Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Public Lecture: Covenantal Justice in a Global Era
Lecturer: MAX L. STACKHOUSE
Dr. Stackhouse has an extensive list of publications that includes the books Covenant and Commitments: Faith, Family, and Economic Life (Family, Religion, and Culture), Public Theology and Political Economy, and Creeds. Society and Human Rights. as well as many chapters in books and scholarly articles. In addition, he serves on the editorial boards of The Christian Century, First Things, and The Journal of Religious Ethics. He is director of the Seminarys Kuyper Center for Public Theology, president of the board of the Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts, and past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. In addition, he serves on the editorial boards of The Christian Century, The Journal of Political Theology, and the Journal of Religious Ethics. He is an active member of Amnesty International/USA. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Stackhouse is a member of the American Theological Society, the American Academy of Religion, The American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, the SociÈtÈ EuropÈenne de Culture, the Association for the Study of Religion in South India, and the Association for Public Justice.
|COVENTAL JUSTICE IN A GLOBAL ERA
Max L. Stackhouse,
Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey
The idea that justice has a covenantal form is one of the oldest Biblical ideas, but it has taken on a renewed vitality in theological and political circles in recent decades. A number of studies of the biblical idea of covenant have been published in the last century, and the idea has become common in international law since World War II, as we can see in the efforts by the United Nations to establish a series of covenants on human rights. Further, several remarkable cross-cultural analyses of the role of covenantal thinking have been published in political theory and social history, especially as it has shaped contemporary views of constitutional government, pluralistic civil society, and international federations. Indeed, covenantal thinking has become more prominent with the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of totalitarian societies around the world, and with a quest for viable models for the emerging global civilization (the selected bibliography at the end of this address lists major resources that treat these developments). In the face of the twin perils of hegemonic domination and anarchic particularism, no other general theory of justice is more promising. Only the Catholic model of subsidiarity comes close, but it is most useful as a supplement to covenant.
The purpose of this paper is to review the Biblical idea of covenantal justice, to identify its trans-contextual elements, and to offer it as the most compelling model available of a just polity, with an inner moral and spiritual architecture for our time. Those who are called to aid developing societies, seek change in established ones, intervene in unjust practices at home or abroad, and, even more, to shape the emerging, increasingly common, world civilization that now transcends nations, for justices sake, can know when they are on firm ground and what their limits are and should be.
The Roots of the Idea
It is well established that the idea of covenant is rooted in ancient middle Eastern social and religious history, and most often took the form of a suzerain treaty between a stronger political leader and a weaker one in which divine powers were invoked to witness the treaty. An agreement was reached, often with one party specifying the terms and the other acquiescing, which entailed the enumeration of the duties of the parties (X will protect Y, but Y must honor the edicts of and give tribute to X). Other forms of the covenant were mutual pledges between more equal partners, and often had commercial-contractual, bonded-friendship, or marital-engagement features. In all the ancient covenants, divine authority was invoked as a witness to morally binding agreements that determined the operating terms of obligation.
It was surely an inspired moment, when this basic, mutual, oath-bound creation of responsible relationships was recognized by some of the ancient Semitic sages and prophets to be, in revealing ways, a close analogy to the way the one, true, righteous and merciful God, relates to humanity, and a model of how humans can and should relate to each other under this God. This theological adaptation of the idea shifted it from a matter of the human establishment of peace by domination and subservience, or even a contract of convenience or affection, to an unveiling of the character of a just, merciful God who directly engages in the formation and sustaining of righteous living in community. A betrayal of that God by human injustice was seen to threaten the well-being of the human partners to the covenant, to the society at large, and even, potentially to the creation itself. Even the principalities and powers, the thrones and dominions of the world, were seen as those centers of created possibility that could be a blessing to humanity as covenantal partners in a world under God, but which break covenant, deny justice and thus become a terror to humanity.
The remarkable thing about this idea of a divinely-established covenantal justice, as it appears in both the Biblical record and at various moments in social history, jurisprudence, and political theory, is that it is both stable and dynamic, both pre-given and unfinished. It is stable in that it depends upon the basic character of the God who inaugurates covenants with humanity, who manifests a holy justice, who reliably keeps these covenants, and who is not subject to caprice. That God is disclosed as trustworthy by a constant fidelity and by the public disclosure of enduring laws that transcend the passing contexts of history. Yet, that God is also the dynamic God who responds to persons in all sorts of conditions, who redemptively participates with humanity in the struggles for justice of human history. This Gods laws and ends do not change from age to age, even if our understandings of them do. This God limits the divine capacity for infinite freedom and does not alter the basic pattern of existence whereby life is sustained, even if that life is always changing. Yet this God also may freely blot out human failures to live up to what is required, and reaches out again and again, dynamically renewing the covenants of life by seeking to restore the principalities and powers to their intended form and end so that those who live within them live more responsibly in relationship to God and neighbor. This is the God who hears the cries of the oppressed, who calls both wicked rulers and wayward peasants to account through prophetic judgment, who walks with the lonely through the valleys of the shadow of death, who forgives those with a contrite heart, tempers the wind before the shorn lamb, and calls believers to be agents of his justice and mercy.
The justice of the covenanting God is not only simultaneously stable and dynamic, it is pre-given and unfinished. It is pre-given in that it is constituted by a standard and an ultimate end that humans can neither construct nor deconstruct; but it is unfinished in that the standards of right and wrong, good and evil are neither fully recognized nor completely fulfilled in life. Most importantly, the ultimate end can not be fulfilled, only approximated, in history. It comes to us as promise for a justice beyond history, and it thereby reveals that the systems of positive justice and common good by which we seek to actuate Gods standards and ends in the world are ever imperfect. No human effort can fully establish justice; no person is fully just; all are under judgment; every society needs repeated reform; each can only reflect degrees of justice. Our best justice is the least worst justice.
Let us note that what is pre-given to us to guide the conduct of life is both standard and end, both nomos and telos, both norm and purpose. Both the overarching right order of things and the ultimate destiny of life have to be interpreted, of course, and neither is easy to read off the raw data, for they are other than the way life is experienced. This is due in part to the limits of human understanding, in part due to distortions introduced by the sinful failures of humans to use the freedom given to us to chose the right and the good, and in part because the full data of history are not in until the end. But those who believe in this God know with good reason that life is governed by a moral law and that existence is not without purpose. Ultimately, human existence is ordered by first principles and is directed toward an ultimate destiny for which we can hope, even if we cannot know it in detail or attain it without Gods grace. To hold this is to live by warranted faith.
To note the distinction between the right and the good is to introduce one of the deepest debates in the history of ethics, jurisprudence, and social life, for it is simply not clear that universal laws and ultimate purposes make full sense in either theory or practice in the midst of time. Even if they almost do, some wonder how the first principles of right are to be accurately related to the divine purposes in view of the historical actualities that people daily face. The issue can also be put as a reverse, negative, question: How is wrong related to evil intentions or consequences and to bad circumstances? It is a major practical as well as a profound theoretical issue: at every point philosophers, theologians, jurists, social reformers, and politicians must be clear on the grounds for which they argue for a deontology or a teleology, and the way they specify the relationships of these two sub-areas of justiceone focused on issues of right and wrong and the other on good and evil. Philosophers have also noted a constant temptation to try to reduce the right to the good or the good to the right. Do we call this right if it conduces to the good? Do we call that good if it follows the letter of the law yet turns out badly? Subtle combinations of rule-teleology and act-deontology have been proposed; but whether the right is to defer to and can be defined by the good, or whether the good is to defer to and can be defined by the right in particular cases where judgment is required is a never-ending issue. The problem is this: the right and the good must be both fulfilled and joined for a full justice, but in human thought as well as in human actions they rarely are.
The Biblical way of posing this issue in covenantal terms has to do with the relationship of the Laws of God to the Purposes of God, and the relationship of them both, as aspects of the Kingdom of God, to the actual living of life. Those who worship the God of the Biblical traditions are to live obediently under the laws of God and to live actively in the world as agents of that God toward the fulfillment of Gods purposes. We are able to recognize and seek the Kingdom for it is commensurate with our own deepest nature, precisely because we are made in the image of God. Humans have a residual capacity to recognize the right and to seek the good in spite of the fact that our lives are neither fully right nor altogether good. That capacity may be deeply defaced by sin, rebellion, and ignorance, but it is not utterly destroyed. Indeed, when we are drawn into a relationship with God, we find these capacities revitalized. We are called by God to be defenders of the right and active instruments of the good, co-creative covenant partners with God enacting, in love, the righteous principles of God, and, in hope, the promises of God as agents of justice.
However, even faithful believers recognize the tension between obedience to the right and active agency for the good as these interact in the actual conditions of social life. It creates painful conundrums in the moral life. That is one key reason why the quest for a more adequate justice never ends. One of the deepest implications of Sin and the Fall is that the right and the good almost never join to make perfect justice in this life. An achievement of the proximate justice that is possible in the complexities of socio-historical existence is sufficiently important that we ought to sacrifice for it, yet it often also seems to require some compromise with one or another of the first principles of the moral law or with some feature of the ultimate purpose for which we hope. This is the moral realism that we cannot avoid without temptations to self-righteousness. On the one hand, we willingly or unwittingly sacrifice what is right for the larger good, and sometimes, we simply must do so. On the other hand, a rigid obedience to righteousness leads, not seldom, to highly ambiguous consequences, and sometimes we simply must do so. Every serious moral judgment in the midst of fallen life, thus, requires a both/and logic, nuanced to the real possibilities of specific realities, and not an either/or logic that pretends to total purity. Who has not bent the law for greater good, or appealed to the right while allowing the wounding of a neighbor? Our moral confidence in the struggle for justice must be courageous; but it must also be guarded not only by realism, but by modesty, contrition, and forgiveness. That is one key reason why we need a theologically rooted ethic, and not simply a philosophical ethic. Justification by grace alone is required in covenantal justice, because that is what the human condition demands.
The Laws of God and the Purposes of God are, to be sure, perfectly united in the Kingdom of God, in this view; but they rarely are in human experience. This is one of the indications that humans, in spite of an original goodness intended by God, experience life as morally anguisheda symptom of the condition we call Sin. However, even if we think that the condition is inevitable, we do not hold that it is necessary or eternal. The moments in life that hint of the integration found in the Kingdom, recounted in Scripture, offer the hope of a time when righteousness is fulfilled and Gods purposes are realized, when the right and the good coincide perfectly. This is the hope that drove Abraham, Sarah, and their heirs as they sought a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Indeed, not only Abraham, but Noah before him, hardly a perfectly just man, was able to recognize that he was to obey Gods commands and was called to do the work of the Lord on earth for the well-being of humanity not only because they were made in the image of God, but because they were parties to a covenant of promise and hope beyond the despair of moral chaos and destruction. All this is what is pre-given in a view of covenantal justice.
But what is pre-given is also unfinished. And this becomes the task of those who are called in covenant to be agents of God in this broken and ambiguous world. It grew more complete, according to the Biblical record, after the covenanted heirs of this early tradition fell into slavery and found liberation under the leadership of Moses. But liberation is not the central point of the story. It is the prologue to the covenant renewal with the giving of the law and the promises of blessing and woea vast and subtle clarification of the first principles of right and wrong, a disclosure of the moral law that governs human life that was so remarkable that the core religion of the Biblical heritage is founded on the marvel of that event. It reconstituted a people out of diverse nobodies, gave a covenantal identity, and called them to a new, universal missionto be a light to the nations.
Later on, it became clear that this people could not carry out its mission in the face of exterior threat and interior dissension without complex social institutions. In the course of a complex history, not only prophets and priests, but kings were called to anointed offices, and multiple other forms of vocation were developed, from craftsmen to judges and healers, from merchants to poets and musicians. In these developments we see not only the normative dimensions of covenantal justicethe deontological right and teleological goodbut the relative social embodiments of covenantal callings and institutions as spheres of the common life. These vocations and spheres of practice indicate that while the ultimate principles of right, and the ultimate ends of the good are necessary parts of covenantal living, so are the concrete relationships of life in civil societyboth in person-to-person relationships with and under God, and in the interacting associations and institutions of the common life whereby relative approximations to the right and the good enable community life to flourish on an ongoing basis. Not only the Hebrews at the mountain but also all those contributing to the building of a city on a hill, from David and Josiah to Ezra and Nehemiah, anticipate the New Jerusalem and illustrate seeking to approximate the life of a holy city.
Those historic moments, like those with Noah and Abraham, made contributions that remain valid. The clarification under Moses of the content of the moral law, a law given when there was no state and thus no human legislators, is one of the greatest covenantal moments of human history. It is to this that the later prophets, priests, kings, and local judges at the gates returned again and again, renewing the covenant among the people and keeping alive the moral law and the promise of flourishing life. But the heirs of this legacy of justice did not maintain their capacity to be a light to the nations. This is less a reproach to them than a warning to us. Their mission to the world was not carried forward, for the greatest legacy they gave to humanity became associated with legal detail, ritual purity, ethnic identity, and patriarchy. Fences built to protect the covenantal treasure became walls of a tomb that had to be opened for the treasure to become real to wider humanity.
Something like the Hebraic view of covenantal justice, and often something like its encasing shell, can be found in many of the great cultural traditions of the world, as those heirs of this treasure who wrote new scriptures in Greek recognized. This is sometimes called natural law although the term is often confusing. It is better called common grace. After all, every people has been made by the same covenanting God; and every people is tempted to identify its own ways with divine will and exclude others from it. However, those rooted in theistic religious traditions believe that nothing that humans have made up can hide the justice toward which Gods covenants point. Relative gains can be made, the most vicious forms of injustice can be modulated, incremental approximations to the first principles of righteousness can be incarnated, ideals of justice can be more fully actualized in social institutions, and a greater awareness of good and human well-being can be cultivated. But theistic religions hold that the full actualization of the right and the good in our inner lives, in our human relationships, and in the matrices of social life cannot be attained on humanistic grounds alone. They know that, beyond human wisdom, valuable as it is, a divine initiative must be taken. A redeemer, a messiah, a revealing act of God is necessary.
On the nature of this revealing act, however, the God-based traditions disagree among themselves, whatever commonality they have with philosophy and with each other on other points. These disagreements are complex, but they can, with only modest distortion, be summarized briefly: A number of Hindu and tribal religions hold that saviors in the form of heroic ancestors or Avatars come often in the cycles of time, and that their epics are parables of an ongoing process that reveals the nature of things. The Jewish tradition denies that any savior has come, but looks forward to the coming of the messianic time. Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, the one and only Messiah, who has come and has inaugurated the final covenantal renewal, which will be perfectly and finally fulfilled only in a coming age beyond history. And Muslims believe that all these are superceded by a final revelation of the very thoughts of God in the Quran, which promises that Gods full and just reign can and must be manifest fully in human history, if only all would submit to its divine author and order.
As Christians, we confess, by faith, that our view is the better one; and we may have a deep sense of assurance about that. But, beyond our confessional confidence, the final confirmation as to whether the Hindu, the Jewish, the Christian, the Islamic, or some other possibility is correct about Gods final purposes in regard to any covenantal justice remains in the future. In a way that differs from those who have simple pagan or heathen faiths, believers in each of these traditions may live by faith, but no final certainty is possible at this point in time. In this way too, most basically, the idea of Gods covenantal justice is unfinished and divergent religious traditions press us toward divergent visions of the good lifewhatever else we share. The Arthashastra or the Laws of Manu with their hopes of joining the atma-Brahma, or the Sharia and the promised view of Paradise for those who follow it, for example, press persons and societies in different trajectories toward the future. They supply a different inner moral and spiritual architecture for the common life. I mention this somewhat uncomfortable point for the simple reason that the great spread of Christianity in recent centuries has had its greatest impact among those who belonged to smaller cultural and religious groups, among those whom we today call the marginalized peoples of human history, those who, in spite of the many failures of missionaries, are finding their ways into world history through the adoption and adaptation of the Biblical view of covenantal justice. But now we confront, in unavoidable ways, vast and complex civilizations where divinely sanctioned alternative interpretations of justice also seek to provide the order for global civilization.
The Structures of Covenantal Justice
Although we have no final certainty about which religious vision best fulfills justice, we are required by our faith to act toward the Kingdom which we hold was begun in the covenant renewal of Jesus Christ. We are also called to make significant judgments about justice in the common life with confidence, even in the face of alternative views. Peoples and nations, cultures and religious traditions are often covenantal in some respects, and that is why we can find agreement at least on things that are morally wrong. Every language has terms for sacrilege, disrespect, lying, cheating, stealing, murder, rape, exploitation, etc., every nation has laws against these, every culture disapproves of them, and every known religion recognizes these as opposed to divine laweven if there are differences of tradition as to how these are grounded and to be applied to particular cases. Simply because the common grace of general revelation is not the whole of the Gospel, those who seek to live by the Gospel should not be hesitant about acting on the bases of the laws written on the hearts of all. People know when they are being treated in wrong or evil ways, even if they are unsure about how to make things right or what good should be pursued personally and socially, and what the best methods for joining the right and the good might be. Under the inspiration of the Gospel, which promises fulfillment of that almost known by common grace, Christians are specifically called to help establish the justice people know in principle or want because of experiences that contradict the deepest laws of life. Every act of that kind offers a glimpse of the Kingdom, for it joins the right and the good and reveals the unity of God behind them. In brief, every people and religion knows some aspect of covenantal justice, and it is through that common grace that various peoples are able to recognize the integrity of Christians who struggle for justice, judge Christians who distort justice, and feel the sting of guilt when they betray it themselves.
Moreover, Christians must be honest about the fact that we do not fully know the future. We confess that Christ has come, but we also confess that Christ will come again, but we have no idea when or how, and should distrust those who claim to know. We may have faith, as the assurance of things hoped for, but the very lack of certainty about the ultimate end and the final good implies that we must allow a range of possibilities in the pursuit of the ends of life, especially in those areas where the issues of ultimate human destiny are at stake. Some will fight for open societies so that we can preach our message, and that is not evil; but it will be understood less as justice than as opportunism. A deeper view calls for a providential pluralism, one in which people must be free to pursue the visions of the good that grasp their loyalties and commitments. The best forms of covenantal justice make the world safe for non-Christian and Christian alike. Thus, a religious and intellectual freedom in regard to the ultimate warrants for faith and life must be protected until the final confirmationthat is, until all of history is finished and Gods final reign is fully and clearly visible, and all that is truly good is established. A truly profound faith faces this prospect with confidence.
I am well aware that many have demanded conformity to this or that definition of the common good, and many more have pretended to know with final certainty what the destiny of particular persons, particular peoples, or the whole earth is, or should, be. But in fact no one knows the time or season. We know more surely that it is a grave temptation to prematurely divide the sheep from the goats, a sometime temptation of Evangelicals as well as Catholics and Reformed Christians, not to speak of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others. The denial of religious and intellectual freedom in society and the demand for confessional or ideological conformity is often the first betrayal of right: it demands a lie in the heart and an inauthentic participation in public life. It leads inexorably to the systematic violation of the image of God in the neighbor and thereby destroys covenantal justice and the fabric of social trust in church and culture. We may have confessions, creeds, dogmas, and discipline inside the households of faith, and we may properly feel compelled to offer these to the world; but in dealing with justice, we have to make our case in public discourse.
This implies that the open discussion of religious and ethical issues must be protected in the positive sense. The public debate of theological issues, preaching and teaching on public issues, the demand for the right to invite conversion and social reform, and therefore the open publication, distribution and broadcast of religious, ethical, and social opinions about the right and the good in and for society are of fundamental importance to persons and to the common destiny. This is not without danger: open debate vents nonsense as well as sound teaching, it allows fanaticism as well as considered judgment. The unclear and the uncommitted will be confused by this. But nonsense can be shown to be silly, fanaticism can be exposed as unbelievable, and both a case for the faith and a call for commitment can be made without embarrassment. Is it not to this that Christian colleges and universities are, above all, dedicated? It is through study and engagement, deliberation and debate, mutual edification and correction that people come to convictions about what can be affirmed without compulsion, and what ought to be made a part of the common life without coercive threat. This is the great gift of the serious faith that treasures learning, and serious scholarship that honors faith. The combination may yet save academia from its present intellectual chaos and fundamentalism from its errors. Where faith and learning are profoundly combined, the prospects for the discernment of critical aspects of justice are discovered. People can choose to bond together to enact justice without soldiers at their backs or spies looking over their shoulders or ideologues checking out their genetic, class or national origins. These discoveries and choices are at the very center of the social infrastructure of a just civil society.
Indeed, this openness is so indispensable to the well-being of society that just government may and sometimes must use coercive authority to keep the social processes of such public discussions open, to protect the rights of people to seek the truth about the right and the good, and to preach and teach about the their divine roots and their possible combination. Freedom freedom, and law and order is not just if this freedom is not protected. This is the importance of the much-disputed passage in Romans 13. Those governing authorities that protect the quest for the good and allow the formation of just covenants are instituted by God. We must obey and support them. Those that do not, and are instead a terror to good, are not true authorities, but among the principalities and powers that have broken the bonds of covenantal justice. We engage them by civil disobedience and, more profoundly, by reform, by drawing them again into covenantal commitments to justice. This view leads directly to social rights: the rights of people to develop those religious, educational, social, and political organizations that allow them to search for, discover, set forth and exemplify their best versions of what the ultimate good might be, how it is related to what is right, and how they together might become embodied in all the spheres of life which just authorities will protect.
We should not neglect to note that while individual persons, made in the image of God and thus blessed with a capacity to recognize grace, to reason and to chose, need to be protected, an individualistic understanding of human rights is only partially valid. Individualism does recognize the spiritual and moral dignity of each person, as one endowed by the Creator with the image of God and thus with a right to have rights. Sooner or later, each one has to do ones own believing, ones own thinking, and ones own choosing, and must have the right to exercise these, or to receive the grace that makes these possible. But that justifiable individualism often fails to recognize and sometimes functionally denies that persons are inevitably relational beings, called to live in groups and associations, to cultivate communities and participate in society, to assume the responsibilities that are built into systemic relationships. I mention this particularly because the personalism of Evangelical Christianity often bends toward an individualism that neglects social and systemic analysis. Covenantal justice involves a respect for the basic aspects of personal freedom and dignity, but it implies that the freedom and the rights are best actuated when they are used to fulfill responsibilities in interpersonal and civilizational areas of life.
Those who have advocated communitarianism and opposed individualism in the last few decades have recognized that people do live, and in some ways must live, in various forms of value-embedded social interdependence. They demand the recognition of mutual moral bonds of obligation and responsibility more fully than the advocates of individual rights have acknowledged. But community can become an undefined mantra. We should have learned in our century that it is very dangerous to hold that our communities of origin are sacred. Some took up the matter of national identity, combined it with ethnic definitions of peoplehood, sought to invoke Christian identity in regard to it, and generated great horrors. The Nazis of mid-century Europe are particularly notable precisely because they made the covenantal peoples of the biblical tradition, the Jews and their faithful Christian brothers and sisters, the victims of their distortions, denying that all people live under universal first principles and can seek the final good in pluralistic ways. They raised their national values into a common good of neopagan idolatry. To be sure, it was not only they who did this; they have sad parallels in many other places. Replications of these motifs have re-appeared in ethnic cleansings that threaten to drown covenantal justice again in the blood of nationalism.
Others took up populist values, identified them with a vision of an ultimate good future, and made up a program for utopian, revolutionary justice, presuming that they knew and could establish the ultimate end of human existencethe perfect classless society. The Marxists of our century rightly saw the evils of the oppression of some by others, and that the slave must not allow rich and powerful masters to define the whole of their lives. They also rightly opposed nationalism in favor of an international coalition of the oppressed against the oppressors; and they rightly saw, in theory, the priority of social realities over politics. But they made several fatal moral errors that distorted their partially valid insights about justice. For one thing, they held that all the world was divided into two classes--one good but poor, one rich and evil. They thought they could eliminate evil by eliminating the evil class, in part by revolution, in part by eliminating the social conditions by which that class gained wealth and created false consciousness, and in part by destroying religion, the epitome of false consciousness, because it pointed not only to history but beyond history. To accomplish these, however, they asserted the priority of politics over society-bringing the great Leninist-Stalinist terrors. The result was a failed economy, a new class of bureaucratic, privileged elites, and a betrayal of the partial insights into history that they almost brought to modernity.
But more deeply, they did not understand that right and wrong are pre-given, and that values as socially and culturally constructed conventions in a given time and space are an insufficient basis for the common life. Instead, they understood both injustice and justice to be nothing more than the artifacts of particular, victorious classes. Their very theory of social justice, which was the source of great loyalty to the movement, undercut the universalistic, transcontextual standards of right and wrong by which they could have held themselves accountable. Nor did they understand that the good which we know is only provisional and that no theory about the logic of history can construct the human future and reconstruct fallen human nature without divine aid. Because they did not understand these basic elements of covenantal justice, they held the view that the oppressed class, relieved of their idealistic and religious illusions and working in solidarity, could construct a new destiny for humanity out of their own will, reason, and needs. Thus, in the name of class solidarity, they blotted out both a vertical covenantal relationship with God and the horizontal multiple covenants of civil society by which the tissues of creative participation in Gods purposes under law are maintained and enhanced in history. Both individual persons and the mediating institutions by which people everywhere seek to enhance the right and the good in a host of humanizing organizations and relationships were swallowedthis time not into a nationalism of blood and soil, but into a dehumanizing collectivism of regimented and dispirited mediocrity.
Evangelical Christianity, indeed, Protestantism in general, and Reformed Christianity in particular, has mostly opposed both Fascism and Communism, but has only rarely sought to identify why, structurally, the neo-paganism of the one and the neo-secularism of the other is so devastating. Indeed, no few Christians have failed to note how much the nationalism of the one and the ideology of class solidarity of the other have combined in more recent de-colonializing movements, often taking the Exodus of the Bible as its model. This produced a powerful set of liberation movements that brought national independence and greater equality around the world. However, the advocates of these movements have not fully acknowledged how deeply their efforts were dependent on the ideologies of Fascist-like nationalism and Marxist-like classism, and failed to see that social justice can neither be rooted in sovereign national identity or class solidarityeven of the poor and oppressed. From the standpoint of a Biblical view of covenantal justice, too many Christians who rightly supported decolonialization have adopted the modes of social analysis and theories of justice from these sources uncritically, refusing to see that most of these movements ended in one-party states with new forms of authoritarian or totalitarian internal oppression, utterly unprepared for the pluralistic, global society toward which we are moving.
Of course, the problem is complex: every human attempt to enact covenantal justice is synthetic and temporary. It must not only draw together what we can know about fundamental standards of right and wrong under God with a dedication to the ultimate good end which we can only know only in part and by faith, it also demands the open, pluralistic, and regular reformation of the basic social institutions of the common life through particular covenantal agreements and renewals that sustain and allow revision of viable, constructed values. That is, it must inform all those aspects of life to which the prophets, priests, and kings, the anointed offices of long ago, directed our attentionfamily and sexuality, business and economic development, law and political life, education and cultural life. Even more, as mentioned, it must not only allow for the freedom of religion so that every serious community of faith may pursue and practice the faith it knows and offer its insights openly and without compulsion to the whole of humanity.
In brief, the structures of covenantal justice are both internal to a Biblically rooted ethic and external in the functional life of society. They are internal in that they become the framing patterns of reference for the morally just person and the communities of moral discourse; and they are external in that they join, so far as possible given the limits of human history, the right and the good to the necessary value-bearing institutions of societyall those institutions that stand between the person as an individual being and the cosmopolitan category of humanity as a species being, without letting us become self-centered individualists or lost in the collectivist herd. Where these are well developed they can prevent anarchy, challenge tyranny, and provide the federated networks of associational life within which specific covenants may be enacted among the people with freedom and equity, and oppressive behaviors can be contained and corrected. These networks form character and establish a flourishing, justice-generative civil society.
We know the shape of some of these institutions, as they have developed under modern conditions, and we know something about the conditions that allow them to develop. First, the truly free churchthe community of faith seeking to know and embody the right and the good without internal coercion and with neither dependence on the state nor seeking to control the stateis one which demands the freedom to preach and teach openly about justice in all areas of life, including the state. Second, we may speak about various organizations and means of communication that spring up around those religious organizations seeking what is right and good for the smallest units in society, especially the family, the school, and the work place. These are the building blocks of society, and if the partners in a marriage are mistreated or if children are exploited or neglected, or if there is no place to seek the truth and prepare to contribute to the commonwealth, or no way to earn the daily bread, a whole society will suffer in the future. If these flourish, charitable care for those in need follows.
But the bigger structural lesson of this past century is that a viable civil society under conditions of modernity demands constitutional democracy with protections under law for the rights of persons, minorities, and groups to pursue a variety of goods. Indeed, constitutional democracy is one of those key covenantal forms that has come to be the most just manifestation of political life known to contemporary humanity. Governments that are to manifest covenantal justice will be constitutional in that they will operate under just laws, laws that defend human rights and thereby approximate the right, allow the pursuit of various goods, and combine the right and good to various valuesso far as humans can know and implement them in contemporary society. They will be democratic in the sense that they will thus enable the people to organize, to determine who most nearly can represent just authority under God, and who will best allow the flourishing of the multiple associations and organizations that constitute civil society. This is a critical point, for if the moral and spiritual infrastructure is not in place, the formalities of democracy will not long endure, and a key issue is whether covenantal justice can continue to shape the future. Of course, just as churches, families, and schools will differ from case-to-case and culture-to-culture, so we can expect democracies to vary. The democracy of England is not that of the United States, that of Australia is not that of India, that of Brazil is not that of S. Korea, and that which, we pray, is emerging in South Africa is not that which, we also pray, is emerging in Indonesia. Still, we can see their similarities and differences from colonialism and imperialism, national or class tyranny, religious or ideological conformism, and individualist or ethnic anarchy.
Implications for a Global Era
We have traced key Biblical roots of the idea of covenantal justice. We have not stressed strongly enough the fact that idea was carried forward in ways that have, over the ages, engaged, learned from, and stabilized aspects of justice that were already present in other cultures. We should acknowledge that the Evangelical emphasis on the Bible and on present, personal experience has sometimes led to the neglect of the ways in which faithful forebears framed society and patterns of justice over the centuries. Thanks to the massive research of (especially) Daniel Elazar, we now know that the Biblical idea of covenantal justice has also reformed, revised, deepened and broadened other aspects of life that were less just and not fully covenantal as the heritage was contextualized in various societies and culturesa process that is far from finished. We do not here trace, but it has elsewhere been shown, that the idea modulated Greek and Roman cultures of the ancient Mediterranean society, revised Gallic and Germanic communities of North Europe, became central to Anglo-American civilization, transformed many tribal societies in the last two centuries, and is now facing both the great world religions and a new global era in a new way. At each stage it has fostered the founding of communities of faith able to bring new levels of freedom, equality, righteousness and mercy into the social ecology of human relations and institutional order, creating new syntheses of organizational life and pressing for a confederation of the sectors of the common life. These transformations have been most notable in ecclesiology, which of course changes the internal dynamics of a society and modulates traditional patterns of politics, law, and education. Wherever this idea has become even relatively incarnate, it has brought with it pressure for charitable and advocacy associations independent of the state, for democratic procedures and open debates by multiple parties under constitutional protections of civil liberties for persons and groups under just law, for protection of the rights of minorities, and for the protection of children and the more equitable treatment of women in society and family life.
It must be admitted, however, that the history of the idea of covenantal justice is not all glorious and wonderful. Many distortions have entered human history. Some understandings of covenant have not been just. They have been used in condescending, exclusivist, and prejudicial ways. We must also admit that some conceptions of justice advanced as Biblical have not been covenantal. Not only have we experienced movements that have been statist or classist, as already mentioned; but we have seen ontocratic notions of justice so deeply ridden with concepts of caste, gender, and status that no place is left for voluntary bonding, for equality and freedom, or for the constant, and constantly necessary reformation and transformation of human social institutions. Still more, the idea of covenantal justice has sometimes degenerated into self-righteous claims among those who are convinced that they and only they are privileged to be called into the covenant of redemption. Elsewhere, the idea has degenerated into theories of contract among those who hold that morality consists of whatever humans agree to, with no need for either a relationship with God or a higher moral law or greater purpose to guide them. This latter degeneration is, perhaps, the greatest current temptation in the West.
Nevertheless, the history of the idea of covenant is extremely rich. It can be extended and it can be renewed. It presses us at each moment in human history to wed the ideas of the right and the good to the actual social and valuational conditions under which we live. It demands that we recognize that we cannot bring a full integration on earth without Gods intervention. Yet, it also gives us confidence that, under God and with Gods help, we are not powerless to more nearly approximate the relative degrees of justice possible in human life. We can at least modulate the particular institutions of civil society in which we live so that gross wrongs are constrained and enable people to pursue worthy ends in particular and concrete spheres of life that more nearly approximate the right and the good of Gods justice, and we can speak of a process of personal sanctification among those graced to seek the holiness of the ultimate good.
This is particularly important socially at two levels. We stand at the brink of a global era, which means that the nation-state, the chief instrument of modernization and development in many places for the last several centuries, is finding its power to mobilize resources compromised. The technological, economic, communication, and educational possibilities reshaping our world are at once beyond and below the capacity of states to develop or constrain. They develop on local levels outside state planning and in transnational organizations that states need but cannot control. All societies must modulate their sense of national sovereignty. Those countries where the state has played the central role of development in recent history will have, for the foreseeable future, the most difficult time, for just cultural, moral, social and economic institutions outside the states leadership are often not well developed. In fact, strong centralized governments in the nation states of our recent historyright-wing, left-wing, or moderate-technocratichad strong traditions and sometimes strong strategic reasons for keeping these institutions weak. When these are weak, people are better controlled, and, if it is held that the state must take full responsibility for the development of the people, mobilize. In consequence, both the organized sectors of civil society below the state, and connections to the transnational organizations beyond the state are weak precisely when they must play roles that demand greater initiative, leadership and creativity. It is too much to say that the age of the nation-state is ended, and it is a special temptation of the USA as the strongest super-power to exercise its influence arrogantly; but it is not too much to say that any state that hopes to preserve itself must, in some measure, lose itself in the wider world of international interdependency and become a collaborative servant of institutions that it once tried to control or avoid.
Beyond the political issues that are at stake, moreover, great economic changes are at hand, and it is in these terms even more than the inter-religious or political ones already mentioned that globalization is most often understood. On this front, the multi-national corporations are the most obvious and sometimes overwhelming agent of international interdependence. While we sometimes refer to the new developments only in terms of the market, we are remiss if we do not consciously treat the fact that new international regulative institutions are stronger than ever before, even if we think they need continued reform. I refer, of course, to the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the ILO, and many branches of the UN. We may not like everything they do, but if we did not have them we would have to invent them. Even more, the corporations are the chief agents in the market and, with nation-states, the chief targets of regulation. The corporations, in fact, increasingly provide not only the goods and services, but also the finance, technology, jobs, sense of professional excellence, and centers of operational identity that ethnic, national, and even regional identity can no longer supply. They do so, of course, precisely because they opportunistically turn to the lowest bidder on various contracts and are oblivious to local needs if some other location can supply the needed workers, services, or raw materials at a lower price. Thus, they foment a new international competition as well as a new interdependence that, on the one hand, exploits whatever opportunities are available and, on the other hand, draws more and more poor people into the orbit of a global economy. Subsistence economies, traditional modes of production, centralized planning, mercantilist policies, and socialist schemes are utterly surpassed by their organizational, productive and distributive powers.
Obviously, many see these developments as simply a new economic imperialism of the West. There is some truth to that charge; and that is part of the reason that globalization needs further and extended cross-cultural discussion. It will not halt these developments to say stop, and it is not helpful to say cease talking about them, as if they will disappear when we deny their reality. But if we do talk about them, we find that they are not all that is going on, and not all that might go on. Our question is whether it is possible for a Biblically-rooted theory of covenantal justice also to become guides to these institutions and their activities. I think they can, and that this is one of the greatest challenges of our time, the kind of thing that may well take more than a generation to effect. But try we must. We find that local businesses, everywhere, if they are going to be productive, provide jobs for people, and gain income from trade, service to the community, or export, must emulate these developments in some measure. If the young are to be educated for the likely future, they will have to have not only the means to pay for an education, but will need well-equipped institutions for education at a time when the nation-states are cutting spending to remain solvent. We will turn to the corporations; and if nation states tax for these purposes, they will tax the corporations. If we want hospitals with doctors, nurses, and healing treatments, we shall have to attend to international standards of medicine, which are today mediated by corporations. If we want a culture able to offer the music, art, novels, and TV programs that we can appreciate, we must develop institutions for the development of talent and corporations to generate and broadcast them. And so on one could go through the various sectors of society. In every area, the most effective way to form and sustain a viable society is to turn again to the model of covenantal justice as it derives from the Bible and has developed over the centuries. That model now needs renewal and extension. It needs renewal in those areas where it has been effective in the past, and is now forgotten, as in a good bit of constitutional and democratic theory; and it needs extension into those areas where it has not been actuated in the pastmost particularly in encounters with the world religions and in regard to the globalized economy and its corporations.
To carry this forward, there is no substitute for developing a wider and deeper theology that will study, extend and refine the applicability of the ideas of covenantal justice to the global situation in which we find ourselves. It entails, I believe, nothing less than a redefinition of mission in our time. May God give us the wisdom, courage, and will to accept this mission.
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Joseph Allen, Love and Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics. Abingdon, 1984.
John Bolt, ed., Special Issue on Covenant, Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1. 1994.
Daniel J. Elazar, The Covenant Tradition in Politics, 4 Vols.: Covenant and Polity; Covenant and Commonwealth; Covenant and Constitution; and Covenant and Civil Society. Transaction Publishers, 1995-98.
William Johnson Everett, Religion. Federalism and the Struggle for Public Life. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Henry Jackson Flanders, Jr., et al., People of the Covenant. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Delbert R. Hillars, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea. Johns Hopkins Press, 1969.
Jon Levinson, Sinai and Zion. HarperCollins, 1985.
Dennis J. McCarthy, Old Testament Covenant. Blackwood, 1972.
Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.
Douglas Ottati & Douglas Schuurman, eds., Special Section on Covenant, The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 1996.
Max L. Stackhouse, Covenant and Commitments. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998.
__________ , Creeds. Society and Human Rights. Win. B. Eerdmans Publisher, 1986.
__________ et al., God and Globalization, Vol. 1: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000); Vol. 2: The Spirit and the Authorities of Modernity; Vol. 3: Christ and the Dominions of Civilization; Vol. 4: Gods Covenants: Reforming Global Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, forthcoming).
John F. A. Taylor, The Masks of Society: An Inquiry into the Covenants of Civilization. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966.
N. Thomas Wright, The Climax of the Covenant. Fortress Press, 1993
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