The opening remarks from Eric Hutchinson and Myles Werntz helpfully establish order and justice as central issues in today’s protests and the sixteenth century’s Peasants’ Revolt. Hutchinson declares justice a higher good than order, but order a prerequisite for justice. He goes further, it seems. Even when order never leads to justice, only to the bolstering of tyranny, we must not succumb to the temptation of disorder in the process of reordering toward good.
Werntz replies that “order and justice do not work sequentially,” but rather “are intertwined.” Their intertwining, if I read him right, comes from seeing order as more than keeping peace and stability. He speaks of the peasants pursuing “a true social ordering,” which seems to make order equivalent to or a subset of justice.
For my own part, I think the interaction of order and justice, in Luther’s time and our own, drives us to consider the origin and purpose of politics. Aristotle pinpointed the ontological and chronological sequencings of order and justice in the Politics. There, he wrote that persons establish cities (that is, political life, though the key feature of such cities in the ancient world was that they had walls) for protection—to live—and then continue them to cultivate higher goods such as virtue—living well. We can see the same structure in Scripture with Cain’s founding of the first city in Genesis 4. Given Cain’s stated concerns for safety after killing his brother, his founding of a city seems to have been for the purpose of self-preservation. After that city is secure, we read of Cain’s descendants creating technology and instituting the arts.
The origin and purpose of politics helps us in considering the current protests and the Peasants’ Revolt. Martin Luther writes to peasants and to rulers, in the Admonition to Peace, that “both of you are wrong.” While he notes distinctive sins for each group, a similar foundational ill infects both. He must warn the magistrates that “rulers are not instituted in order that they may seek their own profit and self-will.” He tells the peasants that many act “for their own selfish purposes and seeking their own advantage.”
Rulers and peasants are acting in their own narrow self-interest, but this is not the same as acting for the good, including one’s own good. Doing so stems from an understanding of politics on both sides using only the lens of benefit: preservation of the old order apart from right on the part of the aristocrats, and the private good of a new order, a self-generated order without right, apart from respect for the rulers God has in fact put over them on the part of the peasants. Such a reduction leads to two problems. First, all only have themselves as a reference point for the purpose and use of order. They thus understand all in terms of their own advantage. Second, reducing politics only to one of these two kinds of order then creates conditions for perpetual conflict because it makes the possession of the means of order a totalizing acquisition. There can be no common good between ruled and rulers in this understanding of politics: it is a purely zero-sum game. Put another way, it risks making politics about might making selfish right, about nothing more than power to use for oneself.
Rulers and peasants are acting in their own narrow self-interest, but this is not the same as acting for the good, including one’s own good.
Luther implies these things, although the terms in which he speaks in both the Admonition and Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes are gospel-focused rather than Aristotelian: he focuses on the good life as the life of love, the Christian life, living out the new law, which does not seek its own good. Luther-like, he does not explicitly connect this with Aristotelian conceptions of the common good.
We can draw out the implications, though: Both rulers and peasants omit the characteristic aspect of politics: living well. Therein resides true justice. For this well-living involves a kind of abstraction that asks, not what we want or what helps us, but what is good in and of itself regardless of the immediate effect we might experience. It gives a standard toward which to strive. Adding living well, adding justice does not negate the need for order. It instead subordinates might to the service of right. It also forces us to reason together in acknowledging that persuasion is possible and justice exists beyond our own private advantage. All of these points Luther affirms when he calls for nobles and city councilmen to meet together and there to “have these matters dealt with in a friendly way, and settled.”
These observations help us examine today’s protesters as well. As Werntz points out, the protests reacting to George Floyd’s death have taken different paths, some peaceful, some violent. I think we have underestimated the gap between the two. Peaceful protests can affirm both order and justice, both living and living well. They affirm order in their peacefulness. They affirm justice in their protest. But as Aristotle would point out, peacefulness creates better conditions for justice and justice better conditions for peace. Peaceful protesting communicates that humans can govern and be governed first and foremost by words—and not the words of demagogues, but by reason, by logos. Protesting itself declares that rule by reason can involve persuasion. Words need not be a mere covering for raw power, either the power of the chanted slogans of the mob’s demagogues or the subtle apologies for the preservation of an unjust status quo, but rather can truly be the means of seeking justice. These points carry even more weight for us than for Luther, I would argue, due to our form of government. Our representative government clearly claims to stem from the rule of the many, not a privileged one or few. All the more should reasoned discourse hold sway in a regime grounded in common consent than a monarchy or aristocracy where so many are ruled without any say.
Peaceful protests can affirm both order and justice, both living and living well. They affirm order in their peacefulness. They affirm justice in their protest.
It would be wrong to push the parallels between today’s protests and the Peasants’ Revolt too far. The Peasants’ Revolt was far bloodier and more murderous and destructive than our recent riots have been. We also confront today the issue of race and its history in this country, something with similar roots to Luther’s time (sin) but by no means the same problem.
Still, we can say that violent protests do the opposite of what peaceful protests do, fostering ills countering peaceful protests’ goods. They reject the full political life. They, as Luther held in On the Hordes, reduce politics to power. They seek power to disorder in order to reorder. But they do so by threatening the chronologically primary reason for politics—safety—in a manner that undermines their own claims to justice. “Rebellion is not simple murder,” as Luther says, “but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster.”
Here we see, as Werntz says, that order and justice are intertwined. Order is rooted in the justice of self-preservation even as justice is itself an ordering, an invitation for people to occupy their proper office, a giving to them of what they are due, an expecting from them what they owe to others. For the sake of politics as a truly human endeavor, peaceful protests must receive respect, violent ones condemnation. Protest must come within order if it truly can achieve lasting justice.
Our inability to discourse, to rightly meld force and right, comes in our lacking what both presuppose: a common good. It is to seek this good, using words, using logos, that discussions like this present one must go on.
The preceding certainly only begins to touch on these issues. It does not actually ask what we mean by justice and order in relation to the examples before us, historical and contemporary. I think Luther points to the means and end there as well. For our inability to discourse, to rightly meld force and right, comes in our lacking what both presuppose: a common good. It is to seek this good, using words, using logos, that discussions like this present one must go on.