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Christianity and the Social Question

Patrick Pierson
Patrick Pierson
Patrick Pierson is a writer and speaker based in Atlanta, GA. You can follow him on Twitter at @plpierson and find his latest work at patrickpierson.co.

We all know something of where we are: staggering under the weight of the most devastating pandemic in more than a century, massive unemployment, a long-overdue reckoning with slavery, and an election year that is bound to get worse before it gets better.

Amid the anxiety, anger, and fear, however, emerges a peculiarly hopeful unsettling, a laying bare of what is, and a recognition of the great chasm that remains between what is and what ought to be.

More than a century ago, Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper found himself in a similar place. Struggling with the social dislocation introduced by the Industrial Revolution, Western Europe faced runaway inequality between the bourgeoisie and working class, with the latter falling prey to increasingly dire working conditions, untenable wages, and widespread exploitation at the hands of “the new aristocracy.” Seeking to chart a way through the morass, Kuyper convened the inaugural meeting of the Christian Social Congress to deliver a lecture called “Christianity and the Class Struggle.”

Surprising to some, Kuyper’s lecture offered little in the way of pragmatic legislative changes or technical policy innovations to counter an increasingly fractured social ecology. To be sure, the perceived oversight was not driven by a disregard for such activity—Kuyper labored as an activist and social reformer for decades, and eventually served as Dutch prime minister from 1901 to 1905. Rather, Kuyper recognized that the visible signs of social breakdown all around him were merely by-products of a sociopolitical order incommensurate with the social needs of his time.

Part social commentary, part neocalvinist manifesto, Kuyper argued that Dutch society’s glaring social inequities—widespread use of child labor, dangerous working conditions in Europe’s rapidly expanding manufacturing sector, rampant inequality, public health crises in overcrowded working-class neighborhoods—were directly tied to a liberal social order “planned only according to [the] whim and caprice” of self-seeking, atomized individuals. As such, Kuyper’s point of departure was profoundly, if somewhat paradoxically, immaterial. Ultimately, Kuyper realized that the discussion of means must, necessarily, be preceded by a vision of the desired end.

British philosopher Isaiah Berlin captures just this idea at the onset of his famous essay Two Concepts of Liberty:

Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.

Put differently, Kuyper and Berlin’s contention is that, where the ends are agreed on, the questions of “how to get there” are decidedly simple. The challenge, then, is to offer a compelling vision for a shared life together commensurate with human flourishing and the common good.

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For the past three decades, conversations in the public square have focused almost exclusively on the means; with the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberalism stood alone, the undisputed victor of a centuries-long struggle for sociopolitical hegemony. History had, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, found its end. The unrest and disquietude of our current moment, however, has stirred a number of voices—both right and left, irreligious and religious—to return to the social question, with public discourse devoting less attention to the means of material and technological progress and instead engaging in a reimagining of the foundational principles that bind our lives together as a social and political community.

Indeed, the common thread running through the various sociopolitical challenges of our current moment is the decidedly collective, communal nature of their successful resolutions. Take, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic. From AR-15-bearing protesters descending on state capitals to widespread refusals to wear face masks on public transportation, the era of quarantine has revealed just how resistant Western liberalism is to the notion of denying self for the sake of the community. And yet a successful response to the pandemic is predicated on the will of the community to act for the good of all its members—as it turns out, we’re only as strong as our weakest link.

Or consider the tidal wave of protests set off by the callous, cavalier police killing of George Floyd. While books on white fragility and anti-racism soar to the top of best-seller lists, beneath all the social media posts and self-education campaigns lurks this truth—righting the wrongs of slavery and racism that run all the way to the roots of Western culture will require a collective rebuilding that extends much further than individual reflection and personal reform. And a fundamental reimagining of our social architecture and its attendant institutions is a fundamentally collective endeavor.

 

Kuyper—whose own legacy on race is complex and troubling—realized just this problem. As a principle for sociopolitical ordering, liberalism promised to unmoor the self from the strictures and confines of place, family, culture, and creed, thereby ushering in an era of unrestricted personal freedom and, with it, human flourishing. This loosening and dissociation, however, came with costs, the most fundamental of which Kuyper himself recognized:

The French Revolution destroyed that organic tissue [of mutual aid and interdependence], broke these social bonds, and finally, in its work of atomistic trifling, had nothing left but the monotonous self-seeking individual, asserting his own self-sufficiency. . . . This is the pivot on which the whole social question turns. The French Revolution, and so, too, present-day Liberalism, is anti-social, and the social need which now disturbs Europe is the evil fruit of the individualism which was enthroned with the French Revolution.

To be clear, Kuyper’s disaffection was not with the French Revolution and its associated ideals per se—elsewhere, he acknowledges the Revolution’s “appalling necessity,” arguing that the state of affairs made such a reaction “inexorably necessary.” Instead, Kuyper’s critique is grounded in a clear-eyed realization of liberalism’s logical end—namely, that liberalism is fundamentally unable to serve as an ordering principle for our social life together because it is, in the purest sense, antisocial. Put differently, liberalism’s boundaryless ennoblement of expressive individualism is fundamentally incompatible with the renoncement of self that collective social reimagining requires. Once ultimate authority is placed in the autonomous self, the possibility of any and all collective claim-making is functionally eradicated.

The liberal sociopolitical system created, as it were, a world in which, “the law of the animal world, dog eat dog, became the basic law for every social relationship.” The result?

But, alas, the “equality” of which men had dreamed turned out to be an even more shocking inequality; and instead of the promised “fraternity,” they received a revised version of the fable of the wolf and the lamb.

For Kuyper, following liberalism’s appeal to its logically consistent conclusion simply replaced one form of arbitrary oppression (the crown) with another (the socially and economically fit; those best able to make their way under the liberal milieu of individual competition). The result was a society that betrayed the very foundations of the French Revolution and produced an oppressive, inequitable, unjust society that represented the archetypal antithesis of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. In due time, liberalism produces a society of persons whose only shared cultural project is a collective genuflection before the primacy and preeminence of the untethered self. The result is an atomistic society devoid of mutual aid, in which every man is pitted against his brother—Hobbes’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” state of nature has become a reflexive, self-fulfilling prophecy.

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“No Justice, No Peace.”

These four words define the times in which we live. The collective social conscience of Western culture finds itself unsettled. Something is amiss. In the words of Kuyper, “Every tie-beam and anchor of the social structure is disturbed.”

Made poignantly and acutely aware of the inequities that continue to pervade our shared social architecture, people are looking for answers. The rallying cry of justice is found on the lips of urban social activists and suburban soccer moms alike, and a growing spirit of communal-mindedness has emerged. In the midst of our hyper-individualistic age, we’ve begun to realize that the challenges we face are too great—the wounds and hurts too deep and real—to forge ahead alone. And so an opportunity emerges. As Kuyper put it, speaking of his own times,

serious doubt has arisen about the soundness of the social structure in which we live, that in consequence public opinion is divided as to the type of foundation on which a more appropriate and more liveable social order may be built. . . . Only this one thing is necessary if a social question is to exist for you: that you realize the untenability of the present situation, and that you realize this untenability to be one not of incidental causes, but one involving the very basis of our social association.

These words should speak to us. Only when the fissures and fractures of a social architecture begin to emerge is it possible to embark on a process of reimagining the structure altogether. This is where we find ourselves.

Only when the fissures and fractures of a social architecture begin to emerge is it possible to embark on a process of reimagining the structure altogether. This is where we find ourselves.

To be sure, in many ways it feels like an odd time to build. To create. To repurpose, reimagine, and restore. But such is our call. So where do we begin?

First, we must acknowledge that our life together is shaped by an understanding—whether implicitly or explicitly—of what ought to be. In the words of philosopher James K.A. Smith, we are, first and foremost, desirers. Our thinking—the means, as it were—emerges only once the end has been conceived. We must offer an alternative vision for our collective life together, one that recognizes the inviolable dignity of the individual without dissociating that individual from the broader community within which she finds her home. Liberalism, after all, sought a more just and equitable social and civic culture not by offering a more compelling vision of our shared communal life, but by decoupling the individual from the collective altogether. Any sort of meaningful attempt to rebuild our fractured social ecology must begin with a vision of the common good that embraces, rather than scorns, the need for mutual aid and codependence. In the words of Kuyper, we are an “organic body,” not an “aggregate of individuals.”

Second, while a reimagining of our shared social architecture may begin as an intellectual or philosophical exercise, we must remember that it is also a thoroughly material, incarnational practice. What begins in the social imaginary must find its embodiment in the life of the polis.

The beauty of a love springing up from God in you displays its radiance not in this, that you allow the poor Lazarus to quiet his hunger with the crumbs that fall from your overburdened table, for all such benefaction is more like an insult to the manly heart which beats also in the bosom of the poor man; but rather in this, that just as you, rich and poor, sit together at the Communion table, so likewise you feel for the poor man as for a member of the body, and so too, for your servant or maid as for a child of man, which is all that you, too, are. To the poor man, a loyal handshake is often sweeter than a bountiful largess. A friendly word, not spoken haughtily, is the mildest balsam for one who weeps at his wounds. Divine pity, sympathy, a suffering with us and for us, that was the mystery of Golgotha. You too, from fellow-feeling, must suffer with your suffering brothers.

Renewing the social order requires a traversal of the schism between self and society. The present social malaise is not a problem out there—it’s a problem in here. To build something new, we must shoulder the burden together, renouncing liberalism’s unbridled exaltation of self-efficacy for an otherworldly vision of a sociopolitical order that embraces suffering for the sake of advancing the common good.