…in one sentence:
When “person” means anything other than “object of God’s love”, bloodbaths ensue.
I’m not sure democracy can survive as the Judeo-Christian tincture fades from the West, leaving…Aristotle. What is a vote-deserving agent under the gaze of reason alone? The sanctity with which people regard “one person, one vote” in the West today is deceptive. We moderns read it backward in time, projecting it onto the Greek city-states, because we want to locate its birth somewhere and we’re embarrassed to give the credit to Jesus. But we conveniently forget that the Greek “citizen” did not mean “person”. Few persons actually had a vote. No, this feeling of sanctity about the dignity of all persons is a residue of the New Testament. It is an historical outworking of the implications of the words and deeds of one Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
It is superficial to read this as if I’m saying that everyone who has ever expressed a biblical allegiance was a democrat. But biblical thought, worked out, leads to democracy as we understand the word: one person, one vote, and if you exist you are a person. It often takes decades to work theoretical principles into the fabric of daily life. America’s civil war, for example, was an exercise not only of constitutional jurisprudence but also in biblical exegesis, by means of guns, decades after the principles were established.
That was when Americans were exegeting American principles. It was bitter, but became also sweet. The good had triumphed, and bitterness is exorcised by the knowledge that good has ensued. Now, though…now that the NT has been overthrown by the grand narrative of time plus chance, there is no center of history, there is no touchstone for the good, so there are no principles to constantly de-toxify the political atmosphere from its steady infusion of bitterness. There is no transcendent view of “person” to exegete toward all who breathe, no matter how you feel about them. So, from the poison of the cumulative bitterness of political conflict it becomes more and more thinkable to disenfranchise your opponents in order to get things done that you personally believe in. This temptation, when the means actually appears, is too great for most political True Believers to pass up. And when once a group has been disenfranchised, unless they are willing to be slaves, it is only a matter of time before they go to the ovens or the lynching tree. The counterweight to this cumulative political bitterness is the memory that life is more than politics, that the person opposing me at the school board meeting, no matter how much I dislike him, is as much redeemed by Jesus as I am. I can devalue his mind in my estimation all I want — and might even be accurate, for there really are fools — but my even nominal theology won’t let me devalue his person. He has a counterweight to his own foolery, and it is God. Even when “god” only means a vague tittering in the conscience.
Do not underestimate the power of this subliminal theology in steadying the civility of Western politics. I believe that as it fades in cultures, there comes a tipping point when the bitterness goes viral, and this explains the surprisingly rapid developments of pogroms. Those always erupt in societies where everyone thought, the night before, it couldn’t happen here.
You doubt that the “person” grows from New Testament soil? You think it grows from Enlightenment soil, which is just the rediscovered strata of Greece and Rome, after the garbage of religion is scraped away? You had better hope you are right. You had better hope the guillotines of France and the adventures of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all were only coincidentally associated with their functional atheisms.