We have been asking ourselves the same questions for thousands of years. Who among us should have power? For how long? How should that power be transferred? When is a person’s authority legitimate, and how do we respond when it isn’t? Where people are gathered, sooner or later these questions will be asked, because wherever we are, no matter who we’re with, and no matter how long we’re with them, the business of life must be attended to. Decisions need to be made, resources allocated, questions asked and answered. This is true whether we’re talking about the workings of the Roman Empire or a toddler screaming at his babysitter, “No, I will not be going to bed early because you are not my mother, and I don’t have to listen to you.” This is politics, and politics is life. Like God or Spirit, wherever we are, there it is.
I’ve seen this principle play out in my work at Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program for chronically homeless men in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Whether guests stay with us for one day or one year, whether they know each other from the block or have just arrived from St. Louis, we have some things to figure out together. How many sleeping mats does each person get? What’s the curfew going to be? Who spilled soup in the microwave? For the love of God, who is going to clean the toilets? Whether it’s in a shelter, a boy band, a group of people stuck on an airplane, or a group of Quakers gathered to discuss business, stuff is going to come up. We can try waiting it out as long as possible, but at a certain point, those toilets need to be cleaned, and it simply cannot wait any longer. How we process this stuff and resolve it is politics.
What makes politics so fascinating—and demanding—is that there is no single answer to these questions. Nor is there any guarantee that the answer chosen by one generation will be preserved by the next. To be human is to deliberate, again and again, about power and authority. We don’t just get to attend one meeting for business and say, “Well, we figured that out, so we’re done forever.” Politics is never a done deal. In the Church Shelter Program, we might resolve the question of the sleeping mats this week, but when some of the mats begin to tear, or one goes missing, or a new guest with a bad back arrives, the question will need to be asked again.
Now, we can’t talk about politics without talking about political theory. If politics is the process of decision making, exercising power, and managing resources, then political theory is the set of beliefs and assumptions that help us determine what decision-making process to use and why; how to exercise our power and when not to; and which resources to manage, how to manage them, and why. Like politics, there is no one kind of political theory. The theories we create, apply, or reject depend on our particular day and age. The experience of theorizing, though, is universal and still relevant to us now.
If you experience any emotional reaction to local, state, national, or international politics as we see it today, you are engaging in political theory. When you develop an opinion of which elected officials have power; which should have power; which should not have power and why, you are engaging in political theory. Even when you express the perspective, “I have no opinion; I don’t engage in politics,” you are engaging in political theory. Withdrawing from politics is an expression of a particular theory of politics in which it is permissible to withdraw from politics. As I said: wherever we go, there it is.
Let’s make no mistake about this either: political theory is as alive in our private lives as our public lives, because every human relationship contains its own power dynamics and power struggles. Your decision to challenge or appease a supervisor at work is political. How you divide household responsibilities with roommates or a partner is political. How you handle a disobedient child is political. How you handle an obedient child is political. How you respond to me taking the last glob of jelly for my toast is political. Your response in each of these circumstances depends on your particular ways of claiming, using, sharing, and surrendering power; how you justify your choices; and how you articulate them. Politics is not “out there” with “those people.” Politics is life. We are those people.
This all matters because if politics and political theory are present wherever people are gathered—from the breakfast table all the way up to the United Nations—then that means they are also present in our religious and spiritual communities. Power dynamics and power structures do not mysteriously vanish after crossing the threshold of a house of worship, picking up a sacred text, or singing your favorite hymn. And if that is the case, then our religious and spiritual practices have an important role to play in how we relate to politics and political theory in daily life.
This is not a critique of the separation of church and state. It matters that we have the freedom to practice religion in this country, and it matters that we have freedom from religion in this country. But the legal separation of church and state cannot completely erase the way religion and politics intersect. It especially cannot erase the way spirituality and political theory intersect. At the end of the day, they are both a way of looking at the world, at ourselves in the world, and at our power in the world.
I think it is important to talk about this intersection and sanctify it. I think it is especially important to do this within Quaker communities because our approach to spirituality and religion embodies the political theory of democracy. This connection gives us unique insights and unique responsibilities. At a time when democratic norms and institutions are being stressed and assaulted, it’s not just important that this conversation happens—it needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. So let’s dive into it. For reference, much of the following comes from Alan Ryan’s two-volume text, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, published in 2012.
Within political theory, there is a distinction between “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” The first, positive liberty, is democratic; it is the freedom to engage in the political process as self-governing citizens. The second, negative liberty, is the freedom to be left alone, to withdraw into the private realm, and live life more or less as a subject rather than a citizen.
Quaker theology demonstrates positive, active liberty: there is a deep sense that living into God’s will requires us to be present in the world and to manifest social justice outside the meetinghouse.
Quaker business process is also an exercise in positive liberty. There is room for special expertise, situational authority, and clearly defined leadership, but these occur within a context of fundamental equality. Decisions are made through a participatory process that rests on transparent deliberation, not a decree. No one can be outvoted, but no one person can stall the process either. We may be in the presence of some aristocratic, oligarchic, monarchical, and tyrannical personalities, but their voices matter no more and no less than any others in the decision-making process.
The Quaker way of doing things is unusual when we consider the early impact of Christianity on political theory. Classical, pre-Christian philosophers—such as those in ancient Greece—talked often about the political life being the highest good a person could participate in or achieve. In fact, for many of them, it wasn’t just “good”; it was a sign of virtue.
The emergence of Christianity changed this perspective dramatically. For example, the Christian church claimed that because politics is a human activity, and because all human activity exists in response to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, it is a product of sin and therefore inherently sinful. The church also claimed that the highest good is actually Heaven. Then, because the church understood Heaven as something we enter into after death, they claimed that our duty on earth is to obey our leaders without complaint until we die. In addition, the church claimed that because Heaven is the highest good, the only real duty a government has is to help us find religion to prepare for Heaven. That’s it.
In that sense, Christian beliefs helped erode the classical concepts of civic duty, civic education, and civic virtue. Even if we do not consciously hold those same beliefs today, they are lurking in the background whenever we think life at meeting is so good, while life outside the meetinghouse is so toxic, and please, let’s just not talk about politics. It is necessary and appropriate to call out political behavior that is unethical or corrupt, but that does not mean that politics itself is unethical or corrupt. Politics is life. We’re swimming in it. You can judge a swimmer’s technique, her form, her attitude, and her sportsmanship, but to judge the water or the act of swimming is to miss the point.
All things considered, you could say that Christianity’s early impact on politics was decidedly undemocratic. Its echoes are audible today when we read about conservative evangelicals strategizing to undermine legal institutions such as marriage equality or women’s reproductive rights. We see it in religious governing structures that are rigidly hierarchical and leave little room for creative expression or dissent. We see it in presentations of God as a pissed-off diva who is fed up that some human beings would prefer a gender-neutral bathroom. Underneath it all is the political theory that a good Christian keeps his mouth shut and listens to the man on top.
Isee potential for the Quaker way to be the model for a new kind of Christian governance. In Quaker process, we assert that we are fundamentally equal in God’s eyes and in each other’s. We handle spiritual and earthly business using democratic principles and practices. In doing so, we demonstrate that God is wholly compatible with democracy. That, my friends, is a radical idea to name and embrace.
Aristocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship can and do occur within the human community, but they are not God’s will. Aristocracy gives power to a small, privileged group of elites who consider themselves superior to so-called lower classes. But how can that be God’s will if we are equal in the eyes of God? Monarchy grants one person supreme, hereditary authority over all others and asks that we bow down to them. But how can that be God’s will if God told us to place no other gods before Him? Dictatorship takes power by force; assumes no limitations; and is willing to maintain power through violence, torture, and murder, if necessary. Need I ask the question?
Once again, we see this in both our public and private lives. When you walk out of a meeting at work with the CEO and mutter, “Gosh, she’s such a dictator,” that’s because she is. A tyrannical spouse is no less a tyrant than those described by the ancient Greeks. The pastor who stands at the pulpit and waits expectantly for your applause, reverence, and financial donations is only missing his crown and scepter. The friend who thinks she knows best because of her master’s degree, the student trying to bribe his professor for a higher grade, the restaurant customer who belittles the waiter for speaking with a Spanish accent are the modern-day aristocrats. Politics is life; wherever we go, there it is.
Whether it occurs in public or in private, politics in the form of aristocracy, monarchy, dictatorship, or their spinoffs demeans the human spirit. They each represent areas where humanity has said, “Hey, God, I get it that you’re all-loving and merciful and that in your eyes all your children are equal, but I’d rather do this my way.” At their core, they are beliefs that only some of us are entitled to power, that only some of us are entitled to education, wealth, healthcare, etc. Metaphysically, they are the belief that only some of us are entitled to God’s grace, strength, and love. To that I say: bullshit.
Democracy is different. It uplifts the human spirit. It is the political reflection of the spiritual principles that there is that of God in each of us, that we are equal in the eyes of God, and that we discern God’s will together. I am led to think that it is time for us to explicitly acknowledge the democratic spirit of Quaker process and incorporate it in a new testimony. To name democracy as one of our testimonies today is an act of reverence and defiance. It proclaims that even though authoritarian forces seek to corrode the democratic institutions and norms of this country, within our house we remain committed to them. In our house, we practice politics as God would. To speak of Christian leadership and government is not to speak of biblical law and order. In the deepest sense, it is to call for democratic leaders guided by the democratic process and the democratic spirit. Let’s be those people.