argues that our politics are much more a practice of necessity and realism and limited aims:

Establishing peace for the civic order

Serving the common good

Providing relative justice

Presciently, whenever Augustine writes of politics he hits upon the dangers brought by those who would tempt us into thinking (their) politics are a means to the Kingdom: idolatry, pride, putting power over the polis.

To this realistic view of politics, Augustine also sees civic participation as a kind of training for our life in the City of God, by which he means that Christians should bring to our civitas the virtues of our Ultimate City: humility, moral responsibility (both for our actions and towards our brothers and sisters) and a constant posture of confession.

And by confession Augustine means: the practice of turning towards another to admit harm and a willing expectation to be transformed by them.

In other words:

Augustine would say that ideology is the very opposite of faith.

Because we’re sinners, there is no such thing as a pure political ideology (or one that’s purely right). There is no perfect strategy to an idealized future that can only be realized in the Kingdom. Every strategy or platform or agenda is at best partial.

And for that reason, there is absolutely no justification to act in such a way that ignores the image of God in another person. Especially across the aisle.

Charles Matthews writes that Augustine saw how politics often functions as a parody of the Golden Rule where life becomes about:

‘…nothing but getting and spending- or worse, seeking to obstruct another’s getting and spending…[then] anything becomes legitimate to get one’s way.’

Anything.

Say even political theater, no matter who ends up the victim.

Collapsing all our meaning into politics, Augustine warns, risks collapsing our sense of moral order and duty to the common good.

Put differently, ideology is but another word for idolatry.

And so, while our duly-elected dolts continue to genuflect to the golden calf of their particular constituency, party or ideology, I just want to offer this simply Augustinian maxim:

Governments are people too.

Jason Micheli

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